Jaisalmer – The Desert Experience
Ahhh.. Jaisalmer ! The beautiful, the colourful, the harsh, the soft Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is a breathtakingly beautiful city of Rajasthan, which evokes the mystery and mysticism often associated with the magnificent Thar Desert. The sweeping fort of Jaisalmer looks like a beautiful mirage rising in the sands of the desert city. The very air carries the hint of the notes of music of the banjaras (nomads). The lilting laughter of the simple, innocent people here remains with you for a long time. The aroma of the lovingly made food of the desert pervades the senses. Jaisalmer is quintessential Rajasthan. The heat of the desert does not take anything away from the warmth of the people here.
Jaisalmer is not a very big a city, in fact it can be summarised as the city inside and outside of the Sonar Quila, the famous Jaisalmer fort.
Out of all our travels in the state of Rajasthan, one common feature that we experienced time and again was the humility, simplicity and hospitality of its people, and this endearing quality increased manifolds as we entered Jaisalmer. We arrived in Jaisalmer from Jodhpur in the evening, just as the sun was starting to set. The bus dropped us near Gadisar Lake, and though we were a little tired by the rickety bus journey, we decided to visit the lake before checking into our hotel.
Gadisar Lake is a man-made lake surrounded on 2 sides by Ghats (riverbanks with steps from people to approach the water body) and flanked with marshland on the other two. The lake has acted as a water reservoir to Jaisalmer since time immemorial. As we approached it, we were pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness of the premises. Funny and rhyming slogans on the walls of the premises tell the locals and tourists alike to keep the city clean, save water and to stay away from liquor. There are tourist shops as you approach the lake and obviously, I couldn’t keep myself from exploring them. We stopped by one which specialized in summer clothes for women. As I checked out the colourful (almost hippie’ish) clothes at the shop, my husband started chatting with the shop owner called Mahender. Mahender had two shops in the area, the other one stocked various handicrafts made by the rural folk. He was an affable young fellow and he told us all about how his great grandfather opened this shop so many years back and the legacy was continuing till today. The conversation ended pleasantly and as we said our goodbyes. Mahender mentioned that his friend owned a souvenir shop at a nearby fort which was also the place which appeared in the movie Sarfarosh. We exchanged numbers and decided that we’ll visit the place over the next couple of days.
A man was playing shehnai, another one played a string instrument and their jugalbandi attracted the tourists, setting the perfect backdrop for the beautiful lake and the myriad emotions it evoked! We stopped by a lady selling antique jewellery; I tried on many trinkets and posed for pictures along with her, who herself was fully decked up in traditional Rajasthani jewellery. Bashfully, she told me what looked good on me, and suggesting different things. She was intrigued by my (extremely) curly hair, and kept staring at them, shyly at first, and when she got a little comfortable, more boldly! Needless to say, we bought quite a few trinkets from this adorable girl! Next to her shop was a stall selling tea and Maggi. These two hot selling items as a combination are found outside most tourist places in India, especially in the nippy winter weather. After a quick refreshment of the above mentioned, we bought the tickets and hopped on the boat with our life jackets on. The pedal boat was a lot of fun and the clear water of the lake shimmered under the evening sun. We took our boat around the trees growing in the middle of the lake and took a lot of pictures. It was nice to play with the light while taking the pictures. Even now, I remember vividly that mere half an hour, paddling around, a little tired yet excited with the beauty that surrounded us, the magical company of K, and the soft notes of music wafting from the banks..
It was late evening by the time the satiated us reached our hotel. The hotel was on by-lane, a bit away from the other hotels. It was a simple building and we were greeted at the reception by the person who runs the whole place, Aladdin, and indeed, he was like a gene he was the go-to person for anything we needed. Aladdin finished our minuscule check in formalities and showed us our room. The room, on the first floor, was as simple as they could get. It just had enough space for us to keep the luggage along the bed. The bathroom was also small (but clean) and had the heating rod to warm the water. Despite the humble looks of the room, it had a great view of the palatial fort. As we sat in the common balcony outside the room sipping tea, the fort glowed with a golden hue and overwhelmed our senses. We sat there for a long time, doing nothing but talking, and gazing at the beautiful sight in front of us. As the evening progressed, myriad people joined us there, some sitting for a short while and others making themselves comfortable. W swapped many a stories with these fellow travellers, sharing tips and experiences, names of budget hotels and good restaurants, also sharing bits of our lives! We met this French cheerful couple, who had travelled pretty much like we had, and we chatted for a long time. During this, I discovered that this was their first Christmas away from their family, a fact that had pulled their spirits down a bit. I went to my room and came back with a cute little key-ring and a pair of earrings I had purchased earlier in the day, and gifted those to them as Christmas presents, in an attempt to make them less home sick. They were truly touched, and couldn’t stop thanking us. That was the start of a great friendship too! (They gifted us a bottle of honey from their farm in France later!) It was quite late by the time we dragged ourselves to the room, and just collapsed as soon as we hit the bed!
