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Published: November 10th 2012
Jaisalmer – The Golden City (in the desert)
After a near miss of a sudden down pour in Delhi we are kindly dropped off by Ashok at Race Course Metro to catch the 5.30pm Inter City Express to Jaisalmer from Old Delhi station – which is packed to the rafters & getting around quite a challenge. We leave as expected according to Indian standard time – 20 minutes late even though the train has been in the station for ½ hour and starts from here. We are on lower berths in 2 AC which Cags booked online & it worked!!
It’s an overnight trip and we meet some Indian Tourists – from Bengal and Jodhpur going to J, as well as some folk returning after a trip from Jodhpur. It’s station Thali (Rs 135 each) for dinner & off to bed. We awake at Jodhpur and see the landscape change dramatically ; this is Rajasthan! The villages are cute, small collections of round houses with straw roofs and corrals of stone for their cows, goats or sheep. Gradually the landscape become sparse & barren with Acacia bushes as in Africa and we see camels, deer (Indian Gazelle),
and beautiful birds. The nearer we get to J the more sandy & desert like the scene becomes. Suddenly we are arriving at J and the view of the fort from the station is spectacular.
We are met by a Tuk Tuk man – our free ride to the hostel – who puts us into his vehicle with another Indian family– including all our and their luggage – crowded or what! He however, gets help at the fort gate (we suppose so he won’t get into trouble with the police) and he puts us into another Tuk Tuk. The drive to the fort is short but the nearer one gets the more impressive it looks.
Inside it’s an amazing sight. J is named after Jaisal the chief of the Bhati Rajput clan in 1156.
We get to our pad – the slightly flash Sreenath Palace Haveli which is 400 years old. We are taken to the top floor which is pretty special with small windows all over to allow fresh air in and with lots of floor cushions. The place has a regal charm of old. As we are registering and chatting away in Hindi to the
desk guy – he offers us another room which is really top draw with a 4 poster bed carved from sandstone (and a fan) – we go for it. However after a while we realise from the web that this is the Maharani’s suite and costs 3 times as much as the Rajasthani room we had upstairs. M goes to clear the air with the Manager who after due consideration says we can stay there for the same price as he has no other taker but we may have to move if he gets someone the next day – fine by us. In the end we get to stay there for the whole of our stay which is pretty awesome really.
We go to do a quick orientation and have a bite – however, at every corner there is an amazing picture to take & then we discover the “English Wine & Beer Shop” – so we go in for a really cold Kingfisher for Rs 90 – bargain. We discover 2 doors away the Bhang Shop – which is a legal and govt controlled hash den. Only the Bhang is in the lassi, cookies, cakes etc – no
spliffs - and many people (locals and tourists) seem stoned out of their skulls. We refrain, of course.
After a good sunset viewed from the roof top at the hostel & a glimpse of the Dusserha celebrations inc fireworks in a nearby stadium – we dine at the Saffron outside the Fort. Non veg for the first time for a while. Unfortunately the fort is not lit up so one can’t see it much at night.
On the way into the fort is Kanchan Shree Ice cream shop which does amazing Makhania lassi’s for Rs20 (in fact, after trying several other versions elsewhere, this is in fact the best in Rajasthan and probably in India) and great kulfi. We have a long convivial chat in Hindi & English (for C’s benefit) with Amit – the owner’s son - on the challenges and opportunities for local folk and India. He feels it’s time for change and suggests that corruption is holding the country back as is the quota system of positive discrimination for the lower castes – what he doesn’t suggest is without it or any other action how does the country deal with centuries of discrimination
based on the caste system in India.
We are reliably advised by Amit to give the Palace a miss as it’s not as good as Jodhpur or Jaipur and costs a lot for foreigners. So we take this advice and instead head to the Suraj Vilas roof top place for lunch – a great Rajasthani Thali.
Early mornings are a great time to orientate as at this time the Indian tourists in their millions it seems are here aswell as a few foreign day trippers and all the sights are full. It’s also a good time to go to the July 8 café above the central square in the fort for a great coffee and chill out.
