The Golden City


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Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer
March 22nd 2011
Published: March 22nd 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Monday 3-7 to Wednesday 3-9
As I write this, we are on another overnight train, headed back to Delhi from Jaisalmer. Chatty Cathy (a.k.a. Nick) is currently in the next bunk over, charming some ladies from Canada. I think it’s great that he’s so sociable and loves to talk to strangers (a gene I definitely lack) but good god this boy doesn’t know when to quit. He’s so friendly and gregarious that he stops to talk to everyone, including the scammers that stop him on the street. I’ll ignore them and keep walking only to stop and realize that Nick is well behind me, talking about Costa Rica or how much he loves the current country he’s in. Just say no! I feel the need to take his wallet each time this happens because he will inevitably get asked for money, which he too generously gives out. Ugh! The man sticks out like a 6’4” tourist beacon. To his credit, the Socialite has had perks, though too. We’ve met some very nice people along the way thanks to him. A surprising number of them Spanish-speakers, which is nice for Nick. It’s funny – we are two very different travelers, but at least we compliment each other well. ;o)

It would be seriously hard to top our experience at the Jodhpur Fort, but in Jaisalmer we were blown away with the charm and beauty of this desert city. The state of Rajasthan is on the western border of India, right next to Pakistan. The city of Jaislamer (only 60 miles east of Pakistan) is nestled at the edge of scrubland as it flows into the dessert, which made for a striking landscaped train ride. Our hotel in Jaisalmer was out of an Indian fairy tale. Carved sandstone windows, cushioned window seats, colorful silk curtains, glittering tapestries and tented rooftop balconies…we splurged and got a very nice hotel, which set a good background for another “jewel in the desert” kind of city.

Our first day in Jaisalmer was spent on a desert safari. We passed through mango orchard and wind farms to visit the Royal Cenotaphs at Barabagh and the Lodhruva Jain temple (which had a sign prohibiting women from entering while on their period to preserve the sanctity of the temple. Insult aside, how on earth do they enforce such a warning?). The highlight of our safari was in the Sam Sand Dunes in Desert National Park. Sitting astride a camel isn’t quite like a horse and, sadly, Nick felt the pain of this revelation more than I did. But it was so much fun! Just the act of the camel standing up and sitting down is a rollercoaster ride in and of itself. You have to lean waaaay back as the first limbs make their move or suffer falling on your face (from a very tall height I might add), and then do the reverse for the second sent of limbs as the animal rocks you back and forth in an attempt to right itself. Everyone told me that I’d need to make sure I had a sports bra on while riding a camel because the ride is so bumpy (again, Nick had more of a problem with this than I did). [Nick Note: How come the Lonely Planet doesn’t recommend the gents wear a cup? Totally sexist book.] That wasn’t the problem at all, but clearly riding a camel for long period of time (we only did it for a couple hours) must be very uncomfortable because the amount of pillows and blankets that make up the saddle is staggering. They were very colorfully decorated though and it was a lot of fun. Even the camel farts and the unimaginably large tongue used to pick its nose made the ride even that much funnier.

The sand dunes we ride through were beautiful! They dropped us off in the desert a couple hours before sunset, so we had time to lay in the sand, play hang-man and tic-tac-toe, and watch the beetles make tiny tracks across the tiny mountains of sand. The sand was so fine and fluid; it was hypnotic to watch the creases of sand form in the wind or watch the flow of sand down the sides of the dunes. Frickin’ gorgeous place. The weather gods were definitely smiling on us though – there was just enough cloud cover to protect us from the heat of the sun and it was a very pleasant jaunt in the dessert. Ganesh (the god of good luck) continued his watch over us as we were treated to a free dance show at sunset. Apparently, a very important group of people had paid a lot of money to have a private evening in the desert – with a private tent and blankets laid out for them to have tea, well armed guards (very odd) watched over this group as they were entertained by a private dancer (who was really a man, but very good at this job!) and her musicians, while a professional photographer documented the event. The dancer walked on broken glass, danced on knives and twirled fire while balancing a giant, decorative gourd on her head. So thanks to this private group, we and several dozen other tourists gathered around to take advantage of the free show. Thanks Ganesh!

