The joke in college was that they always offer the water to me first, since I come from Rajasthan. I never played along because I came from Kota, the city on the banks of river Chambal, which has plenty of greenery and abundant water. I could also not relate to the desert archetype because of the fact that despite being born and brought up in Rajasthan, I had never visited the Thar desert. Kota is almost on the periphery of Malwa plateau and has more cultural affinity with Malwa than Mewar or Marwar.
So, in December 2020, after almost 24 years of existence, it took us a pandemic to really make up our mind and explore my home state, the largest one of India.
We built a meticulous plan to cover three major locations and have a stopover for New Year’s Eve. My brother-in-law put in some arduous labour to craft a near-perfect 8-day trip from Kota to Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Khimsar and Pushkar.
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We started our expedition on a chilly morning post Christmas in our Karnataka numbered Hyundai Verna to our first location, Jodhpur. The thing about exiting Kota is that the moment you leave the city, you are welcomed by the gorgeous Aravalli mountain range (the oldest fold mountains of the world). As a state, we may be terrible in human development indicators, but we surely know how to make excellent roads. Barring a small stretch around Bijainagar and Ajmer, the road between Kota to Jodhpur is near terrific. We reached Jodhpur around 5 PM and retired early for the day to wear off the 400km drive fatigue, plus those were also the days of stringent 7PM lockdowns.
Next morning, I did my usual run in the beautiful Civil Lines of Jodhpur which was near our accommodation, Radisson Blu. Over the years, I’ve come to believe running and walking are incredible ways to explore a new city. Also burning some calories early morning gave me the advantage of savouring the mirchi vadas and kachoris of the coveted Surya Namkeen without any guilt. The spice of mirchi vadas invariably took us to the ‘Mishri walas’ lassi in the Sardar Market which looks like a relic of the past where the clock tower stands upright with the majestic Mehrangarh Fort in the backdrop.
So there are very few things to do in Jodhpur and the obvious top of the list items are Mehrangarh Fort and museum, and the rather fancy Umed Bhawan Palace. To our disappointment, the Umed Bhavan Palace was shut due to the pandemic, which also made the choice pretty simple. We headed towards the fort which, frankly, looks like a fort on steroids.
The muscular fort is a masterpiece of architecture built on an envious height boasting the proud legacy where a key sequence of the film Dark Knight Rises was shot. The fort houses a museum with a rich collection of art, artillery and handicrafts. The exhibits, which are over five centuries old, showcase the incredible history of the Jodhpur royal family. It is also from the same place that you get a view of The Blue City. The picturesque blue rooftops neatly arranged for centuries is a moment to capture.
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It was almost evening when we finished our tour. Exhausted by the climb up and the excruciatingly strong sun, we headed to our new hotel, Welcomheritage ITC resort. It was just the place we needed right then - a huge resort on the outskirts of the city, filled with green spaces and spaces to rejuvenate and relax in.
We spent the entire next day at our hotel, playing table tennis, badminton, reading in the sun and much more. That day, it truly felt like a holiday.
Fresher than ever, the next day we hit the road for the most interesting leg of our trip i.e, to Jaisalmer. The thing is, whoever we had asked had already hyped this stretch. But let me tell you, guided by the glowing sun, rotating windmills, the occasional oasis and the neatly crafted endless roads, it certainly seemed like a path to something good.
We reached the Sam sand dunes in the evening. Rajasthani folk music greeted us in our desert camp, which I will not lie I have seen a gazillion times. But for all the CH and PB-numbered cars, it was new and amusing though they are always a drink away from switching to Diljeet Dosanjh (which did happen and we danced our hearts out).
Up at 5 in the morning, groggy from last night's lack of sleep due to the piercing cold of our tents, we headed out to catch the sunrise over the dunes. On principle, I did not take the camel ride and chose to trek instead (would that qualify to put 'nomad' on my Instagram bio?). The blues faded instantly when we saw the glowing orange sun coming out of the horizon, certainly one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen. Another advantage was that usually sunrise/sunset points are crowded to near impossible mobility, but we are talking about the desert here, so this was a rather peaceful moment of joy.
