Gadi Sagar, a slow day in Jaisalmer & Jodhpur’s train station from hell

Wednesday, March 16: We have a lot of time to kill today as we have to wait until 4:30 to take a train to Jodhpur.  We are drained from all of our travels and don’t feel like going back to Jaisalmer Fort.   We decide to go to a place we haven’t seen, Gadi Sagar, in the early morning before it gets too hot.

Me under the gate to Gadi Sagar

Me under the gate to Gadi Sagar

Gadi Sagar is simply a tank, south of the Jaisalmer city walls, which was once the water supply for the city.  Small temples and shrines surround it, as well as a smattering of small shops.  Over the road down to the tank is a gateway, Tilon-ki-Pol, which was built by a famous prostitute.  The story is that the prostitute offered to pay for its construction, but the maharaja denied permission because he felt that it would be beneath his dignity to walk through it when visiting the tank.  The prostitute built it anyway in the maharaja’s absence.  She put a Krishna temple on top so the king wouldn’t tear it down.

the prostitute's gate

the prostitute’s gate

Despite our early arrival, it’s steamy out, and we wander around sluggishly and half-heartedly.  There is a possibility of a boat ride in the water tank, but when we see the condition of the boats and the pond itself, we decide just to wander around, keeping to the shade as much as possible.  A group of Indian kids are standing on some steps, a kind of ghat, leading down to the water, and tossing bread into the murky depths.  When we walk up close, we see a black mass of catfish hurling themselves up toward the surface.  In their bulging and heaving madness, they look like frightening deep-sea creatures who are surfacing to devour us. Frankly, I’m disturbed by the sight of them, boiling cauldron of slimy snakes that they are.

the boiling cauldron of catfish at Gadi Sagar

the boiling cauldron of catfish at Gadi Sagar

the boats at Gadi Sagar

the boats at Gadi Sagar

We wander around a little more, dipping into the coolness of another Jain temple decked out with strands of rainbow-colored tinsel and guarded by a large ceramic cat.  A silent barefoot monk in a saffron robe watches us as we pad through in our bare feet.

a monk in the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

a monk in the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

the entrance to the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

the entrance to the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

looking out from the Jain Temple to the lake

looking out from the Jain Temple to the lake

a pavilion outside the Jain Temple

a pavilion outside the Jain Temple

Back on the road again, we encounter a camel decked out in colorful blankets and fabric braids pulling a painted carriage.  We look briefly into the small shops.  Bored, we decide we’ll return to the hotel and relax for the rest of the afternoon.  Back at Himmatgarh Palace, I eat Vegetable Pulao and Jayne eats Kashmiri Pulao, both accompanied by stuffed naan with cheese and two lime sodas.  Then we pack up most of our stuff and lounge around in the cool room reading and trying unsuccessfully to nap.

a decked out camel and carriage

a decked out camel and carriage

Actually, I’m not able to relax knowing that the dreaded train lies before us this evening.  I read pages and pages of White Tiger by Aravind Adiga this afternoon, which makes me more uptight.  His bleak and dark descriptions of India only exacerbate the feeling of unease I have regarding the remainder of our trip and this train.  I hated so much the 12-hour trip from Jaipur; this will be another 6 hours of torture to Jodhpur.  Plus, because this is not an overnight train, I don’t know what kind of compartment or seating to expect.  I frankly am experiencing a great deal of anxiety on this day, between reading this book and fearing our journey tonight.

back at the hotel before the dreaded train ride to jodhpur

back at the hotel before the dreaded train ride to jodhpur

the pool at our hotel ~ Himmatgarh Palace

the pool at our hotel ~ Himmatgarh Palace

Finally, after what seems like an interminable afternoon (why can’t I relax??), our driver takes us to the train station.  We sit on a bench on the platform, awaiting our train, beneath multitudes of pigeons in the rafters.  Suddenly, one of the pigeons shits on my hand.  A lady from Calgary sharing the bench with us says, in unison with Jayne, “That’s good luck!”  I find a tissue and wipe off the wet droppings as the pigeons flap and wheel overhead.

