Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Desert Fort of Jaisalmer

At 5am the train arrives at Jaisalmer. We expected hassle, but this was something else. We are besieged by touts – probably about 15 of them. I tell them all to be quiet for a second, then give them a lecture about foreigners not liking the hard sell. Of course, it doesn’t work.

We walk off with half a dozen of them following us. One was tipped off by the Jains in Hotel Peacock, and keeps telling us that he knows our name (though he gets it wrong!). Finally I get rude, grabbing one of the tout’s brochures and chucking it on the ground.

They follow us for ten minutes, until eventually my being particularly venomous I lose the last one. Finally, some peace! I’ve never known anything like this hassle. Incredible. The sun is coming up, and it’s quite beautiful. We walk around the fort, heading for some LP recommendations the other side.

Hotel Renuka is not at all friendly when we reach them, so we continue on to the Artist’s Hotel. It’s at the edge of town, and we walk on despite someone following us telling us there are no more hotels that way. Up a short sandy path we reach the hotel. It seems to be in a poor neighbourhood, but looks tidy itself.

Artist’s Hotel

A chap shows us a great room, beautifully decorated and with a balcony, but no air-conditioning. It’s 600r, which is quite expensive for no AC. Still, it has a fantastic view, and the money goes to a good cause, so we take it. The place is owned by an Austrian chap, and the land by a local musician family. They use the profits to help people, pay for education and medical bills.

Up on the terrace at the top we have breakfast.

They have home-baked dark German-style breakfast. It’s not too hot with a slight dusting of haze taking the edge off the sun, and there’s a breeze. Indian fighter planes whizz back and forth, filling the town with roaring. On the horizon we can see lots of little sticks, which we’re told are wind-farms – over a 1,000 of them!

The fort

Time for some tourism. We walk to the fort. It’s warming up now.

The sun god is not to be trifled with here

We walk through a small bazaar, then reach the entrance, the First Fort Gate. No entry fees but lots of tat sellers.

We walk up and wander about. It’s quite small – there are guesthouses, cafes and several Jain temples.

Jaisalmer, founded by Rajput ruler Jaisala, has a population of about 60 thousand. It’s a giant sandcastle rising from the 80m-high Trikuta (three peaked) Hill, surrounded by the Thar desert. The golden city is like a mirage in the barren desertscape, with ninety-nine huge bastions encircling the small sandstone buildings, palaces, temples etc. Once all the inhabitants worked for the local Maharaja, most now hassle tourists or run guesthouses.

It was founded in 1156, and occupied a strategic position on the camel-train routes between India and Central Asia, growing very wealthy, until this wealthy switched away to Bombay with the rise of global shipping. Then partition ended any possibility of trade through the area – the border is about 80km away. Wars between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 meant a big military build-up.


The city sprawl

Beautiful detail in the sandstone

Out, we walk round to the Titanic hotel where there is apparently a Korean restaurant, or rather an Indian cap who cooks Korean food. By now it’s bloomin’ hot.

Thuzar makes a friend

We enjoy the spicy food, but it’s just not appropriate in this heat.

Isn’t it hot enough? – Chillis above the doors!

We head back to our hotel to shelter from sun.

Rats cooked

Our bottled water is luke warm. Thuzar tries showing but the water is running hot from the blank tanks on the roof. One of the hotel workers says it hits 50-55C in May and June. He thinks it might be approaching 50C today! I’m not sure about that, but it’s stinking hot! We are right at the edge of the Rajasthan desert here, about 80km from the Pakistani border.

Rose lassi, delicious

In the evening, we sit up top and have first drinks, then the musicians turn up. Clouds gather in the distance then come this way.

Fort gets lit up whilst the electricity lasts

An enormous thunderstorm rolls towards us. I’ve never seen anything like this. The storm is just a continuous succession of sheet lightening, rumbling away with a loud growling.

The talented musicians play

Next morning we take breakfast and they let us keep our room until we leave at about 3pm in the afternoon.

