The hazy disc of the early morning sun hung low over a mournful desert, the muted tones accentuated by the accumulated grime and scum on the window in our 3rd Class carriage; the train was late and I had overslept and it was already 6.30am. Peter sat bolt upright opposite me in a trance, irritated by all of the overnight interruptions from the six other people sharing our little living space.
We emerged bleary eyed onto the wide platform under an even wider sky, cloudless and pale blue. Even the railway architecture was different here with the station built from honey coloured sandstone blocks in fort style.
Easily spotted by our driver, we stuttered along under the heavy aspirated tuk-tuk-tuk rhythm of our decrepit three wheeler auto-rickshaw. The little engine that could, severely overloaded with two big white game hunters on board, wound its way up and around the high crenelated city walls that glowed golden in the morning light.
We entered the old city gates and clattered up the broad but steep cobblestone ramp before diving down dangerously narrow dark alleyways, our driver contorting both himself and his trike to make the various U turns and S bends. But unlike the fort in Jodhpur, this city was lived in, home to thousands of people, and at this time of the morning most of them were also rising: women were banging rugs and sweeping the flagstones outside their doorways and older men in white singlets and dhotis, bushy haired, rubbing sleep from their eyes, scrubbing themselves briskly with handfuls of water. Dogs dozed where they had spent the night and cows and buffalo stirred grumpily, groaning as they heaved themselves up off the cobblestones.
We were warmly greeted by Sushil - a softly spoken but well groomed Nepalese refugee cum homeboy with an unfortunate speech impediment whom Peter immediately took a liking to. Coffee and pancakes on the rooftop terrace were the order of the day and we surveyed the surrounding desert and adjacent bastions of the citadel perimeter like nascent Foreign Legionnaires - for the place had more of an Arabian/Moorish feel than Indian-Mughal. And the desert surrounded us on all sides as if we were under siege, but there were signs of advancing technology here as giant windmills with enormous blades harvesting much needed electricity from the hot winds that had already sprung up. This area had also provided fertile grounds for sabre-rattling with nearby Pakistan as India charged ahead with its nuclear program, detonating "the bomb" under these desert sands in recent times.
Too tired to shower or wash properly and quickly deconstructing his rigorous mancare routine, Peter was however, proudly adjusting his special pants, unzipping the removable trouser legs to create shorts revealing a very smart pair of sandals..."How did you fit those in your bag?" I asked.
"Listen. I have beautiful feet and it's just too hot!"
"But I told you that you only needed one pair of sensible walking shoes"
"Well, I didn't listen and I'll wear whatever I want...And will you please pick up those pillows and towel you left on the floor!"
Half and hour later, I sat alone in the tranquility of a marble colonnaded courtyard in a Hindu temple under an ancient banyan tree, having lost Peter at the entrance, either disinterested or too frightened to remove his sandals.
But it was the Fort Palace we had come to see and soon we were deeply immersed in another splendid audio tour, clambering over a rambling seven storey maze of chambers, state rooms, armouries, courtyards and alleyways.
Established in 1156, Jaisalmer Fort is reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited Fort City in the world today. The founding Bhati clan trace their ancestry to Krishna and ruled continuously to Independence in 1947 - a staggering dynasty of almost 800 years.
Occupying a strategic position on the trade routes between India and Central Asia, Jaisalmer didn't escape the notice of the Mughals with whom they eventually formed an uneasy alliance. In turn, cattle rustlers, savvy extractors of tax on the camel trains that passed thru their kingdom and enlightened administrators, these Rajput Maharajas had been the bedrock of civilisation in this region.
After lunch we were jeeped deep into the Thar Desert to a dust blown settlement to join a tourist camel train where the local bedouins, staggered at my size, produced the biggest camel I have ever seen. Jolting off the ground as it unfurled its damned long legs I was thrust forwards then upwards like a rag doll, the all-too-firm saddle and peg driving a deep wedge between my legs. And riding the bag of bones I had been allocated was not much better although I did gradually get into the awkward rocking rhythm as my vertigo receded and I relaxed my legs that had been clenched around the camel's forelegs. I had broken the cardinal rule of never getting on board any animal bigger than myself and now settled in as best I could for the two hour trek. Romantic illusions of T. E. Lawrence looking enigmatically toward the horizon, as he sailed effortlessly over the dunes on his ship of the desert quickly vaporised as the sharp butt of the saddle ground into my coccyx in a thumping cadence. Clearing the messy settlement we traversed a hot rocky escarpment before arriving on the dunes where our camels trotted happily, slapping their odd two-toed feet on the soft sands, until a dust storm, thunder, lightning, and finally cutting rain drove us under some high scrub for shelter.
We took a delicious traditional dinner al fresco, prepared by our hosts in their smoky dung huts, although I did see Peter wince as the local urchin-boy kneaded sand and grit into our bread. But that was nothing compared to his trepidation at eating, after having his food doled out by the handful (literally) and a careful hand-to-hand slapping and rolling of his naan by the filthy old camel-herds.
As we sat contemplating life under a big desert sky, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten cufflinks for my dress shirt...
Me: "Do you have any spare cufflinks?"
Him: "Of course, I always carry a spare set"...