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Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khichan - 1 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

As the sun rose, a bright orange ball on the eastern horizon, the calls of a thousand cranes filled the air – krr, krr, krr, garroo, garroo, garroo...

Thousands more birds, in typical V-shaped skeins silhouetted against the morning sky, circled and slowed as they dropped lower and lower. Hundreds landed among grass and sparse trees away to my right. The others circled suspiciously directly overhead.

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I was the only watcher here on the flat, bare concrete roof of Sheva Ram's house overlooking the chugga garh, the 'feeding house'. This place was established some 50 years ago here in Khichan to help ease the plight of Demoiselle Cranes on their annual migration from the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia. I was enthralled by this sight last year and would encourage you to read my previous blog 'The eighth Wonder of the World perhaps?' too.

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As the minutes ticked by, Sheva Ram brought me a welcome cup of hot chai and a young photographer from the village joined me to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before us. Numbers of birds continually increased and soon the protected piece of sand below me, covered the previous night in heavy lines of grain, was crowded with the grey, white and black shapes of feeding Cranes.

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While I was again amazed by the synchronised chaos this morning (and would be again this afternoon and yet again at dawn tomorrow), I had come this year to discover more about one of the people responsible for this wonder and to see a part of the village that had previously evaded me.

Yes, you'll find many photographs of the cranes on my previous blog - and on this one too. Inevitably, the birds will always be the main attraction. However, I wouldn't be here - and nor would the birds - without the devoted hard work of a few people and the village environment that provides these people's homes.

It was one Ratan Lal who started feeding the cranes here in the 1970s. Those initially small numbers rapidly increased until he and his fellow villagers could no longer fund the grain provisions unaided. A prominent member of the community, Ganga Ram, stepped in and started fund-raising in earnest, calling upon wealthy Jain merchants, many of whom no longer lived in the village, to contribute to the work. A 'Trust' was established, of which Ganga Ram became Chairman and, although he is now retired at the age of 73 - after 35 years in the role, his work continues to this day.

I met Ganga Ram this evening, with my hotel’s restaurant manager acting as interpreter, beside the ponds where his beloved flocks of cranes gathered in the cool of evening to rest and drink before moving off to night-time roosts in surrounding fields.

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It was a proud moment for me to meet the man who helped establish the chugga garh, this small piece of land in the centre of Khichan that is now walled to provide a safe landing and feeding place for the cranes. He also petitioned the government to remove electricity cables that prove so disastrous to landing birds and he expects many of the poles and pylons to be eradicated and the cables placed underground in the not-too-distant future.

With the addition of donations of grain from villagers and money from international and national visitors, enough is now raised to provide up to a claimed 1,250kgs of grain (the volume was variably described to me as 700kgs and 1,250kgs!) to be spread on the ground of the chugga garh every night during the winter. Ganga Ram modestly said he was only doing the Lord’s work.

The daily job of feeding the birds - and providing a roof and chai for any visitors - has now passed to Sheeva Ram (despite the name, he is not related to Ganga Ram and they are actually of different castes too). Sheeva Ram clearly continues to work hard to provide for the cranes as numbers have risen year on year, reaching around 20,000 or more each winter. He also collects birds that are unwell, apparently from eating chemically-treated crops elsewhere in the countryside, and takes them to an animal hospital for treatment.

To see so many birds of this graceful species in one place is a truly wonderous sight and one which I hope to have the privilege of witnessing again at some time in the future.

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The village of Khichan itself is another world away, a world for which I'd failed to find time on my previous visit. On this trip, my remaining objective was to make good that omission. So, after returning to the hotel for breakfast, I ventured forth into the village with a member of the community.

It's said that 'a traveller sees what he sees; a tourist sees what he has come to see'. Nearly all tourists visiting Khichan, like me last year, come just to see the cranes. On this occasion, I'd also come specifically to see the village's havelis, something most tourists do not come to see. Does that qualify me as a tourist or a traveller?

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An ‘haveli’ is a merchant's house, built in opulent style to demonstrate his wealth and his standing in society. Most of the havelis in Khichan are owned by Jain families, who settled here originally because the former non-Rajput rulers of this region let them live their peaceful vegetarian lives unhindered and when trading conditions were different to what is found here in this desert region today.

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The grand stone buildings mostly date back to the 1900s, when trade routes across the desert into Pakistan and Afghanistan were at their peak and providing fabulous opportunities for accumulation of wealth. Following India's Independence in 1947, when borders were raised and traditional routes declined, these traders moved their businesses to the big metropolises, like Mumbai and Chennai, and even overseas. Their sumptuous properties were abandoned.

They are a rather sad sight in consequence, architecturally beautiful with skilfully sculpted stonework and decorative doors and windows, soulless, empty, left to the mercy of the environment. The owners, I was told, do come back from time to time to check on the buildings' condition and to meet socially, but many of these heritage structures have multiple owners, resulting in complex maintenance, buying and selling issues, and some have simply fallen into ruin during heavy monsoons.

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The village is quiet, with few people or animals in evidence by day. I did have a humorous conversation with a kindly old gentleman, Shurad Kuran, during my walk around the village. We shared similar ailments, creaky knees and the like – the main difference being I’m only in my early-70s, while he was in his early-100s (102 to be precise)!

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Well, that was Khichan – an interesting village, a fabulous wildlife encounter.

Accommodation:

I stayed again at the Kurja Resort, Bird View Point, Railway Station Road, Khichan, Phalodi, Jodhpur
Tel:+91 09649417417 email: kurjaresort@gmail.com (Response to emails may sometimes be slow due to communication problems in this area. For that reason, you might be best advised to reserve through Booking.com)

I was impressed that the standards of accommodation, food and service were all even higher than last time. The rooms here are particularly large and both food and service are very good indeed.

