PUSHIN’ AND SHOVIN’ SADHUS

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
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162
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Trip End Feb 28, 2013


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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

NOVEMBER 27, 2012
BIKANER TO JAISALMER BY TRAIN, 6 HOURS 
STAY: MUD MIRROR GUESTHOUSE

We set the alarm at 6am for a 7:20 train departure to Jaisalmer. We still had to get across town to another train station (>4km). Singh got us an auto rickshaw and spared us the fare negotiation process. 

In the darkness of the predawn morning, we passed groups of people, mostly men, huddled around small wood, garbage and dung warming fires, hands firmly wrapped around steaming cups of chai!

 
The train station was a beehive activity, most people were draped in shawls and blankets. All eyes were on us, it is not every day that they see a pair of senior whities carrying heavy backpacks. We crossed the bridge to platform 2 and were shocked to see it filled with people. Our whole train was all 'unreserved' seats. It is only the night train that has reserved sleeper class. My instinct told me to follow an Indian man who walked with a purpose. I figured he knew the right place to wait. It turned out he was there to help his aging parents get a seat on the train. He told us for the next three days, there is a special celebration at a temple 50 km west. Normally the train would not be busy. A crowd formed around us and people don’t hide their stares. Our new friend said he would try to hold a seat for us too.

An announcement was made and tensions rose. People started moving to the edge of the platform. "Whatever you do," our friend said, “do not try to jump on the train as it is still moving.” I must have impressed him as an anxious gymnast ready to get a move on.  As soon as the train came to a semi-halt, men, women, old and young, Sadhus and other holy men, with their spears, sabers, and gaudy walking sticks, pushed and shoved like their lives depended on it. It was mayhem. I finally got a grip and maintained a tight hold on both side bars. People tried ducking under my arms and pulled on my pack. Eventually, I popped out INSIDE the train. My pack got stuck on someone’s luggage. I heard our friend call out to me. And the three yards to get to him was a gauntlet. I managed to get the seat he held but he lost the seat across the aisle that he was trying to save for Dave to a crazy eyed Sadhu. Now our friend had to make it over the bodies and luggage carpeting the aisle to get back to the platform before the train departed. What a guy! (SEE VIDEO) 

  

About an hour later, as we approached the village of Phalodi, the holy crowd cheered as they left the train in search of redemption at the temple. And soon, we had space. The Thar Desert remained unchanged for the duration of the six hour trip. It was a lot greener than we remembered from our visit here 22 years earlier. 

 
A young engineer, on his way to inspect a large solar energy plant in a town about an hour before Jaisalmer, helped us secure the window in the open position with folded pieces of cardboard and paper. He wanted to know all about our travels. The time flew by.

 
 
About 2 hours before arrival in Jaisalmer, touts for hotels and camel safaris boarded the train and started working on the passengers. Curiously they passed us by saying they knew we already had reservations. It was a mystery how they knew. There must be an active grapevine.

Surya, owner of Mud MIrror Guesthouse, came to the station and put us in an auto rickshaw to take us to the hotel. Had we been alone, we would have paid triple for that.

As we approached the immense fort, raising up out of the desert, memories came flooding back to us of our previous stay here in 1990. We drove though several massive ports with enormous doors, only auto rickshaws and motors can go beyond this point. We walked the final 100 meters to the guesthouse. The village outside the walls has grown and modernized but remains behind the times like many Indian towns.  Inside the fort is a vibrant living city too, with a labyrinth of foot paths leading to restaurants guesthouses, temples, a palace and gift shops. There is philosophical tension between those that want to maintain the fort as it was, and remove the commercialization and modernization, and those families who have lived inside for generations and want to improve their properties and lifestyles. We support the living city concept and booked a guesthouse built in the wall.

 
Our room in Mud Mirror was large and pleasantly decorated, red mud colored walls, carpets, and wall hangings, unusual for ‘low cost’ accommodation. The view from our bathroom window was fantastic as were the views from the two windows in our room. The awning covered rooftop restaurant was the highest inside the fort and provided 360 degree views. The famous Jain temple (5 temples really) were within 50 meters. The brothers, who run the place, try hard but tend to be forgetful and slow to respond. And they have a young waiter who is friendly and smiles but doesn’t speak English, not a good strategy for a business catering to western clientele. With only four rooms, they don’t want to carry any unnecessary overhead. To us, the food left much to be desired. However, the stupendous views trumped the shortcomings of the place.

 
 
The crazy morning on the over-crowded train became a memory not to be forgotten. We began to focus on Jaisalmer, the 856 year old sandstone relic. LP’s syrupy description of the citadel reads “Rising like a sandcastle from the deserts of Rajasthan, the ‘Land of Kings’, Jaisalmer’s 12th century citadel looks more like something from a dream than reality. The enormous golden sandstone fort, with its crenellated ramparts and undulating towers, is a fantastical structure, even while camouflaged against the desert sand. Inside, an ornate royal palace, fairytale havelis, intricately carved Jain temples and narrow lanes conspire to create the world’s best place to get lost. But we will save that for our next blog entry. Right now we’ll just laugh about the crazy train ride, an unforgettable experience which we appreciate but will not do again, if we can avoid it.
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