Rajasthan: Bikaner to Sam Sand Dunes | Horn please, OK?

Rajasthan: Bikaner to Sam Sand Dunes

Day 2 : Bikaner -> Sam Sand Dunes
When : December 2014 | How far : 360 kms | How long : 4 hrs 

Rajasthan has something for every kind of traveller, except for the beach bum.
Not the best way to get a tan but if sun and sand are what you're after, this is the right place!

Palace of illusions

We had 3 hours to explore Bikaner in. Our destination for the day were the sand dunes at Sam, (rhymes with bum and not bam) an hour's drive from Jaisalmer. We were aiming to get there before sunset. A camel ride after dark wasn't our idea of fun.

Our must-see list for Bikaner looked like this
  • The royal cenotaphs
  • Lalgarh Palace
  • Junagarh Fort
  • Gajner Palace
The royal cenotaphs are 30 kms away from the city in the wrong direction which meant that it was the first to get struck off. Lalgarh Palace was the easiest to access since its within the same grounds as Laxmi Niwas Palace - the hotel we were staying at. 

It was built by the same architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, half a decade after Laxmi Niwas Palace was completed. Lalgarh Palace is the current residence of the the royal family of Bikaner. Very similar in style, its hard to tell where one palace ends and the other begins. 

The Sadul Museum at the Lalgarh palace has a collection of artefacts from the lives and times of the royal family that will interest even the most jaded museum-goer.

All that glitters is actually gold

Junagarh Fort, unimaginatively also known as Bikaner Fort, was our next stop. 

What didn't have an unimaginative name? Bikaner.

It was an arid desert land called Jangladesh (no relative of Bangaldesh) before it was conquered by Rao Bika in the 15th century. A century or so later Raja Rai Singhji, then ruler of Bikaner, threw in his lot with the Mughals and received land for his loyalty. The revenues and taxes collected from those lands were used to build Junagarh fort. 

The fort doesn't have paid tour guides. Not for Indian tourists anyway.
If you're Indian and you've decided you want a guide, there are two options available to you- buy an audio guide or get clubbed together randomly with other visitors and be assigned a guide free of charge. These guides are paid for by the trust that manages the fort. They claim to be doing the job for free because of the pride they have being associated with the fort. Tips are always welcome. 

The fort has been built over 400 years with additions made to the original structure by 16 successive generations of rulers. This is evident in the styles and materials used in different sections of the fort. 

We attached ourselves to a tour group already in progress. The tour started in Karan Mahal built in memory of Raja Karan Singh by his son Anup Singh. The kingdom's close ties with the Mughals was reflected in the architecture.  

The Diwan-i-aam (public hall) was named Anup Mahal after the king who built it. 

There were elements of western design in some of the details, like these dutch tiles. They were credited to Raja Dungar Singh, a lover of western art.  

Walking through the fort was like walking into a kaleidoscope. It was a maze of gilded doors and ceilings. 

This door was forged out of 65kgs of silver!

Visually stunning, Junagarh fort lacks a memorable story. Like a pretty face with no personality.
Forts are only as fascinating as the stories around them and our guide's scripted monologue sounded like it was straight out of a middle school text book. Our eager-beaver, out of syllabus questions didn't faze him. He just responded with recycled facts from the script at hand. 

Travel Tip : Get the audio guide. You might learn something more than which king added which detail to which section of the fort.

Would Ms Pretty like some tea? 

Gajner Palace our last stop before Sam, sits regally on one edge of Gajner lake, overlooking it. 

It was going to be our shortest stop. We had to buy tickets for Rs 250 per head to walk around. "You'll be served tea and snacks", piped in the guy at the reception. Maybe we didn't look well fed. With just 20 minutes to spare we decided to skip the exploration of Gajner and headed over to Sam.

Travel Tip : Gajner Palace would make for a good weekend trip from Delhi. Its an hour away from Bikaner and is a lovely tranquil place. Swing by if you have at least half a day at your disposal.

Operation Smiling Buddha

It was the code name given to the first nuclear explosion carried out in Pokhran in the 1970s.

