08-Apr-2006 -- Warren’s Narrative:
Now that all the easily-reachable confluences near New Delhi have been visited, Doug, Sam and I planned an overnight trip to get to a more difficult confluence in Rajasthan. I’ve been eyeing this one since winter of 2002, when I first visited Jaipur. According to topographic maps, it lies in the middle of the Sambar Salt Lake, a giant lake about 50 miles northwest of Jaipur. According to the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Delhi, Agra & Jaipur:
Sambar Lake is among the six important sites in India designated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as a wetland of international importance. This vast inland saline lake spreads over an area of toughly 230 sq km (39 sq miles) and is fed by five rivers. During November and December, several species of migratory bird, especially flamingoes, can be seen here. . . . The place . . came into prominence after it was noticed by Babur in the 16th century. Since then, it has been a major source of salt for the country.
We took a day off from work, set out at 5:30 in the morning from Delhi, and arrived in Jaipur before 10 AM. After checking into the Al Sisar Haveli, an elegant yet affordable heritage hotel, we dropped off our bags and prepared for the confluence hunt. Doug ordered some paranthas, yogurt and tea and we ate lunch. If it was already hot by 11, it was downright unbearable when we finally arrived at the CP.
The drive there went according to plan. I had planned a route that would take us on National Highway 8 to the town of Dudu, where we’d head north on a smaller highway. Then, after passing through Naraina, we’d cut around the north edge of the lake. We had no idea what the level of water would be like in the lake, but we had read that it was seasonal, and we were visiting in the driest part of the season. If there had been water, we were hoping we’d be able to hire a boat. If not, we brought clothes and shoes that would allow us all to wade knee-deep – but we were hoping that didn’t become necessary.
The town of Sambar is larger than the other villages around the lake, but it’s located at what’s essentially the dead end of the highway. Once there, we had to back up a bit to get to the turnoff that would take us around the lake. Doug used his Hindi language skills to ask which route around the lake would be best. Just like it looks on the map, either route would work. Everyone we asked said it was the same distance, same time, and that both roads were good. It looks like the southern route is more populated while the northern path is more scenic. We chose the northern road.
It didn’t take long to get to the town of Nawa. Luckily, this confluence is located within walking distance of a good-sized village. It’s so much easier to ask directions to Nawa than it is to ask directions to an imaginary point located 10 kilometers west of Nawa.
Nawa is one of those magical little Rajasthani villages filled with ancient buildings, all sorts of animals, and friendly people wearing vivid silk saris or giant colorful turbans. It’s what I imaging Udaipur was like twenty years ago, or Jaipur when the Beatles visited. Nawa is so far away from any touristed city that there is no infrastructure for Westerners. That’s part of what makes it great. You could easily spend a day walking the streets, taking photos, and exploring the old buildings – but there’s no gem shops, no overpriced statuary or miniature paintings. There’s also not much in the way of hotels or restaurants. We were very likely the only westerners to visit Nawa in decades. I can’t imagine anyone undertaking a 4-hour drive from Jaipur in order to visit a place that isn’t listed in any tourist guidebook, and doesn’t even show up on most maps. Yet our time in Nawa was such a great experience that it would have been worth the visit even if we hadn’t been seeking a confluence. For me, the best part of confluence hunting is the chance to get off the beaten tourist trail and experience the “real” India (or whichever country I happen to be visiting.)
We drove through the winding streets of Nawa looking for a good street going in the direction of the confluence. Our first potential parking space was located near some old Colonial-style buildings, possibly from the 1920s or 1930s. We were still a mile away, which meant a two-mile hike, which would probably end up being a three-mile hike, and it was dang hot. So we drove around a bit more trying to get closer. In retrospect, this would have been a fine place from which to begin the hike. But we would have missed a little more of the drive through town.
Considering how narrow the streets are, and how often Doug had to back up in order to let another car pass, he might have been OK with missing the drive. But I liked it.
We finally got to the point where any further driving was going to take us into the salt pans, where workers toil, spreading out the salt crystals in smooth flat beds. We didn’t want to disrupt their livelihood, so we slowed down near a dargah (a combination mosque and tomb of a locally-venerated saint) and weighed our options. The shade of the tomb appeared to be a decent place to park. But the sandy road beside it went straight in the direction of the confluence. We opted for the drive, trying to edge a bit closer. And soon were axle-deep in fine sand. The Toyota Qualis looks like a 4x4 SUV, but it’s really not much more than a boxy-shaped compact car. Out of nowhere, people showed up to help us dig out and push, and soon we were back in the shade of the tomb. We applied sunscreen, grabbed out water bottles and extra camera batteries, and headed out with GPSes in hand. Plenty of locals were giving us directions, but since none of them knew where we were going, it didn’t help much. Doug tried to explain the concept – GPS, longitude, etc. Eventually they understood that we wanted to go hiking towards the lake and pointed us off in the direction of a good solid path that wasn’t too sandy.
