Tag Archives: travel writing

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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Visiting the Red Fort in New Delhi

The outer walls of the Red Fort

The outer walls of the Red Fort

In this installment of my Adventures in Asia series, we’re exploring the Red Fort, built on the order of Shah Jahan — better known as the emperor who built the Taj Mahal.

The fort was built during the heyday of the Mughal Empire, a Muslim empire that controlled much of India from the 16th to early 19th centuries. They built a lot of forts, palaces, and tombs that still stand today, even though Muslims have been reduced to a minority in present-day India.

If you go, rent an audioguide — it will not only walk you through the various structures in the fort but also give you a good overview of the history.

The Red Fort, or Lal Qila, overlooks the Yamuna River. Its imposing red sandstone walls are enclosed by a moat (now dry). Once you make your way through the series of massive gates, you’ll see that the complex wasn’t just a fort, but also a palace.

(Lots of photos after the jump!)

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Travel Memoirs I Have Loved

One of the things that inspired the wanderlust that led to my Grand Adventure was, of course, books. Growing up, I read plenty of fiction set in other parts of the world — maybe I’ll blog about that another time. But I also devoured autobiographies and memoirs by people who had travelled or lived in places far from their homes. Here are a few of them…

  • Touch the Dragon by Karen Connelly. As a teenager, Connelly spent a year in Thailand — living with a Thai family and studying the language. This is her story of that time. She’s also a poet, so the memoir is full of evocative details. (She later spent time in Spain, detailed in a second memoir, One Room in a Castle.)
  • Call Mama Doctor by Louise Jilek-Aall. Not exactly a travel memoir, but deserving of an honourable mention, this is the story of a young European woman doctor working in remote parts of East Africa, and the people she met along the way.
  • All in the Same Boat by Fiona McCall and Paul Howard. This family built a boat in their backyard, then sailed around the world with two small children. They do a great job balancing personal tales with the history of the places they visit, and there are maps and photos as well. (They’ve also written a sequel about the later part of their voyage, Still in the Same Boat.)
  • Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage, edited by Katherine Govier. A collection of short pieces by writers talking about solo journeys they have made. Travelling solo (which I’ve done) can be very intense and also very rewarding, and it’s fascinating to hear the differing experiences.

Also worth mentioning are the fabulous collections of women’s travel writing put out by Travelers’ Tales.

You might notice that all my examples are older — I haven’t read much travel writing lately. Here’s where you come in. Do you have a favourite travel writer, or perhaps a  favourite biography of an intrepid wandering soul? Please share!