Jaisalmer, the Golden City (all the towns in Rajastan apparently have
to be nicknamed after a color), is a town way out in the middle of nowhere. It’s surrounded by the large and barren Thar desert, which was actively trying to reclaim our train on the way there by filling it with sand and dust through the cracks in the windows. The train tracks dead-ended at Jaisalmer station and we emerged, dust stained but smiling, to find an impressive array of shouting and hotel sign-wielding touts trying to lure in the handful of disembarking tourists. We chose the Hotel Golden City tout and crammed into our free taxi ride to the hotel, which proved to be overpriced and poorly situated for our tastes. Pretty quickly we decided that Jaisalmer town is small and not all that notable or pretty, but has a saving grace that more than makes up for it: one of the most beautiful forts in India. Jaisalmer fort is made of sandstone and in the evening the sunlight turns it the brilliant golden color that gives the town its nickname.
There’s only one winding entrance up into the fort, and walking up it we could picture living here back in the day when this was an important stop for the camel trains making their way through the desert on the trading routes, and everyone lived in the fort for the protection it offered. Today a large percentage of Jaisalmer’s residents still live and work in the fort, making it one of the few living forts left in India and giving it a unique feeling. Most buildings inside the fort are either residences or businesses of some kind, mostly shops selling stuff to the tourists. Full disclosure: there are a lot of tourist shops, selling a lot of tourist junk. This is normal in Indian tourist towns, but there was a higher percentage than normal here and it bothered me a bit. There were also a lot of very cool and unique wares on display, though, and Denae had a great time finding us some neat souveniers. Actually some of the handicrafts here are amazing, especially the patchwork cloths made from an incredible array of fabrics, beads, and even mirrors. Denae also bought a ring from a famous shop specializing in intricate silver work. They make rings and other jewelry with tiny figures and scenes carved in incredible detail; Denae’s has a series of Hindu gods carved around the ring, and is her favorite souvenier from the entire trip.
One of the more interesting shops was just outside the fort, an unassuming little place that sold only a few simple foods made from a local specialty: bhang. Bhang is a blend of specific parts of the marijuana plant, has a long history of religious and cultural use, and in certain areas of India is legal. The Jaisalmer shop’s sign proudly advertises it’s “government authorized” status, and the proprietor told us that a percentage of the proceeds go to the authorities. They sold bhang cookies, chocolates (bundles of these were conveniently available to go as “safari packs” for folks setting off on camel trips), and of course the famous Bhang Lassis, just like the mango lassi you’ve had in your local Indian restaurant only, you know, full of weed. Everything is available in low, medium and strong potency. For the under-initiated, you may want to steer clear of the strong. I, er, my friend told me the effects can hit suddenly and be more than you bargained for, as there is no way to guage how much you’ve ingested.
We had a great time wandering the fort; everywhere you look there is something interesting to see: intricate carvings in the sandstone, temples large and small, windows to peak into, people watching… The locals tended to be pretty friendly here and we had a lot of interesting chats with random strangers. The weather was perfect and there was no pollution, which was a refreshing change of pace. Sunset was the best time of the day, when the light turned the fort and the surrounding town and dessert into the most amazing and brilliant golden color. We’d find a perch somewhere on the outer fort walls and watch the kids flying their fighting kites as the sun sank down… good times. We ate dinner twice at a surprisingly good Italian restaurant near the entrance to the fort, where we could sit on the roof and look out at the fort walls which were lit at night. At one point Allison, sitting across from us at the table, looked intently into the sky behind us and shouted for us to turn around and look: it was a meteor, by far the lowest, closest and most dramatic any of us have ever seen. This wasn’t your typical “shooting star” that zips across the sky for half a second; this thing was so close it almost seemed to be moving slow, and we could see bits of it breaking off and burning up in the atmosphere in a surprisingly colorful display. When it finally disappeared below the horizon I’m not ashamed to say that I ducked, and would not have been surprised to see some kind of distant explosion. We were all relieved when there wasn’t one.