For the next half-mile or so, we cut through the salt pans. When you see the salt pans on Google Earth, they’re these mysterious blue rectangles, gridding off the landscape like giant salt crystals. Up close, they’re just big flat fields with raised edges. The workers keep them perfectly level with wooden rakes, smoothing out the beds of wet sand so the thin layer of salt water evaporates faster. Then they collect the wet salt mash into giant pyramids and allow them to dry. Workers gather the dried salt into buckets which they carry on their heads and dump into the back of a wooden truck bed, which is then hauled out of the area by a tractor. On the outskirts of the lake, along a major highway, the tractors dump their load and other worked shovel the salt into bags which are stacked up and exported via lorry or train. In Jaipur, the nearest large city, I saw a warehouse piled high with bags of salt that had come from Sambar Lake.
At the edge of the seasonal lake, the salt beds stopped. On Google Earth, you can see the dried bed criss-crossed with tractor trails. The ground is hard packed salt mud, easy to walk on. With nothing blocking our view of the horizon in any direction, we had excellent satellite connections. I even got a signal on my cellphone so I could call home to say we had found the confluence.
After “zeroing out” and taking the requisite photos, the walk back to the car was easier. We stopped to talk with the salt workers and take some photos of them. Then it was just a matter of driving back to Jaipur. We accidentally found ourselves on a smaller road that went directly towards Jaipur, and on the map it seemed to cut about 13 miles off our travels. But the road wasn’t as well maintained as the highway. We drove much slower on the smaller roads, and only cut 20 minutes off the travel time. We did see some new and interesting landscape, including an old fortress on a nearby hill. Nearly 12 total hours in the car, but an excellent time nonetheless!
Within a kilometer of the confluence, we saw the following mammals: goat, cow, camel, dog, and boar. A few of the more interesting birds we noticed were peafowl, two Indian rollers, several little green bee-eaters, and a lesser coucal.
Here’s a table of the times to help future visitors plan their trip to 27N 75E:
Started the journey out of Delhi on National Highway 8 at 5:54 AM
Hit the Delhi-Gurgaon border 6:08
Rajasthan border checkpoint 7:27
Town of Kotputli 8:14
Town of Gordonpura 8:20
Town of Babru 8:41
Town of Shahpura 8:50
Hwy 8 toll booth 9:00
Crossed 27.0N at 9:33 (near Jaipur)
Eastern Gateway of Jaipur (near Galta) 9:44
Three blocks through Jaipur traffic to the Al Sisar Haveli 10:00 AM
Break for breakfast at hotel
Back on the road, leave hotel 11:23
Leave Jaipur 11:36
Town of Bagru 12:02pm
Intersection with smaller road (the one we took on the way back) 12:06
Town of Dudu (turned right, left highway for the road to Sambar) 12:26
City of Sambhar, hit a dead end and turned back 1:20
Intersection with smaller road that we took on the way back 1:21
(From 12:06 to 1:21 we traveled about 34 miles, much of it on NH8 and the rest on the Sambhar highway)
Stopped at RR Crossing 1:31
Passed Rajas Gas station 1:53
Hwy turns south towards Nawa, 2:00
Park near old Colonial Buildings, thought about hiking from here (probably should have) 2:16
Approach the mosque, stuck in sand 2:36
Begin hike 3:05 pm
Achieved the confluence 3:40
Begin hike back 3:50
Stop to take photos 4:15
Back in car 4:28
Leave Nawa 4:41
Rajas gas station 5:05
Near Sambhar, turn on small road to go more directly towards Jaipur 5:41
Turn left on NH8 6:45
(From 5:41 to 6:45 we took smaller roads and drove slower, but only had to travel a distance of 21 miles.)
Hit the Jaipur city limits 7:22
Back at hotel 7:34
“Salt of the earth,” I mumbled as we departed Nawa, the small village to the north of the Sambhar Salt Lake in Eastern Rajasthan. Punny though it was, the people whom Warren, Sammy and I happened upon as we homed in on Confluence Point (CP) 27 North, 75 East were just that. If Warren has anything to do with a cp hunt, one can be sure that it will be planned for as much convenience as possible. Equipped with a plethora of maps and possible routes, Warren guided us west of Jaipur to the city of Dudu, on to the small town of Sambhar and then to the village of Nawa. Nawa sits near the northern shore of the Sambhar Salt Lake. Despite the cartographical blizzard that blanketed the interior of our red Qualis, we stopped here and there to ask directions, using the Indian road rule of threes: ask three people for directions, and if two of the reports agree, you’re probably on the right path. Munching pretzel rods, sour cream and onion chips and a luscious trail mix (thanks Tricia), we were properly dehydrated by the time we reached the 100 degree salt fields that skirt the edge of Nawa in the hottest part of the afternoon. Smart, indeed.
