It’s quarter to five in the morning. We have arrived in the desert city of Jaisalmer in the far west of Rajasthan just 100km from the Pakistan border. It has been dubbed the Golden City due to the honey coloured sandstone from which the glorious Fort is built, but it is far from golden at this moment. The dark and cold envelop us and everything is shut, unwelcoming and unfamiliar. I can feel vulnerable at times like these so it is with relief that as we pause to get our bearings we see the glow of a brazier beneath a pan of steaming milk. We find a bench in the small store room behind the chai pans out of the wind and wrap ourselves in the pink fluffy blanket we bought to bring us some comfort through the night journey. We look ridiculous but anything goes in this country. Gone is my bid to look chic … I simply want to be warm! Beside us two large fridges are covered in newspaper clippings celebrating the number of competitions this chai-wallah has won for his tea and the delicious saffron milk which is a speciality here. Indeed this chai turns out to be the best we’ve had so far. Scalding hot, not too milky, the spicy heat of ginger and just the right amount of sugar. It is addictive and fortifying and three cups later we feel strong enough to bargain a tuk-tuk ride to the Fort.
The cool morning air whips around us in the open sided three-wheeler as our driver negotiates the twisting lanes, narrow arches and open drains on the short journey to the base of the Fort. We walk through the imposing first gate and against the gradually lightening sky we get a silhouette of the Fort which will be our home for the next ten days. I have been here before on a previous visit to Northern India eleven years ago so I am retracing my footsteps. Standing beneath the towering walls it is not so much a visual memory that returns but a physical memory of my feet having met these worn stone cobbles once before, and the feeling of my smallness and softness against this magnificent, battle hardened structure that looms above us. It is an unforgettable experience. We begin the walk that proud Maharajas, beautiful queens, soldiers – both friend and foe – camels and traders have made throughout its 850 year history. We pass vast wooden gates adorned with spikes to prevent elephants from forcing them open when the Fort has been under siege and high on the top of the walls lie great sandstone balls ready to roll and bring their crushing weight upon the enemy below.
Tired from the journey and the weight of our packs we are relieved to reach the end of the climb, emerging in to the square beneath the intricately carved palace. It is quiet and empty at this time in the morning and beneath my weariness I feel a frisson of excitement. It’s as though this peaceful square under the wide, expanse of sky signifies a space, an opening to another opportunity, another adventure!