Next up was an exhilarating ride to the border - even the most timid person in our group drove at a speed of over 150Kmph. This was a proper 6-lane highway, suited for fighter jets landing, with near zero habitations. It led us to the famous Longewala Border checkpost. The Battle of Longewala is etched in our memories courtesy JP Dutta’s 1997 film Border, which romanticised the valour and heroics of the Indian Armed Forces, and the place was a visual delight to the patriot heart of mine. For the next two hours (with no internet in the border area) we kept playing ‘Sandese Aate Hai’ till we reached our next location - Tannot Mata temple. The famous temple maintained by BSF, which despite heavy bombing of both 1965 and 1971 wars, has survived and stands almost intact. It's one of those moments my rationale, disbelieving self goes on the sleep mode, and I embrace the faith.
Surprisingly unexhausted, we moved on to Jaisalmer Fort. The fact that I come from Rajasthan means forts are an assured part of our history. But the fort at Jaisalmer is unlike any I’ve ever seen. Not for its magnum opus but for its sheer human connect. There are people living inside the fort complex. The liveliness and the colours brought an air of exuberance unlike the usual dull of historical monuments. Jaisalmer Fort is an unparalleled historical experience. Right outside the fort is another gem, a bhang lassi shop run by the aptly named Dr Bhang, a cafe for cannabis-laced offerings. My reluctant self avoided partaking anything but my sister and cousin did not miss the chance. This felt like a very touristy and complete day.
Retiring early to the camp (remember, COVID lockdown restrictions), we were again at the mercy of the canvas wall tents. But to my surprise I slept well that night.
Early morning, we packed our stuff quickly to head to our next location for the New Year’s Eve, Khimsar Fort. We took a quick detour to the famous Ramdevra Temple, which I found out, to my utter surprise, is one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Rajasthan. Sadly, the socio economic effects of COVID were visible in the tourist shortfalls where shops outside temples were virtually empty. To our advantage, we were free within 15 minutes. In the pre-COVID era, it would take a minimum of 5 hours.
Around noon, we reached our destination, Khimsar, a remote town in Nagaur district. The fort is an ITC resort, a typical Rajasthani haveli with high ceiling walls and sandstone facade. We were given a traditional welcome and escorted to Sheesh Mahal for lunch. The restaurant served a sumptuous buffet of local Marwari cuisine consisting of Gatte and Chakki ki Sabzi, Ker Sangri and my favourite the lehsun chutney. Without a doubt, this was a gastronomic high.
Post lunch, we relaxed and inevitably took the afternoon off only to be woken up for an invitation to the evening gala dinner. Reading between the lines, the hotel did not fit in the city limits for housing fewer than 10,000 citizens. This made them abate the New Year’s Eve lockdown guidelines, enabling them to host a NYE party.
Jaisalmer had been beyond our expectation and we were already quite happy with how the trip had gone, but the New Year’s Eve topped it all. Exquisite delicacies, an in-house bar and an India's Got Talent fame artist followed by a terrific DJ, gave us a night worth all its money. We surely kicked the worst year and welcomed a hopefully better one in happy spirits.
The next day was again on the roads driving from Khimsar to Pushkar, our last and final location. In these seven days, we hadn’t felt for a moment that the trip was stretching but on the 8th day, fatigue had started to kick in.
We reached Pushkar around 5 in the evening only to realise that we did not yet have a stay booked anywhere. When all the efforts to find a reasonably good accommodation came to naught, we started checking the distance to Kota. The GPS showed 5 hours and reluctantly, though I was confident enough to drive, we set out to reach home before midnight.
We took the Ajmer-Nasirabad-Kekri route, infamous for its massive marble carrying trucks and poor roads. Surviving that, we reached the Devli Udaipur highway and then it was a matter of time before we reached Kota.
Our last stopover was the trusted Shekhawati Dhaba right outside Kota which offers the mouthwatering Sev Tamatar and Bajra Roti.
The Rajasthan trip couldn’t have ended on a happier and more satisfying note.
Looking back in hindsight, I think it's safe to say Rajasthan is a paradise. No wonder it's a tourist delight. I do look at things with a more nuanced approach and the staggering inequality between the royals and commoners is scary, but I think it's a relic of the past and a culture that locals embrace with love and warmth. Come to Rajasthan for its forts, roads, food and most importantly - its people.
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