Indians are sleeping on the platform, whole filthy families camped out on every inch of concrete.  The grimy train pulls up, and people are crammed into the luggage cars or bursting through open, iron-barred windows in second class.  We haul our luggage onto our A-1 car (first class) and find the same type of compartment, with the 4 bunks, that we had on our overnight trip to Jaisalmer.  I guess that’s a relief since it means we can recline and be somewhat comfortable.

As the train moves, I settle in to finish my book. An Indian guy comes into our compartment and plops down beside me on my mattress.  “Let me tell you about my nation,” he says.  We ignore him but he keeps on talking.  I say, “No one invited you to sit on my seat! Please move!”  He says, “You could be my mother.”  This irritates me so much that, when the train conductor walks by, I insist that he make the guy move.  He leaves, obviously angry that I refused to listen to his diatribe.

On the rest of this train ride, I finish reading White Tiger, which I happily abandon on the train when I disembark.  The book is a brutal depiction of India’s class struggles. The main character Balram Halwai, a racist, homicidal chauffeur, is from the Darkness, born where India’s downtrodden and unlucky are destined to rot. Balram escapes his village and moves to Delhi after being hired as a driver for a rich landlord.  Author Adiga’s crude and brutally honest prose animates the battle between India’s wealthy and poor as Balram suffers degrading treatment at the hands of his masters.  Later, Balram manages to become a wealthy entrepreneur only after he murders his employer and steals a huge amount of money from him.  This is seemingly the only way to get ahead under India’s rigid hierarchical society.  The book has been such a good companion on this trip only because it only served to underline the poverty and degradation I could see all around me.  I want so badly to see some good in India, and this is why I am happy to finish with the book and leave it behind.

When we arrive in Jodhpur at around 10:30 pm, it’s a nightmare.  First, there is no one from our hotel to pick us up.  In most other countries, this would be no problem.  We would just take a taxi to the hotel.  But in India, we have been warned that we should never take a rickshaw to a new hotel upon our arrival in town.  A rickshaw driver, it is said, will always have a story that the hotel where you are headed is out of business or full.  And then he will take you to a hotel where he gets a kickback.  He will leave you stranded at the new hotel, which often charges exorbitant prices.

This would be a problem for us.  Our whole time in India is arranged.  We have prepaid for the entire trip and we have in fact a reservation tonight at the Hotel Pal Haveli.  This hotel, set around a courtyard and built by the thakur (nobleman) of Pal in 1847, is considered the most attractive original haveli in the old city.   Even though we are only due to stay this one night in Jodhpur, this is one of the nicer hotels, a “heritage” property, Umer booked for us on our itinerary.  We definitely don’t want some rickshaw driver to take us somewhere else, where 1) we have to pay extra and 2) we don’t get to stay in a top-rate hotel.

We stand outside in front of the station in the dark, where people are sleeping all over the concrete, like fallen dominoes.  One lady has her head on another lady’s stomach; a man has his feet on someone else’s chest.  Some have their heads propped on their baggage.  A fat orange-haired lady in a sari sleeps directly on the concrete while huge rats sniff around her face.  Fluorescent lights cast an eerie glow over the whole scene. All these people are sleeping directly on the concrete, no sheets or blankets to shield them from the hordes of rats scurrying about.  Auto-rickshaws are lined up on the street, bathed in the sickly light.  Young men keep coming up and asking us where we are going.  They say, “Pal Haveli? Pal Haveli?”  We say, who are you here for?  We don’t tell our names but insist that they tell us who they are here to pick up.  Finally, after many phone calls, they tell us a name that is not Jayne’s.  We say, no, you are not here for us.

on the train to jodhpur's nightmare train station

on the train to jodhpur’s nightmare train station

We don’t have phones with us here.  I have only my U.S. BlackBerry which has our travel agent Umer’s number.  However, my BlackBerry is on a different network and has only worked a couple of times in India.  I try to phone Umer, but get no answer at all.

Finally, I watch the luggage while Jayne asks one of the attendants at the station to call the hotel for us.  We don’t know the number of the hotel and neither does the attendant.   After a long time, and many phone calls, the attendant tells us the Pal Haveli is not waiting for any guests tonight.  Apparently, we find out later, the attendant has called his cousin to find out this information.

our room at the Pal Haveli ~ FINALLY!!

our room at the Pal Haveli ~ FINALLY!!

