After a rough night due to my ongoing stomach upsets, we are back on the road for the 7 hour trip from Bikaner to Jaisalmer. We start our journey off with checking out the “Brides and Grooms wanted” section of the India times, cause for much entertainment! Match making is big business in India, with families still actively seeking appropriate partners for their kids.
The road from Bikaner to Jaisalmer is excellent, large sections are toll roads with only the occasional stray cow, flock of sheep, group of camels or car driving the wrong way.
Jaisalmer, the Golden City, is everything you imagine a fortress city in the desert of Rajasthan to be. The old town, Jaisalmer Fort, is set on top of a hill, a sprawling citadel with high sandstone walls surrounding it. There are large buttresses and bastions. The fort was built by Rawal Jaisal in 1155 AD, and is one of the very few historical forts left in the world that is still actively lived in. This creates an magical atmosphere, like walking into a fantasy novel.
You walk in via large gates, with the usual elephant spikes on them. The road narrows and switches back on itself, going through more gates, until you enter the central square.
The square is overlooked by the ornate Maharaja’s Palace, with narrow windows and screened balconies, and a special seat for the Maharaja.
We pick up a local guide who takes us on a stroll through the old town. He grew up here, and played cricket in the central square, just like the kids still do today.
From this central square a warren of narrow streets spreads out, and it is a joy to explore these streets. There are a quite number of Jain temples and havelis, and a plethora of shops, guest houses, and plenty of place to relax, have a chai or some lunch, and watch the world go by.
There are many amazingly beautiful building here, it feels like walking through a time warp. If not for the motorbikes, we could be back in the time of the maharaja.
You may notice the large number of electric wires above the streets. As is most old town centres in India, broken or defunct wires do not tend to get removed. Instead a new one is put in place and added to the tangle that hangs above the streets. Making it even more impossible to remove the defunct ones… etc.
If you have the opportunity, go and visit the Fort in the evening. As a significant portion of the population of Jaisalmer still lives inside the fort, the streets fill with the smells of home cooking at night. It makes the place even more magical (see Tip 1!).
We visit the Patwon Ki Haveli and the Nathmal Ki Haveli. The first is very large, the second is a lot smaller and still lived in by the family. It has some stunning decorations and also has a small souvenir shop.
Our guide also takes us to a local collective where textiles are sold that are made by women in the desert. The range covers amazing hand embroidered and stitched bedcovers, scarfs, shawls, bags and purses. Yes, there are probably kick-backs involved, however, I always prefer to buy from local collectives so at least some of the money goes back into the local community.
We continue with a stroll through Jaisalmer town and bazaar. Avoiding motorbikes, stray cows and cow poo has by now become second nature!
One of the fascinating things about Rajasthan is how colourful everything is. Most women still wear the traditional saris, and they look like hummingbirds in the most brilliant of blue, green and red colours in this desert landscape.
We also visit Gadisar lake, created in the 14th century to provide a source of water for the town, this lake is known for its temples, shrines and migratory birds. However, the biggest attraction here is to feed the catfish. As you throw in the pellets that you buy on the shoreline, the quiet surface of the lake becomes a whirling brown of sleek catfish bodies. Quite disturbing actually!
Watching the sun set over Jaisalmer Fort is another of the must do’s. And there is a high hill perfectly situated for this. Be prepared, you will not be the only one. Local kids have discovered this as a perfect place to get money from tourists by performing “Frere Jacques” very, very badly on a recorder and singing along. We had to hide from this insistent young man as he kept on following us and the song was driving us mad….
Our trip included a dinner with a local family. We were welcomed into a multigenerational Brahman family. The women sat on the floor in the kitchen cooking our meals. We were seated in what felt like a combined living and bedroom, sitting on beds that were covered in blankets. It may have been the only room in the house that was air-conditioned.
We were served a lovely Rajasthan thali, with the husband of the house keeping us company as the women served our food, and the smallest of the kids sneaked in to have a look at these strangers.
There are places to visit and activities to do in the Thar Desert next to Jaisalmer, and my next blog will cover a number of these; like visiting the mausoleum of the Maharajas, a ghost town, a camel ride in the dunes and glamping in the desert.
Travel details and Tips:
Accomodation: We stayed in another heritage hotel, this time a modern five-star hotel with pool and large modern rooms; the Gorbandh Palace. It is located on the outskirts of Jaisalmer, next to the airforce base, making one feel very safe. It was a nice place to relax for an afternoon alongside the pool, the food is good and both Indian and European dishes (like simple steamed vegetables!) can be provided. We fell asleep to the sound of Indian jet fighters posturing, and the smell of aviation fuel.
Tip 1: Although it may be very tempting, please avoid staying in the old town. The ancient sewage system cannot handle the large amounts of water and effluents that is generated by the guest houses and actually deteriorates the foundations of the fort. In addition, the growing number of guest houses and tourists destroys the atmosphere of the old town, it currently is one of the few remaining “living forts” in the world, with nearly one fourth of the population of Jaisalmer still living in the fort.
Tip 2: My ongoing stomach problems were finally cleared by getting some antibiotics. These are easily to get over the counter in India, just make sure you know which ones you should have.