We do go to the Jain Temple complex though – which is next door to our hotel. It’s best to get in by 8 am before the hordes of tourists arrive. It cost Rs 150 each to get in – you see one section before 11 am & the other section between 11 to 12.30pm. It’s from the 14/15th
Century & in good nick but not quite Ranakpur. We do notice that the devout helpers are keen to
get visitors to hand over donations – despite there being a sign say don’t give them anything but put anything in the donation box - and we see one guy pocket the “donations” he’s given.
We check out the Desert Boys Dhani (a tranquil oasis of a place to eat local food & meet Pradeep who is an interesting character from a village nearby. He seems to run the place and offers us chai which is really lovely (a bit of an acquired taste if you don’t like milky & sweet tea – this comes with added cardamoms, pepper and ginger). Returning in the evening it’s a typically Rajasthani dinner. We tried Kair Sangri (veg), Dal Bati Churma (dhal & dough balls and a sweet ground bean of some sort) & Bahajari Roti (millet bread). The K S with the bread is pretty good, the rest an acquired taste. The promised musicians didn’t turn up but we heard from others that they were good when they did.
We try a lunch at Natraj by the Salim haveli, which is ok –the views of the haveli are good - then check out Camel Safaris and hotels for the girls
trip in December. We are on a winning streak and think we have found a couple of gems for both – via Ganesh travel (Subash aka Sebastian) for the safari, and Suraj Vilas (Chimmy) for 2 double rooms in a heritage haveli – awesome atmosphere and history – we hope the girls will appreciate it!
We take a walk to the Gadi Sagar Lake to see the sunset – it’s supposed to be a great viewing spot – not so sure. The lake entry gate (Tilon ki Pol) is pretty ornate and impressive. There are boats to row on the lake with some look out spots constructed & carved in sandstone, and a temple as part of the complex. The lake is full of catfish which are a seething mass in the water wherever bread is thrown in for them. They look pretty gross really.
We have noticed that the Jaisalmer people on the whole are really friendly, helpful and honest. Although they will invite you in to look at their shop there isn’t the hard sell you get elsewhere which is good and no means no. There are 2 sadhu’s who do a roaring trade by insisting
on tourists giving them money each time they take a picture of them & one dare not comply – one of them (the business brains of the 2) chases people down the street. By contrast the village women in their beautiful finery ask you to take a picture as a way of getting you to see their silver ware – even if they don’t make a sale. They have a lot to learn from the sadhus.
One thing that Jaisalmer has to deal with is the amount of cow and pigeon poop that messes their narrow streets. We sometimes get the impression that Indians are pretty lazy as they either take a motor bike to travel very short distances or Tuk Tuks – however, on reflection it may be a way of them making sure they don’t walk in all the shit that’s around!
Rajasthan is doing pretty well these days. They have natural gas discovered 15 years ago, acres of wind farms and struck oil near Jaisalmer 4 years ago. They now sell their surplus electricity to various states in India. More commercial businesses are moving in here and the local area around Jaisalmer is changing fast
(though we are informed not as fast as Jodhpur). The forts problems of water undermining its foundations are being addressed and it has survived 2 big earthquakes (2008 & 2001). There seems to be a Hindu stoic philosophy about the future based on – if it’s God’s will it will either happen or not – so far they have been lucky.
Jodhpur – The Blue City
We catch the 5.15 from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur – arrival time 20.40 pm. We meet a couple from Assam who are vacationing here with their daughter and a friendly family from Jodhpur – the guy is working for TATA on e-learning opportunities across India. We arrive on time and get a Tuk Tuk to the Durag Niwas Guest House which has a great rating on Hostelbookers. It’s a pretty hostel in a residential area in Raika Bagh. We are welcomed with tea and shown to our room which is basic but clean with fan & A/C with many windows overlooking a courtyard.
The owner & his wife who seems to do most things are great. They run a fantastic women’s project for Dalit women helps them qualify in various
vocational skills or becoming business women. It’s called Sambhali and women from around the world come to volunteer here for a while. It’s something that Hunar Ghar (our school in Bakhel) could learn from as they have just started a women’s group for the village women.
Jodhpur is named after the Rathore leader Rao Jodha and started off as a settlement in 1459. Today it is bustling & crowded & pretty messy in parts – you need to negotiate rubbish, dogs, cows, horses, the odd elephant and their collective pooh on the streets together with manic motor bike and noisy car drivers. It’s pretty dusty.
