Our roundtrip through Rajasthan started off very late on a Tuesday evening, when we boarded the night train to Bikaner. It was our first experience travelling by night train, and although we didn’t sleep much it was not bad either! It was clean, quiet, and the train was perfectly on time. At 6am in the morning, and about 400 kilometers further, we jumped out of our bunk beds and looked out of the window, and we were amazed how the landscape had changed in the meantime! It was clear we arrived in a desert state, with much sand, rocks, only few trees, and many camels!
Day 1 – Junagarh Fort, Lalgarh Palace, and camels
We arrived at Bikaner early in the morning, so we decided to first enjoy some rest and a nice breakfast at our hotel, after which we went to explore the city. The most well-known place in Bikaner is Junagarh Fort, which has been built in 1594 and has been used as a residence until 1902. We thoroughly enjoyed this fort, as it is big and there are many beautifully decorated rooms! There is also a small museum that you can visit, but some parts of the fort are still privately owned and cannot be visited.
After the fortress we headed to Lalgarh Palace, which is the place where the Bikaner royal family moved after they left Junagarh Fort. It is a big and beautiful building, with a quiet garden around it. Currently, one part of the palace is still used by the royal family, another small part is converted into a museum, and there are also two luxurious hotels situated in it, the Lalgarh Palace Hotel and Laxmi Niwas Palace. For a small entrance fee you can visit the museum and look around the hotels as well, but we didn’t do that as the outside was already pretty enough and we enjoyed sitting in the shade of a tree in the garden.
After lunch we headed to the National Research Centre on Camels, because many people told us that it is a nice place that we should visit. We went there thinking that it is an interesting place to learn more about camels, but what we saw was not so good…
The centre has hundreds of camels, and while walking around we saw a group of men busy with 8 camels. It seemed like they were taking them for a walk, however, when we looked closer we noticed that they were treating the camels in a very abusive way. The men were yelling at the camels, trying to tie some of their legs together so they couldn’t run away, they were beating them with sticks or throwing rocks at them to force them to walk, and many of the camels had bleeding noses because of the ring/rope that is attached to their nose. When the men and camels finally succeeded to walk 20 metres, they decided to brutally force one camel on the ground, by using ropes, sticks and stones. We didn’t understand why they did that, and we didn’t want to know anymore either. We were shocked and disgusted. We went back to the entrance to find someone who could explain us what the exact purpose of this so-called ‘research centre’ was. One man explained briefly that there is small research centre, but that the main goal is to breed, tame and sell camels. When we mentioned the animal abuse we just witnessed, he became angry and walked away – which said enough for us…
Rajasthan is one of the two provinces in India where camels are native to. Camels have been domesticated for decades, even the Border Security Forces still use camels nowadays for transportation and patrolling. Many families own camels and use them for daily and work-related tasks, which we understand as camels are suited to the dry desert climate and can go for long periods without drinking water, and they are fairly cheap in subsistence. However, the way they are tamed and trained is very cruel and they suffer under great stress. Unfortunately, this story is not new to us, as it resembles what we heard during our visit to the Wildlife SOS elephant sanctuary (about which you can read here).
Day 2 – temples, old city, and desert safari!
The second day in Bikaner we decided to explore the old city. We asked a tuktuk-driver to bring us to the Lakshminath Temple, but instead he brought us to the fortress where we had been the day before. It turned out this driver didn’t understand any English and he must only have thought ‘Oh tourists! They want to visit the fort, here you go’. After some discussion (which is difficult is you don’t speak the same language), the help of another tuktuk-driver who did speak English, a very bumpy ride, and another discussion about the money (the driver was thinking that we would pay him more because of the mistake and detour he made), we finally arrived at the temple.
The Lakshminath Temple is a Hindu temple built around 1526. When we entered the courtyard we felt unsure if we were allowed to walk around there, as there was a ritual going on whereby people were repeating chants and a big crowd was waiting in line for the small temple. However, someone told us that it would only take five more minutes, and asked us to sit and wait. After 5 minutes the crowd indeed started moving and people gestured us to follow them. We walked into the small temple, which was full with people right now! Several men were sitting on the floor and still singing the same chants we heard all the time. All the other people were giving offers to the Hindu god worshiped there, and in return for their offer they received a small gift, like a flower garland or some sweets. A man walked towards us, offering us some of his sweets. Stephan also offered some money, for which he received a flower garland in return. Although we didn’t understand everything, it was interesting to see the dedication of these people!
We knew that there was another temple next to Lakshminath, and the man who offered us his sweets walked with us to show it. The Bhandasar Jain Temple was under maintenance, but nevertheless it was way more beautiful than all the other temples we had visited so far! It was beautifully decorated, with many colours and engraved Gods and stories. And the best part of it: we were the only visitors! That has never happened before in India, so we loved to roam around the temple without bothering others and without being bothered ourselves as well.
We decided to walk back to our hotel through the old city. The old city has very narrow streets, and with the tuktuk’s, motors and people roaming around there it is quite a challenge to move around freely and safely. However, when we found the more quiet streets we thoroughly enjoyed walking there. The houses all look old and a bit run out as well, but when you look good you can see that the houses must have had much grandeur in the old days! Most houses are built in the typically ‘haveli’ style and contain much details. Also, the people we met on the way were super friendly and we felt very comfortable.
In the afternoon we had booked a desert safari. Our driver picked us up in a very old 4WD jeep, from which only the most essential parts needed for driving were present 😉 We felt comfortable though, and enjoyed the views from the back of the car. In a small village we picked up our guide, and we visited a family which still lives in a relatively traditional way. They had many children, even more goats and sheep, a camel, and a traditional house made from clay. We continued into the desert, which should by no means be compared to the Sahara or Sinai desert, as there are not as much sand dunes and it’s also not that big, but nevertheless it was very nice to drive around there!
We also visited a nomadic family, who live in tents and move from place to place depending on the availability of work. This family was currently living next to a field of mustard seeds which they were harvesting. We can’t imagine how life looks like for those people. Even though they are not far away from several villages, they live in a primitive way and don’t have easy access to proper facilities like education, healthcare and sanitation.
When we continued, the driver asked us to drive the jeep as well, which was pretty cool! We drove toward their ‘camp’, where four Dutch girls just arrived as well – what a small world we live in 😉 We drank chai with them, where after we went back to Bikaner, while they would spent the night in the desert in two tents!
In the late evening we took our bags again and boarded the night train to Jaisalmer, about which we will tell you in our next blog!
Where to stay?
We stayed at a very nice hotel: Jaswant Bhawan. It is run by a friendly family, who will help you with everything that you need. They also helped us arrange the desert safari. Also, they serve very nice Indian food! The rooms are very clean, spacious, well-maintained, and there is a nice garden and small courtyards. The hotel is next to the relatively busy train station, and although you don’t hear much of the everyday hustle and bustle of taxi’s, buses and trains during the day, you will hear the trains horn in the night.
However, Bikaner has many nice hotels. If you have some more budget and would love to experience how an Indian royal family lives, consider staying at the above mentioned Lalgarh Palace Hotel or Laxmi Niwas Palace!
Love, Heleen & Stephan