There are lots of hotels and places to stay inside the fort, but according to our Lonely Planet guidebook it is morally wrong to do so. Apparently the fort is being overused and starting to fall apart; all the people staying inside create a heavy water drainage load on the fort’s inadequate sewer system. Dang, though, you should see that amazing room we found inside for 250rp, with the carved sandstone window seat overlooking the alley below, where we could sit and watch life go by… yeah, don’t tell the traveler’s police but we stayed inside the fort, for four wonderful days! Did we contribute to the fort’s decline? I don’t know, but we minimized our showers and spent a lot of time listening to the guidebook rants and conspiracy theories (“they were paid off by the hotels outside!”) from the fort’s hotel and restaurant operators, who took a serious blow to their livelyhoods when the current guidebook embargo took effect a few years ago. In reality the impact we had on the fort was so small as to be inconsequential, but I can imagine that impact multiplied thousands of times, by thousands of travelers, would matter much more. So maybe we really did sin, and when we die will find ourselves in traveler’s hell, which I’m pretty sure is an eternity spent in Raxaul.
There were lots of dogs and cows inside the fort, and they must be treated better than usual by the locals because they would often come up to us for attention. One evening outside our hotel Denae stopped to pet a dog that we’d befriended, and soon a couple other mutts showed up to be petted, and then a couple more. Then a large and unusually clean and handsome cow ambled up, with large and intelligent cow eyes, and I swear this cow started to gently nuzzle Denae’s head with its nose. Of course Denae was delighted at this gentle and affectionate bovine, so she started petting it, and it really seemed to love it. It cocked it’s head from one side to the other so she could scratch behind its ears, it inched closer to allow better petting access, and right after Denae gave it a kiss (this really was a sweetheart cow) above it’s nose the beast gave a great sneeze and sent a prodigious amount of cow snot all over Denae’s torso. There was a short, shocked silence, and before Denae could get upset or anyone else could laugh the cow made another blechhhkkk sound and Denae’s legs were also covered in cow snot. It looked like a large person had projectile vomited all over her. Luckily Denae’s a good sport and didn’t get too grossed out, and the locals who witnessed everything got several weeks worth of laughter out of the incident. They all assured her that it was “very lucky,” and joked that she shouldn’t “wash away the luck” when they saw me coming back from the store with a packet of laundry soap.
A very high percentage of tourists who visit Jaisalmer head out on an overnight Camel Safari, and we were no exception. One morning we
found ourselves loading into a jeep to take us about an hour outside town, into the desert where we’d meet our camel caravan. We were in a group of ten tourists, plus about five guides, and each client had his or her own camel. These are big and exotic beasts, and we soon found out that our all-male camel train was, in the words of our guides, “very horny.” They expressed those feelings by drooling large amounts of frothy spitum, inflating their already large tounges into balloons that hung outside their mouths, and making incredible gurgling/burping sounds that they’d sustain for long periods of time. It was all pretty funny, but I found myself perplexed as to how the lady camels found such behavior attractive.
Rather than climb up onto a standing camel via a stirrup, like with a horse, the guides would order the camels to lie down. The long legged creatures would awkwardly fold their limbs underneath themselves, we’d climb on, and the camel would stand up again while we held on tightly. Even with our saddles covered in blankets, we soon found the rocking caused by the camel’s gait to be pretty uncomfortable, and we weren’t dissapointed that we really didn’t cover all that much distance during the “safari.” This tour, like most other tours we took in India, had a bit of a contrived and haphazard feel. The guides mostly just talked amongst themselves, and any silk road fantasies we might be having kept being interupted by power lines, huge electric wind generators, and the occasional guide’s cell phone conversation. But after a while we left the signs of civilization behind, and when we stopped for the night on a large sand due (the only one we’d seen, most of the desert is scrub land) we were all having a lot of fun. We were riding camels! How cool is that?! All the clients headed up the dune to watch one of the best sunsets we’d seen on the trip, while the guides cooked up a bland but filling dinner down in camp. The sunset was made even better when a local kid walked up to us, hauling a sack full of beers that he offered at very reasonable prices, considering his two hour hike to get to us.
That night some locals brought a young female camel by our camp, hopeful that one of the randily gurgling male camels in our group would have what it takes to multiply their stock. The guides eagerly invited us to watch a little “camel sutra,” and we were treated to one of the most sureal and kind of gross sights I’ve every seen. I’ll spare you most the steamy details, but will mention that some of the camel jockys had to help with the, uh, placement process, those males were expressive, loud and really enjoyed themselves, and one of them literally fell over sideways when he was finished.
The next morning we had a mercifully quick (we were all a bit saddlesore) ride back to the jeeps, which took us back to town. All in all the camel safari, and Jaisalmer in general, was a great experience.