Indian Interlude spends most of Friday driving from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. We don’t want to labour the point regarding the disrepair of the Indian National Highway network, suffice to say the hour or so from Jodhpur is appalling. Even when the road surface improves, the endless hazards of slow moving vehicles of two, three and multiple wheels; the wandering live stock, the “controlled” livestock; and no shortage of breathtaking driving from both behind and the other side of the road, makes the journey a challenge. We lunch at a kind of Indian roadhouse, except it does not sell petrol.
Jaisalmer, the Golden City. Our mid-afternoon arrival is at a very welcoming hotel. The manager insists on filling in the registration paperwork over a “welcome drink” on the rooftop terrace, and he also has a sense of humour. He takes my passport and says he is going to Pakistan tonight, he will return my passport to me tomorrow. Ian goes exploring, Kerry does postcard duty in the hotel.
On Saturday, a long-ish day with a guide, mostly. We start at Gadi Sagar Lake, where the catfish swarm, and which served as the town’s water supply for many years. It is not compelling, however we see more of it when we return on our own on Sunday. Then to the fort. Originating in the 1100s – we forget to ask to see the foundation stone – the fort is inhabited by a few thousand reseidents, including our guide who is from the Brahmin (high) caste. Impressive in its own way, it has some 99 bastions. It requires restoration, and our guide persuades us that the palace in the fort is not worth the entry fee.
The fort has seven Jain temples, and no Jains live inside the fort. We visit two of the temples which are next to each other. These date to the early 1500s. For all intents and purposes the design is the same as the temple we visited at Ranakpur, although these are much smaller and more intimate. Despite the notices saying “do not give money to the holy men” there are “holy men” seeking tips.
Kerry is keen to purchase some quality jewellery on this trip, and we have a hot tip about a store in Jaisalmer. Our guide knows the store and regards the jeweller as a real artist. Regrettably we have arrived during a mourning period for a deceased relative, and the “artist” is away, and the store closed.
We do make an investment at a cooperative fabrics and textiles business, which our guide assures us really does provide 70% of the sale back to the women artisans responsible for the work. Our guide is also honest enough to say he has been paid by said cooperative to promote the store.
We admire two of the best havelis (houses) in Jaisalmer. One was built for a former Prime Minister of the Princely State of Jaisalmer. It was constructed in two halves, down the middle, by two brothers. The result includes different ceiling decorations in any room, and different carved lattice work on the front of the building, either side of the door. It is still in family hands, one of whom shows visitors around, and they have a range of goods for sale to support the upkeep of the house.
Here Ian buys a brass ornament of the Mewar royal family sun symbol. The negotiations were swift.
II: What is your best price for this?
Vendor: 1200 rupees.
II: I will give you 600.
V: I cannot sell this for 600. 800.
II: Done. (and no doubt I was).
We return to the hotel to gather goods for another parcel home! Lunch at a very good rooftop restaurant, where, in honour of their 25th anniversary we are offered a free drink, and have dessert on the house too.
On to the pack and send business who deal with FedEx only. Reader, this becomes a most expensive parcel of books, brass, and fabric. They also take cash only, necessitating something of a goose chase for an operative ATM.
In the late afternoon we venture to a deserted village called Kuldhara. The short version of the story is to say the entire village decamped one night, and no one knows to where. It is regarded by many as haunted, including our guide who would not stay the night for $1,000; and the long-term and old watchman, who won’t stay at night either.
We drive further into the desert to play tourist and have a camel ride, watch sunset from the sand dunes, and enjoy a “traditional Rajasthani dinner”. One half of II thinks the camel ride is great fun. Ian observes to Kerry that her camel is defecating as we make our way uphill. Kerry says this is not the camel. Kerry opts out of the ride early, we watch the sun sink on two feet, Ian returns to the saddle for the return trip, whilst Kerry walks with our cameleer.
The dinner features music, singing, and dancing, held outdoors with the guests seated in a circle which extends from either side of a small stage. One of the dancers looks barely old enough to work on licensed premises, and is still learning how to dance. We are the only foreigners in attendance, save a Frenchwoman who is keeping company with an Indian man. The crowd are quite appreciative of the song choices, although we don’t understand a word. During the performance there is a power failure (common enough in India) however this one is engineered so guests can wonder at a star-filled sky.
The dancers also invite the women in the audience to join in for one dance. Reader, one of the foreign women declines the opportunity.
We are first in line at dinner, largely by our guide’s urging, who has stayed at the far edge of the camp. Dinner is good, notwithstanding our over indulgence on the peanuts and pakoras served during the performance. We eat a few dishes we’ve never heard of, and don’t remember what they were.
Sunday is ours until late afternoon, when we are due at the train station for the overnight trip to Jaipur. We revisit the lake from yesterday, taking the fastest auto rickshaw in Jaisalmer, which also has the loudest sound system. We attempt to visit a garden but the gates are locked, and the ticket office closed. The driver finds a spot where the wall no longer exists, but doesn’t seem keen to let us walk up the hill to the main attraction. We waste time in the fort and the market area, have tea and cake, waste more time, take lunch at another rooftop restaurant, witness a noisy and traditional Indian welcome, we presume for siblings of the hosts, and return to our hotel for our car to the train station. To spare us the walk over the platform bridge, our driver crosses the railway lines just beyond the station, where there is no crossing, parks under a shady tree, and helps us to the platform.
There is more confusion than usual at the station. The seating charts are not yet posted on the outside of the carriage, so no one is sure where they are sitting. An Indian Railways employee carrying the chart print-out is pounced upon and advises we are in cabin “C”. All well and good, but the cabin markings are painted over. Indian Interlude scores the coupe, that is, a cabin for two; at least once our local contact removes the other passenger who had already decided the cabin was his. Leaving Jaisalmer at 5:15, we’re scheduled in Jaipur at 4:50am.