Craig and Ross in India.

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February 8th 2019
Published: February 8th 2019
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Blog # 3 (February 7, 2019).

Jaisalmer – the “golden desert city”.

From the blue city of Jodhpur, we travelled to the “golden city” of Jaisalmer, which sits at the edge of the vast Thar desert, quite close to the Pakistani border. Jaisalmer is deservedly a popular tourist spot. It’s central feature is a glorious golden sandstone fort rising out of the desert, dominating the city. It looks like a fabulous giant sandcastle that a kid might build by the shoreline. But we were a long way from the ocean. We were in a city on the edge of the desert. The fort at Jaisalmer was quite different to that in Jodhpur. Unlike in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer fort is a living fort. There are homes, shops, hotels and temples and lots of little cobblestone alleyways all within the fort complex. People have been living here for generations. Furthermore, we were actually staying in the fort. Our accommodation, Garh Jaisal Haveli, is built into the massive fort ramparts. Our room was a beautifully decorated Indian delight, with soft Jurassic sandstone walls, crenulated archways and its own little balcony looking over the bustling city below. The 12th century fort is ringed by imposing walls and bastions, enclosing a wonderful Rajput palace and several beautiful Jain temples. Everywhere there is intricately carved stonework, with balconies and windows decorated with what looks like fine woodwork. But no, it’s all made from the same soft yellow sandstone. And it glows in the sun – hence the term “golden city.” We checked out the Jain temples and also did an excellent audio-tour within the palace itself – just as absorbing as the audio tours we did back at Mehrangarh fort in Jodpur and City Palace in Udaipur. Those Maharajahs sure lived the high life. Cities of Rajasthan such as Jodhpur and Jaisalmer were important to the Rajput rulers, as they were major centres on the trade routes of yesteryear. Commodities like opium, copper, date palms and spices often made their way to and from India via Rajasthan.

The entrance to Jaisalmer fort features a huge gateway with massive spiked gates (that apparently stopped any enemy’s elephants changed through back in the day). Around the palace, narrow winding alleys lead to all sorts of photogenic little nooks and crannies. Local women in bright saris sitting on their doorsteps chatting, or kids playing cricket beneath intricately carved golden archways. It rather reminded me of Dubronvik, which we visited with Carol and Alicia last year. That is, a marvellous walled city where locals live alongside lots of meandering tourists. However, much of the area immediately around the fort entrance is given over to vendors trying to sell over-priced fabrics, trinkets, souvenirs, etc. All of them were men, hassling us to come into their shops. “Come my friend, good price for you.”

But, there was one startling exception…….

We passed a woman sitting at her shopfront who said as we passed:

“Do you respect women in your country?”

Oh, I thought, another tout – but, hang on, what did she just say?….

This arresting statement stopped us both in our tracks. Intrigued, we engaged her in conversation. Well, she proved to be one of the most wonderful and inspirational people we have ever had the pleasure to meet. Her name was Bobbi and she worked with a co-op of women, making and selling stuff and trying to improve the lives of women in Indian society. Here, women are still treated as second class citizens. She was passionate and very committed to her cause. She said to me:

“Have you been eating at many restaurants here in India?”

I said: “Ah, yes.”

“All cooked by men. Are you staying in nice hotels here in Jaisalmer?”

“Ah, yes.”

“All run and cleaned by men. Women do menial jobs around the home or are put out in the field to work. Women are more than this. We are strong, we are better than this. Here in India, cows are treated with more respect than women. No! We are equal to men – not animals-, we can do anything that men can do. We are not for just sitting at home making chapatis and babies.” She was absorbing and articulate to listen to, explaining how women only wear saris when married and then if the husband dies, the widow is expected to no longer wear colourful garb and must be subdued and never re-marry. We came away truly moved - and with several things that we bought from her. (See picture I took of Bobbi and Ross below). I could not have written a blog about India without mentioning the plight of women here. The issue of sexual harassment and rape has become hotly discussed here – an Indian “me too” movement. Also, we noted from the very beginning that around 90% of the people we saw on the streets were men. Where are all the women and what are they doing??? We sincerely hope for a better life for Indian women.

Outside the fort, Jaisalmer bustles with the usual frenetic life of buzzing motorbikes, honking horns, wandering cows and dogs and persistent vendors. Right now, as I type at 10pm, there is some sort of wedding procession going on in the street below, with lots of blaring music, colourful dancing and people riding lavishly dressed horses! I mentioned in a previous blog how friendly and helpful the people are here. Well, last night, we were walking home along a dimly lit street and I fell arse over heal on a small pile of bricks that I didn’t see. Went down like a sack of potatoes. (There’s often lots of crap lying around the streets, rubbish, piles of wood or rocks, bricks, etc., and dangerous holes too).The people whizzing by on motorbikes all immediately stopped to ask if I was OK and if they could give us a lift back to wherever we were staying. We explained that we were staying in the fort, just five minutes walk away and that I was OK. I had some scratches and bruised dignity, but our main concern was for the bottle of wine I was carrying on my day pack (bought earlier) and that I fell on top of !! Thankfully still intact! Anyway, this is yet another example of how wonderful the people are here.

