Rajasthan is the westernmost state in India that borders both Pakistan and the Great That Desert and happens to be our next stop. For millennia, trade caravans have passed through and been taxed by the great forts of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udiapur and Jaipur, and the only thing that seems to have changed in modern times is the spice traders for tourists. The land is still barren, the forts are still impressive and the trading is as intense as ever, but the camels are resigned to hauling tourists to the sand dunes and the goods being exchanged are cheap textiles, camel-leather bags and bhang lassi (marijuana milkshakes).
Jaisalmer could be the dreamland of any child that has built sandcastles on the beach. The forts’ round sandstone bastions and scalloped outer wall resemble the upside-down bucket technique perfected by children (and helpful parents) throughout the generations and the warm evening light filtered through distant sandstorms completes the fantasy. However, the budding tourist trade has allowed for aggressive growth among touts (salesmen) and we were accosted on the train before we even arrived. The demand for hotel business is intense, but the real hassle begins when you express interest in camel tours… We had several touts, including our hotel manager, shift from cheerful sales pitch to openly hostile and threatening within minutes, but with some helpful recommendations we managed to find a happy little man named Del Boy to facilitate our Lawrence of Arabia adventure. Sitting high in uncomfortable saddles we witnessed a beautiful scrub landscape, ate chapatti and subji around the fire with our guides and experienced a night out on the dunes where the music, horns and incessant clamour of India faded into camel farts and an overwhelming peace and quiet.
Now if Jaisalmer is a child’s sandcastle fort, Jodhpur is the result of that same child dumping blue paint all over a rival’s fort. While the fort itself has since been scrubbed clean, the bright blue paint stuck to the surrounding city and continues to liven up the alleys and streets of the old city. Perched on top of a 80m high hill and surrounded by 20-30m high walls, Jodhpur fort is imposes a huge shadow over the city. The palace is well maintained and the views across the city from the top are inspiring, but have to be earned by the sweat of desert heat and endless staircases, (usually with a 40cm rise per step.) Still, the real beauty of Jodhpur isn’t revealed until after dark when the fort lights up and the rooftop restaurants start to grind out fantastic thali (set dinners). Adding to the flavour of the night were duelling gangs of adolescent kids hammering on drums to no set rhythm, but constantly evolving and experimenting with new sounds.
After a exhausting 8-hour bus ride in “sleeper” seats, we arrived in the desert oasis of Udaipur. The city is defined by its’ lakes and even has the audacity to house not one, but TWO huge palaces right in the middle of them. Udaipur’s main claim to fame is a starring role in the Bond flick Octopussy, however, it will always be known to me as the place where I learned to ride a motorcycle on the left-hand side of the road – assuming that the roads had lanes. The motorbike is ubiquitous across India and the rolling hillsides and scenic lakeside roads seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out my rusty riding skills. Great success! We navigated the lakes and villages and managed to snake our way 400m up a windy mountain road to the Monsoon Palace for an epic sunset shared with langur monkeys. Our next adventure was culinary as we spent the afternoon preparing and then eating vast amounts of fantastically tasty samosas and curries that I can’t wait to bring home. The food coma was equally fantastic and we spent the rest of the night recovering, which turned out for the best as the next day marked the beginning of the Indian spring-fling festival of Holi – Hinduisms answer to tie-dye parties, water fights and public drunkenness.
Holi marks the beginning of spring in India, so everyone is exuberant with offerings of wood and straw from the winter supply. On the first night these offerings are stacked into towering effigies, laced with firecrackers and lit in neighbourhoods across each and every city. The party goes late, but we have another train to catch to our last stop in Rajasthan – Jaipur. Now I must stress at this point that taking an overnight train during one of the biggest festivals in India was a mistake of planning. Thankfully, we arrived bright and early and made it to our guest house to regroup and let the real craziness begin. Holi is a festival of colour and is celebrated by the smearing of dyed powder on the faces, hair and clothes of strangers. It is also a time for people to lose inhibitions and thanks to booze, drugs and gang mentality we were quickly overrun, doused with colour, and left to wander the streets of old Jaipur in a vibrant daze. The festival is an explosion of Hindu culture, and while we may not have been ready for the intensity we managed to make it through with shreds of both our clothes and dignity.