Onboard India's desert train: from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer
Travel deep into the Land of Kings on the adventurous passenger route from the ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur to lesser-visited Jaisalmer, its gold-hued buildings set amid the devastating beauty of the desert.
Our train has barely begun to brake into the station when I hear the familiar sound of sandalled feet slapping on the ground followed by the excited cries of vendors passing baskets. Those who got off are now ambling towards the exit while the rest of us gather at the train’s doorways for a tussle with the passengers attempting to board. It’s 13 years since I first encountered the quirks of Indian railways and it feels like coming home. I’ve arrived in Jodhpur from Jaipur to embark upon a desert train adventure to Jaisalmer in the west of Rajasthan, not far from the Pakistan border, but I’ve got some time to kill before my connection, so set off to explore the blue-walled city.
On my last visit to Jodhpur, I bought pouches of pepper, rocks of quartz-like salt and sat around the medieval-style haveli courtyard at Khaas Bagh hotel eating silky mutton laal maans curry, smoking cinnamon beedi cigarettes and seeing little of the city beyond the showstopping, 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort, whose hulking mass of red sandstone towers above the city. So this time, I delve deeper into Jodhpur with a guide, Mahaveer Singh, who arrives in a beret and waistcoat, wearing a pair of ballooning black jodhpurs, tight to the knee. Expecting the clang of temple bells and rev of mopeds, I hear little but fat pigeons cooing in the archways as we wander around the old city’s indigo houses with their mint-green shutters, the alleys four-people wide. Mahaveer sets off down a passage of houses brighter than the sky, stopping briefly to rub at the cobalt-coloured paint with his fingers. “The foul smell of indigo keeps mosquitoes away,” he says, sharing that indigo pigment is produced by a herbal plant. All I can smell, however, is the aroma of pan-fried paratha bread.
Nailed to sandstone walls are Coca-Cola bottles cut in half to make vases, slapped with paint and filled with pink carnations, alongside cubby holes housing deities wrapped in silk that a passer-by stops to clean. Mostly inhabited by members of the Brahmin caste, there’s a strong sense of community here, with windows and doors left open and residents squatting in groups. “In the old cities, the elderly play cards and gossip — they know everyone and feel safe, so don’t want to move anywhere else,” explains Mahaveer. “Their children get married and go to the big cities, but they’ll stay,” he tells me, adding, “I’m born around Jodhpur, never left Jodhpur, never felt like leaving Jodhpur — but I know Jaisalmer is beautiful.”
At this moment, I don’t much feel like leaving Jodhpur either, having just begun to scratch beneath its facade, but my train is departing within the hour so we swing by Sardar Market to grab some fruit and snacks for the journey. At one end, queues are forming for makhaniya lassi (a fragrant yoghurt drink made with saffron and rose water) at Shri Mishrilal Hotel, carts are crushing sugar cane into juice and, at the other end, Ghanshyam Gawlani, the ‘omelette man’, is frying masala creamy cheese omelette sandwiches — crisp squares that ooze hot Amul cheese. Wrapping up two more for the train, I head back to Jodhpur Junction where the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer passenger special is yet to arrive. Travellers are perched on boxes or lying on the platform using bags as pillows and watching soaps on their phones. The digital carriage markers aren’t working, so I hover with the crowd, most of whom aren’t actually travelling but who have gathered for chats and that uniquely Indian descriptor, ‘timepass’. Then a cream engine roars into view and the platform galvanises into action: cartons are lifted onto heads, children are hauled by the wrists and polite but firm fingers poke into the backs of those in front of them to encourage them up the steps.
In the desert heat, my seat is already hot to the touch as a game of musical chairs ensues. However, with some raised palms and few nods, everyone shuffles around to accommodate one another. One passenger climbs up to his berth to watch a Hindi film on YouTube, leaving me the entire lower berth to stretch out on and enjoy unobstructed views from the window. Everything seems in order and on cue; a chaiwallah (tea-seller) calls out as he climbs aboard with his vat, followed by a second vendor selling ear pods, toy cricket sets and packets of moisture-wicking socks made in China. I’m often entertained by the tat touted on board, but today I glance down at my sockless feet in sweaty trainers and am thrilled to make a purchase. Two minutes and 100 rupees (£1) later, I pull my dry feet into a cross-legged position and get comfy by the window as the horn blares and the train pulls out of the station, past a flurry of lemon emigrant butterflies, scattered like confetti.
