Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Back in the saddle

Rising out of the desert like a giant medieval sandcastle, the fort town of Jaiasalmer dominates the horizon and can be seen for miles around. An impressive vision of sandstone turrets set on a steep hill that looks constructed more out of functionality than style, it was, as far as we could ascertain, the only thing worth seeing in the main town. The rest of Jaisalmer seemed to be a mess of half built concrete buildings, shabby shops or grubby restaurants, all called either Golden Fort, Golden Palace, Palace Fort, or Golden Fort Palace. We were staying in the rebelliously named Hotel Golden City, which was next to a panel beaters shop and had an inviting cloudy green swimming pool home to some bathing birds. We decided to give swimming a miss.

Having had some much needed sleep, we figured we may as well check out the main attraction and headed into the old fort town. Inside the walls lay a maze of tiny streets, thankfully too small even for rickshaws to squeeze down, and we spent an hour wandering round in relative peace before we found ourselves back where we started. Clearly every one else arriving had the same idea, as we bumped into our Israeli friends from the Hellbus and went for a long lunch and some cold beers. Being a desert town, Camel tours were clearly the staple tourist trade with every second shop and hotel offering them, and we decided that as the main town itself didn't have too much to offer, we may as well book one as we did want to see the desert, and we'd probably provide each other with some cheap entertainment also.

The next morning we headed out by Jeep. Much of the surrounding desert Jaisalmer town was a mix of bush and scrub land, and to get to the desert proper we needed to travel for around an hour. On the way we stopped to visit a couple of small villages that were effectively no more than a few huts and some animals. It had been a very dry year in India so far and the effects of this were clear to see; the small lake which provided water for the villages we saw (and two others) was now no more than dirty puddle. Our driver told us that they were having to walk several Kilometres every day just to get drinking water this year. Further along our journey we passed a truck loaded with a few tons of cut stone driven by a boy, with another half dozen boys on the back. For breaking, loading and transporting this they would only receive 150 rupees between them per day - about two pounds. Its clear to see why tourism related jobs being relatively well paid are the main choice for many, but with English being a pre-requisite for this, and education a luxury that most villagers can't afford, its not even an option for the majority of people living in the rural areas.

Now, I had only rode a camel once before, several years ago in Tangiers, and for about ten minutes, but I had pretty much decided then that it wasn't really something I really wanted to do again. Whilst camels are undoubtedly admirable examples of evolutions power of adaption to environment, they are also probably one of the ugliest mammals on four legs and don't generally do much to endear themselves, so I was hoping that seeing as we were spending all afternoon sitting on two of them, maybe by some chance we might get a couple of well mannered ones. Sam was in luck anyway. Hers was a steady big old boy called Johnny Walker - two time winner of the Jaisalmer annual camel safari race. Mine was called Rocket - two year old winner of bugger all and apparently named Rocket because of his tendency to leg it "when car get too near". Well chuffed. Anyway, much to Sams disappointment we only saw one car all afternoon so I didn't get to experience the full power of Rockets autophobia...

We ended up spending an amazing day out in the Thar desert; traveling for miles with no one around but the occasional goat and vultures overhead, and stopping to cook lunch on an open fire in the shade of a tree and share some chai with a Shepherd who came and sat with us. Ramesh, our guide turned out to be a pretty good cook too, building a fire then knocking up an decent vegetable curry, dals and Chapatis from scratch. I told him so too but he responded "No. Cooking is woman work. Men go to the desert". When I told him about my brothers culinary experiments and his applying to be on Masterchef on the TV back home he looked at me like I was mental. We changed the subject to Camels. After lunch we trekked on in the blazing heat, stopping only to get water from a well for dinner later, which was again cooked from scratch along with more chai. Sitting in the evening sun in the silence of the desert we could easily have stayed over night as Ramesh had tents packed with him on the camels, but we had a train to catch...

We left Jaisalmer the next morning, heading North again by second class carriage to Bikaner - another desert town in North West Rajasthan on our way to Amritsar in Punjab. En route it got pretty windy and we literally had to baton down the hatches a few times due to the amount of sand from the desert blowing through the windows. Somehow though it still seemed to get everywhere. At points, it must have looked like train full of terrorists with bad coughs going on holiday; with everyone in the carriage, including us with scarfs tied round our heads and only eyes or sun glasses poking through. Still, the "sandstorm" proved to be an entertaining talking point and we spent most of the rest of the journey chatting to a couple of guys opposite us about everything from Bollywood to farming equipment, to why Indians brains are better suited to working in the computer industry...

There sadly isn't really much to say about Bikaner to be honest, we were effectively passing through for one night so saw little of the town except the outside of the main fort and the market. I can tell you however that it is dusty, smelled overwhelmingly of eggs pretty much the whole time, everyone seemed to want to sell us mattresses, none of the rickshaw drivers have any idea where they were going and its incredibly difficult to get a straight answer about anything. We did however have the privilege of staying in the "21st Maharajahs cousins, brother in laws" residence which was a comfortable if slightly crazy (in a good way) place with a house pug dog as pet and rooms full of weird pictures and photos, vintage wine bottles (sadly empty) dodgy taxidermy and quirky, dusty curiosities he'd collected from all over India. Seeing as I find bad taxidermy and pugs both entertaining, it proved to be a winner...

Next stop Amritsar!

See our pics here:

Jaisalmer, The Thar Desert and Bikaner

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