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A royal retreat in Bikaner
Suparna Banerjee, Oct 08, 2010
Day 1

Our Bikaner trip over Independence Day (August 15) weekend was planned in a big hurry – no retreats were available in the hills and it was one of the very few extended weekends in the year, missing which would be criminal. So, a quick search resulted in identifying Bikaner as our destination for the next few days.

Leaving Gurgaon, the Delhi suburb that’s my home, in the wee hours of the morning turns out to be a wise decision. It’s a different side of the city that we see at the crack of dawn – sleepy, noiseless, the air feels fresher and, of course, our car can finally settle into the fifth gear. NH-8 is a beautiful drive with occasional bottlenecks at Manesar and Rewari which we skip because of our early start. With the Outlook Traveller guide in hand and three days of bliss to look forward to, we reach Chandwaji – which leads onto the Jaipur Bypass, which in turn connects to the NH-11 – earlier than expected. Breakfast is bread and cheese slices and a whole lot of munchies that serve their purpose throughout the journey. A bit of asking for directions (inevitable in every road trip that we’ve made) and we are on our way to Chomu, the point that connects to NH-11. Just then my father-in-law spots a group of men in their colorful Rajasthani attire puffing away at their hookahs at a nearby tea stall. We immediately veer off the road, stop at that tea stall just at the edge of lush green jowar fields, and under a neem tree, experience the much written about and much discussed ‘quality of life’.

The state highway between Chandwaji and Chomu is not as good as the national highways! But as soon as we get onto NH-11, it’s a drive I could die for. The roads are fabulous, no potholes, no bumps, no speed breakers and no habitation around. Miles and miles of unending straight roads literally going into the horizon. Cruising at 120 – 130 kmph, mirages form and disappear too quickly for my five-year-old to decipher, till he spots non-existent water on the road. Travelling to the western and north-western part of Rajasthan by road is an experience in itself. The lush fields turn into scrub bushes and the soil turns to sand. I cannot resist the feel of sand under my foot and decide to take a walk outside. Little do I remember that it is a desert afternoon. Within minutes I am back in the car, and with my feet nearly burnt, we roll into Bikaner. Bikaner is 530 kms away from our home, but the roads are so good that it takes us no more than seven and half hours to get here, with two stops thrown in as well.

Inside Bikaner town, in no time we find our way to the Karni Bhawan Palace, a heritage property which was the royal residence of Maharaja Karni Singh, the maharaja of Bikaner. The property has a sedate façade but a lavish and luxurious interior with its old paintings, photographs, curios and not-to-be-missed period furniture. We are received by the hotel staff in their traditional attire and style. Hungry and relieved about our place of stay, we quickly hit the dining room – as majestic as the rest of the “heritage” experience. I think the food is great, and I soon start feeling quite like a royal since it is served with such style. It’s been quite some time since I was bestowed such personal attention.

Food over, we give in to our post-drive, post-lunch lethargy and decide to catch a nap. The nap stretches into a two-hour sleep session and we wake up for tea. Still stuffed from our royal lunch, we waddle out onto the lawns. It’s a little warm but the fountains and the deck chairs do the trick. Stretching ourselves on the chairs, we get pointers from the helpful staff about what can be done over the next two days. The evening stretches into the night and we are treated to a marvelous sight of an absolutely clear sky with thousands of glittering stars alongwith some lightning in the horizon. Everyone has told me that this is a very common sight in the desert. The stargazing ends when the thought of dinner crops up – after the heavy lunch, we decide to go in for a continental dinner. Not that the dinner was too light – cream of chicken soup, cold salad, chicken stroganoff, pasta with Bolognaise sauce and ice cream! Feeling satiated, our first day ends on a “full” note.

Day 2

Our second day starts quite early as we cannot continue sleeping anymore. So, what did our itinerary say? A visit to the Junagarh fort and, obviously, some shopping. (How can any trip be complete without some shopping!) We had decided to just chill out on this trip, but figured we could manage a spot of sightseeing. Although Bikaner is not too big a city, the majestic Junagarh fort with its red facade encompasses almost the entire city. Another notable thing about the fort is that it has been built on a desert plain. Almost all the forts of Rajasthan are built on higher elevations so as to remain immune to enemy attacks. But, this Fort, despite its easy accessibility, was never conquered (though I never found out why).

