The Tanot Longewala Desert Cycling Expedition 2021

By Mukund Sathe

Diary of a cyclist – a summary of The Tanot Longewala Desert cycling expedition with ‘YHAI’.

Day 0: 19th Dec, 2021 Sunday – पधारो म्हारे देश : 10KM

Auto ride

The flight landed at Jaislmer airport around 8:30AM. Airhostess announced outside temperature as 5 degree centigrade making us shiver. eScape team friends Sandeep, Smita and me had boarded an early morning flight to participate in Jaislmer cycling. About ten months ago, during a picnic in Nagaon, we had discussed the Rajasthan cycling plan and now we were here. Bindu and Priti who were part of our last year’s Nainital cycling group were also to join this expedition. We met Bindu and Meghan, Priti’s friend at Jaislmer airport. We reached YHAI camp at Border Home Guard Ground in an auto. The auto was quite big enough to accommodate all five of us and our baggage.

YHAI Camp at Border Home Guards ground

Border home guard has given part of their ground to YHAI where they have set up tents for cycling as well as family adventure camping. There are tent washrooms, separate tanks for drinking water and washing vessels. There were massive boards with about 50 plug points for mobile charging under a tree, a well thought of provision as tents do not have any electricity. We registered ourselves, dumped the luggage in tents and left for Jaislmer-fort site seeing.

Some fun moments at Jaislmer fort

The fort is one of the oldest forts in Rajasthan, around 800 years old, also known as ‘Golden Fort’ due to its yellow sandstone walls. It was an important junction on the old Silk trade route. It’s a living fort with majority of the Fort area occupied by the local residents. Due to paucity of time we avoided visiting any kothis or museums and returned to the camp.

My cycle number was 19, Sandeep’s 20. Bas unnees bees ka antar tha 🙂

Post lunch (and washing plates 🙂 ), we collected our cycles and kits and were ready for an acclimatization ride at 4PM. Earlier ride was scheduled for Gadisar lake, however due to a surge in visitors in Jaislmer, the ride was diverted to the outskirt. We found the cycles to be very well maintained. The gear buttons were bit different than what we normally encounter, but it was just a matter of few minutes to get used to them. Ride of 10 kilometers freshened us up for next day’s ride.

Khoya khoya chand, khula aasmaan..

Night was very chilly. As previous night was the full moon night, we enjoyed moon rise and moon light almost every night in a clear sky. We had campfire (without a fire as it’s prohibited in YHAI) to get introduced to each other. There were groups from Mumbai, Dhule, Pune, Kolhapur and 3 individuals from Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. 

Day 1: 20th Dec, 2021 Monday – ज़िन्दगी न मिलेगी दोबारा : 58 KM

Shri Bhati addressing the crowd

Day started with the formal inauguration function of the expedition, which was attended by many local VIPs. YHAI head Shri Bhati shares very good rapport with locals and we experienced it throughout the tour. With a flag off, which was also a custom everyday, the group took off. Mehboob Sawla, an energetic YHAI volunteer lead the group, Mechanic Pradeep was a group tail to manage any emergencies. Shri Bhati and Shri Amarshi, both young oldies accompanied us throughout.

Adeshwarnath Jain temple near Amar Sagar lake

Today’s itinerary was full of sightseeing activities. The expedition started with visiting Adeshwarnath Jain temple near Amar Sagar lake on the outskirts of Jaislmer. This temple is a century old and have very intricate designs carved on walls and ceilings. Throughout the journey we observed that all the constructions are made using same yellow sandstones. So you can’t make out if the structure is a residence or a five star hotel or an archaeological historical site.

Abandoned Kuldhara village

Next stop was a haunted place of Kuldhara village. According to folklore, it was an ancient village of Paliwal Brahmins. They built around 84 villages in this area but abandoned the villages overnight attributed to various causes, ranging from persecution by Salim Singh, minister of Jaislmer state, to draught and earthquake. It remained abandoned since early 19th century. It is also said that people who have tried to stay there at night have been chased away by strange paranormal activities.

Off-road biking for lunch break

We took off-road diversion to Jiseri Talab for lunch. Lunch places were very carefully chosen near water bodies which were very rare. Another issue is being a desert; there are no big trees to provide shade. We rode through patches where there were no habitations for miles and miles. 

Khaba fort

Post lunch was small uphill ride to historical Khaba fort. It’s also believed to be a cursed structure of Paliwal Brahmins, who abandoned this place 200 years ago due to unknown reasons. It was also an important part of the old silk route.

 

Miles to go .. no water .. no trees

The last stretch of the journey began. It was sunny bright sky but the temperature was below 25, making it a pleasant ride. I did not have to use Electral anytime during ride due to cool weather. 

 

Zindagi na mile dobara

Comfortably we reached the camp near Sam Sand Dunes. We parked the cycles and booked a jeep safari. It was an awesome experience with open jeep riding through sand dunes at high speed giving jerks now and then. There was no question of photography while the vehicle was on the move.

Tera tuzko arpan.. Sunset in sand dunes

Visited sunset point, the last sand dune, the location where ‘Bajarangi bhaijan’ border crossing scene was shot.  The entire area is full of Desert Safari Camps.  As there was no electricity in the camp, dinner of Bajri bhakar was managed with torch light and the moon light.

 

Day 2: 21st Dec, 2021 Tuesday – रामगढ़ के शोले : 67 KM

Enjoying excellent internal roads

Nothing much to do today. Just travel to next destination Ramagarh. Long roads through the desert. Though the roads were internal roads, road conditions were excellent. Could be because of good workmanship or hardly any rains. At every road junction Mehboob would stop, ensure that all have reached and then proceed. Group was very homogenous. The time difference between first and last cyclist reaching any spot was never more than 15 minutes.

