Rajasthan is a reminder of kings, princes and maharajas of a time gone by, but nowhere is this more apparent than in Rajasthan’s Golden City, Jaisalmer. Located in the dry plains of western Rajasthan, Jaislamer sits on the outskirts of the Thar Desert only 50 kilometres from the Pakistan border. Rising from the dusty landscape is the city’s focal point, Jaislmer Fort. Built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisal, the fort is home to the Fort Palace, a Jain temple complex, Hindu temples and havelis and it still houses about three thousand of Jaisalmer’s sixty thousand strong population within it’s walls and we were to join them for our stay in the Golden City and our first time on camel safari Jaisalmer.
A twelve-hour, overnight sleeper bus, complete with private little sleeping compartments with a thin mattress and a window brought us to Jaislamer. From the bus an auto-rickshaw drove us up towards the mountain-like Jaisalmer Fort and through it’s enormous gates. Looking around a few guesthouses we were treated to our first views of the city from the top of the fort’s surrounding walls. Looking out across the city we felt like we were in Arabian Nights or Aladdin. Low, flat-roofed buildings surrounded the fort, making up the rest of the city below and stretching out for some way before coming to a very abrupt stop. There was no sprawling buildings here that we could notice but instead there was this very definitive line drawn in the sand (pardon the pun) and then the desert began, a landscape completely foreign to us, it was amazing. From the edge of the city lines, the dusty, barren terrain continued as far as the eye could see in every direction all the way to the horizon where the sand and the sky fused together to create that typical desert haze. With plans to go out into the desert for a night on camels and sleep on the dunes and so much to check out within the fort walls, we were buzzing with excitement at the thoughts of discovering more of this desert city.
Our first port of call was the City Palace, located just inside the fort entrance, where it stands proudly, the cities maroon and orange coloured flag flying from its high roof. An audio tour, with the typical nifty headphones, directed us through the various rooms of the palace and told the story of the rulers of a bygone era and their lavish royal lifestyles. Palanquins for carrying the rulers around on during processions were on display as well as old royal costumes, weapons and furniture giving us a real feel for
just how wealthy these old rulers were. The lifestyle they enjoyed became even more apparent when we walked into one room and there in front of us behind glass walls was a silver throne, known as the peacock throne. It’s a magnificent piece of furniture which wouldn’t look out of place in a ‘Cribs’ mansion. Two lions make up the armrest and the top features the national bird, the peacock. Also, featured on the throne is India’s national flower, the lotus flower and what was most interesting about the design is the symbolism; each element means something, the lion for strength and royalty, the peacock for grace, pride and beauty and the lotus flower for long life, purity, honour, good fortune and fertility. After our tour was over we exited the palace through the eastern side and continued our wander through the old, narrow streets of the city. With no traffic to contend with, it was an extremely peaceful experience strolling through the streets other than the persistent requests to ‘come look in my shop’. Golden coloured walls reached high above us on either side forming the pathways which zig-zagged through the interior of the fort and giving some shelter from the hot desert sunshine as we made our way to the seven Jain temples at the far side of the fort. Yellow sandstone was used to build these intricately carved 15th and 16th century temples and it creates a warm atmosphere as you wind through the maze of corridors which connect the various temple courtyards. Bare chested Jain priests in long white sarongs performed prayers as we moved between the temples which were only open to tourists in the early morning as the prayers and rituals would continue for the rest of the day.
Our highlight of Jaisalmer, highlight of Rajasthan and certainly one of our highlights of India was the camel safari we went on during our time in Jaisalmer.
