This is the fourth blog post from my two week trip to India covering my stay in Jaisalmer, the second stopping point of my travels through Rajasthan. Links to the others are at the foot of the post, and editorial usage licenses and professionally produced fine art quality prints can be bought for all images by clicking here.
My trip up to this point consisted of three days of bustling & hectic city life in Delhi catching both Remembrance Day and the start of Diwali. This was followed by a couple of days in the more tranquil Udaipur relaxing by its lake and exploring the hills and villages surrounding the town. I then punctuated the eleven hour drive to Jaisalmer with a quick stop to check out the marble Jain temple near Ranakpur, which really blew me away. I’d planned my trip so that each destination within it would give me a different flavour of India, and during my research I was swiftly drawn to Jaisalmer’s 12th century fort by romantic stories and images of medieval turrets and battlements rising out of the desert.
Jaisalmer is one of Rajasthan’s western-most towns, sitting in the middle of the Thar desert close to the border of Pakistan. Housing around a quarter of Jaisalmer’s population the town’s fort is the India’s last living citadel, when planning my trip I was immediately faced with the dilemma of whether to stay in the fort itself or not. I’d read in various articles and blogs that the fort has been rapidly descending into disrepair over the last twenty years or so with the tourism it attracts a major contributing factor, with some exclaiming that travellers should do the responsible thing and stay outside of the fort so as not to exacerbate to the problem. However some travellers and friends I had spoken to said that to have the full experience of staying in Jaisalmer the fort option was best. So I have to admit taking the latter route and booked myself into a hotel built into the walls of the fort itself.
After the long all-day drive from Udaipur I finally arrived in darkness, yet to see the fort itself. Cars are not allowed in so I arranged for hotel staff to collect me from outside the fort’s main gate. I hopped on the back of his scooter and the fort’s winding maze of streets flashed by in a blur as it carried me to my hotel. After checking in I hit the sack and couldn’t wait for morning to come so I could get to see the fort & town.
When I awoke and looked out my bedroom window it didn’t take a second to decide I had made the right choice on the accommodation front. I found that my hotel window was high in the fort wall with a cracking view out over the town below. After a quick shower I breakfasted on the tops of the fort’s walls soaking up a view of the rising sun’s rays bathing the town below, and listened to the gentle sounds of Jaisalmer coming to life. I found myself lying back eyes closed, my minds eye visualising not just the goings on of a different country, a different continent, but a totally different way of life.
I had two full days to spend in Jaisalmer, and through my research and planning I came up with the following itinerary:
* The Fort. My first plan of action was to explore the inside of the fort itself, and its Jain temples which I had read about. I found these to be much more compact than the enormous temple in Ranakpur that I had visited the day previous, but with engraved stonework almost as impressive – the main difference being the use of sandstone instead of marble. Trying to find the temples from my hotel was a challenge in itself, I quickly lost myself in the maze of narrow streets but after much wandering I began to recognise streets that I had walked through previously. I realised that the fort is deceptively small, the rabbit warren of streets and seemingly large appearance from town outside making one perceive it to be bigger than it actually is.
* Mandir Palace. The one-time royal family still live here and access is limited to certain rooms as a result. The main interest for me were the photographs of past generations of Indian royalty.
* Patwon-ki-Haveli. “Haveli” is the term used for a private mansion in India, they have pretty amazing architecture and give a strong sense of historical grandeur. Patwon-ki-Haveli is the biggest and impressive of those in Jaisalmer, with many floors it towers over the narrow streets below. Definitely a must-see for anyone visiting Jaisalmer for a short period, along with the Jain temples. Beware of the carpet sellers on the ground floor – I saw a bunch of tourists trapped in their web!
* Ghadissar Lake. This is a 14th century man-made water tank south was of the city, and was Jaisalmer’s water supply until the sixties. I found through my relatively short travels in India that water supplies such as these are revered because of their importance and often have a shrine or temple close by. A number of these sit alongside the banks of the lake, its worth stopping by if you’re in the area and fancy some peace and quiet on the lakeside.
