Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer - 4th to 7th February 2018
04.02.2018 - 07.02.2018 30 °C
Dry heat and bright sunshine at this time of year, when it's dark, cold and damp at home in Hertfordshire, do wonders for body and soul.
My three-score-years-and-ten-plus-a-few drop away and I become a recycled teenager. I explore anew with a spring in my step, bounce in my friendly hotelier's jeep on long, straight military roads that lead to the Pakistan border, visit oases and simple settlements among desert sands, and search for ever-elusive Great Indian Bustards.
Of course, I make time too for relaxation on my hotel's terrace with a glass of chilled Kingfisher, cool fresh lime soda or hot lemon tea while admiring views across flat rooftops and temple domes to a vast living fort that dominates the skyline beyond. I also meet my favourite family in a nearby musician's colony and take rice, bananas and oranges to children at their little school on the hill.
This sand-coloured town in the Thar Desert calls me back time and again. It's become something of a routine visit for me over the past few winters.
Perhaps the only difference this year was that I was with David, my four-score-years-and-more-than-a-few brother. So, although there was plenty of sitting doing precious little with a glass of something by our sides, we both recycled ourselves and did more than we should to fill our short three days here.
As the sun began to lose its heat, we took an afternoon walk to the fort that beckoned us from afar. Unlike on my first visit to Jaisalmer in 2016 ('Into the Thar'), we found it without getting too lost along the way. It continues to be an interesting stroll, however - through dusty streets, down narrow alleyways and past colourful markets, beautiful mansions built by traders in days gone by, and hole-in-the-wall shops crammed with anything and everything.
Inside, the fort was as alive as always, with stalls selling colourful puppets and beaded bags and brollies, cafés with coffee and cake, and lots of little shops with invitations to 'come in, look, no need to buy'. This massive edifice from the days of camel trains on the 'Silk Route', a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains a vibrant, living monument with more than a quarter of this sprawling city’s population housed within it.
Not much grows in a region where the average annual temperature is 33oC and rainfall at this time of year is less than a single millimetre, so the main source of income hereabouts will always be tourism. There are over a thousand hotels in and around the town, but I always find a warm welcome at the same little one right beside the musician's colony. But more about that later; for now, let me tell you about how we spent our time here.
On one day, it was off in that bouncing jeep belonging to Dileep, the hotel owner, to visit an oasis at Jaseri (aka Jessari) and some of the villages in the sand. I always enjoy the tranquillity surrounding the pond at Jaseri and it's here that I've previously encountered an abundance of birdlife, including a seldom-seen bright blue Kingfisher that I managed to photograph last year ('Once more unto the Thar, dear friends, once more...'). Disappointingly, it was rather devoid of life today - just a few common birds, a man with a camel, and a feral dog breakfasting on the remains of a deceased one (a camel that is, not a man!).
Instead, this pond in the desert became a stepping stone to other new discoveries for David, like the deserted villages around Kuldhara - now more stones than houses and inhabited only by flocks of goats. The ancient fort at Khabha too, currently being a little over-restored, continued to provide interest and great views over a desert landscape that disappears into infinity.
We stopped to buy milk from, bizarrely, a dairy in the desert so that we could enjoy a cup of tea with Dileep's uncle at his bare, straw-roofed home in the sand.
Afterwards, we continued to one of the villages inhabited by former nomads who'd been encouraged to settle here in this barren place. I'd asked to stop at this one in particular, despite having been here several times before and still not knowing its name (if indeed it actually had one). Today, it was partly to give some sweets to the usual throng of excited girls and boys, but mainly to deliver photos taken of them at around the same time last year, something that always seems to surprise and delight them.
One particularly important reason for bringing my brother here to the Thar was to seek out a huge and very endangered bird. David's a keen ornithologist and, while he'd seen bustards in other countries, he'd never encountered a Great Indian Bustard. So, on another day, out into the desert we went again.
Along the way, we collected Kundan Singh, a friend from previous visits who lives in the desert and knows it like his hand. We'd get hopelessly lost or stuck in sand drifts without him as our driver. Sadly, his mother had recently died and, although he was still officially in mourning, he agreed to accompany us.