We were driving down NH15 from Bikaner, making good time when we came across a road sign pointing to Pokhran. Curiosity took over and made us turn off the highway.
What does a town that's been the test site for two nuclear detonations look like?
It looks like every other village in Rajasthan.

Far away in the horizon we spotted a troop of red domes. They were cenotaphs, monuments erected in memory of kings and other important people.  We asked a passerby how to get to them. He was taken aback at our question and advised us not to go near them. Its not meant for people like you, he said. There was something sinister in the way he said it. And it only made us want to see them more. We'll stop by on the way out, we told ourselves.

Pokhran didn't have a royal family. The region belonged to the erstwhile state of Marwar and was controlled by the Champawats who were feudal lords . They built a fort in Pokhran in the 14th century and called it Balagarh.

Wikipedia was our only source of information. Nobody at the fort could tell us much about it.
One section of it has been converted into a heritage hotel but it looks forlorn and abandoned.

Time was slipping away from us so we dropped the idea of visiting the creepy cenotaphs. Determination took us back the next day.

NH15 from Pokhran to Sam was smooth with little traffic. The only thing that slowed us down were the sudden animal crossings.

Raju, queen of the desert

A true blue Rajasthan experience has to include a sunset in the desert watched on camel back from across the dunes. It may sound trite but you'll be the richer for it.

The Thar Desert is not an unending stretch of rolling sand dunes. Its mostly scrub punctuated by clusters of dunes and a few villages.  Sam Sand dunes is where all the tourists are sent to get their desert fix. 

We had the option of staying at Jaisalmer and driving an hour to the dunes. But we're more hardcore than that (we told ourselves) and booked ourselves into a couple of tents near Sam.

There are plenty of desert camps to choose from. They range from a basic, be-one-with-nature variety to the luxurious 40,000 bucks a night type. We picked something mid range with running hot water.

Travel Tip: If you're planning a trip in December, make your bookings at least a month before.  Everything fills up faster than you can say 'camel safari'.

The desert camp folks had arranged for a camel safari. Riding a camel is like sitting in a slow moving roller-coaster without a seat belt on. We saw a couple roll off the back of a camel as it stood up.

Raju was our ride for the evening and Salim was his caretaker. They live in the border town of Dhanana which lies somewhere between the sand dunes and the India-Pakistan border. Having grown up in the desert he regaled us with trivia about the region and pointed out milestones that used to mark the old border between the two countries before the war in 1965. Impressed by his knowledge and eloquence we asked him how old he was. "I'm 10", he said

The sunset was pretty if you blocked out the thronging crowds all around. Salim told us that we'd done a smart thing by not showing up on the 31st of December. The dunes attract 12000 people that evening.

Camel safari - check. Sunset across the dunes - check
Our Rajasthan experience was starting to take shape.  

Winds our desert camp, with a slightly worrying name when think about it, was very pretty. And the food was excellent. We got to try some delicious Ker Sangri (a desert shrub) and papad ki sabzi for dinner along with a few other local delicacies.

The evening's entertainment was a repetition of the previous night's performance at Bikaner. All folk singers, we realised, had a standard repertoire of songs. The bonfire crackled as we munched on fried food and sipped on our drinks.

The performers had soul. They were having more fun than we were.

Swaddled in our shawls we trudged back to our tents watching our breath fog up the air in front of us.
The big question facing us was how cold was it really going to get at night?

Stories from the entire trip
Day 1 -> Gurgaon to Bikaner via Mandawa & Fatehpur
Day 2 -> You just read it 
Day 3 -> Sam sand dunes to Jaisalmer
Day 4 -> Jaisalmer to Jodhpur
Day 5 -> Jodhpur the blue city
Day 6 -> Jodhpur to Chittorgarh via Kumbhalgarh
Day 7 -> Chittorgarh to Bundi
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Maria George said...

We saw a couple roll off the back of a camel as it stood up. - hahahahah!

Trip-a-doodle said...

It was scary and funny at the same time. We didn't laugh too hard because we could've easily been next!

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