I woke to the sound of the call to prayer from the mosque across the way. I respect the devotion of Muslims – I can’t even manage to go for a morning run consistently enough to salvage some level of fitness, let alone do it daily.
After a quick pack of my bags, we trodded down to a tuktuk which took us to the local train station. With the morning air fresh with exhaust fumes, we boarded the local train and set in for the 6 hour journey through the desert without aircon. Bikaner is truly a place between places, so I was keen to leave and see a city with a greater sense of purpose.
Within 10 minutes, I was drenched in sweat. I thought my African roots would have prepared me for Indian heat, but the train had turned into an oven, and the dial was turned to high. As sand and dust started to blow in through the windows, I realised this was going to be a long and most trying journey. With our brave faces on, the train left the station.
The train made regular but brief stops across vast desert stretches at places which looked abandoned and far removed from any place anyone would want to get off at. Why people live there, I will never understand. Though most of the stops had no people getting off or on the train, some of the places had local station loiterers which were more intrusive than the usual starers in our train compartment. At one particular stop, the local station loiterers tried to touch us and make friends through the windows – feeling like prisoners, we nervously laughed and pulled our bags and selves away from the windows. The one loiterer, a young desert-dwelling man in full religious attire interrupted our slumpy train ride by hanging on the windows and trying to talk to us. He was alarmingly stark in his white outfit and had a peculiar look about him. I was able to bribe him off with a biscuit for about 5 minutes, but his infatuation with occidental girls (the sleeping ones, worryingly) was greater than his hunger, and thus he returned to our compartment, encouraging cries of “He’s coming back!” and “Go away!” from the girls. They were clearly his oasis in the desert and, as he appeared to be at the station for no reason, I imagine looking at westerners on local trains is a local past time. The girls were visibly startled by the salivating lad, and thankfully our train departed after a short while to his disappointment. The desert is home to some strange creatures, and we had had our first encounter.
We arrived in the fortressed town with the sun in it’s full glory, and with minimal air pollution leading to some quick sunburning. After lunch served by an angry manager who appeared unhappy to have customers in his restaurant, we spent some time by the pool before doing some evening sightseeing.
Taken by tuktuks with “wifi on board” (unmistakenly the driver’s phone with its hotspot on), a filthy, foul-smelling dam was our first stop. I struggled to see the charm in the tourist trap this place unmistakably was. I tried taking photos to try capture the location in a favourable way, but sadly the tyres and chewing-tobacco wrappers which littered the dam kept creeping into my shots alongside the ill-tempered sales women and their jingly-ankle bracelets. The place has a well intended story about the buildings which skirt the dam, but it’s dwarfed by the sheer filth of the place. A last failed attempt to please the tourists came at 6pm with a giant fountain which sprayed from the dam like Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This sadly only resulted in enhancing the stench and tack of the place, and I imagine caused the lurking diseases to become airborne. Not keen to test the efficacy of our vaccines, we shuffled out of the complex with the jingling and ill-tempered sales women in tow.
We saw out the day with a sundown view of the fort accompanied by a serenading of local instruments and a child’s pitchy rendition of Freré Jacques (poor song choice), and a rooftop dinner looking out onto the fort.
Having seen it a good few times from outside and with the sun up, we trudged into the Jaisalmer Fort the following morning passing a crowd of Muslim men conducting a funeral procession in the street en route. In the fort, ignoring the pleads to buy trinkets and textiles, I was able to appreciate the sandstone buildings, quaint alleyways and paintings which adorn the fort’s innerwalls. It is a marvel that such a stronghold has remained functional for so long, with a constant struggle against the desert, tourists and the residents who still live inside. Every so often, the locals would try to say something to us. At a loss for words and conversation, they decided shouting “Michael Jackson” at us was some common ground. My mate responded with “Barry Manilow”, to confused looks from the locals.
Second to the fort are the nearby havelis which are just outside the fort, which are majestic and have intricately carved walls. After a brief awe, we were ushered into a fabric and textile shop to play our role of “tourists with money”.
I had no interest when walking in, feeling like I was being cornered by thieves in what was… actually a rather comfortable room with airconditioning and soft chairs. After a short and soft-spoken speech featuring the tourist keywords of “best quality” and “no where else”, the showcasing began. I immediate fell into a relaxed fugue state, where I watched fine cloths and wall hangings be gracefully thrown across the room, with scarves even draped on me in some instances – all whilst enjoying complimentary masala chai tea. I don’t recall ever being so relaxed in my life, and I wished the showcasing would never end. But alas, the shopping only continued for so long before it was back to the heat and noise of the streets.
Back in reality, the afternoon contained a blur of lunch, haggling with local shop keepers who apparently “hate the bargaining system” but price exorbitantly, Kingfisher beers and thali for dinner. Despite the alcohol ban in our hotel, we snuck some whiskey into our cokes by the pool after dinner; said local whiskey – “Officer’s Choice” – should definitely not be one’s first choice. I’m not sure who the officer in question is, but I personally would recommend the beer and vodka options first.
Reflecting on Jaisalmer, I learnt that Indians love bargaining – don’t believe them if they say otherwise. I also learnt that Jaisalmer gets really hot in May, and that 2 days is more than enough time to spend there.
Most importantly, I got to see a wealth of history and culture still kept relevant to the people living there today – a 12th century fort still being called home, a vibrant Hindu city with Muslim culture coexisting therein, and a city defying the odds in a scorched desert. Jaisalmer certainly has it’s charm, but it’s not found easily.