First though, he introduced us to relatives and friends, elders of nearby homes and settlements, who were gathering here for 13 days, tradition requiring them to do so as a mark of respect for Kundan's late mother. They invited us to join them where they sat cross-legged on blankets spread on hard, dry earth in the shade of Kundan's square, stone-built house. Here, they would smoke, talk and drink tea or water from little china or steel mugs throughout the days. While conversation in anything other than sign language was awkward for us, I was pleased to leave them with some photos of their younger relatives that I'd taken at this very place last year and to take new photographs of some of the characterful, weather-worn faces which were before me here today.
Then it was off in search of the legendary great bird, twisting and turning on and off tracks of loose sand around the perimeter of the Desert National Park. I'd drawn a blank on this terrain in previous years, but been lucky once inside the park itself. And so it would prove this time too.
Around and around we went for what seemed like hours, skidding along dusty tracks bordering the fences which surround the Park. We spotted a lone juvenile Egyptian Vulture, a Common Buzzard that took flight as we approached, a Desert Fox scurrying away as fast as his little white feet could take him, an occasional tiny Prinia, and small flocks of birds known as Silverbills (technically White-throated Munias) on account of their conical silver-grey bills. There was little else - and regrettably none of our hoped-for Bustards.
Drawing a blank outside the Park itself, we diverted to its official entrance at Sudasari, hoping to meet the Officer in charge at his office there. Alas, although he'd been alerted to our arrival by Dashrath, he wasn't able to be there in person. Instead, he instructed his staff by telephone to accompany us in our jeep to tour inside the many square miles of fenced area. And, of course, they knew where to find the subject of our quest!
Within a matter of half an hour, there they were - not one, not two or even three, but four Great Indian Bustards. They were quite a distance away and, each time we approached within reach of our longest camera lenses, they moved farther away, walking very fast on their long, stocky legs rather than flying. Unfortunately, the distance and heat haze made these elusive birds almost impossible to photograph, but there's a picture below, just for the record. Eventually, they all disappeared into the distant shrubby desert, where we couldn't hope to follow. However, it was certainly a fitting end to our outing into the desert and another great 'first' for David to tick off in his bird-spotter's diary.
The Silk Route Hotel* at which we were staying was built within the Kalakar Colony, home to many of Jaisalmer's musicians, ostensibly to support this group of hitherto wandering artists.
Above: The Silk Route Hotel visible from the path leading up through the Kalakar Colony to Sunset Point
Above: The Silk Route Hotel's rooftop terrace and a typical bedroom
I've come to know one family of musicians in particular ('In Tune with Jaisalmer') and, during our stay, I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with the lovely Fuli, a traditional singer and player of the morchang (a type of mouth instrument). Mysteriously, her husband, Dungara, had gone away, leaving her alone to fend for their four girls and two boys. They all seemed happy enough nonetheless and were pleased to chat, for Suman, the oldest child, to demonstrate that she could play the morchang just like mum, to pose for photos and to show us the mehndi (henna designs) that they'd put on their hands for a friend's recent wedding ceremony.
With the hotel's help, a small school had been established at Sunset Point, the colony's west-facing hilltop. It's run on a shoestring under the guidance of model turned social worker Tamara, aided by a small team of volunteer teachers and known as the Sunflower Learning Centre. All of Fuli's children attend, as do others from the colony, enticed by free education and a daily meal provided after the morning's lessons.
Over dinner at the hotel one evening, we mentioned our proposed visit to the school next day to a young Parisian couple, who expressed an interest in joining us and in sharing the cost of a small gift I'd asked Guman, the hotel's manager, to help organise for us.
So it was that early on our final morning, our little group went to the local markets with their mountains of vegetables, fruit and spices like ginger and fresh turmeric. There, Guman bargained on our behalf for a huge 25kg (55lbs) bag of rice - enough to provide the basis of pupils' lunches for quite a few days, plus 15kg (33lbs) of bananas and 13kg (29lbs) of oranges - probably enough to feed the entire colony! The four of us shared the cost - the princely sum of 1600 Rupees (under GBP 20) for the lot!
The fruit was all distributed to the bright-eyed children at a convenient interval in their studies. together with one or two photos taken here last year. It brought many memorable smiles to their faces, together with big thank yous and waves as we reluctantly left them an hour or so later.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and, after strolling back to the hotel, our taxi awaited to take us to Jaisalmer's little airport for our SpiceJet flight back to Jaipur.
