Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas in the desert

Leaving Delhi is no wrench - it’s big, bustling and whatever other overused adjective used to describe Indian cities you want to throw in there, they all fit - but it’s not a place destined to live in my memory. From Delhi I go west taking an 18 hour train from Delhi all the way to Jaisalmer near the Pakistani border and on the fringes of the Thar desert. Nights are cold, very cold in sleeper class and the fact that windows just won’t stay closed makes the problem worse. Worst of all though is the fact that, given the barracks-like nature of sleeping class carriages, you’re going to have a vast array of snorers, each with their own distinctive style. Together they seem to co-ordinate themselves so that you’re left with one long unbroken snore. Nights are very long on the train.

Jaisalmer train station is 2km from the city and so as you walk in you get to see the sandstone fort (well, this close to the desert it's unlikely to be made from granite) towering over the city and it’s a beautiful sight. All the guide books recommend that you opt not to stay in the fort because it’s crumbling at an alarming rate due to the overuse of water within the fort walls. Basically it’s a drainage issue - the overused water is leaking into the fort’s foundations causing them to crumble significantly in recent years. It’s now on the Most Endangered Sites list, nothing to boast about but the residents seem to be in denial. There are some 2,000 permanent residents - mostly Brahmins - inside operating guesthouses, restaurants, bookshops and all the usual souvenir shops so they‘re in the unfortunate position of needing people to stay at their guesthouse in the knowledge that this is damaging the very fort which attracts the guests in the first place.

In Jaisalmer I find the cheapest guesthouse of the entire trip - 80 INR - but at that price there has to be a snag and there is - the place is a dump, which, as snags go, is quite a significant one but I only need a bed for two nights so it’s good for me. Jaisalmer is the gateway to the Thar desert and most people who come do the tourist thing and get into the desert on a camel chasing that Lawrence of Arabia feeling. You can spend anything from a half-day to three weeks (strictly for those who don’t want children in the future) on safari and there are, as ever, operators on every street corner and everywhere in between offering to take the tourist to the non-touristed areas. Which then means that when they all go the non-touristed areas, everyone meets there hoping to avoid each other. I’m pretty sure this won’t be the case on Christmas Day.

The basic package includes your own camel (one hump, not two), food, water (handy in the desert) and desert style accommodation underneath a blanket of stars lying on the sand. Trotter’s office, where I book my safari, is plastered with alluring images of camels silhouetted on gigantic sand dunes and so I can’t wait to get going. Besides, there’ll be other people on the safari and no-one wants to spend Christmas Day on their own, right?

Except there aren’t any other people as, clearly, I’m the only one daft or sad enough to want to spend Christmas Day in the desert. My guide is Leeloo and my camel’s name is Khan which I’m not likely to forget as the words ‘MY NAME KHAN’ are written down the length of this neck. No doubt if he was a giraffe, Khan would have a longer name. Unsurprisingly I’ve never been on a camel before - though I was bitten by one once before in Australia - and so I have no idea what to expect. There are no instructions - camels don’t have a clutch - so I throw my leg over the saddle and Khan gets himself off the ground. Camels ascend and descend in four movements so getting up and down is akin to being on a bucking bronco - you just need to hold on tight. And then we’re off into the desert.

Now, when you think of the word ‘desert’, you probably get the same mental picture as I do which is not what the Thar desert is like at all. There are little or no Saharan dunes and lots and lots of flat, barren scrub. It is not pretty. It’s sort of like being promised Kerry and being taken to Longford instead. Well, maybe not quite that bad.

In the afternoon things perk up when I’m joined by two others who help to break the monotony - Penny and Alex from South Africa - who clearly have nothing else to do this Christmas Day either. We spend the night in ‘The Dunes’ - a solitary stretch of sand piled somewhat incongruously in the midst of the scrub. Within seconds of arriving there, the ‘Beer Man’ appears, mirage-like from the sands, a Balthasaresque figure bearing his gifts on this most auspicious of days. Beers cost 150 INR in the desert and the ‘Beer Man’ knows he has the market to himself and will not haggle. Still, what’s Christmas Day without a beer or two? Also, his beers are ice cold so what’s not to like? We sit around a campfire for the night, drinking our overpriced but precious beer and listening to our two guides sing traditional Rajasthani songs, and crash as soon as the wood we’ve plundered from the desert runs out. It turns out to have been a wonderful Christmas Day in the end. Really, who needs Quality Street and It’s A Wonderful Life when you can have camel flatulence and sand in your sleeping bag?

1 comment:

  1. That'll be the only hump you'll be getting for a while, hope you enjoyed it!