It’s efficiently managed by Abhay Singh Bhati, for whom no request seemed impossible. He very ably arranged my meeting with Ganga Ram and all my car journeys in and around Khichan and onwards to Jaisalmer.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:52 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan khichan Comments (2)

A tribe called 29

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jodhpur - 27 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

‘The best laid plans of mice and men...’, so the saying goes.*

I usually plan my journeys in advance and in detail, with much careful thought. Doubtless, that’s something to do with what I once did for others when I worked in the holiday industry. This time, I’d pre-booked a train from Abu Road to Jodhpur, First Class Air-Conditioned (1AC Class), of course. Here in India even that’s quite a bit short of equivalent to the old British Railways’ blood and custard coloured corridor carriages of my childhood. Those on Indian Railways are probably even older than that - and they’ve been used by millions more people before me without much in the way of maintenance and refurbishment, which leaves their condition to your imagination.

All this information’s a bit irrelevant anyway. I changed my mind at the last minute and cancelled my train ticket!

The Suryanagari Express, you see, was scheduled to leave Abu Road at 01.30 in the early hours of Saturday morning, arriving 400 kms later in Jodhpur at 06.30. ‘Scheduled’ is the operative word - only an eternal optimist would expect it to run according to the timetable. The potential lack of a night’s sleep would take a big chunk out of the limited time I had in Jodhpur. What was I thinking when I planned this?

I decided to hire a taxi on Friday afternoon instead, effectively adding an extra night and a full day to my stay in Jodhpur, a slightly more expensive but more sensible option. I should have done that in the first place.

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The taxi meandered its way through the suburbs of Jodhpur, into the crowded old town and through Sardar Market to Gulab Sagar. It drew up beside the steps to my hotel. I opened the taxi door to a deafening cacophony of three nearby restaurants and pop-up drinking and eating places competing to play a mixture of what sounded like religious wailing and Bollywood tunes - at maximum volume through huge loudspeakers, sub-woofers vibrating madly! I could barely hear my driver confirming the pre-arranged fare nor, once inside, the hotel proprietor welcoming me.

I’d overlooked the fact that today was Maha Shivrati, a festival for the powerful god Shiva, and that here, in Rajasthan’s second-largest city, this important holiday would be celebrated by people in vast numbers and with much gusto.

The hotel owner shouted his apologies for the noise, adding with a smile and a grimace that it should finish by about four o’clock in the morning.

The noise in my bedroom overlooking the lake and the aforementioned places of celebration was, if anything, louder than it was at street level. Perhaps I should have stuck with that train booking after all. I wouldn’t have had much more sleep, but the rail's usual clicketty-clack, clacketty-click, clicketty-clack would have been preferable to this unbearable din.

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I dropped my bags in the room and took a short walk around the neighbourhood to investigate if there might be a quieter place to stay. Alas, it was a big holiday weekend so even the peaceful but seriously overpriced Pal Haveli just down the road (pictured, right), where I'd once enjoyed an outstanding meal in the rooftop restaurant, was full to overflowing!

Fortunately, I’m not a novice traveller, so the earplugs always present in my toilet bag permitted some sleep. Nonetheless, the huge procession that passed the hotel at 5.45a.m. was loud enough to wake the gods – and me!

I’ve been to Jodhpur a couple of times before, most recently four years ago with my brother and sister-in-law, those Grey Haired Nomads (blog: "I wanna tell you a story"). The vast Mehrangarh Fort, brilliant-white-marble Jaswant Thada, the Clock Tower with its chimes on the hour and quarters, together with the hubbub of Sardar Market are all familiar sights.

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This time, my prior booking was at a modest guesthouse called the Jee Ri Haveli. It wasn't the Pal Haveli by any stretch of the imagination but it proved very convenient for my planned itinerary, my room was comfortable and well-equipped, the owners were helpful and friendly, and there was a superb view from its rooftop restaurant (see picture above) towards the fort and other important monuments, all of which were illuminated at night too. Perhaps its only slight drawback was that the entrance, concealed between two other buildings, was accessed by a long flight of steps - a challenge after a walkabout in the heat of an average Indian day.

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By day, large birds, Black Kites and Griffon Vultures in particular, spiralled high above on rising thermals, the kites nesting on neighbouring communication towers. At sunset, feral pigeons and flocks of cormorants came from out of nowhere to roost in nearby trees and, at night, subdued lighting picked out the black shapes of huge fruit bats lollopping in slow motion over the lake and just above the rooftops.

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Of course, I couldn’t avoid a short walk into the lanes and market late next morning just to remind myself of this colourful and vibrant place. It hasn’t changed much over the years - more people, a bit more commerce perhaps, but intrinsically the same.

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In the relative calm of my second evening, I was delighted to receive a short visit from my dear friend Devendra, who runs the Akhey Vilas at Mount Abu with her husband Shivendra (Shibu), and who was here in her home town visiting her parents. We hadn't met since 2013 and, I hadn't previously seen her 18-month-old daughter Lavika. It was kind of her nephew to bring them and Prakash - one of the young members of staff from Mount Abu whom I'd met last year, in his jeep all the way across town. It had taken them an hour to negotiate the traffic and the busy streets.

Gulab Sagar, which I overlooked from the window and balcony of my hotel room, was new to me. It’s actually a man-made lake or, what’s called a ‘tank’, constructed in the late-1780s on the orders of Gulab Rai, a wife of the then maharaja. It’s fed by canal with waters from Bal Samand Lake many miles to the north of the city. The tank is divided in two by a footbridge. One half is clearly poorly maintained with green surface weed and lots of litter. The other is cleaner and inhabited by catfish that are ritually fed by local people. Concealed around the perimeter of this one are religious bathing places (ghats), littered at the time of my visit with remnants of marigold flowers and other offerings from the Maha Shivrati festivities.

