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Published: February 9th 2019
Return to India 10 (click on 'previous' below the panoramas for earlier blogs)
7th February 2018 Jaisalmer, Deserted Villages and Leopards! Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’).
The three-hour car journey to Jaisalmer is taking us across Rajasthan's monotonous pancake-flat landscape, a vast plain the colour of parched oatmeal with sparse thorn and acacia scrub. Flocks of sheep and herds of goats cross the road in front of us, the occasional wandering cow heads in our direction down the middle of the road and a heavily-laden camel cart slows our path. A shrike on a branch is looking for lizards beside the road, we pass a lady bearing sticks on her head for cooking, and now-and-again there are small areas of yellow mustard and a patch of green wheat and onions on irrigated fields.
Excellent Tarmaced roads are more commonplace now, but still they are interspersed with unfinished stretches of bumpy red clay and piles of rubble. There are four traffic cones in the road where workers are painting white lines in the total absence of other health and
safety considerations. We pass through dust-drenched villages, the occasional minaret on the skyline and makeshift shacks selling colourful fruit and vegetables, this-and-that, and men in a hurry on bikes and scooters. There is a heavy military presence here, just 100km from the border with Pakistan, and a large base just outside of JaIsalmer. Our driver will leave us at our hotel here today, laden with a suitable tip for his kind attention and our safe passage. He will return to Jaipur, a journey of some 560km.
A small group of children are gathered at the foot of the steep steps up to The Silk Route Hotel where we're staying for the next two nights. We can see the massive 800 year old Golden Fort on the hill above the city from the balcony where we will be eating our meals. There, dominating the horizon, this huge monument to India's past glows honey-golden as the sun falls gently below the horizon.
Four thousand of Jaisalmer's population are said to still reside within the fort here at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, a town cocooned within its crenelated sandstone walls behind four massive fortified gates. Within those walls
Entrance to The Golden Fort
You might just make out one of our artisan friends selling bracelets near the gate.
the magnificent Raj Mahal Palace with its delicate filigree stonework and corralled balconies towers above the busy streets of ornate arches, seven beautiful Jain Temples with carvings and intricately detailed wooden ceilings and the bustle and bombardment of the demands of tourism. It's warm today; time to stop and rest awhile for tea at one of the many street-side cafes - we have a choice of perhaps a hundred different teas at this one: Green tea, Organic green, White tea, Fruit tea, Basil, Mint, Saffron, Chai (medium sugar), Chinese (bitter taste), White Darjeeling, Rose, Hibiscus, Virgin needles........ "Coffee for me please." The fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and justifiably so.
Dileep, our hotel owner, is well known to my brother. Mike has stayed here before. Dileep, a tall, educated man much younger that us, is a deeply committed benefactor, something he has in common with Mike. He shares his land and hotel profits with local artisans and their families; a delightful community, smiling and laughing with us as we walk amongst them in their makeshift homes on the hillside adjacent to the hotel. They all recognise Mike and treat him as one of their
own. A school has been established at the top of the hill for the community's children, funded by donations such as Mike's annual offering and willing volunteer teachers. There are two young English volunteer girls here at The Sunflower Learning Centre right now, working with a few children on the steps of the open fronted classroom and boys and girls of mixed ages sit together at desks, engrossed in their writing under the supervision of a teacher from Holland. We are joined by a young couple from Paris; Marianne and Julien, during dinner and they express their interest in joining us in buying bananas and oranges to give to the children tomorrow - one of Mike's traditions here. And after our meal the setting sun draws us to the balcony for photographs of the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer.
Just out of town, the wholesale market is humming with activity, interrupted only by the traders' fascination in seeing four white faces in an otherwise sea of chestnut brown. There is much laughter as we take photographs and barter for our requirements with Dileep, who brought us here in his jeep, negotiating the best deals on behalf of the
Marianne and Julien
Bananas and oranges for the school children
school children. We come away laden with bananas, 300Rs £2.40) for 15 kg and oranges, 500Rs for 13 kg - enough to feed the small army of children at the Sunflower Learning Centre. Work stops back at the school and with teacher's blessing we share our spoils with thirty pairs of sparkling brown eyes and a hundred squeals of delight. How fortunate we are to have joined Mike on this charitable mission and by so doing, benefit from the revelation of great happiness amongst others with so little, who demand so little from life.
