The Golden City

Trip Start Oct 09, 2009
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Trip End Oct 05, 2010


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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Saturday, November 14, 2009


V: We boarded our midnight train to Jaisalmer. This time we were traveling 2AC, the highest class vavailable on this route.  This was same as previous train but with only 4 bunks per compartment. Again we didn't have seats together but luckily my seat was with two Aussie guys and a London girl, all travelling through India on their way back to Melbourne. The train was pretty gross; it was dirty - cockroach and mice infested. Still I managed to get some sleep – must be becoming more hardy now!! Ash was in next compartment where it was less peaceful. They all snored through the night then woke up at 5am to have tea, play music and generally made a racket. No sleep again for poor Ash!

We arrived 13 hours later to the Golden City. Hotel touts surrounded us as soon as we exited the station but Ash had pre booked a hotel for the night. Our hotel was an old Haveli, stunning from outside and it had a great rooftop terrace overlooking fort. Jaisalmer Fort is quite impressive. The fort is built on a raised part of the city and is surrounded by 90 bastions. It stands out amidst the golden stretches of the great Thar Desert.  The fort is one of the oldest in the world and had been the scene of many battles. Its massive yellow sandstone walls turn into a magical honey-gold colour as the sun sets.  Thus, it is also known as the "Golden City". Apparently this is the world's only living fort and about a quarter of city's population live in the fort. At one point of time the entire population of Jaisalmer used to live within the fort; but with the increase in the population, people were forced to move out and find shelter in surrounding areas.

Jaisalmer had a very relaxed vibe compared to Jaipur which we found quite refreshing. Shop owners were happy for us to browse their wares without pressuring us to buy anything. We were obviously caught off-guard and made our first souvenir purchases on the trip. We bought some wall hangings from a very disarming man, and whilst pleased with our purchase we later discovered more of these hangings at a fraction of the price we had just paid. Angry at thought of being ripped off we returned to the vendor and demanded an explanation as to the price difference. He assured us the quality of our pieces was much higher than others we had seen and to be fair to him the quality of his products were very good but not enough to justify such a price difference. Rule to self – must never buy the first thing you see and must always check prices at several shops before purchasing any souvenirs!!!

We walked around and entered the fort. There is beautiful architecture within the fort, amazing Jain temples sit alongside old havelis (medieval merchant houses). It's packed with houses, handicraft shops, even beauty parlours all set within honeycombed narrow, winding lanes, all of them paved in stone. Vehicles are not allowed in and anything that can’t be taken by motorbike has to be carried up by camel cart.  Unfortunately the fort is in danger of collapse because of subsidence. This is a result of rapid population/tourism growth which is putting pressure on the antiquated sewerage system, as a consequence it is leaking into the foundations. This is why many guide books urge you not to stay within the fort as this adds to the problem. It would be such a shame to see such an amazing piece of history crumble away into the desert and there are groups who are trying to pressure the government into action to save it. Fingers crossed this works.

We were befriended by a local guide whilst wandering the alleys in the fort. He took it upon himself to show us around some temples and point out buildings of architectural interest. He never once asked for any money but I think he was hoping we would eventually book a tour or a camel trek with him. 

We left the fort after sunset and decided to have drinks with our train friends in a rooftop bar overlooking the fort (which is lit up at night). Across the square from the restaurant was a government licensed bhang shop. Bhang comes from the cannabis plant and is legal in certain parts of Rajasthan – it is used in religious ceremonies in some parts of India. This shop was selling bhang lassi's, cookies, cakes and safari packs promising your camel safari experience to be like flying on a magic carpet!! Our friends decided to stock up ahead of their 3 day camel trek….put it this way dinner was certainly entertaining for everyone!!

Next morning was an early start for our camel safari. We first visited some ancient cenotaphs, and then we got dropped by jeep in the middle of the Thar Desert where our guide Ramdan was waiting with our camels, Charlie and Lucky. Now you'd think after our honeymoon experience of riding on mules into the Grand Canyon we would be put off riding animals for any length of time again! But you can’t come to Jaisalmer and not do a camel safari can you? Camels are strange creatures indeed, ugly & clumsy. I’d never noticed before but they have very big feet with really soft soles and walk by moving both legs of one side at the same time, that’s why they sway like this, making you feel like you are on a ship - you could describe them as the ships of the desert! They have strong, big teeth and like cows the camels chew their food over and over again for a very long time, something we would find out later on our safari. We had to climb onto the camels, which you may think is easy until the camel stands up. First on its hind knees, then the front knees and the same again until it was standing on its four feet. Believe us, it was not easy to keep your balance and we both had to hold on for dear life!

