India 5: A Jaunt to Jodhpur

‘Twas the weekend and the time for my maiden venture into Rajasthan. Having learned from my Haridwar near-misadventure, I made sure I arrived at Delhi station an hour ahead of time, and it’s a good thing I did: this time, the train display board was correctly showing platform 16, but only platforms 1 through 13 seemed to exist. After asking random people and some brisk walking (have I mentioned that Indian train platforms are really, really, really long?), it transpired that platforms 16 through 18 are hidden behind the building, next to platform 12, at the opposite end of platform 13. With the platform spotted, finding the train was easy enough: I located my bunk and clambered on board for my first overnight train trip in India.

First impressions were about par with expectations: air-con two-tier sleepers (“AC2”) are spartan but clean and functional, with a neat pile of bedding already awaiting me. There were six bunks, one row parallel to the tracks, two perpendicular to it, with upper and lower beds in each, and I had an upper perpendicular bunk. The train chugged off on schedule, swaying far less than Malaysia’s narrow-gauge equivalents, and I stretched back, looking forward to a good night’s sleep after a more than usually stressful week at work.

No such luck. The beds were about 10 cm too short for me, and while I could poke my feet out the curtain, if I did so the constant parade of people up and down the narrow hallway bumped them all the time. A flourescent light in the middle of the hallway stayed on, shining bright and clear through the night. There was no secure place to store my backpack, so I had to share my pillow with it. But what pushed me over the edge were my bunkmates, three out of five of whom snored. The guy below me kept his volume down to inoffensive levels, while the guy across the aisle in the upper bunk was stentorian in volume when in full form, but usually stayed silent. My nemesis was in the bunk opposite mine, without even a curtain in the way: he alternated between regular log-sawing and supercharged exhalations like somebody forcefully jumping onto an airbag, the transition between the two states always marked by a disturbing sequence of frantic, gibbering squeaks of the type most of us resort to only when being forcibly sodomized by tentacle monsters. Around 1 AM, four hours after departure, I started seriously contemplating homicide — and I then realized I could hang by bag from the little hook above the window and lock it to the railing. With an additional square foot of space thus obtained, and a temporary lull in the trio, I finally managed to fall asleep.

Around 6 AM the chai-sellers started volubly touting their wares and I invested three rupees in a cup of sweet and milky goodness. We were scheduled to arrive at 8 AM, but the train rumbled on until 8:30, paused for the better part of an hour for no obvious reason, then pulled into Jodhpur station just a few min down the line at 9:20.

One of Jodhpur‘s epithets is the Sun City, located as it is next to the Thar Desert in the western reaches of Rajasthan, so needless to say it had been drizzling all morning and the city was a quagmire of mud. (This is about par for course for me: my first visits to each of the Negev, the Sinai and the Dead Sea, on separate trips at that, have all been marked by rain or, in the case of the Sinai, snow.) The guesthouse sent a guy on a bike to pick me up and we merrily splashed through the puddles, the wrong side of the road and across a field to Durag Niwas, an exuberantly colorful family-run place at the edge of town. I chowed down on a bowl of porridge, pausing occasionally to spit out small rocks, and planned my day ahead.

My first stop was the obvious one: Mehrangarh Fort, founded at the same time as Jodhpur itself and acting not only a defensive bastion, but the Maharaja’s palace as well. It succeeds superbly on both counts: 3 km in diameter, it completely dominates Jodhpur’s skyline and projects a sense of awesome power (with reason: it has never been taken by force), but the inside of the fort hides not just delicately carved sandstone lattices of the palace and its harem, but disco-like entertainment rooms of colored glass and, (for me) most surprisin of all, a large garden within the ramparts, used to this day to cultivate produce. By far Jodhpur’s top attraction, it was well set up with an audioguide system that explains finer points of art and history, plus a wide assortment of living photo-ops in the form of turbaned guys banging on drums or smoking opium (yes, the real thing) from a hubble-bubble — it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. I spent a good three hours wandering around, snapping away like crazy, and on my way back down the hill paid a visit to Jaswant Thada. Built by one of the maharaja’s wives as a tribute to him (how’s that for a Valentine’s Day gift?), it’s just a tiny fraction of the fort’s size but pretty as a pearl and picturesquely perched above a little lake.

In the evening, I completed Jodhpur’s trio by zooming across town to Umaid Bhawan Palace, which holds the honor of being India’s newest royal palace (completed 1944) and is now split in two: one half is still inhabited by HH the Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, but the other half has been taken over by Taj Hotels, who rent out rooms for a token US$575 a night. Even at that price they seem to have no shortage of takers, as the maitre d’ claimed full occupancy as in order to stop riffraff like me from entering their terrace restaurant. Fortunately, his heart melted when I truthfully claimed that it was my last night in Jodhpur (neglecting to mention that it was also my first), and I was granted a seat at a table by the back, away from the garden and its views over the city. The next two non-resident couples who showed up weren’t as lucky — or maybe they were?

