Bikaner Old City, a slight improvement on Jaipur; The Camel Research Centre; In which I drink camel milk; Bikaner to Jaipur; We finally have a smooth train experience

We were scheduled to leave Bikaner tonight on our first overnight train in India. I might have explained before about the different classes on Indian trains, but here’s a summary: There’s 1AC, 2AC and 3AC, which refers to the number of tiers of berths above each other - 3AC has six beds in three tiers. There’s also second class unreserved seating, AC Chair and non-air-conditioned First Class, but the only other relevant class for us is Sleeper. Sleeper is like a second-class 3AC with a few more berths crammed in across the aisle. We’d spent some time in Bikaner Station arranging our onward travel the day before, and we’d booked an overnight train in Sleeper class from Bikaner back to Jaipur (oh god, no) and another overnight train in 3AC from Jaipur to Mumbai.

There were two problems with this, for me. First, I thought Sleeper class would be just fine for both legs of the trip. Sheryl, being sick, was feeling sorry for herself and decided she wanted 3AC - at three times the price. I’m really grinding my teeth on this one. We’ve already spent $400 to make her happy by flying to Jaipur for the Elephant Festival, and this is a week’s accommodations blown on one train ticket. I’ve seen her sleep on train platforms and in filthy fleabag hostels, so I’m not sure exactly where the princess routine is coming from right now. I had to concede the argument when I saw that I was in a no-win position, though.

The second problem is that we don’t really have tickets to Mumbai. We have positions on a wait-list. This is standard procedure for Indian trains - you can make a reservation and as people cancel you get moved up the queue until you have an actual seat. But often you don’t know if you have a seat until the seating chart is prepared and posted four hours before the train. So we wouldn’t know if we were able to leave Jaipur until we arrived in Jaipur. I’d rather not go back to Jaipur at all, and especially not without a firm way out. The place was like a black hole sucking us in the first time and we had trouble leaving then, so I’m nervous about going back.

But, flush with success from visiting the Karni Mata temple the previous day, and thinking that Bikaner liked us, we decided to push our luck and venture into the Old City. We were aiming for the Bhandasar Jain temple, where the foundations were apparently mixed with ghee instead of water (ghee is clarified butter, used in cooking). We knew nothing else about the temple, but the first Jain temple we’d visited in Ajmer was amazing. After the temple we planned to walk the rest of the way across the old city, exit at one of the west gates, and find the Wood Fossil Exhibit - another thing we knew nothing about except the fact that it was marked on our give-away tourist map. From there I reckoned we’d come back the same way or walk around the outside of the old city back to the area where we were staying.

Our first experience of an old city in Jaipur had been awful and our second in Jodhpur had been more or less positive, so we were hoping that the trend would continue. Also I’d just finished writing the dispatch for Jaipur and had come to the conclusion that I should have been friendlier and less tense in Jaipur, so I decided to try that in Bikaner as an experiment and see if it resulted in a better experience. Alas, it didn’t work that way. Bikaner is friendlier than Jaipur, but all is relative. The men were still assholes, staring and being aggressive, and the kids were still evil little shits. I have this theory that tourists are the only people the kids can get away with hassling, because causing that kind of trouble for anyone local will eventually get back to one of the aunties or uncles and from there to the parents. Kids in the old cities seem to run wild like rats, but I’d like to think that there’s some kind of social network there to keep them in check. The young guys all seem to be just overgrown, angry children, though, and there’s not much to keep them in check. Still, everything is relative, and Bikaner’s old city was still a lot less unfriendly than Jaipur’s.

The city itself is different, too. I think it’s nowhere near as old. The streets are wider and better paved, and the streetscape is much more vertical - there are walls of joined three-storey havelis (something like a townhouse) fronting them, all in dark red-brown stone. They don’t quite present blank facades to the street, having a lot of interesting stonework, but it’s definitely more closed and private than Jaipur’s crumbling mess or Jodhpur’s jumble of little blue boxes. It makes the streets look like gloomy, crooked hallways.