Within minutes, we’re clattering along the backs of houses, gathering pace as the warm breeze billows into a hot wind that tears at my hair and clothing, dust flying into my eyes. Pulling on a hat, I look out at camels tethered in backyards, coloured underwear clipped to washing lines and groups of women hoisting trays of bricks, their nose studs twinkling in the sun. Given its position, flung far into the western corner of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer isn’t as easily reachable as Udaipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur, common stops on most tours around the Land of Kings. There’s a dearth of fast, well-catered services covering this rail route, which makes the journey something of an exciting challenge — there’s no pantry car on board, few vendors and the seating is often unreserved. But six hours at an open window watching herders tend to their goats, tribal women sift grain in doorways and fields of flowering millet make it worth the dust and heat.
From the town of Mandore onwards, the scene turns rural: women with scythes appear from neck-high meadows, the monsoon having refreshed the thirsty ground. We pass huts shaped like mushrooms, children swinging on tyres tied to trees and village mandirs — small white temples — with single flags on top. An elderly man wearing a traditional pagri turban boards and begins to busk on a ravanhatha — a stringed wooden instrument — that brings my neighbour down from his berth to offer money. Abhishek Sharma is a 24-year-old from Ayodhya working as an engineer for the Indian Air Force, which has a base at Phalodi, en route. His work is secret and he won’t tell me what he does, but he enjoys the journey from his parents’ home to work: “Here you have different views, different culture, different food — and I make friends,” he says, pulling out his phone to find me on Instagram. “But this isn’t a tourist train. Tourists aren’t often travelling on this long, hot train. They take the sleeper. You’re unusual.” I glance around. There are no other tourists on the train — certainly no foreign tourists at least — the majority of passengers seem to be members of the air force, dressed in khaki and heavy boots. Abhishek shifts up to the window and points at the abundance of star-shaped purple flowers I’m admiring along the track. “Very beautiful. It’s like a rubber tree, used for worshipping Shiva, but if you get the liquid in your eyes, you’ll go blind.” I make a mental note to look but not touch.
For a couple of hours, there’s a lull as the late-afternoon heat overwhelms everyone. All I can see are the soles of feet flopped to the side. Saris are draped over heads. Limp arms swing in the aisles. Grateful for my omelette sandwiches, still warm, I sit down on the steps in the open doorway and watch the empty landscape pass by, stony, thorny and still. No wind, no movement, just sand and sunshine, and our train cutting through the silence. We pass an unmanned crossing where motorbikes wait at the edges, toddlers wearing anklets and eyeliner clinging to mothers sitting sideways. A passenger leans out over my head to make a call and I wander back to my seat, only six of us left in the carriage as we near the final destination.
Outside, the ground has turned to gold, the shadows of cacti growing longer as the sun begins to drop down in the sky, swirling like an eye behind a cloud. The sense of arrival stirs the sleeping bodies as the train begins to belt across the desert, wind beating through the windows. The butterflies are in a frenzy, the birds chirping wildly and a couple of peacocks scarper up the dunes, raking tracks with their tails. On we go, the wheels thudding as sunset begins, the air shimmering and the ridges of Jaisalmer Fort rising into view. And for a brief moment, everything turns to gold: the sand, the light, the skies. Then we slow down, and with a wail and a hiss, we glide into Jaisalmer station and jerk to a halt. Passengers amble off the train, Abhishek waves from the footbridge, and I hop down the steps, ready to embrace the next adventure.
How to do it: Tailor-made travel specialists Hayes & Jarvis offer two nights at The Rohet House in Jodhpur, train travel, two nights in Jaisalmer, and walking tours of both cities, starting at £690 per person, as an add-on to longer itineraries like the 15-day luxury tour of Rajasthan, from £3,299 per person, including two nights at the Leela Palace Hotel Jaipur. Excluding international flights.
More info: House of Rohet, The Leela.
Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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