Typed up: at Vijay's Guest House in Bikaner, on Amritsar-Chandigarh bus
Posted from: Internet cafe in Mussoori
We took a sleeper train from Delhi to Bikaner, AC 3rd class (A3 or AC3). There were no closed compartments inside the carriage. Instead on one side there were 2 fixed beds on top of each other against the window, then an aisle. On the other side of an aisle there were floor-to-ceiling dividers with 3 beds attached to each one on both sides. The train provided a thin blanket, 2 sheets, and a super thin pillow for each bed. We had a middle and an upper bunk in a set of 3. The other 4 beds were occupied, but we didn't really talk to these people.
In the beginning the train was pretty noisy with people talking seemingly without any attempt to keep their voices down. After a while the train quieted down and I got a lot more sleep than I thought I would. The beds were a little too hard to be really comfortable, but evidently soft enough. They were also just a little short for me. Hanging my feet off the end was not an option because people would bump into them. The temperature ranged from a little warm at the beginning, to comfortably cool in the night.
Our next adventure was a tour of the area, being driven around by Vijay himself. Our first stop was at a Maharajah's palace that has since then been turned into a very luxurious hotel. This is where my camera finally bit the bullet and refused to turn on at all. We got a tour of the hotel which was gorgeous, and a brief glimpse at room services prices which were scary. The hotel was made mostly from beautifully carved sandstone. It was situated on a lake which was the permanent home of several birds. There were courtyards with beautiful shade-providing trees. In the restaurant were 2 stuffed panthers.
The hotel was of course very expensive, but only by Indian standards. A double would set you back USD 200, and the scary room service was just USD 3 for a soft drink. Still, this was well out of our budget. We all had tea on a patio next to the lake, where Vijay told us of his journey to Oman and Bahrain. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting him, you must ask about his overseas travels.
We went to a ghat, which is a place where people dump the ashes of their loved ones in the holy lake. In that same lake, other people go bathing to purify themselves. The lake was surrounded by temples and it was interesting to walk around it looking at people and religious symbols. This is also the only place where I've ever seen concrete supports for thick tree branches that might otherwise fall down.
Lunchtime was, according to Vijay, the highlight of the day. We had a very nice picnic lunch in a quiet off road spot (we scared away some antelope when we drove up) with ("and this is the best part") gin and tonics with a slice of lime in it. It was a nice lunch, but us tourists were all grateful that there wasn't any more alcohol than there was.
Much like the stray dogs we see everywhere, most of the rats seemed pretty healthy but a sizable minority did not. There were quite a few that had cuts at the base of their tails (which is where rats bite each other to establish dominance), and a few with cuts in other places, bad fur, etc. Besides the rats, the temple was a beautiful building in its own right. Especially the main gate was covered in marble carvings of all kinds of animals. This was the first Hindu temple we've visited, and it's refreshing to see the natural world depicted after so much art that was either strictly geometric or defaced by iconoclasts.
We also visited the local camel farm and research center. We saw a herd of 200 or so come in from the grazing grounds, some almost at a run. There were baby camels, which are surprisingly big even at a week old. The museum told us that camels are more cost-effective than oxen, and that a camel-drawn "school cart" can transport 20-25 school children. Finally we sampled camel milk and ice cream, neither of which tasted all that different from products based on regular milk.
By ourselves we visited the local fort, which was definitely worth it even though I was feeling a bit fort-weary at the time. This fort's interior is still mostly the way it always has been with rugs, furniture, and decorations intact or well preserved. The opulence of some of the rooms have to be seen to be believed. (A select few of you will have that opportunity through a postcard that's heading your way.) The rooms were painted and decorated floor to ceiling in a variety of styles that somehow blend together into a whole that works. There was also quite an impressive collection of swords and old guns, but very little information on how or why they differed.
It sounds like we did a lot, but I think we spent about half our time relaxing at the guest house. This consisted of reading, watching TV, and using the Internet. I'd also been investigating what was wrong with my camera. Having established that it was 1 month out of warranty, and that there was no local Canon service center, and that servicing by mail was not an option (that's just not how things are done here; you have to come in person) I decided to take the camera apart myself in the hopes of discovering a loose something or other. I had a nice side adventure finding a suitable screw driver. I ended up buying (I think) the only tiny Phillips head screw driver off a glasses store in town. Predictably, I did not solve the problem and broke a small (possibly irrelevant, I like to think) thing in the process. I am still cameraless, but Hong Kong becons with great deals on electronics.