Jaisalmer is a town located 575 m west from the state capital Jaipur. It lies in the heart of the Thar Desert
On the road, and neatly tucked into our bus seats, we were also well placed for scamming. A guy came up to Wendy and handed her a phone. She took it and the voice on the other end claimed to be from the “hotel” we just left. Apparently, she had departed without paying the final bill. The voice said that she should give the missing amount to the “agent” on the bus (the man with the phone).
I had been there when all accounts were settled and I know that our friend had not “failed to pay”. She got very angry and the guy got insistent. This was his mistake, because our friend was a British GP (a doctor) and in my experience doctors don’t take shit from anyone. She shouted at him for a few moments and he shrugged and took his leave.
Worse was to come when we arrived into the desert.
The sun was very hot and of course the desert was as exposed as countryside can get. Over the endless heat waves we espied the fortified city of Jaisalmer. Cesca described it as,
“A giant sandcastle”
And indeed it looked the part, being raised high above the desert, and presumably dust winds, by what must be a huge pile of sand. It looked like it was sitting onto a dune. The only thing I have seen that comes close for the view was Uluru in Australia. It was striking in the extreme and exciting.
The bus entered the vicinity of this old city and stopped by the side of the road next to a swarm of touts. Immediately these started opening the bus storage doors and taking out our bags. I was up, out of my seat and off the bus in seconds. I pushed my way through the throng and grabbed my bag off the tout trying to make away with it.
“Put my bag down!” I screamed.
He did so. I was much bigger than him. I quickly took it and collected the girls’ bags too.
Another tout tried a different tact, producing a “licence” he claimed to be from the tourist board here to take us to our hotel. I put on my sunglasses and ignored him. I guarded the bags and they stood slightly back. That was until the girls got off.
Clearly white women getting off busses here make a “Ca’Ching” sound. Cesca and Wendy were instantly swamped with touts all pushing against each other to get the business. Pushing the girls too, who had their Lonely Planets out and were thumbing a map of the city. Upon seeing this, the touts as one craned their necks to see the page and “assist”. Arms were thrust onto the page and attempts to take the books to “show madam” aplenty.
As soon as I had seen all this start, I started counting to ten in my head. I reckoned that, what with the bus con fresh in their minds, the girls would explode after ten seconds.
“Look!” shouted Wendy, “all of you just BACK OFF, RIGHT NOW!”
It was like kryptonite on these guys. Wendy was bigger than most of them to start with and she really shouted at the top of her not inconsiderate lungs.
This prompted a policeman to come over. He had a sub machine gun at his hip and it was loaded. The touts backed away and he very casually suggested that the tout that had spoken to me was actually “official”. Of course, this may be a clever bit of the play we were in, but it worked. I heaved all the bags into his tuk tuk and he sped us through the outskirts of the old city, just at the base of the sand mound it sits on, towards a hotel he swore blind was excellent.
When we got there, I defended the bags again and the girls went in. Immediately they came back out with the hotel owner, a 30 something Indian man with a professional manner. He handed the tuk tuk driver a note and he left. He then welcomed me to his hotel.
As it happens it was a brilliant hotel.
We got a quite expensive room (by our standards of the time, I probably spend more on coffee now) and met up on the roof top bar. All the hotels around this area had similar bar restaurants and we ordered some very nice food and drank out the night. Soon we had met others on their holidays and formed a little pride of travellers. There was an Asian lady from Canada on a life changing trip, a couple of very attractive Sweeds as well as a British couple who were good fun. We all decided to go on a Camel safari together.
The next morning, we set off early for the desert proper in jeeps. After a couple of hours of riding into the desert, putting us not too far from the border with Pakistan by my reckoning, we came to a small dusty village and met our camels.
I never thought I would like camels, they are shaggy with rough fur that catches dust and sand, their farts endlessly serenade the desert and their spitting is legendary in its ruthless laid back efficiency. However, one look at the smiling face of my mount for the next two days and I was in love. She was lovely.
Clambering aboard I immediately noticed that we were not riding in high Berber style on a mound of cushions – clearly the organisers were worried about us falling off (camels are very tall) – so instead we had to use horse style saddles only without stirrups.
About 5 or 6 seconds of the jerking, jolting, off-timed and frankly horrendous bouncing was enough for all of our crew to realise that is was not going to be pleasant experience. My inner thighs complained almost immediately.
We bounded off; each led by our camel tied to the one in front and headed into the desert. Soon the dunes swallowed the village behind us and the amazing spirit of emptiness started to pervade. The desert here is very quiet, only occasional tracks, desert roads and some power lines crossed our path which was otherwise endless scrub bushes and sand.
We plodded for about 10 miles or so, taking most of the day, and then our hosts announced we were stopping to make camp. Camp sat upon two very clean looking sand dunes that were empty apart from hundreds of 4 inch long dung beetles. I like beetles and these little scurriers skittered all around us as we setup the mats and the guides started a campfire.
They then taught us how to make chapatti, which we all had great fun doing before feasting upon the tiffin pots of food the guides had brought.
