January 2, 2015 – January 6, 2015
After celebrating New Years in Jodhpur we boarded a bus to head deeper into the desert to explore the city of Jaisalmer, a living fort in the middle of the Thar desert not far from the border with Pakistan. And while we were there we decided to check out the desert itself for a couple nights on a camel safari!
If you are interested in large forts India is full of them. Jaisalmer was no exception, the desert town is built around a central fort, rising above the city on a large plateau of rock. Jaisalmer Fort is different from the others we had visited as it is a living fort, meaning the gates are open to all visitors as there is still people living and working and carrying on with their everyday lives within its walls.
Jaisalmer Fort unlike many other forts in India is a living fort, so it is full of restaurants, hotels, shops and homes. Therefore the fort itself does not close, only the central palace has visiting hours and an entrance fee, but walking the forts walls and enjoying the view from a restaurant can be done anytime with no special fees. The narrow streets and alleys within form a maze full of shops and restaurants which you could easily wander for hours, occasionally catching glimpses of the view from the forts walls.
The central palace rises higher above any of the surrounding structures and is one of the few places you will have to pay to enter and explore.
Within the fort you will also find a number of elaborately decorated Jain Temples, some of the oldest surviving temples in Rajasthan. The inside of the temples are so well preserved that many of the stone carvings look like they were carved in the last few decades though they were constructed within the fort between the 12th and 15th centuries.
Outside the fort can be found large traditional, highly decorated homes used by the city’s rich merchants and their families since the 19th century. Some are as large and lavish as the royal palace itself. We visited the Patwa Haveli, built in 1885, and found its collection of artifacts from daily life in Jaisalmer to be more impressive than the collection in the palace.
Two Nights in the Desert – Our Camel Safari
One of the biggest draws of the area around Jaisalmer is not the large fort but the surrounding desert, and a chance to explore it on the back of a camel. There are dozens of tourist agencies offering a variety of camel safari packages, and nearly every guesthouse will try to talk you into going through them for your camel ride. Be careful to check reviews for the companies you are considering as we have heard stories from other travelers who were cheated, charged high prices for sometimes as little as just 20 minutes on the back of a camel.
We went with Sahara Travel, whose office sits right outside the main entrance of the fort. They were not the cheapest, but were by far not the most expensive and they had great reviews. We wanted to really get a full experience (and very sore backsides) of riding through the desert and so decided to do a two night trip, rather than just a single night or even a few hours.
We boarded a jeep with another tourist, who would be joining us for the first night, and drove 45 minutes west further into the Thar desert and closer to the Pakistani border. Once sufficiently away from the city we swapped out our jeep for our camels.
We rode for a couple hours before stopping to visit a small local village out in the desert. The village, which seemed to be only full of kids, was excited to see westerners and everyone came out to say hello.
After visiting the village it was time for lunch, so we rode a little farther out into the desert and our guide built a fire from scrap wood and heated up some fresh Indian chai tea, and cooked us some curry.
The next day our guide took us to his village, which consisted of only a few small buildings and we stopped at his home for some chai tea while the camels ate their breakfast. The small homes looked like they were made of concrete, the walls were solid as rock but contained small fibers. Feeling the walls I wasn’t quite sure what they were made of, so I asked. Our guide asked “you know cow shit?” He explained that the solid concrete looking walls were made of cow dung mixed with water and sand and molded into shape and dried. The finished result is a structure as hard and sturdy as concrete.
We rode for a few more hours and stopped again in some dunes to make our camp for the second night.
Our camp for the second night.
Camp both nights was a simple mattress and blanket laid down on the sand under the stars. We had heard the desert nights can be cold so we brought our own sleeping bags. They were cold, but no so cold that you would freeze with just the blankets provided, and we were there during their winter. That said, the sleeping bags were quite nice and if you have them, bring them! We slept much better in the desert than we did in Jaisalmer with its many barking dogs.
Our two day desert camel safari was one of our most memorable outings on our trip, and definitely the most memorable activity in India. It was a lot of fun being close to camels in their environment, they are quite interesting creatures with distinct personalities. Two days turned out to be plenty, the camel saddles are not the most comfortable and after two days we felt we had had enough and were ready for a comfortable seat that was not moving around beneath us. We would recommend at least doing a one night trip into the desert, the starry clear, quiet nights were amazing!
We spent one more afternoon in Jaisalmer before our overnight sleeper bus to our final destination in India, the Rajasthani city of Udaipur.