India part 2: Jodphur, Jaisalmer & Amristar

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August 13th 2012
Published: August 13th 2012
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Sometimes you just get a feeling, maybe its the atmosphere a place transmits or a change in the air, perhaps its a view of something immediately upon entry that makes your mind up for you, or just being with different people and being influenced by their opinions, or sometimes you just want something to happen so badly-like getting away from 'The Golden Triangle' -that any alternative seems amazing. Whatever it was, pretty much as soon as I entered the state of Rajasthan I was hooked and thankful I'd arrived. It's moniker is the Land of Kings and with good reason, it is a place of maharajas and their stunning forts, set amid arid deserts and water starved towns full of twisting alleyways, where camels and cattle roam and the land is worked, where the people are laid back and unobtrusive, probably too hot under the sweltering sun to chase you for money. It was a million miles away from the madness of Delhi and a place where you could actually get a true sense of the culture and tradition, it restored my faith in India and its people and removed the bad taste from my mouth. In short, it stopped me from going home.


So I will do my best not to harp on and I think I got my Delhi bashing out the way in the last blog, but so far I have not met a single person who liked it even in the slightest.Tales continue to be told, like the girls who were fleeced of £350 from the fake 'official tourist office', to the guy in Varanasi who bought a young child an ice cream instead of giving them money, and then watched him cross the street and exchange the ice cream for some glue which he went off to sniff. Rajasthan seems a different country by comparison, but it's only the next state to the west. It was the people who swung it for me, it is such a simple yet blissful pleasure to be able to wander the streets freely without being harassed from every angle or eyed up as a walking cashpoint. People actually say hello or wish you a good day, they point you in the right direction when lost and don't chase you down the street for custom. They'd be happy to take your money and are probably just as poor as the harassers of Delhi et al, but they go about it in a different way. It just has a different vibe and way of life and so is easy to fall for.

The main attraction in the city of Jodhpur is the hugely impressive Mehrangarh Fort, a fabulous piece of architecture built in 1459. The fort literally towers over the city and dominates the skyline, you can see it from every part of Jodphur. They built it atop a rocky ridge and so stands 120metres tall and just looks impregnable, it was also built using the same rocks that it sits on, so the whole structure blends in and merges together giving a great impression of size and strength. Inside the fort the interesting audio guide gave some good clues too, such as the clever designs to thwart charging elephants to the spot where soldiers wives would throw themselves onto a fire to join their husbands after they had died in battle(seems a bit over the top to me, just light a candle or something). My favourite spot was the view from the fort walls, looking past the mighty cannons and down onto the blue city itself. The city is a tangled web of narrow alleyways that is a little Alice in Wonderland as you pop out in places you never expected. The majority of houses are painted blue which used to be a sign of being a Brahmin but now just repels mosquitoes apparently. The view from the fort looking down on this blue vista is great though and has me entranced. Wandering the lanes themselves is possibly even better and very atmospheric as you get to peek into people's houses and see the ways of life, smell the cooking, watch the children play, hear the music being sung, dodge cows sat where's they please, observe the wonderfully tactile nature of the men who walk hand in hand or with an arm around each other, taste the spices being weighed in the shops and watch the locals on the market barter for vegetables and fruit. And all without being harassed to any great degree, this was the India I saw in my minds eye before arriving, exotic and romantic and glorious.


The next stop was pretty much the furthest city to the east of Rajasthan and nearly India, and it picked up where Jodhpur had left off. Although there was slightly more hassle in the city upon arrival due to the cut throat business of camel safaris, Jaisalmer in the main was also just as laid back and stress free and a relaxing time had. Again the main sight there is a fort, this one almost as impressive as the last although Jodphur has the edge for me personally. This fort was older and built in 1156 and resembles a huge sandcastle from afar. Once again it was built on a ridge so that it towers over the city and was made from the same rock as its surroundings, a yellow sandstone that looks like it has come straight out of a film, or a seaside bucket. Jasialmer fort has a major difference though because it is actually still lived in. Around 3000 people live inside the fort and you can wander the meandering lanes full of houses, Jain temples, hotels, restaurants, shops and of course a menagerie of animals. The original rulers seven story palace is also inside but it is the fact you can walk around this impressive fort and still see people going about their daily life that made it unique. The views from the fort were also impressive, looking down on the sandy city below as life hummed along oblivious to our stares. The views also helped to capture just how remote this city really is, encompassing the city is desert for miles around, if you head in one direction for long enough you reach Pakistan, although I wasn't keen to test that theory out. No view has ever evoked a stronger image of camels and trade, robe wearing sand dwellers crossing deserts and falling for mirages in my mind. Although maybe I was just dehydrated and delirious. It was great to also eat within the fort at night from a rooftop restaurant and look down on the lighted city, listening out for the beeps of cars and the Muslims being called to prayer. You can hear this call throughout India and indeed I neglected to mention it when visiting the Taj, it's a mesmerising sound and seems so apt in surrounds such as this.