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I was attracted to this area by its proximity to some of the blue-painted houses for which Jodhpur is famous. I have to say that they look better from above, from Mehrangarh's ramparts, as a conglomeration of buildings. Close up, they’re individually just houses, shops and temples painted in a distinctive blue among others that are painted white or not painted at all.

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The Bishnoi people

The main focus of my visit this year was to learn more about the Bishnoi (pronounced 'Bish', as in 'fish', and 'Noi', as in 'toy'), a tribe of farmers and shepherds which has grown prosperous over the years through their religious beliefs and hard work. Their villages are encountered in harsh terrain within a half hour drive of Jodhpur city.

The men are easily recognised by their all-white clothes and turbans, differentiating them from other local men wearing red and multi-coloured turbans. Women traditionally wear colourful tops and dresses that exclude the colour blue as that would have to be dyed using pigments obtained from cutting large quantities of shrubs, a big no-no among these people who revere trees and the environment in general.

The Bishnoi follow a 500-year-old religion deeply rooted in environmental beliefs. Their name comes from their religion’s 29 tenets (Bish = 20, Noi = 9), which were laid down by a Guru Jambheshwar in the early 1500s. These tenets relate to human relationships and attitudes to the earth’s resources, moral behaviour, physical cleanliness, purity of the soul and religious practice. I don't remember all 29, but I know they include things like: think before you speak, bathe every morning, don’t eat meat, be sympathetic to plants and animals, and don’t cut trees...

Indeed, legislation protecting trees and animals, dating back to the early 18th century, exists to this day in the region. It's said that, in around 1730, the Maharaja of Jodhpur had sent troops to gather wood from where the Bishnoi had been cultivating a type of acacia tree called the Khejri (Prosopis cineraria). The trees grew well in the poor soil there, provided shade for animals and was extensively used in folk medicines for almost anything from piles to leprosy. It was a sacred, multi-purpose tree, essential to the Bishnoi's existence.

The villagers therefore resisted the felling of their trees. Each hugged a tree and each, in turn, had their heads chopped off by the soldiers. Over 350 villagers died. The Maharaja, devasted that this had happened in his name, ordered the logging to cease and declared the Bishnoi state a protected area. There's now a temple in a grove of khejri trees commemorating the villagers' martyrdom.

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Guru Jambheshwar also promised them survival and even prosperity if they worked hard and were patient. He told them to labour hard with their hands, to follow a path of truth, purity, non-violence and cleanliness, and to maintain nature’s balance by careful use of resources. There are some similarities between the Bishnoi and Vedic Hindu faiths, such as the celebratory worship of fire - but here there's an essential difference in that such Bishnoi fires normally involve no wood, just coconuts and clarified butter.

Today, the Bishnoi are a prosperous community of wealthy farmers, milk sellers and truck owners. They believe that animals have an equal right to the earth’s resources, so don't deny them their share. Indeed, cattle keeping forms the backbone of their economy and milk produced by them is supplied to many places throughout Rajasthan. The Khejri tree plays a vital role in this. It not only helps preserve the ecosystem of this arid region, but, in addition to its human medicinal values, its leaves are known to improve the milk yield of the Bishnoi’s cows. This tree, above all others, is highly valued and worshipped by them accordingly. The principal village in the area, with specific sections devoted to Hindus, Muslims and Bishnoi, is even known as Khejerli, a derivation of this tree's name.

Because of the Bishnoi's attitude towards the environment, wildlife of the area continues to be unharmed by them and is welcomed to share the land around their homes. Consequently, while still wild and thus wary of sudden movement, animals such as Chinkara (Indian Gazelle), Nilgai (Blue Bull) and Blackbuck are frequently seen close to habitation throughout the surrounding countryside alogside the Bishnoi's domesticated buffalo, camels and other wildlife.

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My day was spent in a jeep visiting some of the villages to see their lifestyle, their homes, having lunch with a family, and watching (but not sharing!) an old man's twice-daily intake of liquid opium. This man spent much of his time laughing!

Bishnoi women wear lots of white bangles and gold jewellery, in the ears, nose and on the forehead, is everyday wear. Married Bishnoi women wear heavy silver ankle bracelets too.

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I was also privileged to meet Thakur Puran Singh - the Rajput lord of Khejerli village - and spent an hour or so consuming numerous cups of water and tea with him and elders from the village seated cross-legged and bare-footed on the floor of his home. It was a most enjoyable way to learn more about the life of the Bishnoi people.

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The tribes live peacefully among other less wealthy communities, Hindu and Muslim alike. These latter are mainly potters making a variety of clay pots for cooking and water storage, and weavers who laboriously make cotton and wool rugs (durries) on small hand looms. These latter usually involve two people taking a month to make an average-sized rug using a hand loom - and all done from memory without a pattern.

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If you ever plan a similar independent tour, contact Kuldeep Singh Ranawat who calls himself The Real Village Safari (Mobile: +91 09928826921); he speaks quite good English and is well-known to these local people. His presence opened many doors for me.

This was an interesting and rewarding day – and yet another addition to the new things I’m experiencing on this journey of discovery.