Though diminutive and, at first, seemingly ordinary, Nawa proved to be an unspoiled, pretty Rajasthani town. It certainly seemed so after returning to the touristy sites of Jaipur. In Nawa, we were still around 1.5 miles away from the CP. Always a fan of driving as close to our target as possible, Warren urged us on through the village, searching for a road that would spill out between the salt evaporation pans (rectangular beds of water contained by short, sturdy dirt dikes) and on toward the barren, flat, crusty edge of the lake, where the CP lay. As we weaved through the streets, they grew narrower and more angular—difficult through which to navigate. After a number of wrong turns and back-ups, we found an opening to the salt pans; we stopped the truck and got out to take pictures. One can walk on the water, so to speak, out to two-three foot cones of white salt that have been raked and smoothed into perfect, large pimple-like growths in beds of red, wet salt water. The salt that sits directly below the surface can be scooped up with the hand. The redness is due to haloalkaliphilic archaebacteria (see Sambhar Salt Lake
). Of course, we are still unaware as to whether or not these bacteria are harmful to people. My guess is no, seeing as how we were to come upon many people working in the pans, raking and scooping salt.
We headed on and noticed that the sand of the “road” (i.e., tractor trails through sand) was getting deeper. Thoughts of stalling arose. We made it to two small concrete buildings, conveniently butted up against a small, well-paved parking lot. This turned out to be a small Sufi tomb, Warren believes; when I asked the name of the place, the gentleman I spoke with kept saying, “A Sik Ali.” Anyway, now about 1.2 miles away, Warren thought we should forge ahead beyond the parking lot and between the salt pans. We tried but found that the sand was getting dangerously deep and hard to negotiate in our deceptively weak, heavy, vehicle—a truck that masquerades as an SUV. The Toyota Qualis (ours, at least) does not have four-wheel drive, but looks like it should. We all agreed it was wise to back up and return to the parking lot. About thirty feet from it is where we got stuck. Drat. I learned that accelerating more is not the best attack to working one’s way out of deep sand. Of course, I realized this only after I had successfully buried the left back wheel to the axle. MacGyver, none of us is, but we managed. After trying to dig out and use old, broken brick as traction, a local fellow wandered over to help us out. He insisted on driving while Sam, Warren and I pushed. Smart bloke. After two attempts at rocking and rolling, he dislodged our feeble chariot. We all held our breath for a moment, thinking, “wouldn’t it be funny if he just kept driving?” He didn’t. We made it back to the parking lot.
After wiping down, hydrating a bit and saddling up, we headed off for the pans and the desert beyond. The small crowd that had gathered simply could not understand why we were insisting on walking out into nothing. My broken Hindi explanation failed once again; this is a cross, I’m sure, that many cp-hunters in distant lands must bear. They were uninterested and mostly left us to ourselves. One chap insisted on directing us around a series of pans, even though he had no idea where we were headed. Not wanting to offend, we went as he asked, even though it took us a bit out of the way.
Three goofy-looking white dudes strolling in this barren land, we were a spectacle indeed. People stared but always returned our salutations with a “Namaste” and a smile. On the way to the CP, most people were huddled near small structures, resting, it seemed. We concluded that they must break in the middle of the day, for no fool should be out in the sun in that kind of heat. We did come upon one overloaded trailer unsuccessfully being tugged by an struggling tractor. The colors that surrounded us were vibrant. We meandered through deep maroon pools stippled with white cones; among these, women clad in strikingly bright yellow and orange saris would walk about. After about a mile of salt pans, we clamored down a small hill and came to the flats. Covered in both hard and slightly soft sand, this spans was peppered with holes that must hold deadly snakes. If I were a venomous snake, I’d certainly live in them. From this point on, making our way to the CP and zeroing out was a cinch: no obstructions and clear skies.
We noticed that a road seemed to come close to the CP. We wondered where we might have accessed this, seeing as how we did search about for possible points of access to the flats. At first we felt a bit bummed that we hadn’t found this route but then realized that we would have missed a beautiful walk had we done so. We walked back the same way we had come, for the most part. By this time, however, it was just getting late enough—around four-ish—that people were coming back out to work. This was a small feast for the eyes. Folks were walking about, raking salt, collecting salt in large vessels and loading it onto tractor-drawn flat bed trailers. One soon gets a sense of how much salt is produced here. According to Knowing India. Rajasthan: Land of Rajahs
), “the Sambhar Lake is the largest and the most important single source [of salt] in Rajasthan. The Sambhar Lake produces about 8.7 per cent of the total salt in India.” It’s not hard to imagine. Due to the heat and the sticky, heavy, skin-desiccating salt in which one must toil, the work must be grueling. Despite this, everyone we met was friendly and smiling, loving to have pictures taken when asked. One small group of women and children, in particular, looked as though they were doing a fashion shoot. The youngest boy struck Elvis-like posses, while sporting oversized sunglasses. We returned to the Qualis without further incident and quickly checked out the small tomb. An old man opened a locked gate, showed us an icon in an inner sanctum and gently suggested that we donate a couple of rupees. We did and were soon on our way: small price for a great afternoon. We only lamented that we did not have more time to wander the narrow, picturesque streets of Nawa, but darkness was falling and India is no place to drive in the dark. All said, the CP hunt was a ringing success.