July 1 - Jaipur --> Bikaner

AutobusToday we'll transfer from Jaipur to Bikaner, 330 km, one of the longer transfers inour trip(not the longest, anyway). We also have a temporary change of driver, because Gajju has some important family affair to deal with, requiring hispresence in Jaipur. Gajju had already apologized a lot for this, he will join us in Jaisalmer in two days. Our new driver's name is Shankar. We have a half-an-hour detour to get him on board and tell seeyoulater to Gajju. Shankar looks just a bit younger than Gajju, he is very polite too, has black hair and moustaches as Gajju and speaks a slightly better english.

So we go for this very long, straight and empty road. From Autobustime to time we pass a camel caravan, an overloaded donkey-towed cart, a lonely person coming from nowhere and heading to God-knows-where (we see no house for miles and miles). Some trucks carrying goods, some of them carry people and do a bus' job. Safety is not a great concern, as you can see from the pictures smile. Seeing small vans carrying more people you could ever imagine is a normal view. The average number of person over a motorcycle is four, and five is not unusual. We wonder wether their car logbook has an indication for the maximum number of people a car can carry. I've personally counted more than ten in a single three-wheel tuc tuc, and there's a re4gular reduced price bus ticket if you climb on the bus rooftop... That's India, believe it or not...

On our way, more or less in the middle between Jaipur and Bikaner we take a rest in AutobusFatehpur (Yes, this is different from Fatehpur Sikri which we visited two days ago). Here we get our acquaintance with Havelis. Fatehpur is in the Shekawati region once an important crossroad on the caravan routes coming from the middleeast to India. The region is semidesertic, but this place was a favourite place for rich merchants to build their Havelis, gorgeously decorated mansions. The commercial life is now confined to big towns like Delhi or Bombay, so some of these mansions have been abandoned, some still belong to rich dealers or shopkeeepers, but they live far from here, so the Havelis are left to custodian families looking after the houses' maintenance. Havelis guardians are poor people, and they live in the mansion's courtyard rather then inside the luxurious owner's private rooms. Some of the custodian familys halep themselves to make ends meet allowing tourists to visit the Haveli they guard, asking a few (typically 20-50) rupees for a visit.

Some of the Havelis are still well preserved, and they offer a really stunning view with their lavish decorations. Shankar leads us inside a couple of them, asking permission to the guardians and payng them this little bribe. This way we can shoot as many photos as we like. The place is absolutely worth the visit. We will see other havelis in Bikane and Jaisalmer, but Fatehpur ones are, in our opinion, different and a must see. After a little more than an hour we get on our car and head towards Bikaner having a very small and quick lunch in one of the usual tourist hangouts along the road.

In Bikaner we visit the magnificent Junagarh Fort, Autobusdating back to the first years of 1600 a.d. Inside the Fort we can see the beautiful buildings of the Sun Gate, the Moon Palace (Chandra Mahal); the Flower Palace (Phool Mahal) and the Har Mandir Temple. The fort has never been conquered by enemies through the centuries, but has been stage of ferocious battles. They say that the wifes of rulers who died during wars killed themselves as a proof of their faithfulness to their husband. This extreme sacrifice was witnessed by their hand bloodprint on the wall near the Fort's main doorway. Unfortunately we missed this particular while passing by... All the Palace interiors are noteworthy, expecially the Maharaja's bedroom, covered with mirrors so that the king could see maliciuous trials to enter the room. The bed was directly on the ground, so that no enemy could hide under it. .Cammelli

After the fort, even if it isn't scheduled in out tour, we ask Shankar to drive us to see the camel breeding farm and research centre. It is cited in our guide and we wanted to try. It was interesting but not really exciting, so after a quick tour we head towards one of today's most intriguing destinations...

A short (25 km) car trip leads us to Deshnok, place of the weird Karni Mata Temple, (in)famous for its rats and thus called also the rats Temple. The Temple's portal is lavishly decorated with silver carvings, but its architecture isn't peculiar under any other aspect. The reason why it's renowned are the holy kaba, the rats living there, fed by people visiting the Temple. While translating this page from italian to english, I had a doubt wether to translate "topi" with "mice" or "rats". Karni MataI decided for rats, because the literature about the temple speaks about rats. In Italy we have the "pantegane", the water rats running in the sewers, and the country mice, little and almost cute. The rats I saw in this temple are in between them, they are certainly filthy as the italian water rats, but they are smaller, not cat-size as we have here. Anyways, walking barefoot among them was something interesting smile. There are literally thousends of them, running everywhere including upon your feet, and words of mouth say that there is a single ine of them which is white (an albino mouse, sorry, rat) and who sees it will have a lucky one-year time. We walk in, leaving outside our shoes (as in any other holy site), and in order to try to avoid risks of disgusting diseases like typhus, cholera or the like (and also to lower our disgust) we wear very old and thick socks, in order to dispose of them immediately after the visit (Franco: Maddalena had brought them from Itally explicitly for this purpose!). One way or the other, we gat inside and find ourselves amidst hundreds of them, fed by local believers with milk, sweets and grain. There is a tradition according to which dead childs reincarnate in these kabas, and for this reason they are sheltered, nursed and fed by monks here. The problem with them is that they run freely within the temple, and visitors have to bear with them.

