Over the hump
With its rounded hills and dun-coloured sand dunes, the Rajasthani town of Pushkar, in India, seems custom made for the world's largest gathering of camels. For two weeks in October or November each year, life imitates landscape as 50,000 camels (and untold numbers of cattle and horses) are brought to the edge of town to be traded, decorated, celebrated and raced at the Pushkar camel fair.
It's at once the most colourless and colourful scene on Earth, a light-brown blur of dust, smoke and animals enlivened by a continuous flow of firefly-bright saris and turbans. Vendors hawk jewellery that looks almost edible; Ferris wheels turn in a smear of colours; stalls sell an assortment of vibrant tassels and decorations designed to tart up even the dreariest of camels. It is a contrast that says much about modern times at the fair, where the camels are all but outshone by the pageantry.
Today, the animals are little more than a warm-up act, with most of the trading - the fair's raison d'etre - taking place in the week preceding the revelry. By the time the week-long festivities begin, many of the camel traders are heading home, their beasts crowding the highway out of town as hordes of visitors pour in.
The majority of the trading may be over but the 'ship of the desert' isn't forgotten. Camel-pulled carts lead tourists through the grounds and there are camel rides, races and even a dance competition.
Those still trading inspect the camels noisily, with the animals bawling in complaint as men wrench open their jaws to inspect their mouth. If they try to bite (and who wouldn't when your lips are forced apart?), they're considered aggressive and difficult to sell.
One of the traders still hard at work is 50-year-old Umrao, who has walked for two days from his village to Pushkar in the hope of selling three camels and three horses. He has been here six days but has succeeded only in buying another camel. A Pushkar veteran, he's journeyed to the fair every year for two decades, during which time he has seen it transformed from a sandy yard sale into a major tourist attraction.
'The tourists only started coming to Pushkar in the past 10 years,' Umrao says. 'I think it's very good.'
An estimated 200,000 people attend the fair, stretching Pushkar, a town of about 15,000 people, beyond its limits. Fifty to 60 tented tourist camps spring up around the town's edge, taking months to erect. One camp has 250 tents and a dining hall boasting a frilly, sitar soundtrack; it looks as though a wedding might occur any minute. The tents are basic, with a pair of camp beds, but they have electricity, flush toilets and a cold-water shower, sufficient at least to remove the rind of dust at day's end.
The activities are divided into three distinct areas: the mela (festival) ground; the markets and fairground attractions; and the camel, horse and cattle grounds.
Little more than a dustbowl ringed by grandstands and corporate signage, the mela ground is the fair's nucleus, playing host to a stacked programme of events. For those with enough facial fluff there is a moustache competition (the winner invariably has whiskers as long as his arms), which is preceded by a turban-tying contest for foreign visitors.
Lithe children scuttle across tightropes with pots balanced on their heads, macaques dance and busk and camels are weighted down with decorations and joy-riding visitors. A fat man wanders about dressed as Shiva and there are almost as many touts inside the stadium as there are grains of sand.
Along the streets and lanes around the perimeter, markets and fairground blur into one. Children's rides spin and stalls offer a profusion of goods such as food, puppets, sitars, swords, drums, jewellery, cricket bats and hockey sticks. Thousands of sari-clad women wander the market lanes and from atop the Ferris wheels it is like looking down on a handful of confetti scattered on the ground.
From this brilliant bustle it's just a few steps further to the dunes, which resemble something akin to a stockyard, a refugee camp and a battle scene from Lawrence of Arabia. It's like looking at a sepia image, smudged by dust, yet it's easily the fair's most fascinating area.
Here, traders crouch on their heels, biding time. Children lead camels and introduce the animals by name. Outside tattered tents, ancient turbaned men sit in plumes of smoke, slowly boiling their brains in hashish. Camels roar as their noses are pierced; tourists curse as the beasts kick their shins. Bejewelled gypsy women and their offspring pose for photographs and demand money for the privilege while sitar players trail behind visitors trying vainly to serenade them. There are snake charmers, beggars, saffron-robed sadhus and puppeteers amid the dust and smoke. It's as though India has been condensed into this one small area.
For a camel trader, it is a difficult and intrusive work environment. 'The curiosity [from tourists] is good but I'm too busy with my own affairs to take much notice of them,' Umrao says. 'I'll inspect an animal at least 10 times before I decide to buy.'
With such sales pitches as, 'Hello sir, a nice air-conditioned camel for you,' his caution is undoubtedly wise.
Getting there: This year's Pushkar Camel Fair will be held from November 7 to 13. Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Delhi. Trains run from Delhi to Ajmer, from where it is a short bus ride to Pushkar. Peregrine Adventures (www.peregrineadventures.com) operates a 15-day Pushkar Camel Fair tour, which will leave from Delhi on November 4. With rooms ringed around an attractive courtyard, the century-old Inn Seventh Heaven (www.inn-seventh-heaven.com) is Pushkar's best guesthouse.