Discovering a Desert Side Fortress in India’s Jaisalmer City
Looking back at the fort from Patwon-ki-Haveli
We arrived into Jaisalmer early in the morning by train from Jodhpur. It was only a five hour journey but was by far the worst of all Indian train journeys we took while in the country for 9 weeks. We were only 10 days into our Indian trip and by that point had not yet taken an over night train. We had no idea how cold the nights could get in that part of India until that train ride.
Like most of the train journeys we took in India, all the classes were fully booked apart from Sleeper Class. Sleeper Class is about second from bottom of all the 8 classes available on Indian trains. This class is absolutely fine for daytime travel and is in fact our preferred class for that purpose but it’s not the most comfortable to sleep at night.
It’s the only sleeping bunk class that does not have sealed windows, heating or even simple bedding. We spent the full five hours shivering in the freezing cold wind that was constantly blowing through the useless windows. And with that wind came clouds of dirt and dust from the track below so we had to cover our faces with whatever clothing we could find. It was also the filthiest carriage we had ever been on. A Canadian couple even had their backpacks eaten into by mice. They were not amused.
The train was clearly very old and coming to the end of it’s life. To say we were tired on arrival is underplaying it but we were glad to be in the city we’d heard and read so much about. We knew it would be worth it.
Balcony with a view
Jaisalmer, the “Golden City”, is located on the far west side of India in the state of Rajasthan. Separated to nearby Pakistan by the arid Thar desert. The first thing you notice on arrival is the huge sandcastle rising from the sandy city like something from a fairytale. This is the fort of Jaisalmer, also known as Sonar Qila (Golden Fort). It’s a beautiful mega structure which wonderfully adds to the city’s desert ambience and it’s golden walls change colour with the rising and setting sun.
Local woman inside the fort
Unlike all the other forts in India, Jaisalmer’s is a working fort, meaning that there are people living and working inside it’s walls. There are even guest houses, restaurants, cafes and shops for travellers to enjoy. We knew this prior to arriving so had always planned to find accommodation within the fort. Why stay at ground level when you have a once in a lifetime chance to stay up high in a fortress! We’d heard of one particularly well reviewed guest house which offered amazing views from its rooms and terrace so we hailed a taxi to take us there.
Child playing Cricket in the fort’s streets
As we gained access through the main gate of the fort we were immediately transported back to a bygone era. It’s a city within a city with narrow twisting lanes filled with ornate golden sandstone architecture, shops overflowing with brightly patterned embroideries and bustling aromatic street markets. The fort is popular with tourists so with that comes quite a bit of commercialism but you still can’t help but be enchanted by this exotic citadel. Jaisalmer’s golden fortress city is up there with some of our other favourite romantic historic destinations such as Hoi An in Vietnam, Alfama in Lisbon Portugal and the walled Dubrovnic in Croatia.
Elderly woman at her fort home doorway
We can’t recommend The Surya Paying Guesthouse enough. It’s friendly staff gave us a choice of rooms with some that offered incredible views of the city below and still at a very cheap price. Even if you don’t manage to bag yourself a room with a view there is plenty of comfortable lounge space up on the restaurant terrace where you can enjoy the same vistas while sipping a cold beverage or tasting delicious Indian food from their kitchen. It was sometimes hard to pull ourselves away from that terrace!
Lookout view of Jaisalmer
Thankfully Jaisalmer, it’s wonderful fort and the surrounding Thar Desert enticed us to explore. Aside from spending hours meandering through the winding narrow streets of the fort, there are many other things to do and see in Jaisalmer.
While you’re in the fort you could take an audio tour of the royal section or find one of the numerous lookouts which give great views across the city and desert. The fort also houses seven beautifully carved temples built between the 12th and 15th century. Even if you feel templed out which can often happen in India, do make the effort to see these as they are all wonderfully connected by walkways and corridors making it a unique temple experience.
Local man in Jaisalmer
The city outside the fort may not appear that interesting when looking down from above but take some time to walk around it’s busy streets and you’ll come across more brightly coloured markets, traditional shops and elaborate looking buildings. The main attraction is Patwon-ki-Haveli, a collection of five pretty ornately carved houses. All five were built for the son of a wealthy trader who made his fortune lending to the government. Guides offer engaging tours and once inside the restored main house you’ll get great views back towards the fort.
For some great reflective photography head to Ghadsisar Lake, a rainwater lake which supplies water to the city. With it’s surrounding sandstone temples and tombs you can get some lovely shots on a sunny day.
A typical shop in Jaisamler
Another reason for us and most other travellers going to Jaisalmer is to visit the surrounding Thar desert. We hadn’t been to a desert before so we were looking forward to seeing the unfamiliar landscape. The popular way to explore the desert is via a camel safari. Options range from just a few hours to a full 14 days. We didn’t have a lot of time left in Jaisalmer but we really wanted to experience spending a night sleeping in the sand and under the stars so we opted for a 2 day 1 night safari.
There’s a huge amount of operators in the city and competition is fierce to get your bum into one of their camel saddles. With our guest house owners being so friendly and accommodating we chose to book the safari through them with our new mice hating Canadian friends we met on the train in. The cost covers transfers to the desert, a camel each, all food and of course a guide. In fact we had two guides, one to help us with the camels and one to cook.
Sunrise breakfast on the guesthouse terrace
We got up early that morning to eat breakfast on the terrace overlooking the chilly and misty morning city as the sun rose. In the distance we could see the sprawling desert where we would be spending the next two days. Not long after breakfast we were escorted to the back of a jeep and driven to the outskirts of the desert to meet our guides and camels.
