DAY 14 - JODHPUR
We decided that our last full day in Jodhpur would be a relaxing one, so we spent the morning in the pleasant Umaid gardens, overlooked by the towering Umaid Bhawan Palace. After a while, we decided to visit the nearby Government museum which displayed quite an impressive array of stuffed animals and historical artifacts, albeit in a slightly run down building. Whilst in the area, we also visited the local zoo, which hosted a range of animals, from small birds to lions and tigers, although again, the place had a run-down feel about it which somewhat justified the guidebook's description of it as "depressing". We grabbed a nice lunch at a fantastic restaurant called 'On the Rocks', which reminded me a bit of the 'Rainforest Cafe' in London, with little rock pools and decorative props dotted about, before catching a knackered rickshaw back to our hostel where we relaxed for a while and watched some of India's hilariously melodramatic soap operas on TV. In the evening, we made our way back up to the fort to watch a production of Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure', which was being staged by a British theatre company in one of its many scenic courtyards. The atmosphere was fantastic, collections of locals and tourists alike making their way through the fort to see the show, the evening bustling with anticipation. It is also worth noting that the Maharaj of Jodhpur was himself present at the show, a whole benchfull of Indians giving up their seat as he entered the courtyard, surrounded by an entourage servants and officials. The play was a unique experience, the grandeur of the setting complimenting Shakespeare's tale of power and love, and I got the feeling that everyone enjoyed it, people excitedly chatting about their shared experience up on the fort wall afterwards as they looked down upon Jodhpur, a twinkling blanket in the darkness.
DAY 15 - JODHPUR/JAISALMER
We left our hostel early to catch our morning train to Jaisalmer, a famous desert town near the Pakistani border in the west of Rajasthan (and more recently, a military stronghold in the Indo-Pakistani wars). I got some valuable sleep in my bunk on the way, awaking to the sight of a mouse scurrying between our bags across the floor. We arrived at about lunchtime and, upon entering the station forecourt, were met by the largest swarm of touts and rickshaw drivers that we had ever seen, each one desperately vying for our attention, trying to scoop some business in the post-Mumbai bombings tourism slump, something that those in the industry seem to be very wary of. We eventually got a free ride along with a couple of Australians from a guy that wanted a chance to sell us a room in his hostel. Whilst they relented, we stuck with our first choice and set ourselves up in a very nice and spacious room in the Moti Palace Hostel, situated within Jaisalmer Fort itself. We booked places on a two-night camel safari departing the next day and spent the afternoon strolling the fort, ambling around its maze of sandstone buildings. We eventually grabbed some dinner in our hostel's restaurant as we watched two wedding processions slowly making their way through town, neon-emblazoned trucks blasting out heavy dance music and laser shows whilst a huge (and ever growing) crowd danced ecstatically behind. As fireworks exploded across the sky, setting the night on fire and drawing people to their balconies, ushering "oohs" and "ahhs" from onlookers, I quickly noticed a stark contrast between English and Indian weddings and was reminded again of that great Indian spirit of community, whole groups of people joining the street parties, generation gaps banished in the festive spirit.
DAY 16 - JAISALMER
We arrived at the offices of Adventure Travels (our camel safari organisers) shortly after 6, and caught a jeep around 30km to our start point after leaving our bags in a lock-up. There were four other guys on our trek, all of whom had graduated from Nottingham Uni in the summer and decided to travel for about nine months afterwards (they were about 3 weeks in). They were all really chilled out and easy to get along with which was a bonus and made the trip much more enjoyable. Equally friendly were our guides, all six of them, who did everything for us, from leading the way through the vast Thar desert, to cooking three meals a day for us and laying our bedding every night. We quickly realised, as we ate our first breakfast of toast, jam and eggs washed down with chai, that mornings in the desert are bitterly cold, everyone wrapped up in jumpers and blankets to block out the piercing chill. As soon as the sun rose and gave birth to our first day trekking, however, the temperature rapidly rose until we were wearing as little as possible and dashing out the sun cream in order to prepare for the day's activities. My camel, Michael, a large, fine figure of an animal, was one of the leaders of the pack, so I led for almost all of the first day, although I luckily didn't have to do too much in the way of steering. He was pretty easy to ride, taking long, steady strides at a slow pace for the majority of the trip, occasionally speeding up when prompted, but only in short concentrated bursts. The only things I had to get used to were the height I was at (a good 10 feet off the ground), and the occasionally erratic behaviour of my camel (he had a tendency to take a nip at other camel's tails, something I had to be wary of throughout). On the whole, however, the ride was very enjoyable, bopping through