Reliving the caravan days of old through Rajasthan
This month Yeoh Siew Hoon enjoys chai and chatter in breathtaking India
Taking a walk through the fort is an adventure in itself as you avoid the tuk-tuks, cows, dogs, camels, motorbikes and anything that passes off as transport in India.
It’s been a week since I returned from my seven-day trip through the state of Rajasthan, India, and my mind is still trying to grapple with what I’ve seen, smelled, tasted, experienced – and oh, bought.
That’s Mother India for you – a force so earthy, so overwhelming and so incredible it’s hard to take it all in, even after you’ve left her.
Firstly, the new Delhi airport is a dramatic improvement from the old one. Our three-hour wait for another friend arriving from Bangkok was comfortable. To start off the journey on the right note, we had dosai and chai masala for breakfast.
Outside, our mini-van and driver awaited. Morkut, 29 and hailing from Rajasthan (recognisable by the single earring men wear in these parts), was our driver for the next week– and what a delight he turned out to be. Always smiling, dressed impeccably in his uniform and ever proud to show off his homeland to our merry band of five women from South-east Asia.
We decided to stay away from the usual Golden Triangle – Delhi-Agra-Jaipur – and start off with the lesser-known part of Rajasthan.
On our first night, we stayed at Castle Mandawa, an old castle owned by two brothers. One brother restored and converted his half into a hotel, while the other decided to leave it as is – so the hotel looks half-finished from the outside.
The next morning, we took a walking tour of Mandawa. It’s a historic town known for a good collection of havelis from the 17th century. Our guide had plenty of stories to share with us.
We learnt that “haveli” means “wind house”, derived from Persian. They provided shelter for the traders of old, who plied the caravan routes between India and Pakistan and India and Iran, trading in spices, silk, opium, gold and silver.
Today, these caravans have been replaced by caravans of tourists like us, who go from town to town on this route, keeping cottage industries alive.
It was good to know that we helped to keep generations of spice traders, carpet weavers and fabric merchants alive.
We visited cottage industries in every town and walked away with more rugs, carpets and shawls than we could possibly need. It is hard to resist the sale when it’s wrapped up in a good story, and believe me, the ones we met were good at their art.
We ate in lots of restaurants and the food on this trip was very good. For us from South-east Asia, the food’s not as foreign to our palate but I can imagine that European travellers would have difficulty with eating curry everyday. (In which case, grilled sandwiches are a good alternative.)
In Jaisalmer, we visited India’s oldest living fort. Taking a walk through the fort is an adventure in itself as you avoid the tuk-tuks, cows, dogs, camels, motorbikes and anything that passes off as transport in India.
We stopped at a tea stall for chai and chatter with some locals who were curious where we were from. When we asked why vehicles were allowed inside an ancient fort (it made sense to pedestrianise it, we thought), one man shook his head and said, “Many things are not allowed in India but everything is possible.”
Later that day, we drove to the semi-desert for our camel rides. We learnt that strictly speaking, these are not camels, but dromedas, because of their single hump.
I could have done without “Peter” dogging me and my camel’s heels at every step, trying to sell me Coca-cola, but I enjoyed the short ride. It takes some getting used to but once you’re up and learn to roll with this wonderfully dignified-looking animal, it’s actually quite fun.
This was only a taste of things to come and we found ourselves transported to a tented camp in the desert sands of Manwar.
Under the half moon and stars, and a small fire, we watched Rajasthani folk music and dance. And as the men sang and played their instruments, women danced and swirled their colourful skirts and the camels waited patiently, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect moment.
Of course, I could also say this of the sunrise as I sat outside my tent watching the desert stir to life, or the sunset out on the desert, or the antelopes, or the baby goat trying taking its first steps 10 minutes after birth or …
As I said, I am still grappling and I suspect will continue to do so for a while, because that’s just what a trip to India does to all travellers who accept her with a strong spirit and open mind.