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Saturday, 21 March 2009


19th-21st March

Leg 6 – Jodhpur to Jaisalmer
Distance – 300 kms
Time – 5 hours
Average Speed – 60km/h
Road – 2 lane highway all the way

The road to Jaisalmer was a dream; a quiet two lane highway which for the most part was newly resurfaced. The only thing we had to contend with were the usual cattle, goats and an increasing number of camels. We made good time and arrived by early afternoon, only to be greeted by a number of touts on motorbikes, all plying for our custom at their various hotels (or worse still, the places they receive commission, at our expense).

Being hassled by touts is all part and parcel of travelling by bus or train but this was the first time we had to deal with them since touring by bike. We’d merely pulled over just outside town and before we knew it we were surrounded! Politely, we took their cards but it seems this wasn’t enough. They all followed us into town and wouldn’t leave us alone, despite our promising to visit after we’d eaten lunch. Offers of hotels with rooftop restaurants promptly rolled in. In the end we were just really rude and they backed off, only for us to “bump into” them as we reached Ghandi Chowk, home of the budge
t guesthouses. We ended up taking a room at one of their hotels – it was newly opened at a massively reduced price to get people in and was at least very clean. We can completely understand the frustration for a hotel not listed in one of the major guide books, and often they are so much better value, but the more we are hounded by the touts the sooner we say NO!!!!

Jaisalmer is a giant sandcastle with a town attached, an emblem of honour in a land of rough and tumble. The fort is a living monument to long-lost desert might, a Golden City of dreams that exceeds expectations of the most travel sick tourist. Rising high from Trikuta hill, 99 bastions hide havelis of crumbling beauty. Like a Hansel and Gretal wonderland, the enclosed palace is carved from the same near-edible golden sandstone

Jaisalmer seemed like a pretty sleepy place and we spent a couple of hours wandering around the old forted city. After Bu
ndi and Jodhpur we didn’t feel massively inspired by anything we saw, despite LP’s ravings (above, italicised) and didn’t take any pictures – definitely a severe case of jaded travellers fatigue here, it seems to take a lot to impress us these days! To anyone free of these symptoms it’s definitely worth a visit and probably quite soon as poor drainage and overcrowding have led to the fort slowly sinking into the hill. It’s even made the World Monuments Watch list of the 100 most endangered sites.

One of the main reasons people visit Jaisalmer is to take a tour into the Great Thar Desert. The only way you can travel is by camel and both of us were sceptical about signing up for this, after boycotting all elephant rides for the way the animals are abused. None the less we’d travelled considerably out of our way to reach Jaisalmer and we weren’t going to leave without even a short jaunt into the desert. Our camel driver for the next two days was to be a guy called Baba and his son… Aladdin!

We were driven to the edge of the desert about 30km west of Jaisalmer where we met our guides and our mounts for the next two days – Luca and Warrior. They were laden pretty heavily, certainly more than the Enfield and our first concern was that the poor beasts were overburdened, and this was before we’d added to their load! Fortunately they were immensely strong and raised themselves from their peculiar kneeling position to standing without much bother. Unlike horse riding you mount the camel in this kneeling position and then hang on for dear life whilst it clambers to its feet, like a bucking bronco in slow motion. The height at which you are sat, above the camels hump is quite mad, much, much higher than your average horse and for Ady who’d never been horse riding at all it was quite an experience! Nice to see him out of control for once!

To begin with Baba reined the camels together and led from the front, on foot, with Aladdin bringing up the rear on his young camel (who we hate to add was being broken-in for such tourist safaris). Only at this point did we realise that we hadn’t been provided with stirrups, a minor oversight perhaps but one that caused a great deal of discomfort and a complete lack of control. Just half an hour of bouncing in the saddle was enough to render us both completely saddle sore, though in very different ways...Then we were given the reins and from there on had responsibility for our own necks – was that a disclaimer we signed?!

Though we’d been warned as such, the Great Thar Desert, initially at least was a bit of a disappointment and was little more than barren scrubland – just like much of the desert we’d travelled through whilst on minor roads with the bike. After a few hours in the hot sun we finally stopped for lunch, the earlier discomfort had now turned into real pain and we both struggled to dismount. Baba cooked up a feast with seemingly no ingredients and we watched him make chapattis using a special skillet. Aladdin had previously asked us if we liked meat and at this point we had to massively backtrack for fear he would fetch us some (possibly butchered several days before and left to fester in the sun) from one of the tribal villages nearby.

After a break of around 3 hours (whilst Baba slept under a tree), we were off again. Despite a br
ief respite when we stopped at a small village to water the animals (nobody came out to speak to us!) we rode for around 3 hours solid. When Ady could bear it no more and decided to walk alongside to mobilise his joints, Baba decided to ride the camel in his place and, having reined in Sam’s camel behind him, meanly set a cracking pace. Unfortunately for Ady the scenery had changed from scrubland to soft, heavy sands – the beginning of the silky sand dunes for which the desert is famous. None of the riders realised he only wanted to walk for ten minutes and so a very pissed off Ady finally caught up after an hour trekking at a distance behind the group, struggling with the increasing deep sands.

We were now amongst the larger dunes, a pretty spectacular sight (for anybody that hasn’t seen desert dunes before) and would have made for some great pictures if we hadn’t encountered a sudden, massive sandstorm. The sky went black and the wind picked up. Needless to say there was sand absolutely everywhere and we had to cower behind a makeshift shelter for about an hour until it abated. By this time the sun had set and there was little light left. It was quite amazing how Baba and Aladdin managed to make dinner given we could barely see
each other, so poor is our night vision. As soon as we’d eaten we were ushered to bed – some camp beds had appeared from somewhere and we were given a heavy pile of blankets. Still, it was only 8pm and neither of us was tired, despite hours in the saddle. We watched the stars for a while, listening to the incessant barking of Rocket (Aladdin’s dog) and some other dogs. Ady casually joked that the guides all brought dogs along on the safaris so as to warn them of predators. Not funny! Each time the dogs began their urgent barking, Sam had visions of tigers or leopards strolling into camp!!!

After a poor nights sleep we were hauled out of bed at
dawn and handed a tower of dry toast and biscuits to eat. Neither of us like tea or coffee and Baba seemed to take it as a personal insult each time we refused cups of Chai, the spiced sweet milky tea that is the national drink of India. We were given the choice to finish our tour at 5pm as planned, or cut short the day and finish after lunch. Despite feeling that he just wanted an easy day and despite having paid for the full 2 days we were both in too much pain to enjoy a whole day in the saddle – so we agreed to just another 4 hours riding. After taking the scenic route through the larger dunes (the camels managed the slopes with ease but Ady was yelping at the steeper dunes!) Baba joined Ady on Warrior, the larger camel who was now relieved of his load. He tethered Luca behind and spurred Warrior into a fast trot, practically dragging the smaller camel along. Without stirrups we bounced uncomfortably in the saddle, wishing we’d not eaten the little breakfast we had!

It was with massive relief when we finally stopped for lunch, under the shade of a tree. Thankfully this was the end of the riding – camel riding that is – due to our early finish we’d decided to push on that afternoon and ride the short distance south to Barmer. The skies were looking forbidding but we’d heard the road was a fast highway and the journey shouldn’t take long. After the camels our padded bike saddle felt like luxury – we plugged in our ipods and enjoyed the emptiness of the open road.

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