We found the temple without too much trouble. I got us quite close by map and instinct, and asking directions only once after that got us pointed down one last street to the temple itself. It was a big, red, decorated bulging pyramid shape on a hill, surrounded by a courtyard and a wrought-iron fence. The only gate we saw was nearly closed, and no one was coming or going, so it didn’t look like the real entrance. We decided to walk around the temple and see if there was a bigger entrance somewhere.

Three young boys started following us as we walked around. We were already short-tempered and suspicious from having crossed half the old city, and they were hovering a little too close. It’s easy to tell when kids are planning something. They hung around being annoying for at least five minutes before one of them made a grab for something in the side pocket of Sheryl’s bag. I yelled sharply and made like I was going to backhand him .I wouldn’t really hit a kid, but he didn’t know that, and he dodged away with the same look of fear in his eyes that feral dogs have. Like them, though, he only backed up just out of arm’s reach. They still trailed us back most of the way to the entrance of the temple, and then ran ahead to wait for us. The same kid now had a cricket ball and was tossing it in his hand. Like I say, kids don’t hide things well, and it was clear he was just waiting for us to get past him so that he could whip it at my head. I waited until we were level with him and I saw his arm go back out of the corner of my eye, and then I went for him. I chased ten steps after him snarling and grabbing for him. He wasn’t expecting it and it scared the hell out of him - he ran away and none of them came back.

Our enthusiasm for the temple was now more or less gone, and time was getting short anyway. I decided to move on to try and find the wood fossils on the far side of the old city. Sheryl loves petrified wood, so it didn’t occur to me that she wanted to skip that too until after I’d been looking for it for awhile. We found our way through the old city to one of the west gates. It’s not a great area. I should have realized that the places around old city gates would be bad news - historically they were slums populated by all those who couldn’t afford to live in the old city itself. Not much has changed. It’s a lot emptier, with a lot of shanties and derelict buildings, and a lot of cows. There were only a few autorickshaws. The rickshaw index is one of my danger signs - when I look around and the rickshaws have all vanished, I know it’s time for me to vanish too. I wasn’t quite at that point yet - my danger sense wasn’t screeching at me to leave - but as we worked our way through barren ruins and along the back-sides of roads and I realized there were a few people trailing us, I pointedly picked up a good sharp fist-sized rock. When I glanced back again in a little while they were gone, but I held onto the rock anyway.

We must have walked for five kilometres around the old city, following the wall. It’s pink-brown stone with round crenellations on top, and it’s been knocked down in many stretches - for informal gates, from damage in various battles, or so that its stone could be used for building. All the time I expected trouble, but it never materialized. The autorickshaws never quite vanished, and probably we should have taken one, but we didn’t. Once we were nearly back in civilization, though, a man jokingly offered us a ride in his ox-cart. We were tired and footsore enough to have accepted, but I’ve seen how fast those things don’t go and we declined with a smile.

Time was getting very short now - we still had to visit Bikaner’s Camel Research Centre and get back in time for our train. The Camel Research Centre is a good 10 kilometres outside of town, there’s no bus, and the rickshaws don’t patrol there. The only option is to rent a bicycle (a very unpleasant prospect given the state of the roads, the air and the traffic) or to hire a rickshaw to take you there, wait an hour and bring you back. Most of the drivers don’t mind doing this sort of thing. I think the one we hired had never been there and didn’t realize how far it was, because he didn’t ask nearly as much as we’d been told to expect. It was a very dusty ride, with the sand blowing in the open rickshaw sides and stinging our eyes. We definitely felt like we were in the desert and going to see camels.

The Camel Research Institute was exactly what it sounds like. Dusty pens and corrals, nondescript research buildings scattered around, a small camel museum, and lots and lots of camels. It was milking time at the camel dairy (yes, you read that right) and so the staff were trying to move the camels from one of the main pens. Trying to get a camel to do anything it doesn’t want to do is a grim endeavour, and these camels really didn’t want to be milked (well, would you?). While we watched, every single camel escaped from its handler and went on a rampage down the central strip of the grounds, making horrible groaning screaming camel noises and running back and forth. I realized then that a running camel is the funniest-looking thing in the world. They’re all knees, and their legs go in all directions but somehow the camel keeps going forward. We had to dive out of the way of more than one camel running hell-bent away from the dairy. Let me tell you, camels are big. You don’t realize just how big until you’re on top of one (which we have been, in the Sahara) or until one is on top of you. They’re huge animals, and they have mouths full of huge evil-looking teeth which they spend most of their time baring at you as if they’re imagining what your face would taste like. They’re fun, though, and I like them despite their ugliness, awkwardness and memorable smell. Oh, and the baby camels were adorable. I’ve never seen a baby camel before - they’re small and fuzzy and they look like llamas. Instead of kneeling to sleep in the classic camel pose, they flop on their sides. Some of the slightly older ones would start out kneeling, and then keel over as they fell asleep.

