I passed the Krishna Beauty Parlour in Jodhpur. The really are focusing on attracting foreign clientele, as is beautifully proclaimed by this board outside their shop. Good luck to them.
I'm now in Jaisalmer, North Rajasthan, which is nestled on the edge of the desert and is probably the most remote and least densely populated place that I'll visit in India. I like it here. The people are, for the most, desert people and with it come an openness, honesty and a friendliness that's hard to beat. I've just had dinner with the guesthouse staff on the roof, as after a few busy days, I'm the last remaining Gora (Westerner). They cooked up a communal mutton dish (that's goat in India) and invited me. It was all rather good.
Jaisalmer is a small town nestled around a sandstone fort built on a rocky outcrop. It was a major trade route for silk, opium and spices, however after years of decline it was dealt a final blow when India and Pakistan were partitioned, thereby closing the natural trade route at the Pakistani border. It was however dealt a lifeline with the building of the colossal Indria Gandhi Canal which has supplied this desert region with water and irrigation, allowing diversification into a bunch of stuff and the continued sustenance of a unique culture on the edge of the desert.
Its also the place where India entered the nuclear age, with a bunch of test explosions 200m beneath the surface a few miles away. This and the fact we are a 100 miles or so from the border with Pakistan means that there is a pretty high military presence. Apparently the border is lit up at night to prevent people escaping to Pakistan or entering into Hindustan. To power this colossal feat, the area is littered with giant wind-farms, an ideal use of the desert space. But lighting up the border ? Such is the tension that now exists between the two countries, but what a waste of energy for a country that needs it !
Between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, you notice a distinct difference to the rest of Rajasthan and India. Carts are pulled by Camels, not Cows. Men and women are festooned in gold. Rajasthani men wear huge colorful turbans, which are meant to be quite cooling in the 40C+ heat of the day. In Jaisalmer, everything is built from wonderful yellow sandstone, a great reflector of heat, while in Jodhpur the house's are painted a lilac blue, which not only keeps the house cool, but apparently acts as an effective insect repellent. The blue was originally reserved for only the highest of Indian castes, the Brahman, but in today's enlightened age anyone can paint their house blue.
On the way to Jodhpur from Udaipur I visited Kumbalgarh, my first fort encounter for which Rajasthan is famed. I was blown away by the size of the place, with a perimeter wall of 36km. That's a full two days to walk around and considering the walls size plus width, it must have taken a long time and a considerable effort to construct. This is a really impressive fortress. The great wall of china is the only comparison I can think of, yet in some ways, combined with a palace, Kumbalgarh casts a rather unique spell. I later visited the fortresses of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, which are just as impressive albeit much smaller in size and somewhat different with them both being the centre of towns.
The Fort in Jaisalmer. Very photogenic. I rather like it here.
Getting to Jaisalmer was an experience. I took the train from Jodhpur and due to the lack of availability of air-conditioned tickets, I had to plug for a 'second class sleeper' ticket. Traveling through the desert in 45C+ heat thought, is not so comfortable in a tin can on wheels. Luckily Indian trains have many windows which remain open, inviting a refreshing breeze to circulate whilst its moving. That's all well and good until you hit the full desert, when a large amount of dust and sand start blowing in and providing for a choke inducing journey, whilst covering everything. I've since bought a scarf in Jaisalmer. For my return journey, I plan to become the lone ranger...
Traveling on the Bus and train can be hard work. Its one of the regular places you will meet everyday Indians away from the tourist centers. With it comes allot of attention and questions; "Where you coming?" (which means; where are you from ?), "Where you going", "Are you married?", "What's your profession", "What age?", "What Salary?", etc. It continues, usually for the duration of the journey as people come and go between stops. I have resorted to saying that I'm an engineer to avoid the hassle of explaining my real job. I also emphasize my South African roots which helps my wallet. Being a Brit means your more likely to be taken for a walking wallet.
With Jaisalmer being in the desert, it was hard not to refuse the ubiquitous desert camel trek. The standard experience involves a camel trek, dinner by the camp fire followed by a night under the stars. I did not stay the full night, due to my continuing Delhi belly, but the crew were nice enough to run me back to Jaisalmer late in the night. In the end I opted to see the doctor who diagnosed a case of Amoebic dysentery which, I am proud to say, is quite rare to catch. Apparently its quite hard to shift without some pharmaceutical help, so good job I saw the doctor. All of this cost 700 rupees (£10), a bargain by western standards. 24 hours later I was right as rain, and tonight is the first time I've felt full for a while. The whole experience opened my eyes to a secondary benefit; the Doctor saw staff in the guesthouse in return for the call-out, as a form of Baksheesh. In other words, they struck a deal with a particular Doctor to consult their foreign guest (I'm sure for a princely sum, by Indian standards), and in return he'll see some of the guesthouse workers for free. In India, I've realized that there's honest Baksheesh and dishonest baksheesh. This is the kind of baksheesh that I like.
Over the next couple of days I'm traveling to the Punjab to visit the Golden Palace in Amritsar. On the way I'll be visiting the rat temple in Deshnok. I'm intrigued by this place. Like all Hindu temples bare feet is mandatory and if you step on a rat you have to donate a gold rat to the temple, plus, I should add, pay for a large medical bill after the rat retaliates...