I don't think anybody in our group expected our India trip to throw up a place like Jaisalmer. We arrived here from chaotic, noisy and congested Delhi, and I had pretty much prepared myself for all our other destinations to be equally as intense. Jaisalmer however is nothing at all like Delhi. It is much more peaceful, relaxed and slow paced, and it feels very safe. Within the grounds of the old fort, where we are staying, there are no cars because the streets are too narrow, and so the familiar sound of tuneful car horns is restricted to the newer part of town below. It's a welcome change.
Jaisalmer grew up in the early part of the last millennium as it evolved as a central stop on the India - Persia trade route. Although the growth of sea trade impacted heavily on the town, and the partition of India completely cut the camel trade route (the Pakistan border is just 75 miles west), Jaisalmer had accumulated significant wealth over the years. That is evident not only in the spectacular hilltop fort, but also in the construction of many "havelis" around the town - which are basically mansion houses for the wealthiest traders. Tourism is now the main driver of the economy, and its no wonder many tourists flock here as it's such a beautiful city. The views from the fort, which is still home to 2,500 people, are nothing short of spectacular. Our hotel has a beautiful rooftop restaurant in which I've spent a lot of time over the past 3 days. I don't think I could ever grow tired of the view over the town's rooftops and the Rajasthan Desert in the distance (though the latter has been spoiled by an army of French and German constructed wind turbines).
On our first day our guide Jitu took us on an orientation walk around, showing us some of the havelis and the location of some essential services in the town. The first thing that is noticeable about Jaisalmer is the amount of cows wandering the streets! Apparently they all belong to someone, but as the people here are urban dwellers they have to leave them free to wander the streets! There are cow pats everywhere and the whole place smells like a farm! Still, they don't cause much hassle to the passing tourist, unlike the many motorbike drivers, who seem infuriated if someone should hold them up for 2 seconds in the narrow alleys. There are also a lot of flies about, but again these don't cause much problem. Unlike Australian Outback flies they don't gravitate towards your face and so cause no issue. A number of the cows are still stained from the recent "Holi" celebrations. Holi is the Hindu festival of colour and was this year celebrated on March 1st. The festival traditionally marks the start of spring, and Indians mark it by taking to the streets and throwing coloured powder all over each other. Its a shame I missed it by just 2 days as I think it would have been quite a spectacle. On our walk we also visited the Jaisalmer Maharaja's palace, which you couldn't go in unless you were a guest at his hotel. Every major city in Rajasthan has its own Maharaja, and not so long ago they still used to exert considerable power over the region. Nowadays they are a lot like the monarchy in England - wealthy but insignificant, though they still seem to be well respected in the communities.
The next morning we were taken for another walk around, this time by a local guide who basically showed us the same sights Jitu had the afternoon before, but gave us a more in depth explanation. We first visited the Jain Temple behind our hotel, which was full of interesting and intricate carvings. Jain's only make up around 2% of the Indian population, but Jaisalmer is one of their major centres. Jainism is a variation on the Hindu religion, only even stranger. Some Jain's are so extreme they walk around with a brush so as to sweep away any organisms in their path, and some also wear face masks to avoid breathing any creature in. You weren't permitted in the temple with any leather on your person (I had to hide my watch and wallet), and if you were female, you couldn't go in if you were menstruating - apparently to preserve the sanctity of the place! After the temple we wandered back to some of the havelis and had a brief look inside one. This was basically a sales exercise as the family there had converted part of their house into a shop selling the usual Indian ornamental gifts. We met an interesting character outside though - an old man with an enormously long moustache! Apparently his father is the world record holder for the longest ever moustache and he is attempting to grow one even longer. I don't know when he last shaved but it must have been decades ago! Finally the walk took us to one of the businesses Intrepid sponsor here - a textiles showroom that showcases the produce of local widows who otherwise wouldn't be able to sell their produce because they don't have a husband to sell it for them. They had made some fantastic bed-sheets and tablecloths, out of materials that cost a fortune at home. The attention to detail was amazing and each hand crafted duvet took in the region of 2 months to make. The girls were in heaven shopping for local products, but I feel as though I've been bombarded by ethnic produce over the last 6.5 months, and despite having a look at some items I decided it was probably best I saved my money.
The afternoon was free for us to wander around, and I took a stroll down to a near dry lake on the edge of town which had some Hindu ghats (places people are creamted) around it. The view of the "golden sandcastle" fort from was worth the effort, but there wasn't much to see at the lake itself. I then walked back up through town and did my best to avoid the attentions of the over-friendly shopkeepers here. Every shopkeeper leaps out as soon as they see a tourist and tries to start conversation, or sell something. As you walk along there is a constant echo of English phrases, ranging from the bland, "nice shop, cheap, cheap, you take a look", to the ridiculous, "You English, lovely jubbly", to the more witty, "let me have one chance to rip you off". Nothing will work on me though! With time to spare I decided to try an Indian Oil massage at a place opposite the hotel. It was the first time I'd been massaged by a man, which was a little strange but was unsurprising given the strict role of women in India. He was very experienced, and though at times I thought he was going to break my arms and neck, it was a very good massage.