* Camel trek to the sand dunes. The blogs & travel guides talked up the camel treks, with much mention of sunsets in the dunes and overnight camping under the stars. However given I was going to be in Jaisalmer only for a couple of days I wasn’t too bothered about a lengthy camel ride and overnight stay, so decided to just do a solo ride (with a guide) with a return following sunset. I found that there are two main sets of dunes, the Sam (which I had heard were the most touristy), and the Khuri Dunes. I opted for a trek to the Khuri Dunes, involving a half hour/hour long drive out of Jaisalmer to where the dunes are situated. I was given the option of a ‘non-touristy’ dune to watch the sunset from, or the ‘touristy’ option which I was to expect crowds of tourists at. Thinking it would be a better option as I was told I’d have a dune for myself from which to view the sunset, I went for the non-touristy option. However it proved to be a bad move. Although I had my own little dune it was basically set back from the main big dune where all the other tours went and ‘mine’ had a much less impressive view of the sunset and landscape as a result. When I saw this, I decided to get my guide to take us to the main dune. Yes it was much busier than the quiet one, but it did have a much more impressive view of the sunset. The sunset itself however wasn’t all that. Since my arrival in India I had noticed a heavy atmospheric haze ever present along the country’s horizon. I had initially thought it was simply air pollution in Delhi (which definitely was a factor in the capital), but the haze was still present in both Udaipur and Jaisalmer. As a result the sun disappeared behind the haze, rather than setting behind the horizon itself.
* Getting Bhang-ed up! Bhang (a cannabis preparation) is not only legal in India, it also plays an important role in the country’s culture and spiritual practices. Bhang consumption is associated with the worship of the Hindu deity Shiva, with its use a catalyst in opening the mind and and spiritual enlightenment. I couldn’t go to India without achieving at least a small degree of the latter, so decided to pay a visit to the government licensed Bhang shop on my way back from a day’s exploring. One of the ways of consuming Bhang is in a Lassi drink (a bit like a milkshake) and is normally available in three strengths – ‘Light’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Strong’. As the last time I had indulged in this kind of thing was a fair few years ago, and I was never a big consumer in the first place, I opted for the Light option in a tasty banana flavour and sipped it on my way back to my hotel. I headed up to the rooftop restaurant and ordered a meal & waited for the effects to kick in – which after about half an hour, they did. All I’ll say here is – boom! Those Bhang shakes are trippy, nothing like anything I’d sampled previously here in the UK!
After an incredibly enlightened & enlightening night’s sleep, I was up and it was time for me to leave Jaisalmer and journey on to my next and final destination – Pushkar. Jaisalmer was a pretty amazing place and if I’d had more time I definitely would have spent longer there to explore the town more, and soak up the vibe. I left there thinking that Pushkar was going to have a lot to live up to in my mind to beat my stay in Jaisalmer, but I came to find that I had definitely left the best till last. You can read up on my Pushkar & the other places visited in India via the links below:
I want to make a special mention for my driver (and guide), Kalu. I initially employed him through an Udaipur-based travel agency just to drive me to Jaisalmer, and leave me there. However he gave me such a great service that I ended up employing him as a guide for part of my stay in Jaisalmer, and to take me on to Pushkar. His english is excellent and he’s genuinely enthusiastic at doing the best he can for you, with great advice on what’s worth seeing, good restaurants to go to and accommodation to stay etc. My experience of travelling through Asia is the commission system applies whenever local people recommend hotels/restaurants – guides/drivers will suggest places where they’re going to get a cut or commission. What separates a good guide from a bad one, is that he will recommend only good places. This definitely applied to Kalu, he was open with me in acknowledging how the commission system worked, but the places he took too were always decent with good food and conditions. I never got the sense that I was being ripped off, and didn’t mind paying a bit more for a meal as I trusted that it would always be good. With only a two week trip in India, that was more important to me than wasting time wandering around and risking a dodgy meal and Delhi Belly. It was also because of Kalu’s recommendation that I visited the Ranakpur temples, which wasn’t part of my ‘plan’ but which ended up being one of the highlights of my stay in India. If you need a driver/guide drop him a line:
Here he is:
I’ll finish off this post by saying it was my first time to the country and I couldn’t have done without India Mike, an enormously useful online community for those interested in travelling in India. It has masses of useful information and inspiring posts, check it out.