As always in India, our guides were extremely friendly with huge welcoming smiles. The camels not so much. We hadn’t ridden a camel before, the closest we’d been to a camel was at London Zoo. They clearly weren’t as happy to see us as the guides were. Instead of handshakes and smiles we got grunts and spits of saliva. The guides obviously found it hilarious.
Getting to know my new Camel friend
Our guides leading the way
Getting onto a camel for the first time was quite nerve racking. We noticed how high up the saddles were when the camels were standing. It would be a pretty long fall down if the camels decided they didn’t want us on their backs anymore. And their hostile welcome wasn’t filling us with much confidence.
To get on a camel you basically jump on while it’s sat on the ground and hold on for dear life as it stands. The camels don’t make it easy for you as they first get up using only their back legs at which point you feel like you’re going to summersault over it’s head. Then they balance themselves out using their front legs at which point you feel like you’re about to back flip over it’s arse. It’s exactly the same getting off but the other way around. It’s all about leaning back and forward while holding on real tight! Thankfully neither of us fell off!
Shelley 2nd from back on her camel
So off we rode into the desert, looking like right wallies in our sun hats. I’ve always hated wearing sun hats, they don’t suit me, in fact they don’t suit anyone, but it was the sensible thing to do considering we were going to be in the strong desert sun for two whole days with very limited shade. For the first half of the day the desert landscape wasn’t too impressive as was just very flat sand and dirt as far as the eye could see. But we were assured we’d later see the rolling sand dunes we were expecting.
Our Canadian friends meeting the local kids in a remote village
After a few hours, our first stop was a small village in the middle of nowhere. We were told by our main guide that this was where he was from. It was the sort of traditional remote village we assumed didn’t exist anymore so it’s always pleasing to see that they do. It consisted of a few simple buildings made from sandstone and some other interesting looking ancient huts with domed thatched roofs.
We were greeted by a group of smiling young children, their dusty faces looking at us with inquisitive expressions. We were surprised to get so much attention as we assumed many other travellers and tourists had passed through the village but we were very happy to interact with them.
Curious village kids coming to meet us
At around lunch time we arrived at our first sight of sand dunes. The soft golden dunes were handsomely rolling into the distance and the absolute silence of the desert made it even more beautiful. This is what I imagined a desert to be like! When we weren’t talking, all we could hear was the sound of the gentle breeze blowing the surface grains of sand and the little ringing cow bells swinging from our camel’s necks.
One of our Camels taking a well earned break
The soft sand made it more difficult for the camels to walk. Of course they are used to this terrain but at many times it felt as though the camels were losing their footing, especially climbing and descending the dunes. We put our trust in the camels that they wouldn’t fall and just held on tight!
Another camel taking a break
The guide found some tree shade and decided it would be a great place to stop for lunch. As they were cooking with their portable kitchen we were entertained by a random group of locals who suddenly appeared over the top of one of the dunes. At first they were sat in the distance, watching us from the dune top, but they soon gained the courage to come and say hello. Again we were surprised by the attention we were getting but they clearly hadn’t seen many western travellers before.
We happily posed for a few photos, as we had to do so many other times in India, before they walked back over the dune again waving goodbye. Our guide told us they were attending a wedding over the hill and were interested in who we were.
Aren’t they pretty
As we got back on our camels for the afternoon I realised how much the inside of my legs were starting to hurt. Sitting on a camel puts your lower body in a very awkward and uncomfortable position. It stretches the top of your inside legs so when in that position for a long time you really start to feel it. After another two hours on the saddle I just had to get off. The pain was so excruciating. Shelley and our Canadian friends were also feeling it but not to the point that they would rather walk. For the rest of the day I walked awkwardly like John Wayne alongside my camel to save myself any further pain.
Fresh foot prints in the Thar Desert dunes
Shelley enjoying the sand between her toes
As the sun was setting we arrived at where we would sleep for the night. It was just as pretty as where we’d stopped for lunch, infinite untouched sand dunes. As soon as the sun set and darkness took over, the temperature immediately dropped. Only an hour ago we were perfectly warm but were now putting on every item of clothing we brought with us. With no sign of any tents we were wondering how we were going to keep warm while sleeping.
After a lovely Indian dinner cooked over an open fire our guides started to sing us a traditional song. They had nice voices and used their pots and pans for percussion. It was a great surprise and added to this amazing camping experience in the desert. When they finished and we had stopped applauding they looked at us to return the same. We all looked at each other, clearly not having a clue what to sing.
Singing was not on any of our list of pastimes so this could be embarrassing. The only song to spring to mind that we may all know the words to was the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Everybody knows that right? So for the next two minutes we awkwardly spat the lyrics in our poor rapping abilities, occasionally forgetting the next line so filling with made up mumbles. But the guides politely rewarded us with a cheer and applause. Thank god no one was around to record it!
Me in our desert bedroom as the sun is rising
Our guides started making up our beds which consisted of nothing more than a few thick blankets. We wondered if it would be enough to keep us warm in the cold desert night temperatures but once tucked in it was perfectly warm and cosy. With the only sound being those distant cow bells on our camels we had one of the best nights sleep that year on the road.
Shelley enjoying her chai tea as she watches the sun rise
We were woken up by the rising sun and the smell of Indian chai tea being warmed up on the fire. Watching the sunrise that morning while sipping warm spicy chai tea was a magical and tranquil experience. Never had we felt such nirvana. It was such a simple pleasure but is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives. The perfect ending to an enchanting few days in Jaisalmer.
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