We are here because of the publicised Marwar Festival which sees many local traditional & cultural activities take place by people from surrounding villages. It’s hot (about 34 degrees) but we venture into Jodhpur centre. Suddenly at the entrance to the clock tower we come across a mass of people in colourful finery on camels, horses, carts, tongas and one elephant – the parade to the local stadium for the festivities. As they move down the street at a slow pace, we run ahead to get some colourful pictures. The women in traditional
village garb dance and swirl around – it pretty colourful and awesome.
As it’s hot we make for the market area and decide to join the revellers later – when it’s cooler. We check out the place where we think that S & L will stay with us (Singhvi’s Haveli - selected by LP as the best in town). The streets to the place are small & full of traffic, dog, cow, camel and horse shit and general household rubbish. The place in itself looks ok but the area is the pits - not sure why LP would recommend it. We decide to make our excuses & say no thanks & book with the Durag Niwas for all of us.
For lunch we head to Jharokha restaurant at the Haveli hotel and have an awesome lunch with the “House Special” – a cold beer (all at a standard rate) on their roof top – overlooking the fort, the Thadka and the city. We also check out the rooms just in case we can’t get rooms with the girls at Durag Niwas.
As M is overdue a haircut and a shave he is persuaded to have local special
with head & facial massage. He looks young and handsome for about a £1 in ½ hour. Not bad. Then we make our way to stadium where the festival is reaching its climax with a Camel tattoo. It was worth watching – colourful and some really well trained camels managed by the India Border security Forces.
We dine at the hostel which is definitely great home cooked food (Veg Thali) washed down with Kingfisher for us. And United beat Chelsea – what more could one want! Unfortunately our water supply is being erratic and we are not impressed.
We do a local village tour (1/2 day) to the local area inhabited by the Bishnoi Tribe who are very into environmental issues (they started in the 15th
Century – thanks to their Guru who started the movement). The locals are famed for 363 of their tribe having committed suicide rather than have the trees in the locality knocked down by the local nobleman! As a result much wildlife is in evidence as they feel safe and well cared for (deer of various types, black crested cranes – so you don’t have to go to Bhutan to see them! –
Kingfishers, parrots and we see a peacock actually dance with its feather all unfurled – a first for us.). We visit a village that does carpets & have a traditional village thali – really good, and then a Potters Village. The younger generation however are more into commerce or opium! A lot of the villagers now have motor bikes, some have cars and some do a roaring trade in Homestay B & B in the village @ Rs 1900 per night all in – not bad. It was a fun way to spend our time and learn about local life.
In the afternoon it’s some back to basics shopping in the heat, an omelette from the famous omelette shop, a cheap & cold (Rs 5 each) lemon soda from the soda shop with 50 varieties of flavours and back to the hostel. C lends a hand at cooking some great vegetarian dishes, this time washed down with Haywards 500 which we have never heard of (allegedly world famous “super strong beer”– made in India for sale only in Rajasthan!!), but cold and ok all the same.
As much as we liked the Guest House we were put off
by the poor water supply to our room on the 2nd
floor which meant we couldn’t have showers (in fact we often didn’t have water!) as the pump getting water to our floor was malfunctioning. As a result we have decided to stay at hotel Haveli in the city centre when we return with the girls in December.
As M has a surprise for C for her Big birthday, we leave Jodhpur by car organised by Aditya (our trusted travel agent of Udaipur) at 6 am so as to get there by mid-day. The drive is quick and interesting in terms of the changing landscape from arid desert with sparse scrubs to greener and hilly areas as we near Udaipur. We do take a pit stop at a local Dhaba for trucker coffee & a comfort break & then some breakfast near Ranakpur. We pass many nomads on the highway with their sheep, camels and donkeys laden with their personal possessions moving from place to place. They are striking in their dress – the men have large red turbans & wear white tunics and dhotis, whilst the women have colourful traditional tops and flowing skirts
with large white bangles on their upper arms – quite striking. They are known to travel like the Masai people between states (Rajasthan, Maharastra & Gujarat) depending on the seasons.
For the report of our day in Udaipur read Caroline’s special blog about her big birthday which follows this…………..
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