India from the Inside - a Tour Through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh
On the road to Jaisalmer, 30 km outside Bikaner, is Gajner Lake. Along the embankment sits Maharaja Ganga Singh's former hunting lodge - Gajner Palace. I coaxed Surjit into making a brief stop (as we had a long drive ahead that day) after reading about the famous parties the Maharaja hosted during the British Raj. It was his summer residence and legendary as much for the Christmas Grouse Shoot as the royal guests. It is also the largest hotel in the world (by area) and a exceptional example of Rajasthani architecture.
The pink sandstone palace (now a handsome hotel) and the setting, are sublime - terraces and guest rooms overlook a placid, artificial lake dotted with waterfowl. Voluptuous bougainvillea spills over the stone entrance gates and pretty green parrots flit about the entry courtyard. There are acres of garden and deep forests. On the lakeside there is a Victorian restaurant looking out on to a stone promenade and you can imagine yourself in one those boats moored nearby, drifting languidly...
The 6,000 acre estate is now part of a wildlife sanctuary filled with migratory birds, Cheetal, Chinkara, Black Buck, Neelgai and wild boar. There are still descendants of the Imperial Sand Grouse - subject of the Maharaja's royal shooting parties.
There is however, no suggestion of the grandeur and lush grounds as you travel the corrugated road, past the wretchedly poor villages, to arrive here - only dirt, heat, rocks and poverty.
A dismal juxtaposition unchanged for over 100 years.
Later, we saw herds of camels and their traders beside the highway - the men dark and handsome, slyly urging photos with their beasts, then turning, demanding payment. Desert nomads travelled the roadway as well - the camel carts piled high with children and colourful belongings, stubborn goats and more camels in tow. Past date palm plantations, (well irrigated against the desert heat) turning to barren scrub with rocky soil, then finally sand. Sifting and shifting sand that was impossible to escape - it dried my throat and hair and endless bottles of water were useless to quench my thirst.
We drove on, stopping by the roadside Dhaba's for chai, samosa and tasty parathas. Our destination was Desert Camp Khuri - a small local village outside Jaisalmer. Not as popular as Sam Sand Dunes, it was quietly situated and sparsely populated. I loved it immediately and wasn't disappointed when we reached the camp. Huts made of mud and dung, their roofs thatched by small branches, sat within a huge, mud-walled courtyard and were surprisingly well fitted. At one side was a collection of large canvas tents (the pleasure of which I enjoyed for two nights) luxurious by Indian standards and including a large bathroom and roomy bed under a canopy of bright, hand-blocked fabric.
We arrived before sunset in time to take a ride through the desert. The peaceful setting was surreal after the noisy, jarring hours on the highway. The air was cool and fresh as the sun slipped down behind the dunes and the sand hills stretched endlessly in shades of gold, red and pink. Women chatted quietly as they gathered water from a nearby well while the camels knelt down in the sand beside our compound.
I declined the hair-raising jeep safari - dune busting was not on my agenda and opted for a tour of a local village nearby. Hundreds of kids poured out from between the dung huts and chased us as we drove by. My driver told me about the large families - it's a competition and point of pride among the men to see who could have the most children!
We spent a pleasant evening around a fire with traditional Rajasthani food and music that night. A young village girl danced to the harmonium and I went to sleep with the smell of wood smoke drifting through my tent.
The next day we searched Jaisalmer for an ATM that was open. The government recall of old 500 and 1000 denomination notes in November meant that everyone was forced to queue up for a daily rupee allotment. Most ATM's were shut and it became enormously frustrating to search for cash. I gave up after a couple of hours in the heat and traffic and walked up to the old Jaisalmer fort instead.
The fort was a delight because it was still inhabited and lively with locals and tourists. The narrow stone paved streets had plenty of shopping, food stalls, guest houses and hotels, along with a beautifully carved Jain temple and the royal palace. Cows, motorcycles, travellers, shopkeepers and tuk tuks jostled about the shops under the clear blue skies. Up above, I explored the ramparts and a maze of tiny hotels whose expansive terraces and balconies overlooked the golden city. Afterwards, we found a Western Union that would give a cash advance against my credit card, and in the late afternoon headed back to the desert.
Our host had planned a special dinner for us that night and I was anticipating a wonderful, romantic escapade on the dunes under the stars. It was magical - as promised. Mahindra, our escort, gathered wood for a campfire and laid out blankets on the cool sand. Overhead, the velvety sky was perforated by millions of stars. We sipped Kingfisher beer and ate delicious local desert beans, rice and roti from the tiffins while we chatted. No five star meal could have been any better and I was elated by my experience. I slept gratefully that night, wondering what tomorrow and Jodhpur would bring.