Desert Sojourn

Sun, sand and profound beauty draw visitors to India's remote Thar Desert.

December 25, 2005|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

The camel dropped to its knees, then fell to its haunches before I clambered off its back to await darkness' arrival over the desert.

It was evening on the dunes, but the sun still burned brightly. My throat turned dry, my lips chapped. For relief, I collapsed onto the shady side of a dune, only to heat my hands and feet in the soft sand particles cascading around them.

In the end, the only escape was to climb back on the camel and gallop over the dunes and through the superheated dryness. As the driver clucked to direct the mount, the smell of dung filled my nostrils, and my back ached from the bumpy ride.

Maybe the trip wasn't always pleasant, but it was some solitude -- not luxury -- that brought my wife, Sumathi, and me to India's Thar Desert.

Our desert safari was a welcome break during a hectic nine-day journey through Rajasthan, one of India's most popular tourist destinations.

For two days, we rode a camel, watched the sun and viewed the stars from the sandy flatness. We stayed in one of 20 desert tent camps not far from the Pakistan border. The camp was so remote, in fact, that scores of miles before arriving we passed the site where India tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

Droves of tourists descend on the state in western India. They pack its medieval forts and sandstone cities. They lap up its history of warrior kings battling Mogul invaders. And they huddle around glistening swords and the royals' intricate miniature artwork.

Our tour around Rajasthan at the end of October was certainly entrancing.

It started in stately Udaipur, where we gazed from the balcony of the filigreed city palace across a sunswept lake to the dusty mountains beyond. On the roof of our Jaipur hotel, we craned our necks to watch fireworks crackle without end during the holiday of Diwali.

Inside the grand Jain temple at Ranakapur, we sauntered through 29 soaring halls supported by 1,444 pillars, all intricately carved with Hindu deities, animals and nymphs playing flutes. Just outside a busy bazaar in Jodhpur, we sampled yogurt drinks called lassis so thick that we had to eat them with a spoon.

But Rajasthan's many sites provide little peace and quiet. At the Hindu temple in Eklingji, we jostled with an impatient, sometimes angry crowd for a glimpse of a statue of the god. As we entered the sanctuary, shouting and shoving erupted in the line behind us, requiring police to restore calm.

To get to the Thar desert, we traveled to the sandswept city of Jaisalmer, worth a stop in itself.

During a half-day walking tour of Jaisalmer's massive hilltop fortress, we saw cows lounging on the twisting cobblestone streets, lazily flapping their tails in the heat. Our guide bought us ladoo -- sugary balls of flour, ghee and cardamom -- that melted in our dry mouths.

An hour's drive from Jaisalmer that afternoon was our Thar retreat, the Rajasthan Desert Safari Camp.

Desert camp

The drive there was a spectacle in itself. Camels shared the road with military caravans heading to border outposts. We passed fields of barley and mustard and herds of sheep and goats. Soon, we left the asphalt road to climb a bumpy, twisting, sandy path.

The camp was a modest place, with about 35 canvas tents, a sandy courtyard, stucco office and patio, where spicy buffets were served and musical revues performed for guests reclining on pillows. Rathore Dez, manager of the camp, said it will have 108 tents and a rock garden when completed.

The tents were classified deluxe or standard depending on whether they had a dirt floor. The queen-size bed in our deluxe tent rested on a jute rug. There was a tiled bathroom in back, nightstands and a few chairs. Mosquito netting covered the window flaps.

Air conditioning was not necessary because the temperature dipped at night. The shower consisted of a pail and bucket, as do most showers in India. An orderly fetched hot water from the office.

But not everything was spare. Before dinner most nights in the desert, we feasted on boiled peanuts and crispy onion pekoras. At dinner, we had our choice of rich mutton curry, garlicky yellow lentils called dal, and other Indian and Rajasthani specialties. We washed it all down with Kingfisher, a golden Indian lager.

A troupe of musicians and dancers provided the nightly entertainment, including such tricks as standing on a bed of nails. A young musician led two children from the audience to the dance floor, and the kids hopped around grinning. Bengali Indians requested old standards, which the singers crooned.

Camel ride

Most tourists who make it to the Thar Desert take an evening's camel ride into the desert to watch the sunset, then return to their comfortable city hotels in Jaisalmer. Some friends who had gone a few months earlier saw a sandstorm.

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