However, the main reason that most people come all the way to this barren wasteland is to do a camel safari. This basically entails hopping on a camel and wandering through the baking sand dunes for the day, before eating a meal cooked over a fire, watching the sunset and then sleeping out under the stars. Since the early dreadful Delhi days where I was all alone(violin anyone?)I have been fortunate enough to meet lots of good people, although always for a short space of time, an afternoon here or a meal there etc. The nature of travelling India is that it's vastness and multi faceted options provides too many alternatives and directions for people to travel off in, as opposed to say Vietnam where everybody heads north to south hitting the same spots. Thankfully in Jaislamer I joined up with four girls (they practically begged me honest) and had a great 3days with them, it was nice to be in a large group for once and stop talking to myself or the wall. The majority of the time was spent with a pair of sisters from Leeds called Jen and Emma, who I would go on the safari with, and thanks to their banter and easy going ways that I had such a good time. They also persuaded me to just do a day trip and not sleep overnight, and to not even entertain the idea of trying the 3 day trek, and I shall forever be grateful that I let a couple of northerners talk me around.

For riding a camel is hard, well I mean it's not hard its easy, you just sit there and try not to make too many jokes about about humps and stuff. But its bloody painful, the thighs, backside and my 'private time' area took an almighty hammering, it was how I imagine that guy from Pulp Fiction felt after 'that' scene. It was a good day overall and not often you can say you have ridden a camel across the Thar desert in India, and it was interesting to see the landscape change from scrubland to arid, to sandy to legitimate Sahara-esque sand dunes. But the novelty wore off fairly quickly, probably about the time my plums started resembling, well, plums. We started at 7:30am and were driven via jeep to the starting point, where we then rode for around 2 hours. We sat for a nice lunch under the shade of a tree where we hid from the midday sun eating, sleeping, playing cards, reading and abusing each other. We then rode on for a further 3 hours until we reached the dunes. I have since decided that camels are not nice creatures and deserve to wander deserts, they are not friendly and do not want you on their backs, they sit and stand in the most awkward way possible, they spend the day trying their best to remove me from the saddle, that is when not chewing, burping, farting and crapping,and they walk with a weird gait that is torture on anything below the waist. I was also lumbered with a camel that is apparently a racing camel and so wanted to gallop off at every opportunity and was being trained, so I had to have a guide hold the ropes the whole way lest he scarper off into the distance with me floundering alongside. Although if you ask me he was under protest at being a male camel yet ludicrously called Sonia, serves him right if you ask me. It was nice to finally get off the camel and I now see why John Wayne walks like he did, we took a load of cheesy pictures, ate some food and watched the sunset and it was good to gaze at some stars under a smog free sky. It was about this time that the million beetles came scurrying out, and the realisation that there were no beds on a sand dune but for an attempt at a mattress and sheet, that I began thanking the girls for their wise decision to return home. I mean I obviously could had stuck it out and been a man about it Bear Grylls style, squeezing camel crap for water and such, but I was being a hero and rescuing the girls you see. You do see don't you? Overall it was a good day and glad I did it but one day was more than enough and ticked the box.


