Bikaner to Jaisalmer
Driving from Bikaner to Jaisalmer yielded much the same landscape as our previous journeys through Rajasthan – vast arid spaces, cows, camels, shanties and people living their lives in the desert. The traffic bore similarities, too – many wide load tractor and trailer transports carrying grain for stock feed that took up the whole width of the road, so overloaded and heavy that they drooped down over the side, nearly touching the ground. As we continued on our journey, we saw another tractor and trailer completely overturned and the whole load tipped into the ditch on the side of the road. When stacking these vehicles beyond capacity, clearly it’s imperative to get the balance right.
I waved at a frowning driver and passenger as they passed in their truck, and their faces burst into smiles as they energetically waved back. Even tired transport drivers are friendly in Rajasthan.
One ever-present sign of modernity in this remote landscape is the spider’s web of power lines, bringing electricity to the tiny, primitive huts, making life a little easier for their inhabitants. The fence posts cordoning off properties are all made of the most gorgeous sandstone cut into long planks, standing on their ends in the ground. Depending on which region of Rajasthan you are in determines the colour of the sandstone – everything from dark cream to ribboned pink. Young trees are encased in jenga-like, cylindrical formations of bricks to protect them from the ever-present cows looking for a feed.
When they aren’t being utilised by their owners, camels are free to roam where they will, snacking on the leaves of trees and walking their lanky, loping strut across the horizon. Our driver, Anand, told us the locals jokingly call them ‘Rajasthan Airline” – the only affordable way to get from one part of Rajasthan to another for most people.
The fancy decorations on the big trucks powering towards us were an uplifting sight. The colourful flowers and swinging pom poms are almost more apparent in the distance as they approach on the highway than the truck’s size and shape! And all of this is for good luck. The backs of the vehicles have signs on them saying variations of “please honk” – because no one seems to use their mirrors in this country (they just pull out without even glancing). If there is an accident, the fault lies with whoever is the biggest vehicle – push bike is innocent against motorbike, motorbike innocent against tuk tuk and so it goes on, even if it really is the fault of the smaller vehicle. The result is that often drivers behave like hoons or fools and they can’t be lumbered with ‘fault’, and so, stuff happens.
We stopped at the 14th century Pokhran Fort on the way to Jaisalmer. A spot not often visited by tourists due to its remote location in the Thar Desert, which made it an ‘appropriate’ choice as the test site of India’s first underground nuclear weapon detonation in 1974. This was followed by a series of five other detonations in 1998. I guess it’s a handy spot for such demonstrations, given the proximity to the border of Pakistan (which also accounts for the current big army presence).
During our walk through the museum part of the fort, we were amused by a group of young adult men who were pretty much behaving like teenage boys – running around the fort, having fun. They stopped when they saw us, talked amongst themselves, and courageously asked us for a photo. This opened a bit of a flood gate, and took a while to wind up!
The current king still lives at Pokhran Fort in an area not open to the public, but other sections are run as a heritage hotel by the royal family of Pokhran. The gate to the gardens and pool area were open, so we had a bit of a wander before deciding to get out of the sun and back into the airconditioned car for the next leg of our journey.
Gadi Sagar Lake
Our first day of touring the city of Jaiaslmer began with a stop at Gadi Sagar Lake, which was once the only source of water for the city. Now they have the Indira Gandhi Canal – which is a better quality of water and more reliable. Because of the tanks importance at the time it was built, it is surrounded by many small temples and shrines.
Spent some time watching the catfish in the lake being fed near the temple – they were a seething mass, breeching like a multi-headed sea monster. The striking 14th century Tilon-ki-Pol gate was built with money from a famous prostitute. When she offered to pay for the build, the maharaja refused, as he would have to walk through it to get to the water. While he was away, she built it anyway…and added a Krishna temple on top of it so the king couldn’t have it torn down. Apparently the royal family still don’t use the gate, even though everyone else has gotten over themselves and it’s in constant use.
Our walk back to the car yielded more interesting local sights – incredibly cute little buskers, boogying their way into our hearts and a tip! Luckily it was Sunday, so they weren’t supposed to be in school! Also saw a bull that was slowing stalking a cow that was playing hard to get – she was not at all interested in his attentions, and as neither seemed bothered enough to pick up the pace beyond a very slow swagger, he eventually gave up.
The Complex of Jain Temples
Our guide for the day, Divesh, took us to a group of seven Jain temples, two of which you can enter. They were pretty spectacular – all carved out of the golden sandstone of Jaisalmer. It cost us 200 rps each to enter, which goes to the trust responsible for the upkeep of the complex. After our guide had given his spiel about the temple, he told us to take our time and check the place out. As soon as he left, a supposed holy man tried to hit us up for a ‘donation’. We declined as we had already paid to enter, and he wasn’t actually doing anything to earn a ‘donation’ (no blessings, nothing). But this guy was pushy, tried to continue the conversation and insist on payment. I just said no and kept checking out the temple. Went to the second temple open for visitors, and there was a big sign saying that donations MUST go in the box, “do not tip the holy men.” They needed one of those signs in the first temple! When I mentioned the hassling for a tip to the guide, he didn’t seem too fazed. Obviously the norm at this temple, but not something we had encountered before on our journey through Rajasthan.