the vast, barren landscape at a leisurely pace, every now and again passing through a build up of shrubbery which Michael would often attempt to eat or have a little rub up against. The occasional mouth-froth or fart aside, the camels were actually quite timid and sophisticated creatures, very responsive and easy to manoeuvre. After having a morning break at a village where our camels had a drink whilst we stretched our legs, we settled for lunch in the shade, a period of relaxation and respite which lasted from about half 12 to half 3. It's probably worth noting that every village child we encountered on the trek asked us not for money or food (as many of the city kids do), but for pens. It was a novelty that never wore thin and the excitement and glee in their faces when they received a biro was very humbling. After watching the sunset from atop a huge dune, the fading light playing on the rippled waves of sand, we made our way to our camp for the night, where we ate dinner and shared stories around a fire. The food on the trek was consistently good, invariably toast and eggs with chai for breakfast and some sort of vegetable curry or dal with rice and chapatis for lunch and dinner. Speaking to our Indian guides was very insightful, each of us sharing explanations of our respective cultures and finding common ground, as we always do, amid jokes and smiles. We learned that one of them, a member of the Hindu warror caste, was to be married in a couple of months to a woman he had never met or even seen a photo of before. This naturally seemed very strange and alien to us, but it was amusing to see his friends tease him about what he may be in for. I also found it interesting when another guide asked me whether Twickenham was a village when I told him it was in London but not central. It was clearly harder for him to imagine a country as different as ours, being from a small, remote desert village and having never left his country. We were joined that first night by another group who were on a one night safari, containing two recent graduates from Bristol Uni and two middle-aged northerners, all of whom were nice company. When it was time to sleep, our guides laid out our beds on the sand directly under the night's sky (which was the clearest that I had ever seen). Looking up at that sky has been one of the most beautiful and memorable sights of the entire journey, thousands of stars glowing through the dark like countless pinpricks of sunlight through a vast velvet blanket - light that had, before that moment, never graced my eyes.
DAY 17 - JAISALAMER
We awoke at a fairly reasonable time and were served our breakfast whilst still wrapped up in our dew-dampened bedding, hiding from the morning chill that made its presence in an ominous looking fog that rolled over the dunes. Soon enough, however, the sun emerged over the horizon and cast her golden rays over the Thar Desert and the bedding was packed away whilst supplies were loaded back onto the camels. Besides my aching inner-thighs, the familiarity of the camel ride became a comfort and we relaxed as best we could as we passed towering dunes and small villages, yelling "namaste!" (hello) to the children who poured out of huts to watch our progress. We eventually had a lunch break in a nicely shaded spot and relaxed as the midday heat passed us by; chatting, playing cards and occasionally humouring the local kids who came by to greet us or ask for a pen. One member of the group, George, became quite ill at this point (a classic stomach upset), so spent a lot of the day wrapped up in blankets despite the intensity of the desert heat. Both me and James had also developed minor stomach upsets in the couple of days preceding the camel trek and had decided to to take some imodium before the trip - definitely a good move, it turned out, as we haven't had any problems since. The food in India is something tourists have to be wary of. Apart from the usual health precautions a westerner will take, they also have to be ready for the occasional flaming hot chili or dodgy tasting dish, as well as the art of eating with one's hand when necessary. I think that we have experienced a bit of everything, but on the whole we have found the food to be fine, the occasional curry or tandoori dish really impressing us. The general grime one comes across is also something I imagine may be a problem for some visitors, although I've found that most of the time it can be avoided (despite staying at the cheapest hostels). The second half of the day's trek was equally as enjoyable as the first and we eventually settled for the night at a pleasant spot with great views of the surrounding area. We were joined by a couple of local villagers who, despite being unable to speak English, exhibited to us the art of village wrestling, our guides in hysterics as they tumbled around in the sand, illuminated by torchlight. Once again, the sunset was a highlight, a truly mesmerising spectacle - soft ribbons of pink, orange, yellow and blue hugging the horizon before slowly melting as the tangerine sky gently faded to black, revealing at once the brilliant stars shining forth from its hidden depths. It really was another one of those experiences that can't be properly described or captured by words or film, one that lives and breathes in the minds of those who were there and can only be palely imagined by those who relive it second hand, inhibited by the inevitable shortfallings of the account with which they are provided. A fantastic end to the day.