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  • Did you know that the well-known expression 'The best laid plans of mice and men...' is adapted from Robert Burns' poem ‘To a Mouse’? It tells of how, while ploughing a field, he upturned a mouse's nest and is an apology to that mouse. Here's an extract - to be read out loud in a broad Scottish accent:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:29 Archived in India Tagged india jodhpur rajasthan bishnoi Comments (1)

Spotting Leopards

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jawai » Chandravati - 25 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

Our plans to visit Jawai changed a couple of times - or rather the place at which we’d be staying changed. Originally, Lajpal had arranged for us to stay at a new guesthouse owned by a friend of a friend, but it turned out that it wouldn’t be finished in time. Then we were going to stay at an inexpensive hotel that Lajpal had been told about.

Then, we had that party with Khuman at Mount Abu – and everything changed.

Khuman, it transpired, had been to school with someone who lived at Castle Bera, a heritage pile in the heart of Jawai’s leopard country, which he’d converted into a guest-house. So, a short phone call to that old school chum, Winku – and Castle Bera (with the compliments of its proprietor) it would be. Proof, if proof was needed, that it’s not always what you know...!

The area called Jawai surrounds a vast reservoir created when Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur built a dam across the Jawai River in the late-1950s. The lake, when full, now covers an area of over 400 square kilometres and is the main water supply for Jodhpur city. If you’re looking for it on a map, draw lines south from Jodhpur, north-west from Udaipur and north-east from Mount Abu; where they cross is more or less the place.

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The waters of the lake are filled with fish and, inevitably, crocodiles and many species of birds find a home here. Surrounding the lake is some fantastic scenery, arid but dramatic in parts. Jagged, weather-worn, sand-coloured hills contrast with huge outcrops of rounded, grey, boulder-like hills and plains of low-growing thorn scrub. Parts are verdant, productive agricultural land. Parts are dry, sandy terrain with little but scrub, cactus and stunted bare-leaved trees. Lajpal has interests with a partner in a plot of land here, currently being farmed, but with plans to construct a small hotel among the intriguing huge rocks. The region is home to a considerable number of leopards, 60 or so at last count, and this has lead to a growth in tourism over the past ten years or so. It’s still only visited by those ‘in the know’, however.

Castle Bera is a huge, family-owned heritage property, part of which is run as a guest-house, with only a handful of its many rooms available to fortunate guests. While simple and not in any way luxurious, it’s full of character with pictures of past family members and distinguished guests lining the walls and memorabilia from bygone times decorating the comfortable rooms.

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Part of the complex is still occupied by other members of the family whose quarters are guarded by a very large and vociferous Saint Bernard dog, a rarity in this hot country. The part available to guests is ably run by the diminutive and utterly charming Thakur Baljeet Singh (known to friends and guests alike as ‘Winku’); his command of the English language is excellent and his hospitality is legendary. The food and service from a friendly resident staff are both excellent.

And so it was that Lajpal and I were welcomed at this fascinating place, our home for only two nights but with so much activity that it felt considerably longer.

We arrived from Abu Road late on Tuesday afternoon and were almost immediately whisked away by Winku in his own jeep for a ‘safari’ in the surrounding countryside, the first of several searches for elusive leopards.

Our first stop was a part of the reservoir with particularly fine views across the water to islands and hills beyond. It was still hot, even at 5.00p.m., so crocodiles and most birdlife were conspicuous by their absence. After, while we enjoyed the ride, we encountered an unusual sight of two Grey Francolin squabbling violently, and waited patiently near several rocky areas where leopards were known to live, but failed to spot that one difficult-to-see creature.

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We returned in time for dinner, to be taken ‘en famille’ at a large dining table in a lovely room, with drinks beforehand in an adjoining green and tranquil garden. Unfortunately, I had a temperature resulting from a raging sore throat (suspected airline malady!), which saw me take to my bed with pills, but no dinner.

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Fortunately, as Wednesday morning dawned, I was well enough to take the 6.00a.m. safari, again with Winku himself at the wheel. Our route took us to a particular rocky hill, where we waited quietly and patiently in that peculiar grey gloom before dawn – you know, that near darkness most of us only see if answering a call of nature in the early hours.

Shortly, a good 100 metres away on top of a large, round rock, a small shape appeared – a leopard cub, followed by a second. They played together for some minutes before eventually disappearing. The accompanying grainy photograph was the best I could do, given the distance and lack of light!

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We continued our drive in an unsuccessful search for more, our only consolation being a variety of small birds – Bay-backed Shrikes, Red-vented Bulbuls, an occasional pretty little Prinia, familiar Eurasian Collared Doves, and numerous unidentified ‘LBJs’ (that’s ‘little brown jobs’ to the non-birdwatchers among you).

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Later, we went to visit Lajpal’s piece of land. Since my visit last year ('Rocks and mountains' blog), his partner had invested in a water tank the size of a swimming pool on the site. The farmer employed by them to care for the site, was pleased to partly fill it from time to time from the land’s two deep wells using a pump and pipes previously supplied to him. It would require a costly filtration plant for it to be swum in, but its surround provided us with a good viewpoint to the hills and rocks of the area.

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Satisfied that all was well, we retraced our steps to the shores of the reservoir, where we’d arranged to meet one of my new Facebook friends, Pareekshit, who’d driven on his motorbike from his home some miles away, just to meet me. It transpired that he’s actually still a shy student and not the professional graphic designer and photographer to which his Facebook page aspires! However, he is a very able and keen photographer. Together with his pillion passenger and another friend who happened to be nearby, he showed us one of the best places to see water birds. Pareekshit is the one on the far left of this photo; my dear friend Lajpal is on the far right.

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Here, Great White Pelicans, Woolly-necked Storks, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilts galore, and a multitude of ducks and waders had gathered in the shallows, a lovely sight.

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After I’d taken some shots of the birds, Pareekshit bid farewell and we returned to Castle Bera – just in time for another safari!