Beginning early one morning we drove for less than an hour through the barren landscape into the Thar Desert. As the jeep turned off the main road, we were greeted by our two camel men and of course our camels. Excitement kicked in and we were like giddy school kids, getting as close as we dared, trying to pet the camels, talking to them and generally looking at them in amazement as we really weren’t all that sure what the appropriate/safe behaviour was around these incredible animals. Now that we had had a look at them it was time for introductions, “Mr. Brian, this is Simon”, “eh, nice to meet ya, Simon”. “M’am, your camel name is Mr. Win, he is gentle camel for you”. With the formalities over, it was time to get going and we were surprised at how quickly we were expected to get to grips with our camels. Climbing on cushions strapped to their backs, it was one person to a camel and with a command from the camel man the camel quickly went from sitting to standing. The manner in which they do this is bizarre; they sit with their front legs tucked under them and their back legs tucked under them pointing forward, when it comes time to stand up its through a series of slow deliberate movements that left us camel jockeys, now quite high up from the ground, staring diagonally down the camels long neck at the ground below as it straightened it’s back legs with not even a hump to hold onto! Next, the front legs straightened and that was it we were now ten feet off the ground on the back of a camel, in the middle of the desert; not a situation an Irish guy and girl find themselves in all too often.
We had a much improved vantage point now and could see for what seemed like forever out across the desert as the camel men led our camel convoy towards the dunes to the west. After a pretty uncomfortable twenty or so minutes laughing and bouncing our way across the sands we came to a halt and that’s when we were given the reigns. “Now, you drive the camel” we were told, “em….”, I’ve only ridden a horse once, this was going to be interesting. Simon and Mr. Win were very responsive to our commands (for the most part!) and steering them through the terrain wasn’t as terrifying as we initially thought it was going to be. Pull left to go left, right to go right, back hard to stop and give a kick to make them go faster, it all seemed pretty straight forward until the camels wanted to stop and eat some cactus or whatever else they came across and then they seemed to suddenly forget their people skills.
Regardless, we continued passing through a few very small villages where a maximum of four families lived and we stopped to play with the kids for a bit who were amazed by our camera. One budding photographer was clicking mad, taking photos of all the other kids who had come over to say hello and the excitement and wonder that came every time they looked at the results on the camera screen was infectious. Soon, the sun was too hot and so we stopped under a large tree for some lunch and an afternoon siesta. The cushions were taken off the camels backs and they were given time to roam around a bit while we ate, slept and took cover from the sun for a few hours. Short pieces of rope were tied between the camels back legs and also between their front legs to shorten the animal’s stride and stop the camels from running away; a kind of camel handcuff or camel-cuff if you will!
After our afternoon recess we continued on our bumpy way towards the distant dunes and we arrived safe and sound not long before sunset. Again the camel guys set up a cooking station and got to work preparing dinner while we walked along the dunes. Cacti dotted the desert floor and these were a far cry from the mini cactus which we had on the kitchen window sill when I was young; these were the real deal, big, thorny, cartoon cacti, the kind that Mexican restaurants base their sombrero wearing mascots on. The dunes rolled out in front of us like a series of ocean waves with peaks and troughs going left and right and as we ate our dinner we chose a spot and sat and watched as the sun began to set, lighting up the sky. Simon, Mr. Win and the other camels became beautifully silhouetted against the vivid sky, creating a real life postcard image right in front of us. After a long day of riding camels we were worn out and so we rolled out our mats on the dunes, with no shelter and went to sleep under the bright stars which had come out to say goodnight.
With no alarm clock, we woke with the sun and watched as it slowly rose in the distance, it’s rays gently creeping across the dunes. A few hours more camel riding after a simple breakfast took us back towards Jaisalmer and closer to civilisation Now feeling like seasoned pros on the back of our camels, we were pushing them to go a little faster. Out of nowhere, the camel men came up behind us quietly and lashed our camels sending them and us galloping and laughing across the Thar Desert bruising our backsides even more than they had been to this point. Arriving back in Jaisalmer in the early afternoon, we were sore, tired and bruised but we agreed it had been one of the best experiences of our trip so far and probably one of our best travel experiences ever. Going on camel safari Jaisalmer gets the thumbs up from us!
Brian is a travel writer, photographer, blogger, travel addict and adventure-junkie. Being outdoors, getting off the beaten track and outside his comfort zone is what makes him tick. Brian’s the dreamer in the relationship; when he’s not travelling, he’s dreaming about it! Keeping fit, cooking, music and red wine take up the rest of his time.
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