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(A month ago a magazine commissioned me to drive a car from Jodhpur to Bikaner and write about the driving experience and the famed Rajasthani cuisine and shoot along the way. I am neither a food aficionado nor too well versed with cars but traveling between these two exotic Rajasthani towns was not half as quirky as I had imagined)
If you are on an gastronomical journey across Rajasthan there is none better than between Jodhpur and Bikaner. It takes more than a morning to explore the wide range of Jodhpuri sweetmeats but once you hit the highway you have a clean clear run northwards to a city that has lent its name to any respectable sweets shop in the country. It’s a 295kms drive to Bikaner where you pass arid land sprinkled with swathes of irrigated fields. There is virtually no habitation along the highway except for a clutch of huts here and there. The highway itself has very little traffic except for trucks hauling Jodhpuri stones for construction and idol making. You will also see an odd camel or two with a pushcart and very few locals. Its just you, the car and the highway for long stretches of kilometers. It is here that you like to rev up the engine and drive in full throttle to see what the Figo has got. And you are surprised at the amount of control you have on the vehicle doing a 120km per hour. At this speed the undulations on the road, that begin after you have covered 100 kilometers and crossed the small dusty town of Naguar , are truly thrilling. But as you near Bikaner you need to check your speed as the revered Chinkaras often dash across the road without warning. As you near Bikaner you also see the landscape morphing more into sand and desert with half-made dunes lining the road. But the highway remain the same long and smooth pot-hole free on these plains.
Its not just the deer the animal loving Rajasthani’s idolize. At the Karni Mata temple 30kms short of Bikaner you encounter the wildest freak show of your life. Known as the `Rat temple’ around the world, the devout here however mean serious business. The temple run over by more than 20,000 rats are revered, fed and encouraged to crawl over your feet for good luck. This temple is definitely not for the squeamish and we beat a hasty retreat from the threshold.
You are not alone on the road anymore between the Karni Mata temple and Bikaner stretch. Busloads of tourists come here from Bikaner to see the spectacle of the temple rats.
Bikaner is a more closed-in city than Jodhpur and you can be caught in a jam for hours here. Deeper in the city , crowded congested bylanes, open gutters, cow-dung and cows and canopies of electricity wires greet you But mixed up in the dung-splattered streets are ancient smells and gastronomical treats that unless you pick your way through these narrow lanes, you miss them all. We are driving the Ford Figo where rickshaws and cycles are the last word on maneuverability. We surprise ourselves as we do the gawking men on these roads. But there is a point where we need to disembark and walk.
The Bhairon Vilas Heritage hotel where we stay has an aura of 15th century Rajasthan complete with four poster beds, antique furniture and tapestry and the paintings. It was once the palace of the Prime Minister of Bikaner and it has been preserved wonderfully well.
Not too far is the famous Junagarh fort with its mighty walls and gates. It is easy to lose oneself in the different folds of this massive fort and perhaps that’s the best way to enjoy its splendor only now its become compulsory to take a guide and go in a group. This was perhaps done to discourage the graffiti artists and lovers.
From the hassel- free drive on the smooth highway to the congested Bikaner street Figo gives a complete Indian driving experience. On the highway we saw the car zoom at 120 kms an hour but lending complete control and maneuverability. The long drive does not leave you with any fatigue or stiff joints because of the big-car spaciousness of the Figo that lends you leg-room that no car of its segment ( B-segment) offers. This makes for such a smooth and pleasurable ride that that you can’t be faulted for breezing past without taking in the beautiful Rajasthani landscape. But when you do halt and you have to pretty suddenly whenever the abundant Chinkaras decide to run across the road, you notice the fluidity of the braking system. There is no drag and the start and pickup mechanics flow seamlessly.
In the congested cities, Figo went over drains and pot-holes displaying the marvels of its superior suspension system that cushioned any bumps along the way. The chugging traffic did not make one weary thanks to the easy maneuverability it lends to the drive.
In the city we drive at an even keel even though a local with us goads us to break some major traffic rules. The rules are for the bigger cities we are told. In small cities you just have to weave your way through. Figo however does that beautifully whenever we are in a jam literally.
Bikaner is the epitome of sweets. Every sweetmeat shop owner you meet gives credit to the water and the `environment’ of Bikaner for the extraordinary taste of the sweets and snacks. They refer to their own expertise in the kitchen only if you push them to elaborate. They all tell you that almost all the sweets they make are available in the metropolitans but the flavour you get in Bikaner is something entirely different. We sample some fare at the Bikaner Namkeen Shop known for its namkeen and sweets. The Kachori here is especially famous. Try one and you know why. Its is not as crusty as the ones you pick up in Chandni Chowk nor too mellow as you’d find them at the fancy air-conditioned sweet shops about town. They break as easily in your mouth as they dissolve leaving a pleasant aftertaste. Chotu Motu hotel however stands out as a singularly popular shop in Bikaner. The `dana methi sabji’ served here with puri is not available anywhere else in Bikaner. Jagmohan the owner says his grandfather came up with the `dana methi sabji’ and it has been such a hit they that they follow the recipe to the letter to this day. The fenugreek seeds are left to soak overnight before they are stewed in a hot syrupy paste in the morning. `Dana methi sabji’ makes for a great noon meal that you can wash down with the glassful of thick Bikaneri lassi. After the heavy meal it is back to the highway again and for the Figo to unleash its magic again.