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This time, our luck was in. After a half-hour drive, a female leopard was spotted on the skyline. She walked downhill to conceal herself behind a rock. A group of peacocks kept a wary eye on her, giving us a good clue to her position. All we could see was the top of her head, her ears and eyes. Her camouflage was amazing, so much so that I’ve had to circle her for you on the accompanying photograph.

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She later moved position, giving us a much clearer view.

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As night drew in, the light faded, the leopard yawned and sauntered off into the rocks, unseen once again.

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Our search for more continued. As night fell, high-powered lights were used in a vain attempt to pick out the glint of eyes among the scrub and rocks. We eventually admitted defeat and returned to the hotel for drinks in the garden and dinner in that pleasant room with a couple of other British guests.

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Next morning, we set off even earlier than usual, around 5.30a.m., this time in a larger vehicle driven by one of Winku’s experienced drivers. We took a route not often followed by visitors, into an area heavily covered by scrub and trees, described by the driver as ‘jungle’. We encountered only one other jeep, also one of Winku’s.

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Our route took us over and onto the gigantic rocks themselves, bumping and zigzagging our way in four-wheel drive to the foot of a large hill. Leopards - and sloth bears too - had been seen here on several recent occasions. Our driver spent a long time scanning the rocks from a variety of positions - atop a nearby rock, standing up in the jeep, squatting alongside it – all, alas, to no avail. Bagheera and Baloo (the Hindi names for leopard and bear used in The Jungle Book and still called thus by our driver today) were not at home. Wildlife never appears on cue!

We returned to Bera through the jungle, spying female Nilgai (Blue Bull), the largest Asian antelope, on the way.

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Then, our cases re-packed, we conveyed our gratitude to Winku for his very generous hospitality, left an equally generous tip in the staff ‘tip box’, and boarded Lajpal’s car for the journey back to his temporary home in Abu Road. Traffic is never good in India, but here there were very few vehicles - just an occasional lorry and overloaded taxi - but lots of shepherds with sheep and cows.

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Rajshri and Dhruvi were very pleased to see us after our nights away. It had been intended that I spend my last night at Lajpal’s apartment, but he and Rajshri felt I’d be more comfortable at a nearby hotel rather than in their spare room. Although the hotel was more suited to Indian visitors – I was one of only a handful of foreigners to stay there each year – it did prove convenient, as we had a small dinner party for some of Lajpal’s colleagues, friends and wives in its garden that same evening.

When Lajpal was still studying, his aspiration was always to become a government officer and he would know when he’d ‘made it’ because he’d then be driven around in one of those big white jeep-type vehicles with a flashing blue light on top. It became a form of encouragement from me for him to do well in his exams; I was always telling him that I would one day sit beside him in a car with a flashing blue light on top. Today, I visited one of his offices, met his boss and fellow workers – and rode with him in his white car with a flashing blue light on top! It was a proud moment.

Next day, we drove out to a place called Chandravati (say: chaan-dra-wot-ee) at the edge of the town of Abu Road. It was a new discovery for Lajpal as well as for me, even though Lajpal said his ancestry can be traced back to the Parmara dynasty which once ruled here.

Fragments of ninth to fifteenth century ruins are all that remain of what must have been an impressive city, attacked and sacked several times in its heyday. In the early 1820s, the first European visitors found many remarkable white marble temples and beautifully-carved statues here. By the 1870s, when excavations were conducted, little was left, most of the best materials having been carried off to help construct temples and other buildings in distant places. Other monuments were destroyed during construction of the railway and extension of Abu Road’s industrial area. What’s left is miserable, litter-strewn, unloved and seldom visited.

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There’s a huge museum building at the site, waiting for someone, some day, to clear up the mess and present the ruins in a meaningful way. We located a caretaker, who opened up part of the museum to show us some of the dusty sculptures that had been identified and mounted on plinths. He also showed us a giant water vessel believed to be 1,000 years old.

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‘Interesting but depressing’ is how I’d sum up Chandravati.

We returned to Lajpal’s apartment and enjoyed one of Rajshri’s splendid lunches together before my taxi arrived for the five-hour ride to my next destination, Jodhpur. There, I’ll continue my adventures alone until meeting up with Lajpal and his little family once again in Jaipur for the festival of Holi in about three weeks’ time.

Accommodation:
Castle Bera, Via Jawai Bandh, Dist: Pali, Bera, Rajasthan 306126 Tel: +91 98298 77787
Contact: Thakur Baljeet Singh Bera (aka: Winku) or his son Yaduveer (Tell them Khuman's friend Mike sent you!)

This is a simple and intimate heritage building with excellent service and food. Deservedly awarded TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence every year since 2015, you're sure of a warm welcome here.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:58 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan bera sadri jawai chandravati Comments (1)

Keep Simaling

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Mount Abu 21 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

I’m always discovering new things about my beloved India. I wasn’t previously aware, for example, that many Indian people don’t know the actual date on which they were born. Until just three or four years ago, there was no official registration of births, so some children were given notional birthdays. A friend here has his birthday on 4th January. He was the fourth child born to his parents. His siblings’ birthdays are on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January.

Some people have two birthdays – one on the notional or actual date and one on a memorable religious date. My good friend Khuman had one of his birthdays a couple of days ago, on Maha Shivrati (a lunar festival in remembrance of the powerful god Shiva). His actual date of birth is not until ten days or so later. He celebrates both, of course.

Anyhow, back to places I’ve been before that I visited again this week:

Udaipur

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While Lajpal, Chotu and I dined at our friend Vijendra’s Vintage Lounge Restaurant and discussed the dubious merits of corruption (some claim to believe there is good corruption as well as bad. I say: corruption is corruption!), a meeting of high-ranking officials was being held at Udaipur’s huge Radisson Hotel to discuss tax reforms throughout India. From our elevated position above Lake Fateh Sagar, we could see the hotel a mile or more away, illuminated brightly and with lasers pointing skywards like searchlights in the night-time darkness.

