Before boarding the 11:45 night train from Jodhpur, I knew just a couple things about Rajasthan’s desert city to the west, Jaisalmer.
1. Its nickname is the Golden City.
2. It has a fort.
3. It borders the Thar Desert, where you can ride out into the dunes on camels and spend the night.
While planning our route back in Korea, we almost cut Jaisalmer from the Rajasthan list: too far west, we thought, with so many other places we wanted to see. But when we realized the train ride there from Jodhpur was only six hours (and re-read the description in our Rough Guide, which calls Jaisalmer the “quintessential desert town”), it reclaimed its place on our ever-changing itinerary.
At 5:30 a.m. the train station was dark and crowded, men approaching us on the shadowy platform: excuse me sir, where you go, I take you 30 rupees, no problem as we walked on, scanning faces for our hotel’s pick up. He turned out to be a boy, maybe 14, holding a piece of white paper, COURTNEY written across it in blue ink.
The only bathroom was filthy, doorless, and full of men, so I waited outside it for Joe, standing between the train and the station, people layed out around me under blankets on the concrete.
At the Surja Hotel, the boy led us up a narrow staircase into a room called Star, its name hand painted above the scalloped door frame. (Across the hall: Maharaja.) Inside, a sheer red curtain hung over two windows that opened up onto a tiny sitting balcony, its curved parameter just big enough for two.
It was here, sitting on a red cushion and peering over the balcony as the Call To Prayer began in the morning dark, that we noticed the sandstone towers on either side and realized the fort of Jaisalmer made up a whole section of the city–The Old City–and looked like a castle, and that our hotel was tucked inside it.
We slipped out of our room and walked to the roof. Three square seats–cushioned in blue pillows–jutted out from the edge and overlooked the city, which had started to sharpen in the lightening dark. The buildings were brushed in shades of sand: beige, taupe, pale yellow, gold. Just one wall stood out, a puzzle of pink.
Where Jaisalmer met the horizon a row of windmills turned in the dawn. The air was cold, cutting through my clothes as we descended on the cushions and watched, waiting for the sun to arrive, to cast light on the castle, the landscape of roofs, the oncoming day.