We have the attendant call Umer, who is conveniently not available.  This seems to happen whenever we run across a problem in our travels and tonight, we find this infuriating.  We feel lost and abandoned. Umer has really let us down.

Finally, after what seems like a highly uncomfortable eternity, we are able to get someone to speak to the Pal Haveli, which sends a car for us.  They are able to tell us Jayne’s name, so we finally know we have the right driver.

I love this room ~ too bad we have such a short enjoyment time slot...

I love this room ~ too bad we have such a short enjoyment time slot…

Close to midnight, we finally get to the hotel, almost 1 ½ hours after our arrival in Jodhpur.  The hotel staff tells us they have our reservation, but our travel agent didn’t specify that we needed a train station pickup.  No arrangements had been made and they are unabashedly unapologetic.  We had really looked forward to dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Indique, which is the top restaurant pick in Lonely Planet for Jodhpur: it “is the perfect place for a romantic dinner…the views to the fort, clock tower, and Umaid Bhawan are superb.  The food is traditional tandoori and North Indian curries and you won’t be disappointed by the old favorites – butter chicken and rogan josh.”

Our room is actually lovely, with its heritage trimmings, and the kitchen is able to provide room service.  They bring us the most delicious chicken tikka and cheese naan, a soothing antidote to our nightmare of a night.

jaisalmer fort, jain temples, havelis & a rooftop spot called saffron

Tuesday, March 15:  We’re picked up in the morning by our non-English speaking (and still greasy) driver accompanied by an English-speaking Indian who will be our guide for the day.  We usually like to wander about on our own, but on this day, because our driver doesn’t speak English, the hotel has arranged this guide.  In the end, we are happy to have him because we would have just wandered aimlessly around Jaisalmer not having a clue what we were seeing.  We arrive at the Jaisalmer Fort, where, outside the gates, are multitudes of beautiful textiles hanging outside shops.  It is a hot day, as every day is here in the desert.  Nonetheless, I can tell I will like this place with its shopping enticements!

walking up to Jaisalmer Fort

walking up to Jaisalmer Fort

the elaborately carved entry to Jaisalmer Fort

the elaborately carved entry to Jaisalmer Fort

our guide at jaisalmer fort

our guide at jaisalmer fort

We enter through the huge gates of Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler, Jaisala, and reinforced by subsequent rulers.  The fort encloses narrow streets paved with sandstone, a maharaja’s palace, temples and havelis, and sits atop the Trikuta hill.  This place is one of my favorite forts because it is so much more than a tourist attraction; it is actually a living museum as a significant portion of the old city’s population resides within the fort walls.

jaisalmer fort ~ one of my favorite shopping places in india

jaisalmer fort ~ one of my favorite shopping places in india

We bypass the Maharaja’s palace, and our guide takes us directly to one of the seven beautiful yellow sandstone Jain temples that were built from the 12th to the 16th centuries.  We go into a number of these temples, which inside have incredibly intricate and golden-glowing carvings.  We encounter orange-robed monks and hundreds of marble images of Parasnath, the 22nd tirthankarTirthankars are the 24 great Jain teachers. The carvings are exquisite and the marble floors, on which we walk barefoot, are cool and relaxing.  It’s lovely wandering through these temples.

the first of the seven Jain temples in Jaisalmer Fort

the first of the seven Jain temples in Jaisalmer Fort

We see signs in these temples: “Please do not give tips to holy men.  All gifts please place in donation box instead.”

offerings in the Jain Temple

offerings in the Jain Temple

intricate carvings of Hindu gods

intricate carvings of Hindu gods

inside the Jain Temple

inside the Jain Temple

Jain Temple

Jain Temple

inside one of the cool Jain temples

inside one of the cool Jain temples

Another sign outside of one of the Jain temples: “Important – Notice”: Entrance of ladies during monthly course period is strictly prohibited. They are requested to maintain the sanctity of the temples.

IMPORTANT NOTICE!!

IMPORTANT NOTICE!!

