Saturday, February 6, 2016

Golden City

The Jodhpur Jaisalmer express is perfect for traveling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer (duh) overnight. It leaves from Jodhpur junction itself which is large, colorfully lit, and has an escalator. And you reach Jaisalmer railway station around 6 in the morning which is cold enough to warrant monkey cap, gloves, jacket, and shoes to be worn while going to sleep in winter.

We had booked stay in Oasis Sam desert camp through and it was very cheap for us because of all the credits my friend's brother had saved up. The camp people themselves helped us hire a Bolero jeep to travel. But the check-in time wasn't till 3. So, we went checked in at a hotel near railway station, slept a little, had some nice tea, and freshened up till it was warm enough to go outside.

First, we had breakfast at a restaurant nearby. Chola bhattura, parathas, some more nice tea. They played some Rajasthani folk music in the background on request. And the golden Jaisalmer fort was right outside so we took some selfies.

While still adjusting to the golden glow on the buildings that the limestone gives off on morning sunlight, we reached at the bottom of Gadi Sagar lake. There's a small walk to the waterfront which is filled with colorful Rajasthani clothes, handiwork, embroidery, etc. That is also where I noticed the animals - dogs, goats - all of which had thick fur, acclimatized to the lazy cold weather of the desert land.
Colourful, no?
There is a small temple on the bank of the lake, golden in color as you would have guessed. You can remove your shoes and walk inside. I stayed outside looking at the man who was sitting at the entrance dressed like a sadhu welcoming people with "Jai Shriram" and other mantras (like Mickey Mouse figures in Disney world). There are what look like extensions of the temple in the lake, popping up from the water like somebody built a large temple and then the lake flooded it till just below the top. These were fully occupied by pigeons and the floor with their shit. The water was home to catfish so large that they probably could eat the pigeons if one of them fell into the water. These fishes were being fed dough by some people at the shore. That's apparently one of the main activities here apart from boating. And taking photos, of course.

Next, we went to the Jaisalmer fort. We were swamped by guides as soon as we reached. They do have ID cards but they do charge a lot if you don't bargain. We didn't take a guide till we walked about 200 metres from the parking spot to just inside the entrance of the fort. It's actually a good idea to do impulse control and see around for more before you pay money anywhere in Rajasthan, more so in Delhi. Although, if you take this to the extreme you will also find very cheap guides who also don't tell you a lot of things - like we found at Taj Mahal later.

The Jaisalmer fort is a live city surrounded by three layers of walls. A quarter of the population of Jaisalmer live inside the fort in their golden houses. The inhabitants are the descendants of the same people who lived in the fort in the past. A part of the fort was for the Warriors (who eat non-vegetarian), another for the Brahmins (who eat vegetarian), and a third part for the Royals (who ate "mixed vegetables" in the words of our guide). Now, many parts have been taken over by restaurants who sell the same kinds of foods.

There are two palaces inside the fort - King's palace and Queen's palace. You see a lot of armors in the King's palace. Everything ranging from bows and arrows to guns. And then the short heighted bed which the King would sleep in (so that he doesn't get killed by anyone hiding under it), the halls where he would listen to people, and many other rooms with a lot of architecture. At one place our guide told us that the fort was built with limestone mostly but there's one more kind of stone used rarely - "fossil" stones (I think that's what he told), and it had magical properties like "being able to turn milk into curd overnight".

At the roof of the palace you can see all around Jaisalmer. We had some masala chai and turned 360 degrees again and again listening to the guide and seeing the desert, the Pakistan border, the roads, the houses, the desert, and more of the desert. After getting down we found the route to the large canon on the other side of the fort. The canon was also at a height letting us watch the city and our jeep and five guides converging on new groups that arrive. We sat there for more than 15 minutes taking photos and enjoying the breeze.

Back near the parking spot we had some chole kulchas which were the best. And then we set forth for Sam.

Sam is around 40 km from Jaisalmer and I slept through most of the wind turbines and sand. The place is full of desert camps, camel safari, and other desert adventures. We reached our camp just after noon and we were the only people there then.

The tents are surprisingly well furnished. The beds, blankets, and carpets look just like any hotel. But the walls are made of layers of clothes. The door is just another cloth with ropes on the sides allowing you to tie it to the wall around (if you want to "lock" the room). The windows are improvised curtains which can be folded up by pulling the ropes on their sides and unfolded by pulling the ropes in the reverse direction. Another door on the far wall leads you to the bathroom which has solid walls on the other three sides and cloth roof. The floor was tiles. The water was salty. The bathroom was roomy, but I didn't take bath because it was very cold and I didn't wake up in time for the geyser next day.

