Bikaner is one of those towns that doesn’t cut much ice with the Rough Guide: “The smoggy city of BIKANER has little of the aesthetic magic of neighbouring Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur…”
But what it lacks in tourist-friendly “aesthetic magic” (somewhat questionable in two of the three Js anyway), Bikaner makes up for with a cowboy-style attitude that makes it feel more of a genuine dusty desert city than other cities in Rajasthan.
I arrived here fresh from the Rat Temple. As I knew I was spending a single night here, I checked into the cheapest place in town. This is always something done more in hope than expectation – however much the room looks clean, quiet and comfortable at first site, at that price it is a racing certainty that
a. the toilet won’t flush (check)
b. the bed will have all the flexibility of concrete (check)
c. someone in a next door room will listen to a Bollywood classic at 2am at full volume (check)
d. random heavy goods vans will go past at 3am tooting their horns for no reason (check)
e. roaches will gently nibble at your ear at 4am to wake you up (check)
That was all still to come though, and I set about taking in what sights Bikaner had to offer.
Which didn’t take long. The highlight was the audio-guide for the fort, narrated in a wonderfully proud cut-glass Indian-English accent. We were to be treated to a “plet-HORA of artefacts, some wonderful paraphern-EE-lia from the Raaajpoooot era”. As the tour ended, his final words were so splendid that I wrote them down:
“We have MEANDERED through Junagarh fort together… and STRODE through pages of its history. I hope you have IMBIBED the essence of our customs and traditions, a RARE LEGACY. Before we take leave of each other… [etcetera etcetera]”
By the evening, I was ready for a drink.
In most of Rajasthan, beer is readily available in restaurants. It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t the case in Bikaner. Sensing my thirst, a friendly restaurant owner pointed me in the direction of a small alleyway where he assured me I would find the answer to my prayers.
The bar in question turned out to be a small dimly-lit 20 foot by 20 foot smoke-filled room, with a few tables surrounded by chairs. There was one seat free. I hesitated. The room fell silent. 30 pairs of eyes looked forlornly at me from under vacant drooping eyelids, an all too familiar look perfected in run-down pubs across semi-rural Scotland.
Given my earlier brush with the rats however, I was feeling pretty confident of my ability to handle all-comers, so I settled down in the free chair with a Kingfisher.
As conversation slowly resumed, I took a look around. The similarities with a Scottish boozer were pretty strong. The photocopied sheet of A4 announced “Free peg [shot] of McDowells [whisky] with 2 beer”; the TV high up in the corner of the room flickered silently (although I’m not sure they play Bollywood films in Cowdenbeath bars); the smell of stale alcohol that felt like it hadn’t left the room for months.
As I watched pegs of McDowells disappear with alarming regularity, I realised that this was a bit like an Indian tourist sitting in said bar in Cowdenbeath. One beer was enough. I suddenly felt deeply conspicuous, and left.
I returned to my hotel with the night’s pleasures still to come, reflecting on the fact that booze is one language that is truly (and sometimes sadly) international.
Back to Delhi tomorrow.