Travelling has never been my thing. And that has nothing to do with my general aversion to mobility of any sort. Any journey that I undertake, distance notwithstanding, becomes a crash course to catastrophe. So I should have known that an 1,800-kilometre trip to cover a Desert Festival close to the Indo-Pak border was a disaster waiting to happen.
Jaipur seemed to be the most accessible city closest to my destination—Jaisalmer. But I had not finished complimenting the pleasant late winter evening in Jaipur when I was informed that the earliest way out to Jaisalmer was a train at midnight. I was the last one in the queue to get a ticket on my ‘night train’; the window was almost shut on me. After some pleading I was issued a ticket and a weather forecast: Cold night and dusty day ahead. If only I listened.
The train was an hour late and it didn’t help that it stopped at every station. Two hours into the journey I would have frozen if an old lady wouldn’t have given me a blanket. I spent the night making friends with vendors selling me sweet chai from their bright red kulhads. The morning brought the sun and freak sandstorms with it. <b1>
Desert at high noon
It could not have been better timed—landing in a desert at noon. The small platform was filled with local men speaking everything from English to German to French to make tourists get onto a jeep belonging to their hotel. I was too weighed down by the sand that had settled on me to put too much thought into which hotel I went to. I just followed a group of foreigners who didn’t look too wayward.
Jaisalmer has quaint structures—cobbled lanes, unpainted houses made of sand stone, and houses with huge courtyards — and a way of life that is reluctant to let the urban pace of life get to it. The people are especially nice and it helps they aren’t always out to sell you something. There is one main market and from the main chowk you can see the main structures in the area including the fort and the Poonam Stadium.
Most of the events of the Desert Festival 2007 were held in the Poonam Stadium, including the Shobha Yatra (the inaugural ceremony), the turban tying competition and all the rounds of the Mr Desert Competition. Though I missed the event, I met Mr Desert… I would not recognise him again, his face was hardly visible because of the dense facial hair. In hindsight, after looking at all the contestants, the density of facial hair seemed to be a key criterion in deciding the winner. The judges said they could not divulge the secret basis of their selection.
The highlight of the entire festival, and my trip, were the camels. They did everything. Got decorated to participate in competitions, were more sporting than the players in a game of polo, strutted their stuff with BSF officials on their humps, necks, and the underside, ran races to cheering crowds, and were a constant source of delight for tourists.
They sat down anywhere to take a fascinated outsider for a ride, pun intended. <b2>
On the final day of the festival at the famous Samdunes, 45 km from Jaisalmer, they came out clear winners with the wooing crowds. In fact, it is because of a camel that I can say I have the best of both worlds. I rode into the desert sunset on a camel whose name was Shah Rukh Khan. The sky was breathtaking in shades of orange, yellow and an
Up and down the dunes
But after that great high came a great low. On the walk back to the buses, parked away from the venue, my bag got snatched by a bunch of kids who just came out of nowhere, surrounded our group in confusion and ran off. Two other women also lost their bags to the desert urchins.
I forgot my material loss when I visited the Jaisalmer fort. Made out of sand stone that has braved the rough weather and not dulled a bit, the fortmust have been as secure as it was beautiful. The insides have not been maintained well, with a lot of engravings and carvings of the walls broken and peeling. The old world charm is unmistakable but the array of shops inside do distract a little.
I was told the prince gets paid Rs 25,000 a day as rent from the shops there. The fort had just about restored my cheer when another catastrophe struck. I was trying to upload pictures from my camera with the help of a tech-savvy local when suddenly something happened and all my pictures were deleted. His sincere and apologetic efforts to
recover them brought on another disaster. I missed my train—my only hope of making it to Jaipur in time to catch the flight home!<b3>
I saw it leave the platform and flailed my hands in despair. Then a knight in shining armour arrived on a rusty old Lambretta. I had no option but to trust him when he said the train would stop a little further down. He flung my laptop around his shoulder, ordered me to hold on tight, and vroomed so hard, I almost fell off. After 10 minutes of chasing the receding train on the scooter, we caught up—the train did stop.
The golden touch
The rest is just a faint blur on the screen of the cinema that was my journey to Jaisalmer and back.What I went for didn’t
turn out to be what we had all expected, but what ever does? I lost my bag, my photographs, and perhaps the purpose too. But at no time did I cease to be fascinated by the ‘golden city’ of Jaisalmer.
- The easiest way to visit Ajmer, Pushkar and Jaisalmer is to make Jaipur your base camp.
- There are regular flights and trains to Jaipur from Delhi. From there, hit the road. Regular taxi and bus sevices are available. There are trains as well, but those usually take longer.