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Exploring Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, Part 2

It’s travel blog time! I left off relating my travels in India by talking about Jaisalmer, the Golden City. (Several cities in the state of Rajasthan are named by colour: Jaipur is the Pink City, Jodhpur is the Blue City, and Udaipur is the White City.)

Tourists come to Jaisalmer for two main reasons: to see the beautiful sandstone fort (covered in Part 1), and to use the city as a jumping-off point for camel treks in the Thar Desert.

Camels, Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer

The Prep

It’s possible to do long multi-day camel treks, or ones that last just a few hours. My travel companion and I decided to go for the in-between option: trekking a few hours, sleeping in the desert under the stars, and trekking back the next day.

IMG_1507We researched trekking companies online and with the help of our guidebook (The Rough Guide to India). What our research didn’t tell us was that at least some of the companies use child labour. On our trek, run by a company incongruously named Sahara Travels, a couple of preteen boys helped the adult guides with the cooking and taking care of the camels. Were they learning useful skills? Were they helping to support their families? Was it still uncomfortable? Yes, yes, and yes. Unfortunately, we didn’t know until it was too late.

Camel Trekking

Our trek started with a drive, by jeep, to an abandoned village. We never did get the full story, but it was chock-full of beautiful architecture…

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Your intrepid correspondent

Then we were introduced to our camels. A word of warning: camels are really, really tall. You get on them when they’re lying down, and then they stand up with an awkward lurch (they don’t seem very well put together, somehow) and you think you’re going to fall off. They’re also very bumpy when they walk. (Later in our India trip, I had the chance to try an elephant ride. Also very tall, but a completely different motion.) Having horseback-riding experience might have helped. As it was, I clung on tight the whole way.

Word to the wise: put on your sunscreen before you get on the camel! And you will absolutely need sunscreen. That desert sun is fierce! I also wore a wide-brimmed hat, a scarf to cover my neck (the hat alone didn’t do it because the sun’s rays bounced up off the sand), long sleeves and pants, and closed-toe shoes.

Camping in the Desert

After a few hours, our guides started looking for a spot to camp. Things to know:

  • Tourists want sand dunes.
  • The dunes where we were trekking weren’t actually that extensive–much of the desert in that area was just dried-out soil and scrubby bushes (see top photo).
  • There was a wind-power farm nearby.
  • We were not the only group of trekkers looking for a campsite.

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Hilarity ensued as the various tour guides tried to find camping spots out of sight of one another (and the windmills) so their respective groups could each have that “alone in the desert overnight” feeling.

This was managed eventually. Our overnight group consisted of a retired British couple and a younger group of Brazilians. We chatted over dinner (served by the two preteens), a simple meal of dal (lentil soup) and naan (flatbread) and hot chai (tea). The British guy boasted that he had fallen off his camel, but hadn’t hurt himself because he went limp as he fell. This was not very reassuring.

Sunset came. As you might imagine, the stars were spectacular. SO MANY STARS.

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Unfortunately, as night fell, so did the temperature. Note to the wise: bring layers! Our bed was simply layers of blankets on the sand (we slept in our clothes), and let me tell you, that was not enough. I did not sleep well at all. But I did see lots of stars throughout the night.

(Side note: the bathroom was simply a designated spot behind some bushes. I brought a Shewee, which helped.)

In the morning we woke early, walked about to try and get warm, and congratulated ourselves on sleeping overnight in the desert. I’ll always remember the beauty of the early-morning sunlight on the dunes.

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Then we had a simple breakfast of boiled eggs and toast and some very welcome chai, and got back on the camels. It wasn’t any easier than the day before, and we were just a tad sore by then. Nothing much to report from the return journey, except that I’ve never been so glad to see a jeep.

Also, we had sand everywhere. Thank goodness for hot showers.

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On Day 2, I did manage to let go of the saddle long enough to take a picture from the back of my camel!

Conclusion: my travel companion and I agree that we are not really cut out for this sort of adventure, but we’re both glad for the experience!

Desert Packing List

  • large water bottle
  • sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • hat, the larger the better
  • scarf for keeping off the sun during the day and for the cold overnight (I used a locally bought pashmina)
  • long sleeves / long pants–the best outfit is either a simple cotton salwar kameez aka “Punjabi suit” (tunic and loose pants) or lightweight quick-dry Western clothing from a travel/outdoor outfitter
  • fleecie or sweater for nighttime
  • camera
  • flashlight
  • SheWee for the female-bodied among you

Have you been on a desert trek? Any tips to share?

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Exploring Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, Part 1

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.

The fort at sunset

The fort at sunset

Getting There

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 to Jaisalmer

Tumbleweeds, anyone?

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.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back). You can't see my practical trail-running shoes.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back); the hat is not but is essential for pale skin with sun like this! You can’t see my practical trail-running shoes.

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

Narrow street in Jaisalmer

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.

Rajasthani textiles, Jaisalmer

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

Jaisalmer Fort 1

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:

Jaisalmer fort at sunset

Jaisalmer fort detail

The ubiquitous auto-rickshaws (taxis) in front, and textiles for sale behind

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!