There were about 50 tents like these arranged in a quadrilateral in our camp. The tents on one edge were actually solid rooms unlike our Swiss tents. In the middle there was a platform surrounded by chairs where the cultural programs would happen at the night. The common dining hall was at one corner.

We sat enjoying the architecture of our tents and putting socks and towels to dry on the guy ropes while others, mostly families, started filling up other tents one by one.

An hour before sunset it was time for us to move to the dunes at the opposite side of the road. The camp had arranged tickets for us in the ship of the desert to travel to the sunset point. We had 4 camels - Michael Jackson, Lucky, Bubloo, and Salman Khan. I was sitting on Lucky with my friend. Getting on a camel is easy since it lies down with its legs folded and you can climb like you climb on a bike. But once you're seated, the camel gets up to its full height - hind legs first - and you have to hold on like Titanic is sinking head first. Pretty much the same when getting down or when walking down a sand dune. At all other times you can actually swing your hips with the camel's and dance in that rhythm without holding anywhere.
Not posing

The ride was fun so we paid them extra to take us a bit farther to the "old Pakistan border" where we saw an old bunker and a wire fence and more sand. We saw the sunset on a "private dune", playing with the sand and running barefoot from dune to dune. After sunset it got cold very fast and the sounds of cultural programs could be heard. So we returned to the camp where we were greeted in traditional Rajasthani style by a lady in Rajasthani clothes putting tilak on our forehead.

The cultural programs had started on the platform in the middle of the camp. People were seated around in chairs, and on the platform on diwans with masand. We drank some hot tea and ate some snacks sitting down. There were two singers, and drummers, and kartal players, and dancers. The songs were in Hindi and Rajasthani. The main singer also sang some shayariyas in Hindi which were really funny when translated to English for me. The dancers did Rajasthani folk with characteristic hip movements. They also did a few tricks by picking up notes and stones from the floor bending over back with their mouth and eyes, respectively. The lead singer then took over the kartals and did a wonderful performance along with the dolak. Rajasthani kartal is very simple - two flat wooden planks slightly longer than an iPhone 6+. You hit these together very fast, at various sound levels and you get music that sounds almost like tap dance. In fact, the performer was moving in such a way that it appeared like he was dancing with his hands and corresponding music came from in between his fingers. There was also a man who played with fire - swallowing it, blowing fire from his mouth, etc.

People started dancing from the beginning and every time someone would get up to dance the singers would ask them to sit down and wait for their chance at the end. Something that irked me was when people used to give the performers money while they were performing. For example, when the lead dancer was dancing with pots on her head and balancing on glasses at the foot, people would come and put money which she would hold between her teeth. After all professional performances, they put random songs and everyone started dancing while some, including us, went to the dining hall for dinner. The dinner was nice buffet. And there were many curries whose names I don't know.

After dinner we went and danced till it was too cold and we went to our tents and sat talking.

Towards the night the welcome hosts came with tea and sent us off to the night desert. We walked up to the dunes, this time against colder breezes. At the top of a dune, we just lied down on the sand watching the stars (also crossing it off the bucket list of one of us). I stared into the Pakistan side thinking of soldiers at Siachen glacier for a while with the breeze making that eerie sound you hear in mountains. We then went back to our tents, had more tea, and slept. The hosts couldn't arrange camp fire because nobody else was interested and the guy who promised he would arrange it if we wanted slept by the time we went back.

The blankets kept us in the bed for longer than we wanted to. We woke up when our jeep driver came looking for us so he could catch his next riders. After having a quick delicious breakfast we packed our bags back to Jaisalmer. This time going back I was awake to see all the wind turbines. Apparently these provide a lot of electricity in Jaisalmer.

We went back to the same hotel as last day, and stay put till noon rearranging clothes, munching snacks, settling accounts. We divided into two then and the first pack including me went shopping in the Jaisalmer market - carpets, clothes, and so on. The second pack joined us outside patwa ki haveli. We had bhelpuri and went inside. The entry fee to the building was ₹100 and so we didn't go inside, rather took photos from outside. We then had to run for our train to Jaipur, so we got some food parcel and ran.

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