As we enjoyed a final beer, the meeting seemed to finish as, even this far away, we could hear incredibly loud music and, soon after, we saw the lights of a ministerial motorcade beating a hasty retreat!

Sadri

Next morning, Lajpal and I also beat a retreat from Udaipur. We headed northwards, sometimes on good roads, sometimes on very poor ones. Parched sand and thorn scrub on either side were familiar sights. Our journey was often delayed near tribal villages by herds of goats and sheep with their shepherds dressed in white with distinctive red turbans. Our destination for the night was his home town of Sadri.

Here, Lajpal has a small house, which he built just a few years ago, primarily for his parents to live in. His postings as a government employee could take him and his wife and daughter to almost anywhere in Rajasthan, but he comes here as frequently as possible. Apart from two comfortable bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, there’s a kitchen and a dining and lounge area. There’s also an independent apartment on the top floor that’s just been let to a professional couple and provides a small income.

It was good to see Ranveer and Gajendra, his father and mother, again. Lajpal’s lovely wife Rajshri and their energetic three-year-old daughter Dhruvi were there too. They’re always so welcoming and we know one another so well that there's no longer any formality. I feel like I'm just another member of their family. Needless to say, I took far too many photos of Dhruvi with her parents and grandparents.

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After settling in, we left the ladies to prepare dinner, and took a short excursion to the Ranakpur Dam just a few kilometres away. I spent parts of several previous holidays at the Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat near the Jain temples of Ranakpur (so many in fact that it felt like coming home each time). However, for some strange reason, I’d never seen the nearby Dam, which is concealed up a track between large trees and colourful shrubs. This new discovery, a high stone dam holding back an expanse of water to supply the increasing needs of the Sadri area, attracts a variety of birds and wildlife. We didn’t spot any crocodiles, although they're known to be there in good numbers. Never before have I seen so many cormorants in one place at a time, however - I guess the lake holds a plentiful supply of fish.

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As the sun dropped beneath the hills to the west, a shepherd gathered his small flock of goats and sheep, a young girl in tribal clothes came to view this European stranger, and small flocks of white egrets, long-billed storks, noisy parakeets and unidentifiable birds silhouetted high in the sky made their way to night-time roosts .

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We returned to a delicious evening meal prepared by the two ladies. After all these years, I do still find it a little uncomfortable that the men eat alone, served each course by the women of the house. Tonight, Ranveer, Lajpal and I enjoyed dinner seated on comfortable chairs at a table. Gajendra and Rajshri ate theirs afterwards, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. That’s how it is...

Monday dawned warm and sunny – this weather’s becoming boring: cloudless blue skies from dawn at 7.00a.m. to sunset at 7.00p.m, refreshing mornings and evenings, hot (30C+) by noon... day after day after day. I’d happily be bored with this for a few months each year, away from the cold and gloomy short days of winter that I've come to hate so much in the UK.

Mount Abu

Bidding farewell to Ranveer and Gajendra, we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into Lajpal’s little car and retraced our steps three hours southwards, to the hill station of Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a thriving resort, with palm trees and greenery among huge boulder-like rocks, reached by a good road, 25km or so above the town of Abu Road. Langur Monkeys, revered by Hindus, sit on their backsides like little old men, by the roadside or in the trees, hoping for offerings from passing visitors. The road snakes its way up and around dozens of bends, with much honking of horns so typical of this country, to a height of about 1,200 metres.

The town’s proximity to the ‘dry’ state of Gujarat makes it a popular holiday and weekend place for Gujarati families, who come to enjoy its mild climate, its scenery and its many hotels, restaurants and bars, the latter in particular!

For similar reasons, Lajpal, currently a commercial tax officer specialising in evasion, is stationed at Abu Road. It’s a very convenient location for stopping vehicles entering Rajasthan from Gujarat and checking paperwork to confirm correct state tax payments on the goods they’re carrying (and for fining the vehicle owners if they’ve tried to evade any tax). I find it interesting that there's virtually no corruption involved in this; systems have been made very transparent in this particular government department. In complete contrast, however, the RTO (Regional Transport Office) is renowned for bribery. I witnessed this for myself at a vehicle checkpoint on a major highway that carries many hundreds of heavy lorries. Almost every lorry was brought to a halt in both directions, ostensibly to check licences and vehicle roadworthiness. Not one of them was checked - not a single one! Every driver simply held a 100 or 200 Rupee note out of his window. Every note was eagerly pocketed by uniformed RTO officers. This was just one checkpoint of hundreds around the country. It's alleged publicly that the millions of Rupees collected each and every day find their way up the chain to the very top government minister, percentages being siphoned off by equally corrupt officials along the way.

However, what did I do at Mount Abu this year?

We were only staying for one night, but it proved to be a particularly memorable one. Khuman, Lajpal’s uncle and the Thakur (feudal lord) of the town of Gundoj, was there to greet me on arrival at Akhey Vilas, the small guesthouse run by his youngest son, Shivendra (aka Shibu). Hitesh, a long-term friend, who manages the premises was there too. Unfortunately, Shibu was away in Delhi (he also escorts French tour groups) and his wife Devendra was at her father’s home in Jodhpur. I hope to catch up with both of them later in my travels. Meanwhile, until the sun went down, it was great just to enjoy the views and birds in this simple hotel's grounds.