Hmmm….. Didn’t God create women to have monthly cycles?  Why should they be considered “dirty” during these times?

on the steps of a jain temple

on the steps of a jain temple

a Jain monk

a Jain monk

more elaborate carvings

more elaborate carvings

inside the Jain Temple

inside the Jain Temple

columns in the Jain Temple

columns in the Jain Temple

more intricate carvings

more intricate carvings

beautiful Hindu gods inside the jain temples

beautiful Hindu gods inside the jain temples

We wander into many shops along the narrow streets.  Our guide has his own shop of painted ceramic doorknobs and wall hooks, similar to those sold in anthropologie and Pier One in the U.S. I buy a wall hook for myself and one for my daughter.  We wander into silver shops, where we buy earrings.  And we spend a great deal of time in a cool textile shop, drinking tea with the young Indian shopkeeper.  After much haggling, we each buy “Welcome” door-hangings.  These are crenellated embroidered textiles that you hang at the top of your doorway to welcome guests.

Jayne and I in the shop buying Indian "welcome" door hangings

Jayne and I in the shop buying Indian “welcome” door hangings

the "welcome" door hanging i buy in jaisalmer

the “welcome” door hanging i buy in jaisalmer

Our guide also takes us further through the narrow streets, pointing out gorgeous havelis, most notably the Patwa-ki-Haveli, towering over a narrow lane with its honey-colored lace stonework.  A haveli is a traditional, often ornately decorated, residence, particularly found in Rajasthan and Gujarat.  This one was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who were brocade and jewelry merchants. However, there are claims that these traders made a considerable amount of money in opium smuggling and money-lending. This is the largest haveli in Jaisalmer and looms over a narrow lane.

textiles on one of the streets

textiles on one of the streets

Haveli

Haveli

Havelis

Havelis

one of the many gorgeous havelis in jaisalmer

one of the many gorgeous havelis in jaisalmer

The streets of Jaisalmer Fort are much cleaner overall than streets in most of India.  Compared to a place like Varanasi, they are spotless.  However, cows do still wander the streets, and at one point we have to pass by a cow blocking a narrow lane.  He has crap smeared all over his behind, and I am disgusted as I have to pass close by.   I’m afraid he will back me into a wall with his shit-covered ass, or he will flick his tail, splattering me with his mess.  Luckily that doesn’t happen!

cows walking the streets

cows walking the streets

At another point, we find a little boy squatting over a gutter outside his home, pooping a yellow mushy mess into it that attracts flies like a sucking magnet.

After much wandering through the fort, we return to the hotel and relax in our cool room and then go outside and hang out in the pool and relax on swinging chairs.  We take some pictures of each other in our bathing suits, which are not suitable for publication.

our hotel

our hotel

relaxing on the grounds of the hotel

relaxing on the grounds of the hotel

Later, our driver takes us into town for dinner.  We go to the Lonely Planet-recommended Saffron, which is on the rooftop of the Nanchana Haveli, overlooking Gandhi Chowk.  A chowk is a town square, intersection, or marketplace. The setting is suberb, with its sandstone terrace overlooking not only the Chowk, but also Jaisalmer Fort on the hilltop behind.  It’s really atmospheric.  We both wish we had some romantic interest in our lives that we could be with in this spot.  However, we have to settle just for each other…

In the Nanchana Haveli courtyard, where we eat dinner at the rooftop restaurant Saffron

In the Nanchana Haveli courtyard, where we eat dinner at the rooftop restaurant Saffron

at Saffron with Jaisalmer Fort in the background

at Saffron with Jaisalmer Fort in the background

We find ourselves in an argument with the waiter about the wine, which we don’t like because it’s sweet and bubbly.  We’re used to being able to taste our wine before purchasing, as in American restaurants.  After we order a different wine, they tell us we MUST pay for this one, whether we like it or not.  We snack on Poppadum, or crisps, while we wait for our dinner.

Saffron menus with Jaisalmer Fort behind

Saffron menus with Jaisalmer Fort behind

on the rooftop of saffron ~ one of our more atmospheric dinners

on the rooftop of saffron ~ one of our more atmospheric dinners

For dinner, we eat delicious Dum Aloo Kashmiri, or potato barrels filled with dry fruits and mashed vegetables; Vegetable Seekh Kebab, or assorted mashed vegetables with mild spices on a skewer cooked in a clay oven.   The dinner is delicious.