Franco's note: While getting out of the Temple, I noticed a very very very nice young indian woman, richly dressed (she might be an actress or something like that) and accompanied by an equal to situation young man. They were queuing for entrance, but the woman was not so determined to get in. The man tried to persuade her to get in, but after a quick discussion she definitely refused to go on, and turned back! Well, I felt proud of myself and Maddalena having done something some Indian refused to do in their country...

One way or the other, we step in. The rats are smaller than italian water rats, and they would not be so disgusting were not for the fact that there are so many, and many of them are evidently sick or hurt. Tha Fortunatamente non si tratta delle nostre gigantesche pantegane cittadine, ma di topolini piuttosto piccoli, che non sarebbero neanche troppo schifosi se non fossero cosi’ tanti e spesso visibilmente malati! The atavistic loathing I have for these animals makes me almost sick soon after entering. There's a strong smell, tens of rats are drinkink, dipping their snout into water or even milk filled shallow wide bowls. They seem to ignore our presence, so I am a little more confident and relieved, and I get a little closer. While Franco goes around the narrow dark corridor which runs around the temple, I see him! The white rat! Well, really I see two of them.. So I discover that there is more than one white mouse, but it's better to say there is only one, so everyone who see it feels lucky!. Franco gets off the corridor, thanks God he's alive, and also succeeds in taking a picture of the white pet!

Franco: The corridor is a sort of tunnel running round the temple, behind the altar of whatever you call it. You enter it following the people's stream going in, it's dark and narrow, there's just enough room for one people in a row, or little more (and I am not at hin one as indians usually are...). There's a very strong, bad smell of the animals' excrements and urine. We proceed in a queue, sometimes I shoot a picture in the dark, and the flash lights a really weird scene, with rats climbing everywhere around (see the pictures). Some of the few tourist proceed eyes shut, leaning on someone else's shoulder, asking "Is it over? Are we out?" The rats are really everywhere, but they seem not to care about us, on the contrary they try to avoid the contact, so after all I survive quite easily to this test!

So, this adventure is now over. Immediately outside we take off our dirty socks and throw them in the first thrash bin (not easy finding one in India, anyway...) We think worshipping disgusting sick rats it's well, a bit weird? But it was interesting being there, I think I would do it again. Outside the Temple, we dive again in the coloured crowd of beautiful gaudy sarees, the booths of the nearby little market selling offers for the Temple, camel towed carts full of every kind of goods, and we are back to our daily indian life!.

We eventually get to our hotel, the Lallgarh Palace Hotel, and we never needed a plunge in Hotelthe swimming pool so much. The pool is magnificent, with chrystal clear water: It's magnetic, and we let it attract us. Ten minutes are sufficient to restore us to life, washing away all the smell and the dust of this long day. Soon after this short bath we have to rush for dinner. We ask Shankar for a good advice, and in fact we get to a very pleasant rooftop restaurant, called someting like Harasar Haveli. There is some fresh air on the roof, and apart for the beer which was a bit warm, the dinner is delicious and very cheap. From the terrace wee see thare's a celebration going on in the streets below, with music and fireworks, we ask which kind of celebration it is, but noone knows... We anjoy it anyway. At the exit Shankar is waiting for us, and we get back to our luxurious Hotel.

This palace was a piscinaMaharaja's residence, and it's really amazing. The corridor where our room opens there are real big hunt trophys like leopard and tiger skins and skulls, and old hunting gear like lances and muskeets.The swimming pool is inside the hotel, in a very large beautiful salon with sky-high ceiling supported by columns. Before going to bed we decide to let ourselves be cuddled by its warm water, and feel a bit Maharaja and Maharani for a night. It's quite late now (more than 11 pm), and while we enjoy our night bath a custodian leads some visitors to explore the palace! we soon overcome our little embarassment, after all this is our private swimming pool for a night (there's almost noone else in the hotel, as usual), and there's no rule forbidding a little night swim!

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