Shortly after I placed my order, it became clear that the flashes of light on the horizon weren’t just for show, and by the time the pot of Rajasthani lamb curry showed up, the palace was hit by a veritable thunderstorm. Tablecloths flew, cutlery clattered to the floor and, while covered by a good ten meters of roof, I was still gently spritzed with rain whenever the wind gusted the wrong way. I chowed down on my pilau, dipped my naan, crunched my poppadums and, by the time I’d finished, was the only guest still braving the tempest outside. I opted to finish my large bottle of rather aptly named Royal Challenge beer inside and, as a token of gratitude, the harried staff neglected to enforce the Rs. 1500 cover, allowing me to slip away for a token Rs. 1340 — or slightly more than my overnight train and guesthouse combined.

Fabric sellers at Sardar Market, Jodhpur Next morning Jodhpur was its usual Sun City self and, after a truly terrible attempt at scrambled eggs that resembled the porridge (if minus the rocks), I set off to the city center on foot. You can really feel the edge of the desert in Jodhpur: unlike the Arab world’s Bedouins, who mostly bash dunes in Land Cruisers and watch satellite TV on their goat-hair tents, the open fields just outside Jodhpur are filled with scraggly nomad camps complete with camels, and Rajasthani women walk around in amazingly colorful dress topped with veils in order to keep both sand and people’s gazes out. Today, though, the air was wonderfully clean and the temperature was just about perfect for walking: warm in the sun, nippy in the shade.

Nai Sawak, Jodhpur’s main shopping drag, terminates at the Sardar Market, a riotous Indian explosion of sights, sounds and stinks. I chowed down on a delectable 6-rupee samosa outside, then headed in, stepping about even more carefully that usual as its alleys were flooded with mud from yesterday’s storm. In addition to the usual profusion of spices, fruits, saris, bangles, utensils, screwdrivers, DVDs and cow poop, Sardar Market seems to specialize in omelettes (thanks to a recommendation for “The Omelette Shop” in Lonely Planet) and steel scrap, with most of the east portion devoted to the noisy disassembly of refridgerators and ancient stereos.

After I’d had my fill, I complemented the samosa with a rawa kachori (onion puff) and headed back in reverse, pausing only to pick up a few bottles of 8% Cobra Gold beer and gawp briefly at another riotously noisy and colorful (I’m starting to run out of adjectives) wedding procession banging and firecracking its way through the streets. I settled down on a quiet bench at a playground near the guesthouse, and amazed at finding a spot in India that was simultaneously quiet, pretty, cool and clean (an unimaginable combo in Delhi), whiled away the rest of the afternoon with a Murakami Haruki book.

Jodhpur Airport (JDH) reminds me of Indonesia’s provincial airports, although with a grand total of 4 flights a day it’s even sleepier. (The present cozy Indian/Jet duopoly is about to be shaken up though, as Deccan has announced cheapo flights from March.) It’s fairly new, thoroughly unstylish (although the exterior is shaped like an ersatz Rajput palace of blue and white), filled with police in offputting shades of brown and facilities are limited to a few tiny gift shops with extortionate prices (Rs.40 for a can of Thums Up?). The only item of food in sight was a solitary Veg Puff on the Cafe Coffee Day counter; after hearing that my flight was delayed by at least 1:30, I snatched it up and settled in for a fast. Airtel had kindly provided a phone charging point, which didn’t work, but at least the electricity outlet for it did and, thanks to my Huawei data card, it was surfin’ time.

We were eventually let into security and The Gate, but in a surprise touch Indian mollified its passengers with a free cup of coffee/chai from the solitary gift shop within. Soon enough, a mere hour after we were supposed to leave, an Airbus (still painted in the old IA livery) roared onto the tarmac and another half hour later we were let out onto the tarmac to clamber on board.

This plane was easily the crappiest-looking Airbus I’ve ever rode on: I though Thai’s A300s were museum pieces, but this A320 must have been one of the first off the assembly line, all beige plastic and scuffed fabrics. My seat pocket, for example, was torn open at the button and could only hold things if the tray was fastened shut. The windows were so beat up it was hard to see outside, although as I was sitting over the wing on a night flight I wasn’t missing much.

But soon after takeoff Indian surprised me: on this flight of slightly under an hour, we were served not just a piece of candy, but a full warm meal: rice, palak paneer, dal makhani, chapattis, pickle, mithai, a box of juice and a bottle of water. The meal was catered by TajSATS, the joint venture of the hotel behind the aforementioned maharaja’s palace and the catering wing of Singapore Airlines, and while not quite gourmet it hit the spot very nicely. Score one for state-run behemoths.

We arrived at Delhi, and spent another forty minutes lazily looping over it while we waited for a slot to land. Once on the ground, two buses most emphatically not of the low-floor variety (score minus one for protectionism) arrived to pick us up, and after corpulent grannies had huffed and puffed to hauled their bare bellies and bulky belongings on board we headed for the terminal. With no check-in bags I breezed out to meet my driver — and then spent the next half hour in a traffic jam trying to get out of the airport. Welcome back to Dilli!