As we ate, talked and laughed together I sat back and wondered at the guides, for whom this was probably their primary business. By this point in our adventures Cesca and I had been on 20 or so “local tours” and I could recognise the signs of a well organised trip very quickly. This one, I decided, was definitely above average for, while we were missing a few home comforts out here, the guides were good and trying hard to please, the food was the pleasant Indian fare I had come to appreciate and the group atmosphere was friendly.
Then it rained.
In the desert.
Huge sheets of rain suddenly thundered down on us and we were all wet through. I couldn’t quite believe that so much water was available to fall in the desert, and neither could the guides. Gone was the chance to sleep outside and they scurried to the back of a camels for some small tents they had brought. Unfortunately there were not enough tents to go around and we would have to share, I quickly claimed a tent for Cesca and me and since we were the only married couple on the trip no one argued to join us. We all helped put up the tents and dived in. Listening to the rain, we huggled down and slept.
The next morning the rain had passed on and to look at the desert you would not know it had rained at all. To look at the group however… Several of the tents had flooded and eventually the poor junior guide had slept under a camel. Many people were seriously wet.
I stretched and walked up the dune to see the sunrise. There is definitely something primal and wonderful about the morning here. Soon Cesca joined with her camera and then the entire group rushed up to capture the moment on film. We all ate a hearty breakfast and then it was back on the camels.
Our route back took us via a couple of small villages, and had cleverly been designed to be shorter as the guides must have worked out that long camel rides play havoc with western soft legs. Soon, the vast majority of our group had abandoned camel and were walking alongside.
We arrived in our final village stop way after lunch and the camels all went for a drink. All around us the villagers came out and greeted our visit. An hour later I said goodbye to my mount as the jeeps arrived and we jumped on board for the trip back to the city.
On the way back we all discussed the rain we had experienced, surely a rare event in the desert? I should have realised that it was a portent of what was to come, but my thighs were burning too much to care.
On our arrival back we headed to the roof bar and drank our success in surviving the trip. I don’t remember going back to the room to sleep, but what happened next will always be in my mind.
I was awoken from a dream by a unique sound. I have thought long and hard about how to describe it, and I have settled on the following:
It was the sound of the entire Golden Horde, all 60 thousand horses; men and carts, galloping towards us over the desert.
The sound was loud at first, but soon it was huge and all around us. The walls shook, the paintings shook with them, the bed moved with the vibration. I heard screams outside and then the sound was with us in total and the entire world shook. Cesca and I jumped up in the bed,
“Earthquake!” I shouted.
“Oh my god! The city!” Cesca said, and we shared a vision of the city sand flowing down towards us burying us in a landslide of ancient walls, camels and palaces.
“Quick!” I shouted to her, “Get under the door frame!” I pointed to the entrance to the bathroom and we rushed under it and held each other.
Ten seconds later it passed on, but the screams outside continued. These were joined by the sounds of feet on the nearby stairs as screaming, jabbering tourists fled the building.
Seconds passed and no further roaring approached. The building remained standing. Clearly the city wasn’t going to engulf us in a landslide today.
“That was an earthquake!” Cesca exclaimed.
“Either that or war with Pakistan has started and we just got nuked!” I replied. “I’m going back to bed” I said.
“What!?” Cesca said, “Shouldn’t we go outside?”
“Out to panic? No thanks.” I jumped back in the bed and pulled up the covers.
Cesca made no move to follow me, “I’m heading outside”
“Baby” I called from the bed, “if it is Pakistan, try not to get any on you…”
She stuck out her tongue and went off.
Sure enough it had been a quake, measuring nearly 6 on the scale. The local area had suffered some damage, but we had been lucky. Quakes are on a logarithmic scale, so while a 6 is high, it’s not in the same league as a 7 and not even the same sport as an 8. All the same, it was one hell of a thing to be woken up by.
For the rest of the day the only chat was of the quake and I eventually logged onto the UN Quake watch web site to record my eye witness account in their database. No further incidents happened and the next day it was forgotten.
We use our final day in Jaisalmer to visit the old city. It was very beautiful.
The ancient buildings all have facia carved from stone and thin alleys wind all around the centre. The hotel owner took us on a tour to the tumble down palace and we spent a good few hours talking to the man whose job it is to rebuild it.
He was part of a family who had worked for the Rajput for generations and it had fallen to his generation to try and get the palace back in order. It was very old and open to the elements, and I remember thinking that he had one hell of a job on his hands.
As we shopped I considered buying a camel skin leather bag, which all looked wonderful (I am a sucker for bags) but didn’t. I regretted that for days until I read on the web that they are often not properly treated and consequently rot with a smell that is impossible to mask and will definitely get picked up when going through an airport.
That evening we all checked out together as one group. We took a bus to the nearest train station and had berths near each other. That night we all chatted and enjoyed each other’s company for one last time before Cesca and I left the train in the early morning and wended our way to our final stop in Rajasthan; Jaipur.