Jaisalmer, West Rajasthan , October 24th 2014
We’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous….. At Jodphur we stayed in a quite expensive, (by any standard, let alone Jodphur’s) two-story ‘suite’ at the ultra-modern Raas Hotel….mini bar, sunken bath tub with views, butler service, pool, spa, gym, ( why would I need a gym!) gift-shop ( Memsahib managed to spend a motzah in it) two restaurants, bar etc etc. Today, we arrive in Jaisalmer, a small fort town in the far west of India, seperated from Pakistan by the Thar Desert…… our hotel is a very traditional ‘Haveli’ ( originally private mansions owned by rich merchants) calld ‘Garh Jaisal’ and is situated in the Old Fort…. and at just $110 per night, including breakfast, it’s less than one fifth (1/5th) of the price of our ‘suite’ at the Raas.
Jaisalmer Fort ( aka ‘The Golden Fort’ on account of it’s sandstone colour, which at sunset, and at dawn, takes on it’s golden hue) is a very old fort actually, built in the 11th century. Our hotel, or to be more accurate, Haveli, was built into the walls of the citadel as an abode for wealthy Jain merchants apparently, before being converted to a hotel 7 years ago. I thought it would be a bit of change to stay somewhere like this, and had read some favourable reviews of it. As no cars are allowed into the fort ( the ‘roads’ are too narrow), driver Dev stops at a spot near the Fort gate, where we are met by the local agent for ‘Oriental Routes’. Our baggage is unloaded into a waiting TukTuk, (why did we bring so much luggage!) and squeeze ourselves into the back, and along with the Rep take off into the melee. How these TukTuk drivers manage to avoid hitting anything, or anything hitting us, is a mystery to me. ( Krishna again maybe). I only wish I’d have been able to film us on the trip into the fort…. to my eyes the whole scene was chaotic…..it seemed as though half of all the Tuk-Tuk’s in Jaisalmer were attempting to enter the narrow gate at the fort’s narrow, and one and only entrance ( It’s a fort, of course!), while the other half were attempting to leave the fort….and no-one giving an inch.
The welcome is very warm indeed, and we meet the owners son, Tarun Chouhan….a laconic easy going chap, who runs Garh Jaisal. In their haste to snatch our bags from the back of the tuktak he points out that one of the wheels has been torn away from the case…. No worrys mate…or words to that effect he tells me….we’ll fix it tomorrow. I dont know how they’ll manage that, but in India anything is possible.
There are only 7 rooms in the Haveli…. no number system here, they are all individually named. I’d already picked, and booked, the room I wanted a couple of months ago…. The moral here is, don’t trust all reviews. The one I read….and from which I made my choice, said that …..’The scarlet-hued Maharani room is especially handsome, with great views over the city (including a loo with a view) Well it certainly was…..but what they left out was the fact that the bedroom was also quite tiny ( The loo was larger!) . Memsahib is underwhelmed, and I can feel she is not that happy, so while I’m up on the rooftop bar quenching my raging thirst with a ‘king-brown’ sized Kingfisher beer, ( the desert does that to you) she is downstairs harassing young Tarun. Ten minutes later, both Memsahib and Tarin interrupt my beer moment, and ask me to come and look at another room. It’s much, much larger, with just as good a view as the Maharana. “Ma’am,” says Tarun ” Your husband, he especially requested that room, if only he’d have asked, we could have told him it’s small” ….. (Thanks Tarun, for dropping me in it!)
Our new ‘old room’ ( did I tell you it was originally built almost one thousand years ago) is called the ‘Sweet Purple’ room and you can see why…. all the curtains, bedcovers etc are purple in hue. ( is Tarun secretly a Fremantle Dockers follower ?) It’s a comparatively large room too, unlike the poky little Maharana room, and is quite attractive in a ‘shabby-chic’ sort of way with lots of antique furniture and knick-knacks adorning the place…..(I can’t be certain, but the ‘shabby-chic’ style may not exactly be what they had in mind when the room was furnished, it could quite as easily actually be ‘shabby’) and it has a very nice view over the old medieval city. The bathroom is very large, with the only drawback being the extremely low entrance to it….so low that you need to stoop low to enter into it….( not just ‘duck your head’ low either…. you need to bend your torso at the waist, as though bowing, Japanese style) and because the walls are at least a metre thick, you have to remain stooping for a while….. If you only duck your head to enter, and try to stand before taking at least a couple more strides, you get a nasty bump on your head…. almost knocked me out cold one night!