Some performers come up as the sun is setting.  They are really cute, banging on drums and playing flute-like instruments.  One of the young guys asks us our names and then proceeds to sing this funny wailing kind of tune, singing our names:  “Caaaattthyyy!  Jayyyynnnnniiiiieeee!” and waving his arm in a snake-dance way.  We laugh and laugh, carrying our laughter with us into the night and back to our hotel.

inside the sumptuous Nanchana Haveli

inside the sumptuous Nanchana Haveli

After dinner we explore the Nachana Haveli, the 280-year-old sandstone haveli converted to a hotel.  All the common areas are sumptuously and romantically decorated, with Rajput trimmings such as swing chairs and bearskin rugs.  After, we go outside to explore some shops in the Chowk while we wait for our driver.   We return to our hotel where we fall asleep, exhausted from the heat and our wine and filling dinner.

the midnight train to jaisalmer & a camel “safari”

Monday, March 14: Finally, after midnight, on a blue train smothered in smutty blue light, we stuff our suitcases in the space between our two bunks and settle in to try to sleep.  With great foresight, Jayne has bought along two sheets that are like sleeping bags, sewn together on three sides, with just an opening for our heads.  This is the first time in our travels that we pull these out and stuff ourselves inside of them.  I am so happy to have this sheet-bag to sleep in, to put layers between myself and the filthy mattress and the tattered and scratchy wool blanket provided by the train.  The train is disgustingly dirty and I have to say I’m afraid of bugs and other critters crawling over me in the night.

the train station at jaipur

the train station at jaipur

I have dressed in yoga pants and a t-shirt to take this train trip. I already feel greasy and dirty because of the massage we got late Sunday afternoon.  Now, aboard this train, I immediately feel even dirtier.  We read for a while until the rhythm of the train rolling over the tracks lulls me into a fitful sleep. The only saving grace is that there is some air-conditioning in the compartment.

Jayne in our sleeping compartment onboard the train

Jayne in our sleeping compartment onboard the train

I get up several times to use the bathroom which is a squat toilet that empties directly onto the tracks.  I get totally grossed out when Jayne mentions that she saw rats running around on the train tracks in the Jaipur station.  I imagine whole families of rats thriving along the rails, gorging themselves on people’s droppings from the trains.  It is all so disgusting.  So often in India, I am shocked by how people live like animals. Yet.  Somehow, they go about their daily lives carefree and chipper, ignorant that anything better is possible.

the midnight train to jaisalmer

the midnight train to jaisalmer

In the morning, we wake up to sunlight streaming in through grimy windows and alternate between reading and napping until our train arrives at noon in Jaisalmer, in the western part of the state of Rajasthan.  I have been reading White Tiger and am totally engrossed in the story, which captures India at its worst in every minute detail.

our hotel in jaisalmer ~ himmatgarh palace

our hotel in jaisalmer ~ himmatgarh palace

himmatgarh palace

himmatgarh palace

Jaisalmer lies in the northwestern Great Thar Desert, which extends across the border into Pakistan, less than 100 km away. At the Jaisalmer train station, a really greasy Indian driver awaits us with a non-air-conditioned car.  He hardly speaks or understands any English. He takes us directly to our interesting hotel, the sandstone Himmatgarh Palace.  The property is lovely, gardens abloom with pink flowers. We are in a round turret-shaped room with the ambience of a medieval castle.  We go directly to the dining room where we order a lunch of gutta curry and butter naan, along with fresh lime and soda, the most refreshing drink we have come across in India.

our "turret" room at himmatgarh palace

our “turret” room at himmatgarh palace

Originally, we are scheduled to go on our “safari” tomorrow, but the hotel owner suggests that we might want to relax this afternoon and head out around 4:00 pm to the safari.  We agree to his suggestion as we can stand to relax in the lovely surroundings. We’re too hot and tired from the train ride to venture out for sightseeing in the city.  We wander around and take pictures and pack a few things for the safari.

our tent at Royal Desert Camp

our tent at Royal Desert Camp

At 4:00 our driver takes us in his oven of a car for an hour drive to the Royal Desert Camp.  At this camp, situated in the hot sun on a flat expanse of desert, we are ushered to our tent room, which is sweltering. But it is quite a nice room, decorated in the British Colonial style, with a dark wood bed, dresser and night tables.  Surprisingly, we find a fully-fitted bathroom, with tiles laid directly on the tent floor and a full modern shower, sink and toilet.  We are disappointed that we didn’t know what to expect; we didn’t even bring much in the way of toiletries or even a change of clothes.  We were fully expecting to take a camel ride out into the middle of nowhere, where we would camp roughly in the desert. We thought we would be sleeping in a tent with possibly a public toilet and no shower facilities.  However, this Royal Desert Camp was built for tourists and it actually is quite nice, except for the heat.