After the safari, we rode to a desert camp to enjoy dinner (and delicious, yummy, sugary sweet chai!) and a traditional dance show. The show was performed by a family of desert “gypsies” who played traditional flute music and whose two daughters (one teenager, one about 6) danced for several hours and performed really impressive contortionist feats! They even pulled us up on stage to join the dancing. Nick got the older girl and I got the 6 year old who loved to be twirled around and seemed never to get exhausted, while I (old lady) was gasping for breath and trying not to fall down from dizziness.

Our next day in Jaisalmer consisted of motoring around this exotic desert town on the back of a scooter. (Thank goodness we know how to ride scooters. They’re so convenient when traveling abroad and they’re so much fun – everyone should get one!) I tried riding the scooter “Indian style” for a while (side saddle behind Nick) but it was incredibly uncomfortable to try and hold on with thigh power alone, I don’t know how Indian women do it! So I returned to sitting astride the thing, soliciting incredulous looks from men as we drove past. We visited the Jaisalmer Fort and were blown away by how much it differed from that of Jodhpur. Instead of a palace fort, Jaisalmer is a fortified city. Built back in 1156, Jaisalmer’s fort encloses not only the palace, but several Jain temples and dozens of beautifully carved havelis (mansions). The old city inside the fort is a veritable maze of split level houses, towering balconies, barking shop owners, restaurants, internet cafes, kids playing cricket, and angry cows. (I’m now very wary of these Hindu cows – I stopped along the street, which had several cows standing around, to take a picture. I saw one cow head in our direction but I wasn’t concerned because there was plenty of room in the road for both of us. Little did I know, however, these cows expect people to move for them. So when the cow changed direction and headed my way, I barely had time to jump out of the way before she tried to gore me with her stupid horns! Friggin’ cow! Now I wish I could eat you just to spite you! Sadly, now I’m extremely nervous whenever we get too close to a cow. I’ve never been afraid of cows before but I don’t trust these holy f*ckers.)

We were treated to a tour of one of the crumbling havelis by a man who claimed to be the 6th generation descendant of the secretary to the maharaja. He had a beautiful home but it had suffered a lot of earthquake damage. Many of the sandstone buildings inside the fort are listed by UNESCO as endangered heritage sights. The soft stone and weak foundations were not meant for the amount of water damage and population pressure of modern times. So there was a lot of restoration work underway, but the palace itself was stunningly well kept. Again, we saw beautifully carved sandstone archways, lattice windows, ornate reception rooms and even bats! We found several stairwells of long-tailed bats around Jaisalmer. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them to compete with all the mosquitoes that are eating me alive.

After the fort, we headed to the greater city limits to see some of the most historical havelis in town. The Salim Singh-ki-Haveli is about 300 years old and still partially used as a residence. Our tour guide gave us a brief anthropological lesson in antiques, showing us some of the old metal works of the time: brass oil lamps, stylized air fresheners and decorative door locks. We were able to get some amazing views of the city from the rooftop. Jaisalmer is sometimes known as the “golden city” due to the golden hue of the sandstone; the fort truly does look like a giant sandcastle overlooking the city. The Patwa-ki-Haveli was the most impressive and the most modern. Built by a wealthy Jainist, opium merchant family from 1800 to 1860, it took 60 years to complete this set of 5 adjoining homes. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see this haveli compared to the ones inside the fort. With its 19th century styling, there were ornately painted rooms with period-piece furniture and artifacts, a Belgian glass covered temple and secret storage places for the families gold, diamond and opium stores.

We rounded off our Rajasthani experience with a puppet show at the Desert Culture Museum. It was great! A former actor and history professor has collected numerous regional artifacts (costumes, jewelry, mobile temples, musical instruments, royal photographs) for which he built a museum to promote and preserve his local culture. Each night he puts on a puppet show of handmade puppets, to tell local stories, and stories from Hindu mythology, all set to traditional music. [Nick Note: He was an amazing man who was so proud, and rightly so, of his home town and culture. He would go around and explain things as we were looking at them. Also he had the longest ear hair we’ve ever seen.] The puppeteer was incredibly talented! Some of the puppets could do amazing things like change from a boy to a girl, toss a ball, take its head on and off – it was great!

We ended the evening at a beautiful rooftop restaurant that had amazing banana milkshakes and the most amazing chicken soup I have ever had. My god, Indian food is soooooooooooooooo good!


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27th March 2011

getting caught up
Finally getting caught up on reading your blog. Traveling together is definitely a test of a relationship. Funny that Nick is a social butterfly. When I travel alone, I talk to myself a lot.
From Blog: The Golden City

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