So next up was Amritsar which is technically sort of straight north from Jaisalmer, but India doesn't exactly work in such simplistic terms. So I had to take an 18 hour train back to Delhi, then spend the night there, before taking a 6 hour train up to Amritsar. Fun times. I must also confess that Delhi second time around was more bearable, but it's still not getting a Christmas card off me. Amritsar sits on the Punjab side of the state, which means that it is predominantly populated with Sikhs. Sikhs are known for their inclusive and all welcoming, friendly nature-which is what makes the shootings in the US even more intolerable by the way. The Sikhs holiest shrine is the Golden Temple in Amritsar and for many is the highlight of a trip to India. For me it didn't quite live up to the Taj but the golden temple was indeed beautiful and a stunning sight.
The golden temple sits in the middle of a sacred pool of water and is only accessed via one small walkway, which makes it immediately aesthetically pleasing. The golden roof-an inverted lotus-radiates brilliantly in the searing heat and can also be seen reflected in the water. The water and temple is surrounded the entire distance by white marble, which shined so intensely bright in the midday sun that I couldn't actually see where I was going without squinting, let alone walk on the scorching surface. There are priests inside the temple who keep up a continuous chant which is broadcast around the temple through loudspeakers , which only adds to the atmosphere. People sit cross legged in the shade murmuring prayers or simply having a nap, others bathe in the pool to wash away sins whilst the majority queue on the walkway to visit the temple and glimpse the Sikh holy book. Possibly my favourite aspect was the free kitchen within the temple, a mark of unity in all sikh temples that invite people from all religions, creeds and nationalities to eat together. The kitchen serves an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 pilgrims a day, and even more during holy festivals. The whole feat is run solely by volunteers and donations, and is amazingly well organised, I loved sitting down to eat great vegetarian food(and rice pudding for dessert!) with people from varying places and religions and soaking in the atmosphere. You can also sleep for free within the temple which others have told me is a great experience. It is also worth seeing the temple at different times of the day as it seems to emit a different mood each time.

After this I returned to my hotel to join a guided tour, which was good for the fact I spent a day with 5 other backpackers, but also as it took in the Mata temple, the golden temple at night and a visit to the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony. First up was the Mata temple and in the words of Napoleon "There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous" because to go from the golden temple to the Mata was surreal. It was unlike any temple I have ever seen as to go around it meant crawling through tunnels on hands and knees, wading through water that flowed beneath a cows udder, being dazzled by neon lights and a million mirrors as well as staring open mouthed at the gaudiest sculptures known to man. It was part haunted house, part adventure playground and part Fun House the TV show-I kept waiting for Pat Sharp or the twins to jump out at any second. Next up was a visit to the Pakistan border, well we were so close it seemed silly not to pop over and chat-they seem perfectly reasonable people. The relationship between these two countries is still somewhat frosty shall we say, but the border is actually open during the day. However at 6pm they close the gate for the night, but instead of just closing it and turning the lock they have a ceremony of pure theater and oneupmanship that is downright baffling. It starts with a load of pro-india chants that are essentially Indian versions of Oggy Oggy Oggy, and they then proceed to let people take it in turns to run towards the Pakistan border waving Indian flags. Not wise when you have a load of machine guns aimed at you from the other side but there were plenty of takers and a passionate crowd behind them. There then followed a bit of a dance off with the Indians hitting the tarmac to dance to Jai Ho and other cliche Indian songs (not that I know many).After this the soldiers come out to play and started to goose step and march towards the Pakistanis as well, only this is so overdone that it is right out of the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. The finale is the lowering of the flags at the exact same time, a handshake and the gate is closed. Then everyody gets up and leaves. This whole ceremony lasts 90minutes and happens daily! It was beautifully random to see and we couldn't see much of the Pakistan side but if I had to score it on points then India won by a landslide. After this we re-visited the Golden Temple to catch it at night which was a nice experience, just as spritual and busy as the day only nicely lit up and glowy. Not my best description admitedly but my time is running out in this internet cafe!

So next I continue my march north, first is a trip to Mcleod Ganj to see if the Dalai Lama is in, I fancy a cuppa and reckon I can convert him to being an aetheist. Then it is Manali for a trek if the weather holds before a visit to a hill station in Shimla. Then it becomes decision time because time allowing I may fly south to Goa or Kerala and relax a little-monsoons allowing-before heading to Mumbai and flying home. 3 weeks has indeed flown by and I am now really enjoying myself and seeing some great things and meeting some great people, I am very glad I stuck it out and stopped sitting in the corner of my room clutching my knees and sobbing. Catch you all next time for the final blog(don't celebrate).

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