“The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tyre as if glued to our groove.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
It could’ve been Jack Kerouac zooming down the Arizona Desert, or Hunter Thompson ruminating about huge desert cacti, but it was our car’s front tyre that the white line was hugging, and we were driving through Rajasthan. The land around us was known to be a colourful montage of forts, palaces, turbans and lazy camels. But did it justify a drive of 11 days, that too across the vast and unrelenting Thar Desert? To answer that question in one – make that two – words: absolutely yes.
The route we took went well beyond the mostly smooth Delhi-Jaipur Highway, and our pit stops included towns considered holy, a wildlife sanctuary and palaces, to name a few. We drove past hills, sand dunes and bustling bazaars and had innumerable opportunities to sample a large array of local delicacies. To drive on this route, one doesn’t have to be a history or architecture buff; almost perfect roads, numerous petrol pumps and provisions stores, and the promise of pure freedom are invitation enough for most. We did this trip in summer, and as this copy attests, survived to tell the tale. A good set of wheels and an air conditioner ensured smooth sailing on dusty roads, even through sandstorms.
We rolled out on NH8 on a crisp morning, stopping at and then heading past many toll gates, overtaking or sometimes lagging behind trucks from across India and tractors transporting everything from milk and motorbikes to men. The ship of the desert, the camel, made its first appearance somewhere around Neemrana. The day’s route proved to be an excellent launch pad for the journey, and I was still admiring the pottery I had picked up at Kishangarh when the muezzin’s call at dusk announced our entry into Ajmer, our stopover for the night.
The next morning, weaving our way through a sea of rickshaws, Lunas (a 50cc bike, popular in the 80s), tuktuks (a derivation of the auto-rickshaw) and cyclists, we headed for Deogarh, halting at Taragarh en route, also the first fort we visited on the trip. Images typical of Rajasthan flashed outside our car windows: a narrow dirt road we passed had bullock carts and jeeps loaded with enough people to resemble the set for a Fevicol ad.
Flat fields came into view, with women huddled around a few trees, offering prayers to Santoshi Mata. Soon we were cruising through scenic hills on the Udaipur Highway and reached Deogarh Mahal, where we were given the best royal suites, a long ride in a vintage car and delectable food. We indulged in a short ride aboard a quaint narrow-gauge train at the village, and pushed off into the hills again, past grassy knolls and flame-of-the-forest trees that brightened up the landscape. Despite Rajasthan being a state that sees thousands of tourists, children continued to wave out to passing vehicles, women manoeuvring handpumps smiled shyly, and men played cards oblivious to eager clicks from our cameras.
During the last 20 km to Kumbhalgarh, the landscape changed dramatically. The road began to be hemmed in by trees on both sides, and we crossed pretty bridges over narrow streams. Kumbhalgarh made for a calm and solitary retreat, and we felt reinvigorated for the next day’s drive to Jodhpur. Feeding monkeys and negotiating potholes, we left the slopes behind, and drove onto a landscape that remained as stark as in the first leg of our drive. Near Mundara, we came across people hard at work constructing a barrier to store water. The women looked so graceful that it seemed to my fanciful imagination that the whole setting was created to be featured on a tourism brochure.
Jodhpur, our next destination, can be a tad befuddling, especially considering people drive in 20 lanes on a two-lane street. Our entry was punctuated by a desert storm that pretty much ripped apart shop banners. Thunder and rain slapped against the backpacker haunts in the town, where restaurant menus offer ‘Gen butter toast’, ‘Poridege Milk’, ‘Stuffid Tomato and Green peace Masala’. The overcast sky made the arid land look utterly charming. But one of the best parts of the drive was from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. We passed people perched atop buses with creative names such as ‘Furious’, ‘Glorious’ and ‘Gogadev’, and drove past ‘Baba Ramdev’ restaurants, mud huts and peacocks dancing on brown sands. Soon, the Jaisalmer Fort became visible, framed by windmills in the distance.
Rajasthan’s most beautiful citadel awaited us, as did the usual tourist cacophony that’s now an inescapable part of this state. If your joy comes from driving across barren land, with nary a sight of another living creature, then I suggest you head on the route we took the next day, from Jaisalmer to Sam and Khuri, which passes through windswept, desolate land stretching till the horizon. Only when we neared the villages did rustic resorts and camel-wallahs materialise. Sam has any number of tourists hoping to shoot picture-perfect portraits against sand dunes, often chased by camels and their owners. For a calmer sunset, do the touristy routine at Sam – it’s a pleasant break from the confines of a car to be on camelback – and head out to Khuri.
After another night’s stay at Jaisalmer Fort, we were off to Bikaner, where the likelihood of spotting sand dunes is higher and dry shrubs are constant companions. After the beautiful drive – discounting two tyre punctures suffered disconcerting to enter the chaos called Bikaner, but here was another silent sentinel of time, the Junagarh Fort. Munching on authentic Bikaner bhujiya was the highlight of our stay here, and we took off early the next day, paying a visit to the Karni Mata Temple or the Temple of Rats at Deshnoke.
Nagaur arrived soon, showing no signs of the thousands of tourists it draws during the cattle fair, and from there we headed to Pushkar. With so many miles and roads tinged with mirages behind us, it was a treat to dig into milkshakes and pancakes at this sacred town. For me, Pushkar made for an excellent last halt before we drove back to Delhi. Pushkar was the first place I had visited in Rajasthan, and most of my travelling had then been done on ramshackle buses. This time it was different. I knew the roads better, and the entire world that moved along them.
ON THE ROAD
Most of the journey is on excellent highways with plenty of petrol pumps and restaurants. However, carry spare tyres as a precaution. Most small villages along the route have at least one puncture repair shop; service stations are restricted to towns. If you’re undertaking this drive in summer, which incidentally is not recommended, make sure that the car can support going uphill with the AC switched on. It’s only in the cities that you encounter traffic; mostly, the roads have a moderate number of vehicles. Trucks are common on these roads during night-time, especially around Bilaspur region. Most highways don’t have streetlights installed, but that rarely poses a problem as the areas are well inhabited, except around Sam and Khuri. Here you should leave immediately after sunset, as there are no tyre repair shops or restaurants for miles around. Also, there are several places with the same or similar sounding names in Rajasthan, so you’d do well by making the name clear if asking for directions.
During the onward journey, most of the route goes through NH8, which thankfully is in very good condition. Deogarh and Kumbhalgarh are reached via roads off the highway, winding through hilly areas, but these roads are also in a decent condition. SH16 and NH65 go to Jodhpur, and NH114 and NH15 to Jaisalmer via Pokaran. The return journey is via Bikaner on NH15, then on NH89 till Pushkar via Nagaur, and then it’s back to Delhi on NH8. The only bad stretches are around towns where the traffic flow is high.
About the Author:
Simar Preet Kaur landed her first paying gig, writing about her travels at the age of 21. Though, she is still a freelancer, she prefers filing stories for big magazines from small locations.