This sojourn so brief, the passage of time, seemingly so long since this journey began three weeks ago and now so few days left to explore the wonders of this India before our return to the UK. Such it is with life that as youth it stretches to eternity, until those passing years begin the countdown to another life.
Many months of sun and almost total lack of rain have left this desert State parched, overgrazed and devoid of grass, the arid ground an earthy yellow. Goatherds move their charges many miles as winter passes to spring and spring to summer, before the blessing
of autumn brings monsoon rains - a poor blessing this past year we're told. Dotted across an undulating sandstone landscape, Jal, the desert plum, aak and cactus, live on beside the sangri-bearing acacia, providing food and fodder for the desert’s inhabitants. Small irrigated fields of cumin, chick peas and wheat flourish incongruously in stark contrast to the yellow sandstone desert and stone quarried here. Piles of prepared stone are laid to rest beside the parched village roads awaiting the building skills to erect new houses, replacing the mud brick dwellings of yesteryear so vulnerable to monsoon rains.
Next morning, a shallow veil of cloud shades Dileep's jeep from the blazing sun as we leave town to explore the desert, enclosed here on three sides by the border with Pakistan. I comment to Dileep on the religious division and continuing conflict between India and Pakistan as we travel. “The problem is not religion, it’s people,” he replies, shaking his head. He has a point - and a wise head on young shoulders. Dileep is taking us out for a 'safari' into the Thar Desert beyond the city boundary to meet his uncle and explore some of the local historic sights.
A scavenging dog is tugging at the carcass of a dead camel beside the road, undisturbed by the swirls of dust from our tyres on the track; there are no roads as such amongst the scattered villages of tiny, conical, thatched mud dwellings. A few cattle idle together on the village fringe and small flocks of black goats skip and hop over the rocky terrain, alert, as a brown wild goat invades their territory.
Dileep's uncle is a shepherd, somewhat elderly now, stooped and fraqile, but he welcomes us with a veiled smile. Dileep probably helps to support him with gratuities from our safari payment. His home is a thatched mud hut, some five metres by three with one door in the middle. The entrance to his home is fronted by thorny sticks and bordered on one side by a roughly built stone wall offering some shelter from the desert winds. Uncle speaks no English, but we are offered chai as a matter of course and we watch with interest as he gathers together a small pot, a handful of sticks and a box of matches for the fire, whilst we take a seat on a reed woven
It serves to remind us how little we need to be content. It is not always happiness we strive for, but contentment.
Mike makes a habit of printing photographs of kids and people as he travels through India, bringing prints with him on journeys such as this, much to the delight of those within the frame, for they have no cameras themselves or the means by which to display them. So it is that we come to a small village of a dozen or so homes. A group of men are seated barefoot on rugs on the ground in the shade of a white-walled building. Mike shows them the photographs he took in the village on his previous visit and there are signs of recognition from dazed eyes and twitching moustaches below neatly entwined turbans. He removes his shoes and sits on the rugs with the group whilst I rest on a wall nearby - we are offered chai here too, and hash. The latter we decline, allowing the sweet aroma from a motley collection of clay pipes to waft over us.
We learn the gentlemen are mourning for a recently deceased mother of one off
the men whose family members here are wearing white turbans. There is little evidence of grief amongst family and friends; I have no idea how long they have been in mourning but we learn that there is a period of twelve days to be endured in this manner. What on earth do they find to talk about for twelve days, I wonder? There are no women to be seen anywhere in this village. Women are not involved in the mourning process as we recently learned in Varanasi and one must assume the ladies are currently looking after the sheep and goats somewhere in the desert.
One of my little brother's other practices when in India, is to hand out sweets to village children. Armed with more printed photos we head off to the next village just as children are leaving school for the day. ‘Aha! A jeep and two white faces!‘ As Mike displays his photos they scream with delight, crowding around us to see their pictures from Mike's last visit, barging and pushing when he offers sweets, clambering over each other and into our jeep, with outlandish grins and outstretch hands! You couldn’t write the script.