But this was not yet farewell to India.
Once again, we met our good friend Girdhar, who made us most welcome at his superb Khandela Haveli hotel in Jaipur.
We also met our friend Manish, with whom we'd spent an enjoyable morning walking around Man Sagar a week or so ago (A journey measured in friends).
Manish wanted to swap some photos with me, so invited us to the modest home of his in-laws, where he'd left his laptop.
I'd previously met Manish's wife, Krishna, and two of their young sons, Yashordan and Tvarit. I was now introduced to their eldest son, 15-year-old Vishesh. To my surprise, it transpired that he lived here with Krishna's parents, which explained why we hadn't met on my previous visits. In reply to my enquiry about why he didn't live at home with his parents and brothers, Manish told us that Krishna was her parents' only child and, after her marriage, her mum and dad had no-one to care for them in their old age nor, eventually, to inherit their property. Consequently, they had formally and legally adopted Vishesh as their son.
And how did Vishesh feel about this? Well, it was a family responsibility he was pleased, as his parents' eldest son, to have accepted as his duty. What greater example could there be of India's proud culture and the respect given to elders and families?
Left to right: Krishna, Tvarit, Vishesh, Manish, Yashordan & Krishna's father
Later, it was our turn to give the family a wildlife treat. Although Manish had taken his family to the Jhalana Forest several times in the past, none of them had ever seen a leopard in the wild there - fortunately, perhaps, as they'd previously been there on foot! So, we took the opportunity to take all of them - Manish, Krishna and all three boys - on a little safari. The officer in charge of Jhalana, having been forewarned by Dashrath, put an exclusive jeep at our disposal and we piled in to search for that elusive beast.
The hours passed quickly as we scoured the winding, dusty routes through sparse forest. Chital, one of a leopard's favourite foods, calmly grazed. Grey Langur monkeys, unfazed by our approach, posed comically for our cameras. India's national bird, the peacock, wandered sedately past, as did an occasional Grey Francolin that, strangely, is brown not grey. The remains of a deer carcass, possibly a leopard's meal at sometime in the past, hung from a tree, being picked clean by a Rufous Treepie. But not a single alarm call signalled the presence of a predator.
Then, as the sun began its inevitable descent, our driver spotted movement among distant trees. Yes, it was a leopard - or, at least, it was a leopard's head and even that was largely obscured by branches! We waited to see if it would move to give us a clearer view. And we waited, and we waited - but clearly our presence wasn't welcomed by the leopard and this was never likely to be a sighting worth writing home about, so we moved on.
Although we were with the man in charge of the forest, we were aware that the reserve's closing time was fast approaching and, in any case, the light was now fading too. We were about to give up on a better sighting when the driver's mobile phone sprang into life - another guide had found a leopard. The jeep was pushed into gear and we sped through the forest on a thrilling helter-skelter ride, twisting, turning, skidding, throwing up dust, all much to the delight and amusement of Manish's sons.
Somewhat late to the party, we finally reached a group of three other vehicles parked beneath a tree with binoculars and cameras focussed on the top of a hill. Through the dim light of dusk, we could just make out two leopards on rocks far above us. It looked like a female with her sub-adult cub. At first, they crouched uneasily among the scrubby outcrop. Then one clambered slowly down to a ledge, where it posed inquisitively, relaxed and impervious to the noise of excited observers and boost-mode clicking of cameras.
What a terrific end to the final day of our Indian adventure!
*The Silk Route Hotel in Jaisalmer can be booked through Booking.com. For the best rates, however, contact the hotel direct by email (email@example.com ) or telephone +91 9414478125 - and haggle for a better price!
Over the past four weeks, I've been fortunate to enjoy the company of my big brother and to have had the privilege of sharing with him my love of this vast, ancient and diverse country. We've visited so many fascinating places, seen and photographed some amazing sights, eaten innumerable spicy meals together, put the world to rights, made new friends, and learnt and laughed such a lot.
I know that, after this and his two previous visits with Janice, India has now been well and truly ticked off David's bucket-list. On the contrary, my own list still includes some bits of my beloved India that are worthy of a visit, and I'm sure to be back in the not-too-distant future.
So, I'll just say phira milenge, see you soon, adios, à bientôt, auf wiedersehen, ciao, cheerio, ta-ra...