Besides all this, there was a little café selling camel milk. Why milk the camels if you aren’t going to sell the milk, I suppose. It came in little 250mL plastic bags with a camel printed on it. I can barely stand to drink cow’s milk, and I expected camel milk to be utterly vile, but I had to know. How often do you have the chance to drink camel milk? It was the normal sickly yellow-white milk colour and a bit thicker than cow’s milk. I cringed as it came up the straw, but it tasted fine. A little more sour than cow’s milk, and with a bit of a manky aftertaste, but drinkable. I’m just glad it was served cold. I got through half the bag, and then an old man walking past noticed the camel on the bag, laughed and said “camel milk?”. I nodded, and he looked at Sheryl and said “oh dear, I’m sorry” and made a bad-smell face and a hand-wave under his nose. We decided it was probably best if I watered one of the parched trees with the remainder. Later, when we were on the train and passed through one of the frequent mysterious stenches that are . everywhere in India, I looked over at Sheryl and said “Sorry, camel milk”. I thought she was going to pee herself laughing. It’s been a running joke since.

We had a little time to kill after visiting the camels and before our night train left. I had concerns about the train. We’d only had a few train experiences in India so far, and every one of them had been a big screw-up. We had a reservation in sleeper class, but I was concerned about actually getting our spots. I wrote in an earlier dispatch that I expected to see a hundred people crammed into every berth. Well, I did Indian Rail a disservice in that. Sleeper class may be a chaotic mess on day trains, but it was like a military operation on this train. The train was on the platform an hour early, with no lights or power. We found our seats with no trouble at all, because not only does the ticket have the car number and berth numbers printed on it, the seating charts are posted beside the door of each car. I can’t overstate how amazing this was for us. Even in Europe we always had to scramble to find the right car and seat, and got it wrong as often as not. There was no uncertainty here. We got the packs stowed and chained under the bottom berths and climbed up to our on top berths to lay down. There’s no bedding provided in sleeper class, so our silk sleep-sheets proved indispensable once again.

The car was old but serviceable. Bikaner is on a narrow-gauge line so the train wasn’t as wide as the normal gargantuan Indian train, and there weren’t any berths parallel to the aisle, only the ones perpendicular. The compartments were all staggered so that there were ten compartments on the left and ten on the right, so the aisle cornered back and forth from one side of the train to the other. There wasn’t much space between the top berth and the roof of the train, so we couldn’t sit up, but we were tired anyway and lying down was fine with us. The berths were just long enough to fit us and our daypacks, which we used as pillows. It’s a good thing we aren’t taller. There were they now-usual giant fans hanging from the ceiling, and there was a wire grille between top bunks to allow the air to flow. Sheryl chose the door-side berth so that no one could be beside her, and there was a Sikh gentleman on the other side of the grille from me. The thought crossed my mind that Sikhs have an advantage on night trains, because their turbans make a built-in pillow. He chose to sleep with his head at the aisle-end, which left his feet beside my head - I’m glad they didn’t smell.

We had a family of four in the middle and lower berths beneath us, and while I don’t think they made a single sound all night, the two shouting men in the next compartment certainly did. They were very loud, and earplugs weren’t enough to muffle their noise even a little. I slept fitfully, but that’s the best I can ever do on a night train anyway. Sheryl claims she didn’t sleep at all, but every time I looked over at her she was out cold. Still, it was a nice trip. The doors and windows were open for the most part, and in the upper berths it was lovely and breezy.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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