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Khuman had kindly organised a special welcome dinner for me. As night fell, and with it the temperature (down to about 20C, which felt cooler as there was a stiff breeze), the staff collected firewood and lit a brazier. We gathered around it, joined by Devendra’s cousin with her husband, general manager of a local hotel. Course after course arrived, accompanied by whisky supplied by Lajpal. We’d stopped to buy a bottle on the way at an ‘English Wine Shop’ – the shop wasn’t English and didn’t sell wine, English or otherwise, just beer and alcohol; it’s the strange name by which government-controlled liquor shops are known hereabouts.

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At the end of our ninth (or was it the tenth?) course of tasty vegetarian and 'non-veg' (i.e. meat) dishes, a huge sponge cake arrived. It was covered in cream, decorated with all sorts of sliced fresh fruit, topped with a brightly burning firework and adorned with a hand-iced plaque saying: ‘HAPPY ARRIVAL. KEEP SIMALING’. It was a very kind thought and kept us ‘simaling’ for quite a while after the delicious cake had been consumed.

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Next morning, Lajpal and I took an hour’s pre-breakfast walk around parts of the resort I hadn’t seen before. At 7.30a.m., it was cool and very quiet. Bird calls were almost all we could hear. Very few people were on the streets; those who were swept the dust from one place to another with swishing brooms or cleared yesterday's litter into little piles and set light to it, the pungent smoke swirling skywards and scenting the air all around. I was surprised to find a regiment of Gurkha Rifles here and an enormous Air Force Station too – probably something to do with signals or communications; this is certainly no place for an aircraft runway.

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Then, it was back down to Abu Road, bidding farewell to Khuman, who I hope to see again in Jaipur for the Holi festival, if he’s able to get away. We dropped Rajshri and Dhruvi at their apartment, before continuing to Jawai in search of the leopards for which that area is becoming known.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:49 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan sadri mt_abu Comments (1)

It's a long way to Tip a Rary

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Udaipur - 19 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

The title of this blog arises from something I once heard on a BBC radio programme. The name of the programme escapes me, but it came to mind while waiting for my flight to Mumbai. In that programme, celebrities were secretly given a phrase or saying and had to concoct a long and elaborate story for the rest of the panel to guess what it was before the tale was finished.

The story in this case went something along the lines of:

A man found a tiny bird, the like of which he'd never seen before. It was clearly sick, so he took it home and nursed it back to health. He searched everywhere to find out what sort of bird it was, but it seemed so rare that he couldn't find it mentioned anywhere. So, he named it a Rary.

The little bird made no noise, but it ate an enormous amount of food. Soon, it was the size of a very large (but silent) dog. The man tried to set it free, but it didn't want to go - and it was now too big to fly. When it had reached the size of a small car, the exasperated man rented a lorry and drove the bird to the high sea cliffs at Beachy Head.

He reversed the lorry up to the edge - at which point the bird looked despondently at the man and, for the first time in its life, sang out: "It's a long way to tip a Rary..."

In the Plaza Lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 4, while waiting for my call to the departure gate, I noticed a sign above the copious dinner buffet with a quote from JRR Tolkien that said: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

I was certainly valuing the free food and wine, while background music cheerfully played a miscellany of First World War songs, including - you’ve guessed it - 'It's a long way to Tipperary'.* Hence the story... Apologies!

*

So, here I am in Udaipur. It is a long way to go (more than 5,000 miles from London via Mumbai to be precise) and it’s also a long way from ‘the sweetest girl I know’ (my wife, Pat, who isn’t a fan of India). However, it’s definitely not a tip - it's a beautiful city, set on lakes with one of the world's top hotels on an island in the middle. There's a magnificent royal City Palace too, fascinating temples and so many shops it would take a lifetime to see them all. I’ve been here several times before, most recently with the Grey Haired Nomads in 2013 and on the way to a very special occasion in 2012 . It hasn’t changed a bit.

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Inevitably, I’ve done most of the tourist sights, so this time I decided to take a dawn walk to see what there was to see on the lake-shore opposite my hotel, the Jaiwana Haveli. On previous occasions, when I’ve stayed here and at another haveli close by, I have always admired the view of the shoreline opposite, but never had time to venture closer to it.

So, this morning, before the sun rose above the palace, I wandered down to Lake Pichola, discovering a footbridge tucked away down a deserted side street, which took me to that opposite bank. Along the way, I met a few early-risers, who greeted me with a cheery ‘Namaste’, saw flocks of pigeons being fed beside Gangaur Ghat (a religious bathing place), women washing clothes, and children in school uniform waiting for their transport. I met only one other tourist, a young American woman enjoying the view from the footbridge.

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On the far bank, passing a tiny temple and watching the sun's rays glowing on neighbouring buildings , I reached a ghat where men were cleaning their teeth and themselves in the cool waters of Lake Pichola. Others promenaded around a small garden as part of their morning fitness regime, jokingly inviting me to join them.

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I enjoyed fabulous views of the sun rising behind the City Palace and the gleaming white Lake Palace Hotel with the verdant hills amid the early morning mist beyond.

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Returning to the hotel, I enjoyed breakfast outdoors in the rooftop restaurant with a similar but more expansive panorama. Oh, I could never tire of that view.

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Then, just a few hours later, I was joined by my dear friend Lajpal, who’d driven here to collect me for our week together. After a snack lunch on the hotel’s rooftop, we took a stroll beside the lake and had a cup of ginger and cardamom masala chai in the warm afternoon sunshine – I needed the Vitamin D after a dreary winter at home.

This evening, we had dinner at a friend’s restaurant, The Vintage Lounge, a few miles away with a terrific night-time view over Lake Fateh Sagar and the illuminated buildings around it. It's wedding season here in India, so there were some big fireworks in the inky black sky too. I was particularly pleased to be joined by Lajpal's cousin, Chottu. We hadn't seen each other for five years.