Villagers at Oasis

We crossed the village Hema and reached oasis near village Netsi. Interesting part of travel was, you would see milestone stating Hema-5, Hema-4 etc. You plan to take a tea break at Hema. But when you are almost reaching milestome Hema-0, you will notice that the village is very far away from the road with no possibility of any tea/coffee joints. Netsi Oasis had a large area, lot of fully grown up trees, multiple wells with provision to fetch water.

TV Tower

We had lunch at Oasis and rested for some time. Ramgarh TV tower can be seen from far distances. It’s one of the largest TV tower in Asia. As this area is near the border, Pakistan TV waves would create trouble for the residents. To counter this, Government built this massive structure for antenna. We were given a school classroom for night stay. Had a delicious dinner of authentic Rajasthani Dal-bati kurma. Based on my prior experience of such rides, I had carried electric extension board. It was very useful as the classroom had only couple of plug points. I probably looked better prepared for travel this time with extension board, torch, slipper, balclava, two power banks, separate jackets for day and night.  

 

Day 3: 22nd Dec, 2021 Wednesday – ऐ मेरे प्यारे वतन : 52 KM

Town used in Border movie shooting in the backdrop.

Ramgarh onwards the roads are managed by Border Road Organization (BRO). Recently Government has increased spendings on improving road conditions in the border areas to enable faster movement of the armed forces. We experienced it everywhere in the region.

 

Sand dunes near Ghantiyali Rai Mandir

We reached Ghatiyali Rai Mandir for lunch. The temple was attacked during 1965 Indo-Pak war and it is believed that Mata protected the region. Post lunch we went to explore sand dunes behind the temple. They were unexplored with hardly any visitors. I dared a free fall on the slope. What you miss in bachpan, you can always try in pachpan. 

 

Tanot Rai Mandir

Another half an hour ride and we were at Tanot Rai Mandir. We were put up in a dharmashala adjacent to the temple. The temple was established in the 9th century. During 1965 Indo-Pak war, Pak attacked this area with hundreds of bombs, however temple remained intact.  Since then the complex is managed by Border Security Forces (BSF). 

Tanot Victory Pillar

Temple premises hosts a ‘Tanot victory pillar’, Tiranga and lot of posters about BSF heroism. BSF proudly hails a tagline ‘First Line of Defence’. YHAI managed our passes to visit Indo-Pak border. We rushed into open mini trucks to travel 20 KM distance to border. We saw many BSF watch points on the way. 

Indo Pak border

Door to Pakistan

A small part of the border is converted into a tourist spot. Entire length of border is protected with double layered barbed fence. There is no man’s land between both countries. Pak probably has not taken any efforts to fence the boundary for obvious reasons.

Fencing on the border

A big salute to BSF for protecting the borders in such adverse conditions. After visiting friendly borders between European countries, you feel unlucky to have such notorious neighbours. I slept with the excitement of visiting 1971 war Longewala site the next day.

Day 4: 23rd Dec, 2021 Thursday – संदेशे आते हैं : 84 KM

Pak tank captured in 1971 war

BSF flagged off the ride in front of Tanot rai temple and we left for our longeset ride today. It took about three hours to cover 40 Kms distance to Longewala, site of 1971 famous war. A handful of Indian soldiers stopped advances of Pakistan tank platoon on the night of 4th December 1971, thus crushing Pak’s dream of breakfast in Jaislmer and lunch in Delhi. Morning sunrays enabled Indian air force to take over the battle and finish off entire tank platoon.

M46 Catapult self-propelled Gun

 

Longewala War Museum

The area hosts the tanks, damaged equipment and many more memories of war. Recently inaugurated War Memorial describes fine details of war. It’s a recap of what would have happened in the night of 4th-5th December 1971, which is also nicely captured in the movie Border. 

Uper neeche..neeche upar..

Had a lunch break at Kalibhar community center, few kilometers away from Longewala. Now the long 40 kilometer ride begins. It was a cloudy and hence a cool day. But the road was full of uphill-downhills testing our gear changing skills. Though herculean tasks for some members, all of us reached Ramgarh before sunset.

 

Day 5: 24th Dec, 2021 Friday – यारा सिली सिली :70 KM

Enthusiastic Team of 21 Cyclists. 

All the fun has to end one day and this was the day. It was just a return journey from Ramgarh to Jaislmer. Roads were pretty straight with slight uphills. I could manage entire journey with fixed gear combination of 3×8. We had a lunch break and a group photo session at Bhadasar lake. 

Bada bagh, Jaislmer

We reached YHAI camp around 3:30PM. Packed up, bid good bye to each other and went on for Jaislmer site seeing in an auto. Visited Bada bagh, Gadisar lake, some khana-vana, some shopping. Met a wonderful guide at Bada bagh who alongwith history took our snaps and videos with a professional touch. He recorded the video alongwith background song. I liked the way he managed history and photography together. Watch this video and photo he clicked. 

Well, it’s never over!!! 340 Km cycling and more than dozen additional friends!!! Last expeditions were at sea side, in hills, this one in desert, now will have to plan the next one, may be in a jungle:-).

A few lines summarizing the trip –

इक्कीस cyclists,
अलग भाषा , अलग भेस,
मिले जैसलमेर में,
पधारो म्हारे देश |

Khaba Kuldhara के किस्से,
Sand Dunes की मस्ती,
Ramgarh की पाठशाला में बस्ती,
Tanot Longewala की वीर गाथायें,
दे जाये घर कब आओगे संदेश,
पधारो म्हारे देश |