Jaisalmer – big desert, big humps

Me and my camel
Originally uploaded by Natmandu.

After the debacle that was my visit to the Taj Mahal, Jaisalmer, the honey-coloured city in the Thar Desert region on Western Rajasthan, has been a pleasure to spend time in.

Some people will say, and have said, that Jaisalmer is touristy – and there’s a reason – it’s beautiful, and all the most attractive stuff is wrapped up in a conveniently walkable, compact packet – a bit like York. The Fort rises out of the desert town to stupendous heights, all of the buildings are in the same golden sandstone, and the intricacy of the carving for something as simple as a windowledge is impressive.

Jaisalmer is in danger of corrosion and damage to the fort because of the build-up of the tourist trade here (www.jaisalmer-in-jeopardy.org), but it hasn’t seemed too crowded over the last few days – probably because it’s getting towards the end of the tourist season, and temperatures in the summer get as high as 40 degrees centigrade. The locals can hardly handle the heat, tourists would be flaking out all over the place.

I’ve been here a few days now, the highlight of this time being a two-day camel safari into the Thar. After some getting used to each other, my camel (Simon, 9 years old) and I developed something of a rapport I like to think, and got along just fine. I sat on him admiring the scenery and concentrated on not falling off, he took a leisurely pace through sand, over rocks, and occasionally through spiky bushes (with me fighting to stay on board and digging thorns out of my arms). The safari was taken with a small group of good people, including Andrew and Randi, who I’d met in Aurangabad. By the end, the heat was starting to have an effect on people, but it was a great two days. One weird moment was stopping in a remote desert village, to be introduced to an exotic looking woman with dark eyes and an assortment of jewellery on her head… holding bottles of Coca Cola for sale.

The highlight was sleeping in the dunes at the outermost point of our trek – we sat round a camp fire, and then set up beds wherever we liked in the sand. The moon was out when we went to bed, and was bright enough to hide most of the stars, but then I woke up during the night, and the moon had set. I have never seen so many stars in my life.

The camels were interesting creatures – on a long lunch break, sheltering from the midday heat, or at night, when we all got ready for bed in the dunes, they’d sit chewing the cud. Chew, chew, chew, the jaws moving alternately right and left in a bovine masticating action. Then there would be a large gulp as they swallowed. Next, a pause, and then a gurgling, bubbling noise as they regurgitated another load of food to chew on. This would be punctuated occasionally by the loudest farts I have ever heard. When the sun went down, you’d see some of them silhouetted against the horizon, just standing there, chewing, or doing nothing – like the numerous cows that stand around all over India, chewing, doing nothing. I have the greatest admiration for cows and camels – they can stand and chew, unbothered in the slightest by the flies buzzing around their eyes, ears and nose. I can’t sit and eat lunch without twitching every second to keep the flies off me, for fear that if I don’t, they’ll swarm me completely, but the cows and the camels don’t let the flies get to them, their huge, dark eyes just projecting some zen-like calm. They also bear with great stoicism the abuse of shopkeepers if they wonder too close to their produce, and traffic careering past them at breakneck speeds.

Only the one photo for the mo, more to come. Next, I’m catching a bus to Bikaner, 300km north, and then a train to Kalka in Himachal Pradesh, where I’ll follow in Michael Palin’s recent footsteps by taking the Toy Train up to Shimla, the hill station and old summer home of the Raj.