One thing we did in Jaisalmer is something that essentially every Western tourist does here: a camel ride out into the Thar desert. Many folks stay overnight sleeping under the stars, but we elected for a half day trip beginning at 3pm, enough to catch the sunset then back into town. This first involved a one hour jeep trip over dirt tracks to get to where the camels were based. We shared our jeep with two twenty something guys for New York. Turned out they both had a bhang lassi just 30 minutes prior. (The lassi drink containing strong marijuana – legal here in select shops). For those who remember the American TV show “Queer as Folk”, one of them was the spitting image of Michael, Debbie’s son. He spent the hour trip with glazed eyes and “stoney” silence, clearly lost in his own world. The other guy was as silly as a cut snake. The landscape around us was harsh scrubland with sand dunes, dotted with acacias and other thorny-looking trees. This guy insisted one tree with lots of fluffy white flowers was a statue of Phyllis Dilller, while another tall bare tree but with grey leaves at the top was a statue of Barack Obama. Chuckling, I said that this would be highly unlikely that there would be monuments to American comedians or presidents in a far flung Indian desert. He replied that Aussies know shit, cause we invented cricket… TWF?.....LOL!

We soon arrived at the camel spot. There were two jeeps, each with several tourists, guides and drivers. I needed a pee as we arrived, but there was nothing but barren ground and small sand dunes all around. The driver said I could go “behind the jeep.” I proceeded to do so, and he then got in the jeep and drove it off !! There I was, standing with my back to all the other tourists staring at me. Well, anyway, we mounted the camels and all set off, 10 punters, each of us on our own camel and the guide leading. Mine was a fairly shitty individual but generally followed the rules. After 1.5 hours lumbering through the arid environment, my legs and bum were pleading for an end. I should have known better because Mum and Dad and I did camel trekking in the red centre and it isn’t that comfortable. Finally we did stop, at a wonderful series of undulating tawny brown sand dunes extending into the distance. No one else around, in the middle of nowhere. I eagerly alighted my camel, but walked around for the next several minutes like an open pair of salad tongs. Other folks felt the same. As for Ross, he basically slid off his camel and directly onto one of the bean bags the guys had placed out for us, laying there like an up-turned turtle with rigor mortis. After several minutes, I was able to walk properly again, and I said to Ross:

“Can you please get up and come take a photo of me over by that sand dune? The sun is about to set.”

“Me?” He replied. “Me, get up and walk? I ain’t walking again for three days after being on that camel. Even if the queen of England came along, I ain’t standing up.”

Well, he eventually did, and we witnessed a wonderful sunset in the desert. The guys who led the camels made some outstanding Indian tucker over an open fire. Ross and I then got driven back into town. Saw some desert antelope in the headlights along the way. We agreed that it was a sometimes painful but overall fun time. However, we did pity those who stayed overnight and would be riding the camels back out of the desert again the next day!

We have noted more Western tourists here in Jaisalmer than in either Udaipur or Jodhpur. Not sure why, as those other cities are also ace. It is peak tourist season here in India, but, happily, not super crowded. This is a lovely change to the hordes of tourists you see all over Europe. It’s great to be able to walk into a highly recommended eatery without a reservation and come out well-fed and with money still in the wallet. One night, we ate at an inconspicuous but great vegetarian restaurant outside the fort called Natraj, which was all delicious for $14 in total! Food footnote #3: Stuffed capsicum is divine, as is Tawa Sabji – a spicy mix of onion, tomato, capsicum, potato and paneer (a type of cottage cheese). I also tried some street food for the first time – bhelpuri: the crispy, puffed rice snack with finely diced tomato, onion, coriander, tamarind sauce and chilli. Very nice.

The touts in Jaisalmer – and the rest of India- are all basically harmless, and are usually ignored, or given a firm “no, thanks”. However, on our first day in Jaisalmer, Ross was accosted by a tout outside a jewellery shop. It’s usually best to say nothing (or say “No English”) , but Ross let slip that we were from Australia. The little jewellery fellow said:

“Oh, you play cricket.! We love cricket. Steve Waugh, Brett Lee – and Cameron Bancroft naughty boy.” He proved to be a funny little guy and Ross taught him a few Aussie phrases. Like most guys here, he had a motorbike and over the following days we would often encounter him zooming along, yelling out as he zoomed past “G’day mate.” We laughed. One afternoon, we visited Patwa ki Haveli, a grand old haveli which is now a wonderful museum. It has a glorious façade of intricate stonework that looks like lace. As we were leaving the building, we heard someone cry out: “ She’ll be right, mate.” Yep, it was our little jewellery friend zooming by on his bike.

After three days in the fairy tale castle of Jaisalmer, we are now getting a flight east to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Here, we are due to meet up with Mayur Hada, a guide recommended previously by Brent and Shirl Hardy.

Hope all is well with you, in your neck of the woods,


Craig (and Ross).

(p.s scroll down below for more pics, click to enlarge).

Additional photos below
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31st January 2020

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