India Holiday – Day 8: Jaisalmer

Tags: — Allan @ 10:00 pm

The hotel in Ranvas Fort in Nagaur really is spectacular; the surroundings and staff all give the impression of royalty; it is nice to be treated as such. Alas, we have to leave and do so after a delicious breakfast – where Mamta thankfully is well enough to have Paranthas.

Paranthas or Parathas, or even Parauthas? Spelling in India using the Latin alphabet is less of an exact science than you might think; the Devaganari alphabet used for Hindi has a lot of sounds that cannot be faithfully represented, so approximations abound.

A similar somewhat slapdash approach to spelling of English words is something Iain cannot help but point out whenever he sees an example. Just today, we saw a “Gest House” next to an “Air Streep”, a billboard for a “Uniersity”, a menu containing both “Chiken” and “Has Browns” and a street vendor with a “Water Trolly” 🙂

Jaisalmer is only 150km from the border with Pakistan, and along with other cities close to the India/Pakistan border is host to several large military bases. On today’s trip, we saw lots of evidence of this as apparently several regiments are in the process of relocating from one base to another – on the road going the opposite direction from us we saw hundreds of army trucks along with associated artillery, anti aircraft and support vehicles, as well as a large number of APCs.

We also passed through the area used for the Indian nuclear tests done many years ago now, although thankfully it did not look like they tested any such weapons today.

I never tire of driving in India; every day, they throw up a new spectacle for us. For example, it is becoming obvious that in rural areas at least, it is the women that do all the manually demanding work: till the fields, collect and carry the firewood, do the washing, etc. The men are left to do all of the planning, discussing and driving that needs to be done for the family – a reasonable distribution of work, it seems to me 🙂

As we pass further into the eastern desert, the number of animals on the road increases too. Cows meander slowly around the landscape on and off the roads both alone, in small groups, and in large herds, and as the Hindus consider them holy, they naturally take no notice of cars or other traffic. “As indifferent as an Indian cow” is very indifferent indeed.

Fortunately, the lower population density also means that the road is straighter, and in most places actually of higher quality than it was yesterday. Long straights with little traffic is great, although most of the time the road surface itself actually undulates quite a bit, inducing a distinct sense reminiscent of turbulence when driving along, juddering and shaking.

The roads of India also have some of the most impressive speed bumps I have ever experienced: most of them are effectively unmarked cliff faces spanning the width of the road, just waiting to catch the unwary. Many of them are actually marked: With piles of rubble arranged in a line on both sides of the road, as a symbolic extension of the speed bump itself. The issue of course is that the roadside already is strewn with rubble, and it can be hard to spot when it’s meant to indicate that it’s wise to slow down to no more than 5 km/h…

The biggest bumps are before railway crossings, of which have seen quite a few. The authorities clearly do not want anyone to race across the crossing just before a train arrives, so the bumps here are truly enormous. Just to be on the safe side, the operators (who sit in a little hut next to the crossing when no trains are due) also lower the booms as much as 5 minutes before a train arrives, giving everyone ample time to get off the crossing even if a breakdown should occur there.

Speaking of breakdowns, have I talked about the lorries at all? They come in many varieties, but there is a special very common model that I have come to think of as the workhorse of Indian road-based shipping. Most of them look terribly old and worn, and all sport prominently painted words like “HORN OK PLEASE” to encourage more India-like honking. They also have a sign saying “40 kmh”, which I assume means that they are not allowed to go any faster than that – and many go quite a bit slower.

At the same time, they are both almost indestructible and extremely versatile, carrying enormous loads well beyond their nominal carrying capacity. Many lorries have stacks of stuff on top, in boxes or bags, often as much as 3 meters, making them look extremely top-heavy. Others again have huge bags strapped to the tops and sides, filled with grain or hay or something, nearly doubling the width of them at the base.

With just a single lane road full of these, it is no wonder that the average speed is lower than might be expected – and the tractors are much slower than the lorries, also often carrying huge loads. Today, we found ourselves overtaking a lorry, which itself was overtaking a tractor with a big trailer – and coming the other way was a car overtaking a military lorry. Just another day on the road in India!

And speaking of carrying capacity, a jeep can carry 8 people if they aren’t too big and squeeze in. At least that is what I thought, but we saw several today (taking people to work?) with so many people sitting and standing both in and on them that it’s hard to count. Our driver says that it’s common to have as many as 25 or 30 people in a jeep!!

As we finally approached Jaisalmer, we saw a new phenomenon: bike touts. This is a pair of people on motorbikes driving quickly and very close to tourist mini buses like ours, handing over pamphlets and shouting price information, all to try to entice tourists to go to a particular hotel. The ingenuity of Indians when it comes to finding ways of selling stuff never ceases to amaze me 🙂

Jaisalmer is called the “Golden City” as its buildings are made almost entirely of yellow sandstone. I hope to see more of that tomorrow – tonight, it was covered in a huge, smelly layer of smog that reduced visibility almost to Delhi-levels and made breathing unpleasant. Hopefully tomorrow will be a clear day as we visit the famous Jaisalmer Fort.

Tonight, we saw a puppet show, something that Rajastan is famous for and that Mr Prakash recommended. It was a very well-attended event with some beautifully designed dolls, but accompanied by very lengthy descriptions of the show and background in Hindi that I could have done without. Some of the explanations were in English too, but those were also too long for my taste 🙂

At dinner in a local restaurant and in the hotel afterwards (as I write this), power went out several times for several minutes. It feels like we in some ways really are at the edge of civilisation here!