In the evening our hotel arranged for us to don some local costumes and go for a meal at a nice restaurant. The girls all wore fabulous sari's, but I was dressed in some "Ali Baba" style baggy trousers, a white shirt (which I later bought for 2 pound), and a multi-coloured turban which would be worn by the Maharaja (turban colours were used to distinguish between castes in former times). It was all pretty comfortable! We got some crazy looks and comments as we wandered through town, and a representative from the local newspaper stopped to take our picture. The place we ate at was very nice and overlooked the floodlit fort from below. A grandparent and his 3 grandkids provided us with some very bad local music over the course of our meal, but we still had a great night.
Perhaps the biggest attraction of Jaisalmer however isn't the fort or shopping, but the chance to go on a camel safari in the surrounding Thar Desert. And yesterday afternoon that's exactly what we did. 7 of us crammed in to a tiny Jeep which ferried us 40km towards the Pakistan border, where we met our camels and guides. The roads on route were empty as the land border to Pakistan is closed here. In fact there is just one place in India where you can cross by land into Pakistan and that is some way north of here in Punjab Province. The rest of the land border is closed and a 3km no-mans lands exists in between. The main role of the many military here in Jaisalmer is patrolling that border, and it shows you how soured relations are between the two countries.
The Thar Desert was exceptionally sparse if you looked beyond the power lines! Next to nothing can grow there, and where there wasn't sand the landscape looks somewhat blackened and volcanic. The point where we met the camels wasn't especially pictuesque but the sense of space was awesome. I was a little worried about riding a camel given my previous experience on a horse, but I needn't of feared. Despite the fact you were someway higher up on a camel the animals were very lethargic and at all times we had a guide in control of them. Of the three animals I've ridden this trip - camel, elephant and horse - it probably provided the comfiest ride, though taking pictures was tricky because of the constant up and down motion. The only issue with camels though is their flatulance! Our guide said a camel is the ultimate animal of love, because if you can love a camel, you can love anything! Their breath stinks, they constantly burp and they frequently fart. And in addition to that, their faces are especially ugly! They are not pleasant animals. But riding on them for two hours through the desert proved to be one of my most enjoyable travelling experiences to date. With the traditionally dressed camel handlers at our side, and the desert sun right in front of us, it felt like a scene from Arabian Nights. It could have been Arabia, it could have been Afghanistan, but I don't think it was a scene people would automatically associate with India.
After two hours continous riding we finally arrived at our camp for the night, and by that time I think most people's groin's were ready for a break. The camp was set up amongst spectacular, if a little small, sand dunes, and with the sun setting to the west it made for a spectacular sight. Our beds were made for us underneath the stars, and the men there provided us with a decent, if a little flavourless meal for dinner. They set up a campfire after the sun had set and some musicians and traditionally dressed dancers from the local village came and performed for us, which was again something wonderfully atmospheric. The music wasn't altogether pleasant on the ear, but the dancers were fantastic, whirling and twirling with incredible energy. They got us all up for a go at the end but nobody could replicate their frenetic pace of movement. It was an enjoyable evening's entertainment. After they'd finished we soon laid back and admired the plentiful stars in the clear night sky, but it wasn't long before people started to drift off to sleep. With the wonderful silence (something you just don't get in inhabited India) I probably had my best night's sleep in a while, though I woke up a couple of times because the temperature was quite chilly - probably about 15C!
The camel guides woke us up at 7am, just in time for the desert sunrise, and provided us with a small breakfast before our one hour camel ride back to civilisation. We trekked this time to the village where the guides were from, passing on route hordes of local women carrying water on their heads - something I was very keen to get a picture of! It was a sight so incredibly Indian, and rounded off a wonderful camel trek in a beautiful part of India. I thoroughly enjoyed Jaisalmer and the camel trek, and I suspect at the end of my time in India I may well consider it the highlight. We still have many places to visit though, starting with the city of Jodphur, which we are bound for on a 6 hour bus this afternoon. We've been warned the bus has no air conditioning, and the drivers like to use their horn a lot, so I'm not especially looking forward to the journey. The horns on Cambodian busses infuritated me, but at least they had air-con. If we make it alive, which I'm sure we will as the roads seem very quiet out here on India's western frontier, I'll update from Jodhpur.