Inside our tent at the Royal Desert Camp

Inside our tent at the Royal Desert Camp

Around 5:00, as the sun starts to set, we climb on a camel directly outside the gates of the camp. Our white-robed guide leads the camel by rope all around the dunes surrounding the camp.  We don’t venture far, but it is lovely as a breeze starts to cool us and the sun drops, spilling pinks, lavenders and periwinkles across the horizon.  I take multitudes of pictures of the desert and the shadows we make on the sand as we ride our camel.  We enjoy watching other native camel riders galloping across the dunes on the humpbacks of their steeds.  As the sun goes down, the guide has the camel lie down in the sand and we climb off and wander around, checking out the other camels and the people running about.  It’s quite lovely, but definitely NOT what I would consider a “safari!”

Jayne at the Royal Desert Camp

Jayne at the Royal Desert Camp

Jayne and me on the desert "safari"

Jayne and me on the desert “safari”

the desert of Jaisalmer

the desert of Jaisalmer

the camel handler

the camel handler

our handler and camel

our handler and camel

more lovely camels

more lovely camels

random people riding a camel

random people riding a camel

me with jayne on our camel "safari"

me with jayne on our camel “safari”

sunset on the camel safari

sunset on the camel safari

After about an hour of this “camel safari,” we head back to our camp.  We don’t want to sit in the sauna of a tent, so we go out to the common area where a show will start eventually.  We sit smack dab in the center of a semi-circle of chairs set up around the stage.  We figure we are the first ones here, so we should be able to take the best seats.  Funny thing is that the only other people here are a bunch of Germans in a tour group.  The two Indian tour guides ask us if we will kindly move to one of the ends, but we protest that we got here first and we don’t want to move.  So, determined to get their way, they promptly start moving all the chairs at our left down to the right end.  After all this chair-moving, it turns out we are sitting at the end, exactly where we did not want to sit.  We are pissed off and don’t hesitate to register our irritation.

camel shadows

camel shadows

Later, the tour group starts to wander over, and they take all the seats to our right.  One of the tour guides has moved the chairs directly to our right inward toward the rest of the group, so that not only are we now at the end, but we are facing the backs of the people beside us.  This is so incredibly rude.  Meanwhile, the waiters at the camp come around and bring us glasses of wine, peanuts, and other delicious snacks, which we truly enjoy.  Dark turbaned men bang exotic beats on their drums while dancers jangle tambourines and jingle finger cymbals. Women in native dress swirl with totem poles of pots on their heads.  The sky overhead is brilliant with stars and a cool breeze slips over us.

our guide and our camel ~ taking a rest

our guide and our camel ~ taking a rest

Much later on, when the camp people certainly understand our irritation at how rudely we have been treated, the tour guides come over to apologize.  I don’t really believe their contriteness, as they don’t seem at all genuine.  Probably the camp owners asked them to apologize.  These are Indian men at their worst, out to make a buck at anyone’s expense.  We encounter this so many times throughout India that we slowly lose any attraction we ever had to Indian men.

the dancers at the Royal Desert Camp

the dancers at the Royal Desert Camp

Finally, after their half-assed apologies, the camp directors invite us to come into a large tent for dinner.  Dinner??!! We are shocked.  We think all evening that all the snacks we have been gorging ourselves on are our dinner.  We are stuffed and sadly cannot even eat the dinner that has been prepared.  All we order are small cups of tomato soup.

Jayne and I eating a belated dinner

Jayne and I eating a belated dinner

Finally, we go to our tent.  I fall asleep, dead to the world, while Jayne spends a miserable night swatting away at mosquitoes and getting nibbled alive by the little pests.