Tag Archives: Thar Desert

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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The Top 5 Most Romantic Places in India

The travel blog returns! In honour of Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a round-up of the most romantic places I encountered during my six weeks in India. If I missed your favourite, please chime in!

5. Taking a houseboat tour in Kumarakom

The state of Kerala, on India’s southwest coast, is known as “God’s Own Country”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s lush and jungly, with a higher quality of life than in the north (as Indians themselves will tell you). If you haven’t travelled in India before, it’s also less intense and overwhelming than the north. It’s not as well known to Western tourists as, say, the state of Rajasthan, but it’s popular among Middle Eastern and domestic travellers, meaning that there’s still decent tourist infrastructure. One of the must-do activities is to rent a houseboat (with crew, which is not prohibitively expensive for a day or a few nights) and putter around what’s known as the “backwaters”, an extensive network of canals lined with palm trees. Especially during the off-season, it’s both serene and luxurious.

Kerala backwaters

4. Exploring Old Kochi

Before the British arrived, the city of Kochi was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch. Today it’s home to a picturesque fusion of architectures and cultures. If you’re up for a splurge, check in to the Old Harbour Hotel–it’s not cheap, but it’s gorgeous, and the food is delicious. There’s even a small swimming pool in the tranquil garden. And it’s located in the heart of Old Kochi, where you can wander down to the harbour to watch the unique fishing nets in operation, or stroll up the narrow streets to admire the beautiful old buildings.

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The Old Harbour Hotel

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3. Camel Trekking in Jaisalmer

Moving up to the northwest part of India, we hit Rajasthan, which I mentioned above. The cities are fascinating, each with its fort towering over the centre of town, but if you’re the adventurous or outdoorsy type, you’ll want to head for Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert (click through for more photos!). It’s much cheaper than the options mentioned above–we stayed in a perfectly respectable hotel for 1500 Rs. (less than $25 USD) per night–and the old fort is fascinating to explore. Except we didn’t stay there long, because we took a camel trek into the desert and slept under the stars. So. many. stars.

Camels, Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer

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How sexy are these curves?

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Sunrise over the desert

2. Exploring Udaipur

Still in Rajasthan, the city of Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East (to be fair, it has plenty of rivals for the name) or the White City. The old part of the city is built of white stone on the shores of a lake, with architecture that tends towards arches and cupolas.

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How much more romantic can you get? Well, actually…

1. Visiting the Taj Mahal

I’ll leave you with this. Okay, it’s a cliche, I’ll admit. But some of the world’s most famous sites are definitely worth visiting, and this is one. The city of Agra is voracious for tourists and skilled at parting you from your money. But I swear the Taj Mahal is worth the visit (click through for more photos!) for the beauty alone, let alone the story behind it. If you want to be ultra-romantic, book a moonlight visit, when it will look even more ethereal than it does below.

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The Taj Mahal at dawn

If you liked this post, you might be interested in my short story “The Raja and the Madman”, set in a fantasy version of Rajasthan. You can read about it here and buy the anthology it appears in, Under Her Protection, from Turtleduck Press.

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