The approach to Jodhpur is signalled by stony hills rising from the Thar Desert's crumbly edge.
Dust blows like a sigh across the road. Camels lurch and scraggy sheep nibble on thorns, neck bells tinkling. Then a great lump of rampart-crowned rock thrusts above a town of cubist blue buildings. I feel as if I've turned up in a mind-boggling old tale of honour, menace and flamboyant fantasy.
I'm touring Rajasthan with Abercrombie & Kent, and even my sedate, unflappable driver Rajendra seems rattled as we're sucked into tangled alleyways where cows and motorbikes jostle. We edge through a market of shimmering sari colours and squeeze through a sandstone archway into the forecourt of my hotel for the night, RAAS Jodhpur.
Fifteenth-century Hindu courtyards unfold, with metal lattices and a glass-boxed reception area adding contemporary chic. Jodhpur's fort looms above. Vultures circle on rising air and sunset turns the ramparts Uluru orange.
Next morning, my A&K guide Goldie wafts in like Jeeves, wearing a three-piece cream-coloured suit and Ascot tie. "There are a lot of Indians nicknamed Goldie because they're rich or have gold teeth, but I have a golden heart,'' he pronounces as we negotiate a street obstacle course of cows, carts, peanut sellers and shoe-shine urchins.
Goldie shows me through old-town markets. For centuries Jodhpur has been a trading centre for cattle and camels, salt and agricultural produce. We sniff pyramids of spices, chew on ginger-flavoured ladoo, stop to question moustachioed date vendors and women in pink saris shot with gold. This is why you want a good local guide in India: as a shield against tumult, a way into local life, an interpreter of questions.
"But my goodness me, Jodhpur isn't all raggedy markets and dishevelled glory," Goldie announces. "Now you're seeing some of its glorious old haveli mansions and later Art Deco buildings being amply restored!"
He takes me to a striking 1770s step well, submerged for decades and the latest revelation in ongoing urban regeneration projects. It plunges 60 metres into the ground in interlocking Escher steps carved from red sandstone decorated with cow-shaped waterspouts. Behind, the Stepwell Café is furnished by one of India's top designers, Krea. Surrounding old buildings house chic stores: fine pashminas by Andraab, homewares by Nicobar. India's first supermodel Kirat Young sells jewellery and accessories, another boutique offers upmarket jodhpurs.
Jodhpur is turning trendy. The rich come to play polo, music lovers to attend the RIFF folk festival, tourists to venture away from Jaipur. Hipster cafés and shops with names like Hot Pink appear in back streets. Even Meherangarh Fort has had an overhaul and is now a well-organised palace-museum replete with proper signage and lighting and an elevator to whisk visitors onto the ramparts.
Meherangarh Fort is astonishing, encircled by 10 kilometres of walls and approached through seven massive gateways built for a race of giants. I crane my neck to see royal living quarters high atop the bastions, erupting in pretty balconies, sculpted walls and latticed windows.
''Never open your mouth while looking up," cautions Goldie as pigeon flocks swoop. "That's always good advice for India."
The fort's interior displays Mogul miniatures, solid silver howdahs and Rajput costumes. Elaborate stonework on facades is so intricately carved it looks lace-like. Balconies and windows blossom with carvings. The Flower Palace is decorated with frescoes of dancers and gods, its sandalwood ceilings picked out in gold.
Afterwards in my hotel I find lavender soap and a rain shower to wash off dust, and a pool surrounded by cabanas draped in gauze. I sit with a cocktail and watch kids playing cricket on rooftops. Uniformed waiters serve up Rajasthani goat and eggplant in spices as candles flicker. Jodhpur's floodlit fort hovers in the sky, menacing and beautiful.
Abercrombie & Kent has many private journey options in India, including a 12-day 'Royal Rajasthan' itinerary taking in Delhi, Agra, Udaipur and Jaipur as well as Jodhpur. It costs from $8882 depending on arrangements and requirements. Phone 1300 851 800. See abercrombiekent.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent.