A mere couple of days after arriving in Delhi, it was time for us to move on and experience our first of the whopping six overnight train journeys that we were to take in India. Not sure what to expect, our expectations ranged between “it can’t be that bad” to “oh god, I can just imagine having Delhi Belly while trying to balance over a filthy squat in a moving, over-packed train.” The reality lies somewhere between the two, though we’re happy to say we never once suffered Delhi Belly, either on a train or anywhere else for that matter. So for you sick bastards out there just waiting for The Blog where we shit ourselves uncomfortably we are metaphorically sticking our tongues out at you – we’re far too practised at travelling and eating for that kinda carry on! Iron Guts rule! But all that said, boarding the train in Delhi was a moment of extreme culture shock, for sure. The station was packed and not knowing exactly where to board our particular third class sleeper carriage had us running to get on…except the running was more like wading/shoving through thousands of people all also trying to board the train. Stressful does not even begin to describe it. Nor do the words ‘intense stench of urine’ even begin to describe the railway station experience that is northern India. Needless to say, we acquired no photos of our entry on to the train but did manage to capture the rather idyllic setting part way through the journey. Ahhhh. So where were we going exactly? Jaisalmer, nicknamed the Golden City, lies in the heart of the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. The cool bit is that the town itself lies in on a ridge of yellow sandstone at the top of which perches a fort, containing a palace, ornate Jain temples and fabulously intricate haveli (private mansions). So it was packs on and up the road to head toward the fort…which also contained our accommodation! Thanks to Ushma for taking this wicked pic of Dan. The views on the walk up towards our FORT ACCOMMODATION (come on, how often do you get to say stuff like that?!) were pretty spectacular. The day was super hot (duh, its India) and incredibly dry which was quite a distinct change from Delhi which had been much more temperate. Upon arriving at our lodging, we were straight up to the roof to check out the views back down over the city. It was reminiscent of being projected into a scene something like 1001 Arabian Nights (albeit with less threat of execution). Plans were instantly made to recline harem-like on the cushions while looking over the world. At this stage of the game it feels pertinent to introduce another important person – meet Chirag, Ushma’s brother, who flew in from England to join us for the northern part of our Indian sojourn. It was the first time these two cheeky siblings had hung out together in two years and the first time that we got to know Chirag more than just in passing at a family event. Luckily for us, Chirag is not only a fussy fulla but also a bit of an expert on all things food – with special mention going to his love of fine dining and, oh yeah, Indian food. Handy that! Between him and Ush we got to try some really cool new items which we wouldn’t have known to even ask for! Case in point – bhel puri – a savoury snack made with puffed rice, sev (a thin crispy noodle like object made from besan flour) and topped with a tangy tamarind sauce. If from this description you are conjuring up an image something like rice bubbles with raw broken vermicelli chards, then you’re not far off the mark. But of course, its way more delicious than it sounds! Our absolute favourite new snack was a variation on the above, which was served on small round, crispy breads and topped with fresh vegetables and tangy yoghurt – absolutely freakin’ delicious! The owner came out to introduce herself at one point and was so happy to have a bunch of hungry travellers to feed delightful snacks to, especially a group that contained some Indian faces, she practically adopted us on the spot.
Having read some reviews of this restaurant on Trip Advisor – which, we might add, mainly consist of people saying how crap the Western style food there is…here’s an idea, when in India perhaps try the INDIAN food – we noticed rather a lot of people talking about the over-bearing/blunt/intrusive woman owner. Perhaps Mrs. Bhatia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but to be honest we felt like it akin to being made instantly part of someone’s extended Indian family – and what family doesn’t get on your nerves from time to time, right?! We found her warm, affectionate and interested in us, not to mention the fact she was feeding us random tasty tidbits. In fact, when another table would order something, she would make extra so we could try it too. Pretty darn special, if you ask us! Ignore the mashed potatoes and muesli (come on people!) and ask for her recommendations and a hug, if you so desire, and get a REAL Indian family experience. No fluff. And no baked beans.Right, our little rant out of the way, back to the food. Mmmmm…. Right, enough about that kind of food – let’s concentrate on another food stuff for a moment. You’re probably all wondering by now about a very famous, wandering food item in India, namely cows. Admittedly, they’re not on the menu for most of India which is how they come to be lining the streets, the alleyways, the roads, the forts…yip, as you may have imagined, India comes complete with thousands of cows and Jaisalmer was our first heavy dose of this bovine phenomenon. For those of us from countries where cows are kept in grassy pastures, its actually really odd to be having to negotiate cows at every twist and turn. Cars and auto-rickshaws swerve to avoid them in the streets (not always swerving to avoid pedestrians, however!) and the turn of every corner generally brings you eye to eye with a dopey, meandering beast. Even standing innocently on a street side can see you shunted into a shop with no warning as happened to H-J & Ush one sunny afternoon in Jaisalmer! Perhaps said cow was in cahoots with the shopkeep? Aside from cows, Jaisalmer is striking, obviously, for the incredible architecture that spreads as far as the eye can see. The Jain community of Jaisalmer has further enriched this already spectacular city by having constructed stunning temples within the fort. This complex has structures dating back as far as the 12th century – pretty darn impressive! The Jain faith is known for its practice of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence and more austere members of the faith will wear a white mask across their nose and mouth so that airborne living entities cannot be accidentally ingested. The alleys of Jaisalmer were full of life and colour, wherever we turned our gaze. Having had some encounters with Sikhism and Jainism already during the course of our trip, it was time for H-J to try out of a bit of Hinduism and hang with the pay-per-pose sadhus that lined the streets of the fort.
And for Dan to discuss the finer points of Islam, including the correct way to don a turban in preparation for our upcoming desert sojourn.
We were lucky enough to spend three days all up in Jaisalmer, visiting temples, exploring the nooks and crannies of the twisting streets, eating Rajasthani cuisine and open-mouthedly gazing up at the astonishing sights. And at the end of each day it was to our rooftop retreat to catch up with our crew, shoot the shit and gaze upon the setting sun of India.
It all looks and sounds a lot more thoughtful and reflective than it actually was – to be honest, the days were long and exhausting, full of cow-dodging, hawker-dodging, hot, dry sun and trying to fit in as much as possible and we were often just glad to get back to the roof and chill out!!! Its a tough life, but hey, someone’s gotta do it, right?!
Starting to get the hang of this India thing by this point, we were picking up a few lessons along the way:
1. Calling a woman Black Beauty or Dark Fantasy is NOT the quickest way to her heart (sorry, Ushma!);
2. However, calling her sibling Mixed Veg is f**king funny and is a nickname that will probably stick for the remainder of the trip;
3. That EVERYONE in this part of the world has an uncle/cousin/mother/son in some kind of place that will require you stopping there to make a purchase on the way to somewhere seemingly unrelated;
4. Customised scrunchies are alive and well in Rajasthan and may just be your reward for promising to go back to a shop (“yeah, we’ll come back later”) and actually doing so!;
5. That fireworks here are CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP!!!!; stock up or face regret;
6. And that fearing for your life while careering in an auto-rickshaw through tiny, pot-holed, cow-ridden streets is redundant – hop in, hold on (or don’t!), ask the driver to turn up the music and sit back and enjoy the ride…
Incredible India. It just keeps on comin’ at ya!