Some two-hundred years ago, the inhabitants of several villages in this arid desert area took umbrage over punitive taxes imposed by the then rulers. They gathered together one night to protest and, unable to right the wrong, they upped sticks and left. A sort of Brexit moment. Yes, all the inhabitants left. And they never returned.
We can look down on some of the remarkably well preserved remains of one such village from the ramparts of the over-restored Khabha Fort on the hill. A goatherd passes through the narrow path between roofless buildings, his black charges marking ancient streets of homes and temples. It is quite remarkable that the desert has preserved so many of these villages in such marvellous condition as a reminder that things have changed little in politics and confirmation that we should maintain our heritage. What is particularly fascinating for me is that those piles of stone, seen beside the road earlier, signal the revival of this simple desert life as new villages rise from the ruins. People are now moving back, villages are being rebuilt in yellow sandstone and the herding of sheep, cattle and goats, will continue to provide their simple daily
Inside the Khandela Haveli Heritage Hotel. Truly first Class.
Dileep has more for us yet. We're off the following morning to the Desert National Park on the hunt for some of the desert's rarer birds. The star of the day has to be the flight of four huge birds that in that instant I think are geese. "There - over there!" But what are geese doing in the desert? Of course - it's what we came looking for; Great Indian Bustards, so incredibly well camouflaged against the sand that, although quite close, they are invisible to us until they take off in alarm. You might know what it is with bustards: if you try to get close to them once they land they just keep moving away, strutting on their long legs until they're finally lost in the distance. A fitting end to our wonderful time in the desert region of Jaisalmer before we leave for a short SpiceJet flight back to Jaipur, where we're staying for our last two nights, back at the plush Khandela Haveli Hotel in the care of our good friend Girdhar Pratap Singh.
Our pre-booked taxi is late arriving at our hotel. We have arranged to meet Manish at Man Sagar
again for a birding and photography walk around the lake. But Manish is patient - he is well versed with Indian time-keeping. The birds are there in large numbers when we get to the far side of the lake, away from the camera-toting tourists snapping a quick shot of the gleaming white Jal Mahal, the Water Palace before their bus moves off again.
We are invited to share tea with Manish’s in-laws at their modest first-floor home nearby, where Manish plans to download some of today’s photographs for Mike. Recently retired Father-in-law greets us at the door, taking us into the one living room he shares with his wife and their adopted son. His wife makes chai for us in the small attached kitchen whilst we sit on white-plastic chairs and Manish and father-in-law sit perched on the double bed. We wait a while for Manish’s wife, Krishna, and their son to join us and it is only then that we learn more of the true Indian family values. Mike has met Manish’s wife and one of their sons before, but we now discover that they have another son, their first son we meet here today. He has been
“There,” our driver whispers. ”There through the trees to the left.”
adopted by Krishna's mother's parents and is living here with them, Manish having married their only child, a daughter, leaving his wife’s family with no son to care for them in old age; a responsibility, having raised the point with him, he accepts with grace. We came across a similar instance back in Varanasi when I asked our young guide if he had a wife or lady friend. ”It is not possible,” he replied. “My father is no longer with us and I must provide for my mother.” That, my friend, is true family devotion.
A rather special treat has been planned for our final day in India on this trip. We're going back to Jhalana Leopard Conservaton Reserve for another chance to see more leopards in the wild. I have a feeling in my bones that this is going to get exciting.
We stay quiet as our jeep driver stops to listen for alarm calls from spotted deer, our eyes scanning the thicket for movement. Rhesus Macaques sit close-by on fallen trees and a Treepie picks at a carcass hanging from a branch. A Nilgai observes us cautiously from the road ahead - watching us
And then, Bingo!
One of the pair
watching him, and peacocks scrabble in the dust for food. Silence.
The dusty road winds through brush and sparse woodland, our jeep now edging slowly forwards, our driver-guide clearly aware of the presence of leopards. Nothing.
