27th January – 2nd February 2014
We strolled up in the dreamy lake side calm of Udaipur, where high on a hill overlooking the old man-made Lake Pichola, and surrounded by a rim of mountains, is the City Palace, that echoes with the memories of twenty-three generations of Mewar Maharanas of Udaipur. Since 1559, this place was the symbol of power in the region, a power which still lingers despite the theoretical abolishment of the Rajput hegemony in the years following Indian Independence.
We stride up the ramp, past columns which celebrate the weighing of the Maharanas, their weight in gold ‘squandered’ to the people. Up further still, past the mounting yard for elephants, the iron tiger trap, into the palace’s cool marble halls. Here is a gallery where the city can be seen stretching out in the haze below, there a green courtyard, high enough to catch the first whispered breezes. A dark corridor holds a hundred exacting miniature paintings depicting royal life and duty, a balcony is a riot of hand worked patterns and inlaid glass. Out in the lake are built two more white painted palaces, now deluxe hotels, and the old city spreads along the shores.
All this can be surveyed through the carved screens in the City Palace’s Mahals, a treasury of armour, gold and cultural memory, right until the days when pasty faced Englishmen came bringing the opportunity and menace of a global Empire.
Your setting, Mr Bond?
Many years later, another pasty Englishman, Roger Moore, reprised his incarnation of 007 here in the early 80’s film Octopussy, and we partook of the ritual of a screening of this middling episode in a open air restaurant atop and old town roof. Some of the locations can be glimpsed from your seat: the hilltop Monsoon palace, and Octopussy’s lair in the lake palace. It was also the first tentative introduction to the Bond story for our three youngest Sabretoothed Chickens.
The highlight of our last day in Udaipur was meeting with Abhijit, a locally based insurance executive whom we had met on the train to Ajmeer. Abhijit invited us to his pleasant home on the fringes of the city, where suburbia sits cheek by jowl with green meadows. We sipped tea, admired wedding photos and talked of their hopes for their son, studying architecture far away. It was a great send off to our time here.
Into the Desert
Our first long distance bus trip in India. In theory, the sleeper bus is a great concept: private, compartmentalised flat beds and a place to stretch out and snooze away the miles. The reality falls somewhat short. A window leaks a persistent breeze of freezing desert night air and the infernally decrepit Indian highways gave us a fitful, shuddering night’s travel, where every opportunity for toilet breaks had to be taken, despite the disconcerting stares of our fellow male travellers. This bus sleeping arrangement would work well on the endless smooth highways of the Australian outback (and yes, we can speak as those who have done the Darwin-Perth Greyhound), but would doubtless be stifled by some bean counter or safety zealot.
The bus finally pulled up in a cloud of dust on the edge of Jaisalmer, a honey coloured town in the far west. We staggered off, gathered our bags and hailed and autorickshaw for what turned out to be a short trip to our next destination, the Hotel Payal. In a quiet, non-touristic quarter just inside the city walls, this place was a bit of a haven – cool and clean, and we sat on the rooftop and warmed up in the morning sun, admiring the fabulous fort, sipping chai and lulled by the sound of the breeze stirring the grey-green leaves a nearby eucalyptus. Striding up the stairs in his white kurta came Karim, our quietly spoken couch surfing host and desert local. We sat and had more chai, and negotiated a good deal on a trip into the desert, and lay back to soak up the frontier feel.
Suitably refreshed, we left our little enclave, walking the streets. An archway gives way to a tree-filled courtyard – here we enjoyed a fantastic lunch at Desert Boy Dhani, a little further along the walls – a bit of a splurge cost wise, but excellent fried raita and naans. In the evening we explored the old city a little, walking up the main street from Ghandi Chowk (square), and glimpse the awe-inspiring ramparts through the evening air.
A whole lot of not very much
The next morning, early at our request, we stowed the main part our bags and clambered into a Suzuki hatch. Our driver wove through town and turned left for the desert camp, driving the spectacularly good road (where tourism and military expediency combine) the 40 kilometres to a cluster of touristic campsites near the dunes called Sam. We are installed in a cool, comfortable tent in a corner of the almost empty campsite. A teenage staffer, Amir, assigns himself to serve our every need, and brings us endless chai, buckets of hot water in the morning, towels and extra deck chairs.
The contrast with the teeming cities of India could not be more complete. Out here in the Thar Desert, where India runs into Pakistan, there is little save low, rolling hills of scrub, the call of desert birds, and the odd breath of wind that ruffles the listless flags. It reminds us of travels back at home, where the landscape is very similar, and the sheer emptiness is calm and soothing.
The sun arcs across the sky among thin, half-hearted clouds. Late in the day a voice comes through the tent flap: it’s time for us to mount a brace of camels for the short ride into the dunes. Sam is not a place that you can expect to be alone, and we join the good-natured Indian tourists and scattering of touts and camel-wallahs on the soft, sandy dunes. The boys tumble up and down the slopes with shrieks of laughter – doubtless the biggest sandpit of the trip. As always, they become part of the scene, drawing the attention of other visitors. We sit and watch the people as they gather for the sunset, snapping photos,viewing the impromptu dune-top dances put on by the local buskers, scrambling up the slopes and lurching in soft-tyred camel carts.
The sun sinks into the desert haze, becoming an orange orb and sliding down out of sight. The sky turns purple, and the excited voices fade as the ritual is done for another day. We mount up and head back to the camp. In the evening, surrounded by a wind-stopping ring of huts and warmed by a crackling fire, there is dancing and the music of the desert, which recalls our time in Nagpur.
Suitably calmed, we decide to linger here for another day, soaking up the nothing: recharging batteries. When the coaches pull out with another load of tourists, there is little left: no sightseeing, no search for food, just a few square metres of white canvas to call home. The quiet in itself is a modest kind of luxury.
Back to the Small Smoke
Our sojourn in the desert ends and we return to the black strip of tarmac to Jaisalmer once more. As it emerges from the landscape, it’s clearly a magical kind of place, and we plunge into the narrow streets – it is somewhat unique even in Rajasthan, as the walls encompasses a few blocks of the town itself, tiny medieval laneways, shady courtyards lined with the honey coloured sandstone, and rooftop cafes which sit on the very lip of the precipitous fort. Cows wander, squeezing past orange-daubed Jain temples and the colourful rugs of the bazaars.
We discover a shop that does the best rasmalai we’ve found yet, and back at the hotel enjoy long chats with Karim about his life, his business ideas and his perspective. We like this place – it’s traveller friendly, but there’s not really much tourism hustle, and it’s small enough to become familiar.
We’ll stay another day.