Today, we're driving north to Lajpal’s home in Sadri, where his wife and daughter are staying with his parents, and where we’ll spend the night. If time permits, we’ll stop off en route to see a hotel owned by another of his cousins amid lush gardens in the Aravali hills near the ancient fort of Kumbalgarh. Lack of internet connection for the next few days will mean a delay in publishing my next blog, but be prepared for news of my adopted Indian family, leopards and excavations of ancient cities.

*

*Colleagues from my previous life will know this better as ‘It’s a Long Way to Taormina – same tune, different words. I often wonder what happened to Stan Way!

Accommodation:

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I stayed, for the second time, at Jaiwana Haveli in Lal Ghat, within easy walking distance of the City Palace, Jagdish Temple and a landing stage for boat tours on the lake. I heartily recommend it.

It's not only well-situated, but it's well run by a friendly family and provides excellent accommodation at reasonable rates. It offers good facilities, including a rooftop restaurant and a coffee shop on the ground floor. Food and service are very good indeed.

The WiFi is sometimes good in the public areas, but is not provided in the rooms.

Those with walking difficulties are advised to ask for a room on a lower floor as it's an old building - it's been very well restored, but it does have many stairs and there are no lifts. As a previous guest, I was given one of the best rooms at the top of an adjoining building. The views were fabulous but, to reach the restaurant (which I could see from my window) I had to walk down five flights of stairs, across a courtyard, then walk another five flights of stairs up another building - and vice versa to return to my room afterwards! A zip wire from my room to the restaurant would have been useful!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:14 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan Comments (1)

Not again?

Asia » India » Rajasthan - 17 February to 16 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

Not India again?

Rajasthan, again?

Don't you have anywhere else to go?

Well, yes, I do. Like most inveterate travellers, I have a bucket list - but, alas, not enough years to visit every country on it before I kick it (the bucket that is, not the list)! So, while I hope to put a line through at least some places on that list in the future, I'll stick with a familiar one in the meantime.

I've mentioned before that, in a past life, I'd been fortunate to visit quite a few places around the globe - and even more fortunate that most of those visits were made at someone else's expense, including several trips to India! I enjoyed all of them. However, there are some that I enjoyed more than others and India happens to be at the very top of that list. So, India it will be - again!

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The Rajputs of Rajasthan in miniature. I think I recognise some of these in real life!

India's not like home. It wouldn't be so much fun if it was just like clean and tidy Blighty, would it? It's overcrowded and poverty is obvious. It struggles with things like rubbish disposal, sewage and hygiene. Animals wander at will. Bureaucracy drives you mad. Traffic is a nightmare and road conditions are awful.

Put all its apparent deficiencies to one side, or at least learn to tolerate them as I do, and you'll have a more positive view of what is a truly fascinating, wonderful, vibrant country. Its culture is richer and more varied than any other I've visited. Its people are happy, proud and generous. Its traditions, religions, myths and legends are bewildering. Its architecture is stunning. Its food is terrific. It's a place where you can eat, sleep and be merry for relatively little money. Colour, noise and smells are all around you from the moment you step off your sanitised aircraft. There's a photograph waiting around every corner. There's nowhere else quite like it. It's magic, and I love it.

And why Rajasthan? There are so many reasons to visit this, India's largest state. It has all the above with historic cities in abundance, palaces, desert, wildlife and traditions that remain firmly fixed in days gone by, despite improvements in living standards and literacy and a growing Western influence. It's where I have many friends, both new and old, with whom I look forward to spending time. It's where I've been to nearly all the tourist sights in most of the villages, towns and cities included on this year's itinerary, but I haven't previously explored as far off the beaten track as I'll be doing this time.

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The spice(s) of life

So, what do the next four weeks actually hold?

First stop will be Udaipur - a short breather in this city of lakes will include a dawn walk to ghats (religious bathing places) on the far side of Lake Pichola.

A week with my dear friend Lajpal, including a few days with his lovely wife Rajshri and their delightful daughter Dhruvi, follows. We'll spend a night with his parents, Gajendra and Ranveer, at his house in Sadri, another with his uncle Khuman at his cousin Shibu's hotel in Mount Abu, and two nights trying to find elusive leopards at Jawai, where Lajpal and a business partner have a plot of land.

Then, it's off on my own, first to Jodhpur, where I'll spend a day with the Bishnoi tribe, known for strict conservation of trees and wildlife and for their pottery and weaving skills. I'll stop off at Khichan, where I spent a few hours watching thousands of Demoiselle Cranes last year, and where, this year, I've arranged to meet one of the top men in the organisation which funded a feeding station to attract and protect them during their migration; I'll also visit some of the town's ancient havelis (wealthy merchants' mansions), which I missed last time.

The following week will be spent at Jaisalmer seeking out groups of musicians and others in a previously undocumented artists' colony. I'll also journey into the Thar Desert to find (hopefully) the endangered Great Indian Bustard, and I'll spend time meeting residents of the city's wonderful golden fort on the hill.

Finally, an overnight train journey will take me eastwards to the state capital of Jaipur for a week's stay, meeting up with Facebook friends with whom I shared insufficient time last year and, most importantly, spending two or three days with members of Lajpal and Rajshri's families. While there, I plan to invest in some new glasses (using my NHS optician's prescription of course). I'll also celebrate the colourful festival of Holi, for which I've packed old clothes - the coloured powders that everyone throws at everyone else is bound to get everywhere!

This promises to be a month of many new discoveries.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:13 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur udaipur jodhpur rajasthan jaisalmer khichan sadri jawai mt_abu Comments (1)

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