We woke up the next morning well rested and excited for the day! We as a couple have a predisposition towards procrastination, so to avoid lazing around in the hotel room and wasting precious time, we had planned for a desert safari first thing in the morning. We had barely managed to take a shower and had a sandwich each, when our jeep arrived. We set out towards the famous Thar Desert, about an hour and a half from the hotel. It was surreal to see the unending expanse of the sand, looking like molten gold, shape shifting, transient, full of mysteries and folklore! Our driver (Bhola) stopped before going off the rod, and let off some of the air from the tyres of the jeep (that was so that the jeep didn’t skid on the sand). What happened next thrilled us to our bones! Bhola was an expert in ‘dune bashing’, driving manically in the dunes, sometimes at impossible angles and taking sharp turns. Our hearts were in our mouths the entire while, feeling that the jeep might topple any minute, the soft sand not feeling sufficient enough to handle Bhola’s antics! But he really is a pro, because despite our misgivings, we found ourselves back on the highway after about an hour, thrilled and chilled and quite in one piece! This was the most fun morning we had had in a long time, and we thanked Bhola profusely as he dropped us back to our hotel. Since we had to catch a midnight train that night, we checked out from our room, and kept the bags with Alladin before venturing out again.
Next, we walked towards the majestic Jaisalmer Fort from the hotel, just about a 10 minute walk. Jaisalmer Fort is one of the largest fortifications in the whole world. It looms over the quaint city of Jaisalmer, no matter where you stand. But what makes I truly unique, and quite quirky in my opinion, is the impossibly large number of people actually living inside the fort! As we strolled around in the fort, we saw row upon row of dwellings, clothes drying on alleys, myriad restaurants offering world cuisine, many temples, half-naked children playing here and there, women squatting and chatting away to glory, signs for guest houses, and shops selling knick-knacks of all sorts! It was a strange feeling to see such royal a setting converted into a ramshackled mishmash! It did make sense, eventually. Being on the outskirts of an intimidating desert, its significance dwindled after its trade route became defunct. Forgotten for many long years before the tourism boom put it back on the map, Jaisalmer Fort was claimed by those who needed it most – the locals. We walked around for some while, stopping here and there for photos or just to take in the scenery. Finally, we settled on one of the very many restaurants there. Keeping with the mood of the place, we had weirdly mismatched lunch of a pizza, kachori and tea. The restaurant did offer a brilliant view of the fort-city, and the food was not bad either.. The owner of the eatery (who was also the waiter and the cook) was a fun man, who kept asking us about our lives back in Delhi, other places we had visited, and our opinion about Rajasthan. He had wistfulness in his voice when he spoke about travelling, and seemed fascinated by our lives. After this pleasant lunch, we roamed around some more. We visited a small temple, sat on a bench overlooking the city, and of course, I shopped a little (bought an exquisite long, colourful coat and a shawl for K). The city that sprawled outside the fort was no different from that inside. The same colourful shops, the same innocence and openness of people.. What did catch our eye was a board that proudly proclaimed “Government Authorized Bhang Shop”. Bhang is a preparation of stems and leaves of cannabis plant. To see it being sold so openly seemed unbelievable to us, though we did know that Bhang is legal in many parts of India. We didn’t dare try it ourselves, though.
It was evening by the time we reached our hotel. There was a nice and warm bonfire crackling at the rooftop restaurant, with many of the residents chitchatting around it. We made ourselves comfortable there. Aladdin had promised to drop us to the train station later in the night (which was a blessing, since we would have otherwise had to pay a bomb for a late night cab). And so, we spent our last few hours in the magical city of Jaisalmer talking and singing with fellow travellers, regaling each other with adventures taken and lessons learnt, talking about the intangible value of travelling, swapping insights about each other’s cultures and hopes and dreams. Someone took out a guitar, and we sang for some time, some even stood up for dancing. We couldn’t have been more than ten-fifteen people, but the place looked full, abundant with sounds and activity and laughter and love.. We had an amazing dinner and had the most lovely time. Much, much before we were ready, it was time for us to say goodbye.
As we settled into our train, I watched the city settling in for a peaceful sleep. I could imagine the Fort lit up in all its glory, the dancers and singers dancing somewhere in the desert, Aladdin’s guests making merry, some jovial soul enjoying a Bhang induced slumber… I bid adieu to Jaisalmer, the wonderful, the sweet, the quirky, the mysterious Jaisalmer, promising to come back soon.