We started at about 10 am and were to ride until the midday break, stopping once for the camels to have a drink. The first few hours were ok and I really thought I’d got the swing of things.
The desert was, er, deserted, apart from the odd villager tending to his goats. We headed to some trees where we stopped for lunch. Ramdan set up a camp fire and made tea, then a cauliflower curry, then big fat chapattis. The food was nicer than I expected it to be given he didn't have a lot of ingredients to work with. He then washed the pot and plates with sand- now this would be ok if you could be sure the sand was clean, but given the camp fire was set up right where they set the camels down I wasn’t so sure. The thing with camels is as soon as you ask them to sit they immediately pee and poo! This didn't seem to bother our guide though. Ali his son then joined us bringing another camel called Rocket to continue our journey deeper into the desert.

Ash was conscious of the fact that we were only 20km away from the Pakistani border which had been subject to a wave of insurgency activity in recent months. Given the number of kidnappings that happen with tourists venturing close to dangerous zones he was concerned that we at risk of being abducted….whilst I appreciated the dangers I did think he was being a bit dramatic!

A few more hours in and the temperature was getting hotter and our bottoms sorer!! Up until now we had not seen any dunes, only flat sand, some pink rocks and other thorny shrubs. Apart from random goats, not many animals were to be seen either.  I was getting really uncomfortable and had to ask if it was ok to sit aside the saddle, which can be dangerous but as my camel was experienced they let me do it. Ash was not allowed, probably because he weighed more which makes it more dangerous!  Finally after six hours on the camels we caught sight of our first proper sand dunes- this it turned out would be our camp for the night.

The sand dunes were amazing, glowing golden in the afternoon sunshine. The only thing that ruined the moment for me was the hundreds of dung beetles crawling on the sand. If you have seen the film the mummy they were like the ones in the film. Now I'm not the greatest fan of bugs of any kind and these pesky bugs were the size of the old 50p piece! No matter how many times ash flicked them with his flip flops into the air like pancakes they kept crawling back! I was starting to freak out a bit about the prospect of having to spend a night with these bugs. We worked out the bugs kept heading towards us to hide from the hot sun under the shade of our shoes and mat, not because they could sense I was shit-scared of them! Ali and Ramdan prepared us a pre-dinner snack, magic crisps, which look like pasta but when fried turn into big puffy crisps. We watched the sun set over the dunes- it goes down really fast and once it's down it was pitch black within half an hour. Our camels had gone off wandering and Ali had to take our maglite torch to go and find them to bring them back to camp for the night. We had dinner of rice and dhal and bananas. The stars started to come out one by one in the night sky.

Now when they say experience a night under the stars- they literally mean a night under the stars. Our bed was on the sand dune with one thin blanket between us and the sand.  We brought our silk sleep liners which provided an extra millimeter of padding and then on top Ali provided some blankets. Our backpacks were our pillows. Now you would think sleeping on sand would be comfortable, but it really was not and made worse by the fact we were sleeping on the tilt of dune so ash kept rolling towards me all night and pushing me further down the dune!! There's not much to do once the sun goes down in the desert and it gets really cold. We were beginning to wish we’d brought a little nightcap with us!

All of that aside it was worth it. The night sky was the clearest we've ever seen. We could even see the milky-way galaxy with huge swirls of white against the black night sky. It was quite magical and romantic, provided you forgot about the dung beetles, the fact that that the two guides were sleeping a few feet away and blocked out the sound of the camels chewing away at a thorny bush in the background! The stars were amazing to look at, so incredibly bright against the black sky, we even saw a few shooting stars. When I took out my contact lenses the stars looked the size of dinner plates, blurred against a black background! Very surreal and those of you who have bad vision may be able to imagine what that looks like!!

The night was interesting and neither of us got much sleep. The camels were chewing the branches of the bush throughout the night and there were a few stray dogs that came right up to our heads and had a sniff around. Ash thinks it was a pack of wolves but I’m pretty sure we would have been attacked if that was the case!! We woke up at dawn the following morning to watch the sun rise over a breakfast of flame grilled toast and oranges. Time for a quick 'bathroom’ break before jumping back onto the camels to head back towards the city. Our guides were really accommodating throughout the camel safari and spoke quite good English given neither of them had been educated. They told us they had learned all their English through tourists on camel safaris- he referred to it as camel college!!

After another 4 hours on the camels and a lunch break we were both quite relieved to see our pick up jeep coming towards us along the desert highway. We headed back to our Haveli for a hot shower and freshen up before heading to the railway station to catch our train to Delhi.

We later learned that there was to be a meteor shower that night - we were both pretty gutted that we missed it by just one day!! It would have been a spectacular view to say the least! 

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