Every inch of this magnificent fort is made from the golden sandstone of the region. Due to the arid nature of the landscape, this fort was pretty much built with an interlocking drystone wall method, which was fine in the time that it was built, when most people functioned in their homes with only a pot of water for the whole day for the whole family. Now, there are restaurants and hotels galore located within the fort, and combined with plumbed in water, that makes for a lot of run off, and the whole thing, fort and hill, is slowly collapsing. They are trying to rebuild the retaining walls with modern mortar methods, but it is a slow process. It was odd to walk up the steep hill through the entry gate seeing the bottom rows of stone actually damp – in the desert!! Crazy. And walking through the old town of the fort, there was water running through open drains everywhere. They are trying to cap the number of establishments within the old walls, but not having much luck.
We saw an 11 year old girl doing a tight rope walking act just outside the fort entrance. Anand said that her older sister used to do this performance before her, and now she has been trained in the role. Her core strength was extraordinary. Shame she doesn’t get the chance to go to school, or continue her schooling (education is free and compulsory in India from the ages of 6 to 14, but she is one of many who do not attend).
Built in 1885 for Jaisalmer’s prime minister by two stone mason brothers. Nathmalji-ki-Haveli has two differently detailed façades – subtle differences can be seen across the whole frontage, and it’s fun to stand and look and try and spot them. Very interesting.
We had a ‘free’ tour of the haveli, which basically meant we were escorted up the stairs and tacked on to a tour group who were listening to the story about how they don’t receive funding from the government because that would mean the family no longer has control of the haveli. So instead, the small rooms that the public have access to, are filled with stalls selling everything that is for sale outside on the streets (only of better quality, of course!). It was disappointing that the only interiors we got to see were jam packed with merchandise. They tried to do a hard sell on a range of products, but we insisted on making a small donation rather than buying yet another knick-knack to take home.
This important and largest haveli of the town was the first to be built in Jaisalmer. It is actually a group of fives suites of havelis, built for five brothers by their rich, merchant father. Apparently, the two squares opposite the havelis exist because Indira Gandhi thought the view would benefit from not having to crane your neck up from the narrow street to try and see the stone work. So the buildings directly opposite were cleared, and you can now sit on benches and gaze, neck-pain free.
Having a local guide always means the obligatory visit to a shop for a demonstration – “you look, you like, you buy, you no like, no buy.” Wish it were that easy, but it is simply the way of things in India. Our guide wanted to take us to a co-op that demonstrated the making of, and the selling of, the usual textiles. We said, sure, and bought a cushion cover for the spare bedroom. The young man doing the demonstration wasn’t too thrilled that we weren’t interested in buying more stuff, but we really don’t need more stuff, although the product was definitely of a high quality. And as much as we want to spend our tourist dollar to help local business, there really is only so much you can purchase.
Desert camel ride
Having never experienced a camel ride in a desert, we thought we should give it a crack, and the idea of doing a sunset ride was highly appealing. This involved our driver, Anand, taking us 45 minutes west of Jaisalmer toward the Pakistan border to where all the desert safari resorts are located (lots of fancy tents for accommodation). He had lined up his ‘guy’ who gave us a discount because we were the first customers of the day (I like this custom – and have experienced it elsewhere. It’s not a bullshit selling point, they do actually believe that if they give the first customer of the day a discount, good luck will come to them). There are many camel handlers offering this service in the area, and it’s a matter of haggling with the one you like the look of and making a deal.
We took a half hour camel ride towards the setting sun, and had a great ol’ time, but were also glad that it was a short experience and not a safari! We rode pretty much parallel to the road through rocky and hilly desert landscape, until we reached the area that was the dismount spot from which we were to watch the sunset. This ‘spot’ is an expanse of actual sand dunes, chosen because the reality of most of the Thar Desert is that it is not actually the landscape of imaged camel safaris, it’s more scrappy shrubs and rocky bits.
This sunset viewing area was only a little bit of a way from the road and we could see on the other side of it one of the tent resorts. If you were not inclined to experience a lengthy and somewhat uncomfortable 30 minute ride, you could walk over from that resort and haggle with a camel owner for a short 15 minute taste of the ‘Rajasthan Airline’.
The beverage sellers were upon us immediately as we dismounted. Anand had warned us before hand of the huge mark up on the beers, so he had bought us some earlier and put them in the esky for our trip back in the car. Good thinking. There was also the usual parade of musicians peddling their talents, but we were happy to listen from a distance to the music being played for the honeymoon couple cuddling in the sand on a neighbouring dune.
We went for a walk and our camel handlers said they would be “right here” when we returned. So when we returned and they were not “right there”, I thought we had actually gotten lost in the desert, even though we could see the road and there were plenty of people around, it was just that our dudes and camels were not where we left them. We were feeling like fools who couldn’t tell one dune from another (even though both of us did take particular note), when our guys came towards us from the road with another couple on their camels. They had gone off to get another gig while they waited for us to enjoy our wander in the desert. Phew!
It was a relaxed drive back to our oasis at The Gulaal Hotel (see here for our article on the hotel), made all the more pleasant with the cold beer and chips we consumed in the back of the car, and the thought of the massages waiting for us in the spa of the hotel.
Our Indian journey continues in Jodhpur…
Accommodation: The Gulaal Hotel
Tour Company: Intense India Tours