Friday 7th February
We had an early rise (6.00 a.m.) and breakfast at 6.30 as we had to be on the road by 7.00, so as to fit into the busy schedule of the demoiselle cranes that we were going to see. We drove across the desert to Kheecan an unremarkable village save that it is visited at this time of year by around 25,000 demoiselle cranes. They migrate here from Mongolia, one of the most hazardous migrations as they fly over the Himalayas. They come here to feed and then fly back Mongolia as the desert heats up in order to breed in the north.
We stopped briefly in what might have been an old quarry to se them on the ground and then we went into the outskirts of the village to a house with a flat roof. We climbed the outside concrete steps and onto the flat roof. Suddenly the air was filled with the sounds of cranes coming in to feed. Eat your heart out Daphne du Maurier and Mr Hitchcock, for true bird horror this is the place. We stood there as thousands of cranes wheeled around over our heads. Some came in skeins, others in waves, but all were making a deafening noise. They circled around an absolutely magnificent and unforgettable sight.
Eventually, they started landing in the field next to the house, which was clearly labelled ‘Bird Feeding Station’. Here the locals put grain on the ground for the birds to eat. The man who owns the house we were on the roof of realised that he needed to take action if the cranes were to continue visiting the village. More houses were being built and there was less for them to feed on. He managed to convince the village that there should be an area left for the cranes. He got government support as well. The villagers give something like 25% of their grain production for the birds, which is remarkable in such a poor area.
More and more birds came in to land and gradually the field began to fill up. The birds moved steadily forward eating the grain as they went. Those on the outer edge seem to be more alert and stand guard over those feeding in the centre. Then they ones at the centre move to the outer edge so the others can feed. It is all very orderly if very noisy. We watched, fascinated by these beautiful birds.
Then we headed to Philoda, a local town, to visit a Jain Temple. We parked in a square with some charming buildings about 250 years old and a dead rat! We walked to the temple, playing the usual game of chicken with the local motor bikes and tuk-tuks. The temple was glitz on speed! In a way it was very beautiful like a spinster aunt who has thought ‘what the hell’ and raided Accessorize for everything they’ve got and worn it all at once. She will certainly attract the eye, but not necessarily for the right reasons! Anyway the bling was wonderful, full of flashing mirrors and coloured glass. The mirrors came from Belgium and the blue tiles form Holland while the marble floors were from Italy. All these arrived by camel on the old Silk Road in exchange for opium i.e. opium out and glitz in. It was dazzling. We were shown around by an over-enthusiastic antique dealer whose emporium we were due to visit on the way back to the jeeps. He showed us the strange light that shown on a section of a mural which could not be explained. It came at sunrise and left at sunset, yet there was no source of light visible. A mystery…..although I slightly suspected it may have been backlit by a bulb!
The antique shop was fascinating – part shop and part museum of a collection amassed over many years. There were rows and rows of opium cutters, scissors, and irons. Tins from the days of the Raj and a myriad of other antiques. The problem was nothing was priced and it was hard to tell what was exhibit and what was museum piece. I fear he sold nothing during our visit.
Then it was time to go back to the resort for breakfast and a chance to warm up. We spent some time relaxing by the pool and then had lunch. The food just keeps coming and very wonderful it is too.
About 4.00 p.m. we boarded the jeeps and drove out to the salt pans. Here saline water from underground is pumped up into pans which are lined with the local rock and left to evaporate. After 15 days, at this time of year the salt is removed by hand and sent to a factory where iodine is added and it then goes all over India and other parts of Asia. We drove through the extensive area and on to a potters’ village. I was concerned that we hadn’t stopped, but Abhiraj had a cunning plan. The salt pans are stunning at sunset, so we would return then.
We visited a potter who showed us how he made pots using local clay on a hand wheel. It was a remarkable demonstration of his skill and we were all very impressed. The pots are baked in a large pit by the side of the house. They are stacked in the pit and then smeared with cow dung to seal in the heat. We met his wife and four daughters as well as his father. His house was built of concrete, but looked very poor, nevertheless they all seemed happy and the girls wanted to be teachers or police officers. They were delightful and when we asked to buy things they were clearly unprepared and had only a few feet scrubbers to offer us.
Back at the salt pans we watched the sun going down and caught the colours as they shimmered off the crystalline salt. It was very beautiful.
Before dinner, some local people entertained us with music and dances from the region. The musicians were highly skilled and we were particularly impressed by the two men who played wooden blocks like castanets. We tried, but could barely hold them, let alone play them! The dancers were superb and the girl’s costume was stunning. Of course they got us up to dance in the end and we stumbled around as best as we could, some members making a better fist of it than others.
Dinner was very welcome and delicious as usual. We have a lie in tomorrow!