It takes around 40 minutes to get to Sam, along a very good condition road, unusual for India, and I’m told that it is maintained by the Army…..( The military is certainly prominent around here) because this road leads to the border with Pakistan, about 40 kilometres away, and deemed important strategically. There is no border crossing in Rajasthan though, this road ‘ends’ just before the border….. to cross into Pakistan you’ll need to travel over 700 kms north to the border crossing post at Wagah, near Amritsar. ( in the news this week for a suicide bomber from Pakistan who killed 45 and injured over 70 during the flag lowering parade that takes place there daily)
Driving along the road thru the dunes, we pass hundreds of camels, and thousands of people walking or riding camels along the top of the dunes….. and thousands more standing on the ridges looking west. It seems like all of Rajasthan has turned up here to make sure that the sun actually does set this evening, it’s an unbelievable sight, and I can’t spot a ‘westerner’ amongst them, all are locals…… Well, maybe not so local, but they are Indians. Because it’s the Deewali festival and holiday, many people travel here with their family from all over India, but particualry from the neigboring state of Gujarat.
Our two camel drovers have now dissappeared, but promised to return for us later….. they are ‘double-dipping’ in that they previously took some other tourists on a ride, dumped them, and went back to depot to pick us up….. Anthony Amstrong-Abdullah tells me he has to take the ‘first sitting’ back to the camel depot, then after, “I return for you and memsahib, no problem” ….. I’ve read that some unscrupulous camel jockeys will abandon you out on the dunes, then send an accomplice mate along a bit later, who will offer to rescue you and take you back to the village…..for an extortionate amount of rupees. Another ‘trick’ they have is to offer to take you right to the border, for a big fee again, of course, except it’s not the border…..The forest department put up a fence near the Sam sand dunes a few years ago, to stop erosion. Some of the camel owners claim it to be the Indo-Pak border ( in reality, another 30 kms away) and collect huge amounts of rupees from the more gullible tourists. ( Where are the Taliban, Bruce?)
We dismount gracefully enough, meaning we didn’t fall off, and I hand my scruffy mate and his sidekick 250 rupee tip to share….AAA doesnt look very impressed, and shows his displeasure by gazing at the amount for a few seconds, then looking back at me, then back at the rupees in his hand, then back at me. ( Of course, I may have misinterpreted, and maybe AAA couldn’t actually believe how crazy I was to leave such a generous tip) …… considering that the ride was only 400 rupee each to start with ( about A$8) I thought it more than adequate…. but in retrospect, and after I’d looked at the really good photo’s he’d taken with my SLR camera…… and the fact that he’d not abandoned us in the dunes…..nor stolen my Canon, then maybe I should have upped the tips….. always be good to your Mother, Abdul…..dont go with ‘dirty’ girls, Abdul….. wear traditional dress if you want a bigger tip Abdul….( a real good tip,that one!)
Back in Jaiselmer town we go for dinner at ‘Saffron’ restaurant….. ‘very romantic’ promises Madhu….. a rooftop spot in the Nachna Havali district, with a fantastic view overlooking the palace. If only the food had been as good as the view….. and the service…. soooooo slowwwww. There were only 3 other couples eating there at the same time, ( not so many romantics visiting Jaisalmer then?) so how the kitchen would have coped with a half full restaurant I can’t imagine…. we’d probably still be waiting for the chapati’s.
Our trusty guide Madhu comes to collect us at around 10pm…… he doesn’t trust us to be able to find our own way back to our hotel alone without some disaster occurring ( kidnap? murder?rape?) and despite our protests, insists on walking back ‘home’ with us. Actually not a bad thing either, as the streets are more confusing than a maze, and we’d surely have got hopelessly lost…. and then what ( kidnap? murder? rape?). On the way we pass by the infamous ‘Bhang Shop’ and Madhu asks if we want to call in and have a nightcap. The speciality here is a Bhang (Cannabis) Lassi, a bedtime drink, like a milkshake ( not unlike ‘Horlicks’ or Ovaltine, but with a bigger ‘BANG’), and also Bhang cookies. It’s perfectly legal here, and the goverment itself even runs one of these shops.
Now when taken in the proper quantity ( what is the proper quantity though, no-one has the answer to that conundrum), Bhang is reputed to be a cure for fever, sunstroke, dysentry (good to know), phlegm, loss of appetite ( I knew that), speech impediments and lisping …… Now I really didn’t know that….. in my, admittedly limited, experience, it’s generally the cause of speech impediment’s, not the cure….. and dont bother to athk me about the lithping. As those who know me well would know, I’m all for trying out new experiences, but the Bhang Shop doesn’t look that inviting, even to me! ( I’m not gonna admit it here, but also it may not promise to be a ‘new’ experience exactly ! ) There are many ‘shady’ looking characters hanging around outside ( what do I expect, it’s not ‘Starbucks’ ), and besides, not that hygenic looking either, even by Jaisalmer standards! A better idea is to give the Bhang shop a miss tonight ( Slogan; more bhang for your buck) because the allure of the ‘Sweet Purple’ room beckons me, like a siren luring those greek sailors onto the rocks, so it’s back to our lovely little Garh Jaisal and bed.
Am I imagining things or is that ‘Smoke on the water’ I can hear through the window…….. Goodnight, sweet dreams and deep (purple) sleep…..