Today on the blog, we’re exploring the Thar Desert.
Isn’t that an amazing name? It’s a place in the far northwestern corner of India, in the state of Rajasthan, not far from the international border with Pakistan. The major centre is Jaisalmer, a small city that boasts a spectacular fort. Jaisalmer also the jumping-off point for camel treks into the desert — the main reason to come here as a tourist, and the focus of my visit.
First, a note about the weather. As I said, this is a desert. We visited in late February, when the average high is 29 degrees C (84 F) but it gets down close to freezing at night. November is comparable; December and January are a bit cooler. I would not advise visiting in any other month, because that sun is fierce!
Getting to Jaisalmer can be a little tricky, as we found. There’s only one train, a long overnight trek from the nearest city (Jodhpur), and it often books up early. All the dates we wanted were full. Besides, my travelling companion and I had taken trains in India already, but the longest ride was 8 hours (for a supposed 6-hour trip) and that was long enough for us. You can also take a bus to Jaisalmer, but we decided that was definitely too much roughing it. On the other end of the spectrum, you can splurge on a very fancy train tour — the Palace on Wheels — which was out of our price range.
So we ended up hiring a car, which in India comes with a driver. (You do not want to drive yourself on Indian roads, trust me.) It’s not prohibitively expensive for Westerners — we paid about 2500 rupees a day, which sounds like a lot until you realize it’s only $40 USD!
The road from Jodhpur is a quiet two-lane highway full of potholes, rolling through a dry, dusty landscape. It is not quite desert, more what’s known as “semi-arid”, and reminded me of nothing so much as the Wild West: sparse trees, little ground cover, muted greens and tans, ramshackle roadside shops. The villages we saw were a mix of boxy desert architecture and tiny round thatch-roofed huts — this is a poor area of India, and it shows. But we also spotted “desert haveli resorts” advertising stays in “huts”…and, somewhat less obscene, wind turbines. Animal sightings included a lot of cows with humps on their backs — no, not camels, although we saw those too — plus wild antelope and peacocks (this is their natural habitat…who knew?).
As the cows indicate, Rajasthan is heavily Hindu, with a minority of tribal peoples who live nomadic lifestyles — easily recognizable by their turbans and long robes. The political power was held by city-states ruled by maharajas…until the British came.
Side Note: Women in Rajasthan
If you’re a woman traveller, especially one with light hair, be wary. I’m female and strawberry blonde. My travelling companion was male and we went everywhere together, but I still got many stares and the occasional comment. If travelling without a man, I’d advise being very careful.
Wearing an approximation of local clothing may help somewhat. I often wore loose Indian-style pants and a tunic with a scarf thrown over the shoulders from front to back, an ensemble known as salwar kameez or informally as a “Punjabi suit”. Bonus: the fabrics are very thin and the cut is loose, both ideal for the climate. If you wear Western-style clothing, choose styles that are loose and offer good coverage.
As for the life of a local woman…Rajasthan is not the best place to be female. It’s known as a backwards state even within India, with a high number of child brides and the lowest level of female literacy in the country.
If you start your travels in Delhi, you’ll see women wearing Western clothing, working (but not in customer service jobs that involve interacting with the public), studying, driving their own motor scooters, and walking around freely.
But as you travel farther west in Rajasthan, all of this shifts. Driving through small towns on the highway, we saw very few women out in public, and those few wore sheer veils over their faces (they’re not Muslim, but I guess it’s a similar idea). Even in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur, women in Western clothing are rare, and as soon as evening falls there are no women on the streets.
I’m far from an expert, but from what I’ve read and seen, and from conversations I’ve had in India, women’s rights and equality are progressing slowly, unevenly, and with many setbacks…but they are progressing. For example, there’s a new program to recruit women to be firefighters.
But back to the topic at hand.
Jaisalmer, The Golden City
Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City, for the sandstone that the spectacular central fort and most of the buildings are made of. It’s a small city of 80,000, engaged mostly in the tourism industry. As a Westerner, wandering around the city on foot is quite safe…it has a small-town feel with a medieval flavour. You’ll be dodging mopeds and cows, but the traffic isn’t heavy or fast. Besides, by the time you reach Jaisalmer you’ll already have worked your way through New Delhi and several other cities in Rajasthan, so you’ll be well prepared.
Rajasthan is famous for its rich food and textiles. Another thing you can get in Jaisalmer only: bhang lassis. A lassi is a cold drink akin to a milkshake; in most of northern India it’s based on yogurt (often flavoured with mango), but here it’s based on buttermilk with chopped pistachios on top (recipe here). Bhang is marijuana, prepared in a drink. In Jaisalmer it’s legal to sell to foreigners from a government-authorized shop…and you’ll see a certain brand of traveller come here precisely for that experience.
A few words of warning, though. First, it’s not easy to tell which shop is the government-authorized one (there are several competitors). Second, not long after this lassi experience I got diarrhea that wouldn’t go away and eventually, days later, landed me in hospital for dehydration. I can’t point to the lassi as the culprit — there are too many factors — but I would not be surprised.
The fort itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is geared towards tourism, full of restaurants, guesthouses, and textiles stalls catering to Westerners. But unlike the other famous Rajasthani forts, it’s also home to several thousand locals — it’s been more or less continuously occupied since its construction over 800 years ago, though it has changed hands several times and the rajas who built it rule no more.
However, the fort is in danger. Its sewage system is leaking into the foundations, a problem made worse by the increasing number of guesthouses and other establishments within the fort’s walls. Increased rainfall in the region and seismic activity may also be weakening the fort’s already shaky foundations. (For more information, see this article at Smithsonian.com.) So if you want to visit, consider staying at a guesthouse outside the fort, as we did…and consider going sooner rather than later!
The fort includes a museum, which we did not visit because our time in Jaisalmer was so limited — we were there mostly for the camel tour — and because we’d already visited several similar museums in other cities. Instead we poked around the main square and streets nearby, admired the incredibly intricate stonework, and had dinner on a veranda to watch the failing light turn the fort’s walls to gold. I mean, just look at this:
This is getting long, so I’ll close here. Tune in next time for the Thar Desert camel trek and sleeping out among the sand dunes!