We head over to Titanic to meet up with Hey yong, Thuzar’s new friend, then together we go see some havelis, traditional sandstone houses that one can see in Jaisalmer.

First we go to Salim Singh ki Haveli. We pay the entry fee, including extra for camera.

The chap then takes us upstairs, offering to show us around. We head up, and he tells us about the steps and architectural forms. At the top, he asks whether we want to take photos or hear him out first. I ask him to carry on explaining, it’s interesting.

A minute or so later as he talks I grab a snap, and suddenly he stops, and says that he will not continue the tour. Why not? He says he doesn’t want to talk to those who do not respect him! I say that we are listening, but it’s too late. I tell him that if it were so important he should have said something. Nothing. How childish!

We carry on exploring without the crazy guy saying anything. Up stairs, we find the top and best decorated room. He appears, telling us not to use flash. I ask whether he’ll have a tantrum if we do, and he just replies that it’s his responsibility to tell us this then stands grumpily in the corner.

The place was home to Salim Singh, a Prime Minister of Rajasathan. He built this, the first house outside of the fort, and made it the same height – seven stories (of stone). He intended to build a bridge linking it to the fort, but died before doing this, and subsequently a king of the fort decided he didn’t want any houses at the same level of the fort, so reduced it by two stories.

Haveli actually is a combination of the words for wind and sun – the houses are designed to stay cool in the desert heat. They were also built before cement, so the construction uses interlocking stone, like lego, with iron joints sometimes. All ceilings are wood.

The staircases have variable heights of steps to fool intruders. Doors are also small, to make people bow down from respect, and to make the house easier to defend. The house has hidden recesses in the walls for money storage (this being before banks).

On the way out, we have another discussion, but it achieves nothing.

We walk on to the next place, Patwa-ki-Haveli Haveli.

This has gorgeous intricate stonework and is very big. It’s also home to thousands of bats.

From the top there’s a marvellous view.

Hey yong uses her Polaroid camera to the amazement of some local kids. She takes a photo of them which they are very happy with.

Next we walk over to our hotel and order rose lassis and water. It’s so shockingly hot that within minutes we’ve drunk three litres of water between the three of us.

Even Thuzar is sweating

Our friend Satar organises an impromptu concert for us as we’re leaving soon. A local boy has come along who has been on a couple of world tours – he is apparently an excellent singer. What a wonderful musical send off.

If you want somewhere to stay in Jaisalmer, the only place is:

The Artist Hotel
The Austrian-managed Social Project for Jaisalmer Musicians
Address: The Artist Colony, Duly Dungari, Chain Pura, Jaisalmer
Phone: +91 2992 252082

We take an autorickshaw for a pricey 70r to the station, only to find that the damn train is late. Of all the days. We’re roasting in the sun, and I assumed there would be an air-conditioned train waiting for us.

No escape from the brutal heat

First we’re told half an hour, but it ends up being over two hours late, no worries normally but *we’re dying here, get me air-conditioning!!!*

We’re allowed to board just in time, as a sandstorm whips towards us and is just on us as we jump on.

We organise a seat swap so we’re in the same section. We’re sharing with a Korean couple. Just as we all get comfortable, a bunch of Punjabi troops off duty descend on us with “Bullet” super strong beer. One opens a bottle with his teeth, spilling beer all over the floor, they then ask us to drink with them, which we politely decline. Thuzar has to pose for photos with all of them before they finally leave.

We get comfy and make our beds, then the conductor comes along to check our tickets. I ask him what time we’ll be arriving in Jaipur. 5am he says. But given that we’ve left 2-3 hours late, will we make up time? He doesn’t answer and walks off. Great. I’m sure I would have slept much better had he just told me that we wouldn’t make up any time, and so would arrive at 8am not 5am, so no worries about oversleeping.

All night I here funny noises on the roof. This is confirmed when we finally disembark – there are hundreds of people on the roof! The classic Indian train!!

No comments: