A City of Golden Sand
Jaisalmer, situated in the far northwestern corner of Rajasthan and close to the heavily fortified border with Pakistan, is called the Golden City. The name fits: golden buildings, the highest and most impressive one of them the fort towering over the old walled city, rise from the golden sands of the desert surrounding the town. Jaisalmer lives from tourism. During the holidays, there are no empty rooms and the guesthouses squeeze every rupee out of the crowds, turning their rooftop terraces into open air bedrooms where those who didn’t book in advance sleep on mattresses for the price of a superior double room during low season. As soon as the crowds have left, prices drop dramatically to as low a one US dollar for a double room just so tourists book a camel safari through their accommodation. It’s hard to say no to your host when the room’s almost for free.
Despite the huge offer and the low prices, it wasn’t easy to find something; standards seem to be lower here than in other parts of Rajasthan and many rooms were dirty and smelly, some places seemed to be closed or just unattended, with nobody answering the door. We finally found a nice enough room at the Wanderlust Guesthouse and yes, we also booked the camel safari with them. It’s like a must-do thing there, you can’t go to Jaisalmer and no do a camel safari. The owner of the guesthouse is a very nice and honest guy (he told us everything about the commission system governing India’s tourism industry) but, word of warning, the food is somewhere close to terrible (except for the masala chai of which we never had a bad cup anywhere). There’s a good (in my memory nameless) restaurant in a guesthouse close by, just up the road.
Jaisalmer fort, that walled city in the city, is fantastic and absolutely not to be missed. It is a bit touristy, sure, there are (expensive) restaurants, hotels, and countless shops, but it’s incredibly charming and unique. The lanes are very narrow and here, finally, there are no cars and only very few motorbikes. Built in the 12th century, it’s one of the few remaining “living forts” in the world and about 4000 people live in Jaisalmer fort. However, the place struggles with waste water management problems due mainly to the many hotels and rising number of tourists staying in the fort and therefore rising quantities of waste water flowing into the flawed and badly built sewage system and then leaking into the foundations of the fort, which is now in danger of collapsing.
Camel safaris usually last two days, with one night spent sleeping under the stars in the desert. We’ve done that a few times already (call us show-offs, but it’s true) and since we’re not huge fans of camping (let’s be honest – it’s uncomfortable and the older you get, the more important comfort becomes), we weren’t keen on spending the night in the desert. Especially because the two days we were in Jaisalmer, the weather was cold, the city was enveloped in thick fog and it even rained at times – absolutely not the weather for sleeping outside.
We, us two and another couple, left the city in the afternoon by 4WD with a guide. After about an hour we reached a small hut where the camels were waiting, and, each one seated (un)comfortably on a camel, continued to the camp. Rajasthan’s Thar desert is mostly shrubs, some trees and only few sand dunes the way we usually imagine a desert landscape. The small camp – a few beds and a fireplace surrounded by blankets – is on the foot of one of these sand dunes. At the camp, we met another group that had already spent one day and one night in the desert and we arrived just in time to watch the pretty sunset. After sunset, the guides stared cooking and we ate sitting around the fire. The food was good but a bit bland because tourists don’t like spicy food. Some appreciated it, others not that much. The guides then sang a few Rajasthani songs, accompanied by a drum and the crackle of the fire and then it was already time for us to head back to Jaisalmer. It was a fun drive through the night at full speed over the bumpy desert tracks.