There are Sambhar Deer, Striped Hyena, Blue Bull, Golden Jackal, and huge numbers of birds here: Eagle owls, Drongos, Pittas, Orioles, Flycatchers, Woodpeckers and Fantails amongst them. They’re all there somewhere - and so are the leopards. But where? Time is moving on.
Our jeep rises and falls on the bumpy track through rocky outcrops, throwing us around like rag-dolls, rending our binoculars useless until we stop once more. The driver has spotted something. “There,” he whispers. "There through the trees to the left.” And indeed there she is, hidden amongst the trees, some fifty metres away; a leopard, our guide tells us. We can just see her head. We wait patiently to see if she will move to give us a better sighting. Five minutes. Ten. Our time in the reserve is closing on us and we're finally torn away. That's certainly not the best sighting in the world, but it's a leopard in the wild, our second so far.
We're still hopeful of better things before the gates close.
Light fades as the sun takes its leave beyond the hills to the west when we halt once again. Our driver checks with other guides by phone, and, sure enough, he's told there's another sighting not far away. A couple of other jeeps are parked under an acacia when we arrive, their occupants focussed on the hill above us. Long-lens cameras, telescopes and binoculars are trained on two leopards, seated for the moment amongst scrub on the hill. Minutes later the pair stealthily make their way over the rocky terrain to a ledge in the open, where they sit to admire the view across the plain where we sit, enthralled, the only sound the heavy heart-beat of twenty wildlife lovers captured by the moment.
What a fitting way to end this four-week journey.
Time now to think about packing our belongings and memories in readiness for our return flights back to the UK, from Jaipur to London Heathrow, via Mumbai.
Many visitors to India will dwell on what they consider to be India's less attractive side and I can understand that.
A smart common bird in these parts
There are things that are not everyone's cup of chai.
Yes, there is poverty in this vast country. We notice it predominantly in the cities where the poor survive on the rewards of menial tasks, the generosity of their kinsfolk, and tourists. But you can be poor - and vast numbers here could certainly be classified as poor, but we must remember, it is possible to be poor in this vast country, yet be content and happy.
There are insanitary conditions - toilets on overnight trains might be one example - but you, the visitor, can choose how and where you travel, the native Indian understands - that’s how it is.
There is rubbish all over the place, but I have to say they are making good progress on this front, particularly in Rajasthan where most tourists visit the Golden Triangle.
There is chaos on the streets - car, truck drivers and motorcyclist are Cavalier to say the very least. It’s every man for himself! Look both ways before crossing, my mother used to tell me.
There is noise and pollution, but change is on the horizon; just cast your mind back to London and
our Industrial Revolution through a mere two hundred years.
There is progress, the people are genuinely content and a growing middle class will build a future for all the millions who share this generous and colourful country.
The food is monotinously spicy - at every meal, every day, and that I agree might be a problem for some. When in Rome.
Me? I’m slowly drowning in spices and vegetarian delights and dreaming of ham, egg and chips, and the smell of bacon cooking.
With much thanks to Lajpal and his extended family for their shared love, loyalty and dedication, to my brother's dreams, Girdhar Pratap Singh and his father, Dr Raisal Singh Khandela, for their generous hospitality, my dear friend, Dashrath Singh, for his words of wisdom and help with our wildlife excursions, Manish for his congenial company and patience, and Dileep for allowing us to better understand the lives of the desert people of Jaisalmer. Thanks must also go to Gagan for his efforts beyond the call of duty to find us tigers in Bandhavgarh, to Rohan and Jasmeet and parents, Raman and Sagarj, for your spontaneous welcome at The Devnadi Hotel in
Haridwar, Satish, our guide there, and Raju, our wonderful guide in Varanasi. So many friends to thank, I can't start to mention you all here, but you will surely be long remembered.
My one regret? That Janice was not here to share this journey with us.
So it's goodbye India until the next life, with thanks yet again brother Mike, for sharing your love of India with me.
The rear end of the grey haired nomads
Scroll down for more pictures and up to the top for the panorama show!
For brother Mike's take on this trip, click Keep Smiling
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