Jaisalmer & Thar desert
If reading “1001 night” on cold and grey German winter days one pictured Maharajahs living in majestic palaces reigning over oriental cities in the middle of a desert landscape, with lively bazaars, people in colorful clothes and exotic smells of fruits, spices and incenses all over the place, Jaisalmer will be the city to show you that those places were not merely a product of the tale-teller’s imagination.
Located in the middle of a dry and sandy nowhere, about 100 km of the Pakistan border, the city is a jewel of ocre-shaded, ornamented houses spotted around a majestic fort rising on a hilltop in the middle of it. Jaisalmer is the on the edge of Rajastan’s city network. On its west is the Thar desert, hosting nothing but small villages, goat and sheep herds and an extensive wind power plant. Its closeness to the neighbor Pakistan is further revealed by the huge amount of military present inside and around the city… and by frequent jokes by locals, as for example the driver to our camel safari – Mr. Sodha – who welcomes us in the morning cheering: “Now let’s go to Pakistan, full power!”.
Jaisalmer is working hard on being classified UNESCO World Heritage site, in order to facilitate the costly maintenance of the historic buildings. There is no obvious reason in it that this hasn’t happened yet and the only logical explanation could be that India has just too many candidate world heritage sites on its territory. But Jaisalmer definitely deserves the title.
The fort in the heart of the city was the first inhabited fort on the planet in history built in 1156 AD by the Bhati Rajput ruler Rao Jaisal, from where it derives it name. Today people still live their normal life inside, although their business nowadays obviously circles around the thousands of tourists visiting it every year. Despite the numerous guesthouses, shops and Western style restaurants, it is still peaceful to walk around the tiny streets and steps and explore the hidden backyards, which many times lead to another hidden but gorgeous ornamented building. Unfortunately, due to missing funds – and to some extend certainly bad administration – numerous old houses and temples inside the fort are in serious decay, so that the UNESCO title seems to be a bare necessity to preserve the historic heritage from slowly crumbling down.
However, it is stunning to see that even in the new part of the town, houses are still built in the traditional, sumptuous ornamented style, where the engraving of one single stone, depending on the design, may take up to three working days – everything made by hand and with the most rudimentary tools.
Most of the younger travelers, like us, head to Jaisalmer for an “authentic” desert experience by doing camel safaris. It seems that the whole city is made up of guides and agencies organising camel safaris and there is a wide range of prices and equipment available. We took a serious but plainly equipped tour with a cooperative of camel owners, so hopefully an organisation leaving a largest possible share of the money paid with the men actually carrying out the tour. And with the camels, obviously.
The tour we took was for one day, starting early morning after sunrise. A jeep, driven by Pakistan-heading Mr. Sodha – who fancied driving forward while looking backwards, talking to one of the camel drivers sitting there – brought us to the place about 20 km outside Jaisalmer where we would meet the camel caravan. Nine camels, one for each of the seven tourists of our group – the two of us, three French, a Swiss girl and one Korean – and two for the three camel drivers acompanying us. The morning ride led us through some local villages, where the children – already prepared for the one daily arrival of tourists – scrimmaging around us asking for biscuits and school pen. Obviously, Rupees won’t buy you anything in such a remote place.
At noon we had a three hour stop for the camels to rest and the humans to have a desert cooked lunch. It was quite stunning to see how selbstverständlich the camel drivers unpacked the metal tableware from the huge plastic bags the camels were carrying, washed it with sand and a towel and started preparing chapati dow, vegetables and finger chips to cook is on the wood fire. All handles were well-rehearsed und experienced and within a short time, a full lunch menu was ready. It was definitely not the most tasty one and as it was an extremely windy day it had a considerable amount of desert sand in it, but still it was a quite enjoyable meal and definitely enough for everyone to regain forces for jumping on its camel again.
The afternoon trail led us through a more natural area, inhabited only by sheep and goats and some wild desert animals like antelopes, wild camels and many many hawks. At around 4 pm the camels received their daily doses of water. We learned that a working camel should drink water once a day while a lazy camel can survive without water during nearly two weeks. By the end of the day we reached an area of marvelous sand dunes, where our camel drivers decided to set our night camp. While they again gathered wood to light the fire and cook our dinner, we could enjoy walking around the dunes and watch the absolutely magical sunset over a horizon in the middle of nowhere.
Sitting on the sand around the fire, having chai, eating, talking and watching the stars was of a marvelous simplicity. Sleeping with this simplicity, with one blanket under and one over you under the desert sky, was however a somewhat more delicate issue and we again noticed how far life of city people like us has actually become from nature. Sleeping on the ground, hearing the sounds of the chewing camels and crickets, trying to gather some heat under the one, simple blanket – yes, the desert gets freaking cold at night!
Naturally, one gets up with the sunrise – actually a very smooth an nice way to wake up. Again the procedure of lighting the fire, cooking chai – the first thing all Indian stomachs seem to need in the morning – baking chapati and cooking eggs for breakfast. The packing everything together again, saddling the camels and on the way back to the point we were to meet the jeep with Mr. Sodha and the group for the next camel safari. It seemed that we departed a little late from our camping place, so that to be on time our camels had to speed up a little, so that we did nearly the whole way back trotting. A normally walking camel is already a shaky ride but trotting – hell, it really hurts!