Back from the sightseeing, we make a dash for the cooler realms of our rooms, I head for a bath. Rather, a bubble bath! And so does my little one. Both of us had it in our minds since we had checked in. Not wanting to get disturbed in my hour long sojourn, I decide that getting him into the bathtub and out of my way, is the best alternative. So, I plonked him into a bathtub full of bubbles (the hotel staff did their extra bit by emptying two extra bottles of bubble foam into his tub) and he was soon lost in his own world, I quickly jump into my bathtub and 15 minutes later, am in a dreamland of my own. Warm water, loads of bubbles, not a care in the world and feeling like a queen - this is, I mull dreamily, what I should allow myself on every break. I don’t know how long I must have been immersed in my fantasies but a call from my hubby meant it was time for lunch.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Rajasthani cuisine is simply great…. and hot!! The cook has done more than his share to make us feel good about this trip. The laal maas is something that has to be tried out as well as kair sangri – a kind of desert beans along with its fruit. Lunch over and a good nap later, I practically hold a gun to my un-enterprising other half to accompany me on my shopping spree. My father-in-law and son revolt and get their way! So, off to the city markets we go, me all gung-ho and husband all surly and silent at being forced to lug shopping bags. Bikaner is famous for its printed kota sarees, the jutties made out of camelskin and an assortment of namkeens and bhujiyas. I go all out and pick up loads of sarees for all the relatives I can think of and more than a couple of pairs of juttis for my shopping companion and myself. But even buying him juttis doesn’t improve his mood. Shopping over and a grumpy husband in tow, we return to experience one of the rarest events – a rain shower in the desert. The locals tell us that this region receives just two to three showers in the entire year. More than the shower, it was the excitement and the smile on everyone’s faces. Despite central air conditioning, the hotel’s windows were thrown open. For a moment they were just being themselves. But in 15 minutes (a very heavy shower by their standards), it was back to work for them. The night sky was not as clear but the cool breeze was more than welcome. Dinner constituted the same menu as the last evening simply because we couldn’t get over the taste.

Day 3

We decide to take Day-3 easy. And, of course, another round of bubble bath remains for the two interested parties. I don’t waste any time in handing over the nitty-gritty of fixing the bath up for my son to my better half (by now!), I quickly submerge myself into the luxury that is simply waiting my cooperation. A couple of hours must have passed because I hear a quick pack-up happening outside. After that, it’s time for more than a heavy breakfast – bread, an assortment of jams & marmalades, eggs, sausages, hams and finally coffee. This time, I actually feel relieved that the breakfast is over, or we’ll burst at the seams. Also, a look of concern on my father-in-law’s face tells us that we better start the journey back or we will be driving after sunset.

We get a very nice see-off from the hotel staff and I get behind the wheels to experience driving through the desert milieu. Within minutes, I’m lost. The first road that I take out of Bikaner is not the one back to Delhi but the one towards Jaisalmer. Maybe that was a hint! Back on track, and driving at 130 kmph, I’m just beginning to enjoy the drive with everyone else enjoying the music, when my husband suddenly wakes up and hysterically informs me that the fuel must be getting over by now. That’s quite a shock because I’ve been oblivious to the fuel indicator for some time now. My heart is beating much faster now, because this is the bypass stretch that we were doing. AC switched off, windows rolled down, eyes frantically searching for a petrol pump, we finally locate one after a while. Looking back, I must say that Rajasthan has pumps liberally sprinkled along the entire route from Bikaner to Delhi.

Refueled and feeling all the better for it, we take a chai break and switch seats. I’m now comfortably strapped in the passenger seat. Who wants to drive in the cities anyway? Nothing eventful happens on the way back, though the Neemrana fort makes for a breathtaking sight against the setting sun. By now, we’ve unanimously decided on Neemrana as our next destination. Within an hour we are in Gurgaon and we converge onto Nirula’s for a final dinner out before we step back into our ‘exciting’ everyday lives!
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