Jaisalmer, India

Where: Jaisalmer, Rahjasthan.

When: October 2011.

Why: I visited Jaisalmer on my Himalaya adventure and Indian back packing trip. On this trip I visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Bir and the Himalaya, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and Hampi.

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Map

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Intro

If Jaipur is the pink city and Jodhpur the blue city then Jaisalmer is most definitely the golden city, as this treasure of honey coloured stone, growing up out of the Thar desert, is made of a Cotswold like rock that glows golden in the sunshine and burns a deep amber at dusk and dawn.

Out of everywhere that I went to in India, it was Jaisalmer that I was most excited about. This city of palaces, lost in the desert, sounded so romantic. Jaisalmer is built around an ancient citadel, on the edge of the Thar desert, on the edge of a great wilderness, close to the Pakistani border. This is the city from which camel trains headed out into the unknown, towards Persia and the Silk Road.

The ancient citadel remains and is still a magical tangle of golden stone alleyways, ornate temples and palaces, which over 3,000 people still live in. And for a relatively modest price you can stay in this ancient fort too.

Jaisalmer was great, but the modern desert city didn’t quite match up to my romantic dream. For a start, the desert was green. I imagined that there would be great swathes of empty, golden sand dunes – but the area had recently had a lot of well-needed rain, so the desert was blooming. Rather than being a wide, endless, sandy landscape, the desert was a vast stretch of scrubby, dusty green.

Also, as I explain below, I wasn’t able to do the two-day camel trip that I had initially hoped to do whilst here, so I ended up with a lot of spare time on my hands, just hanging around in Jaisalmer – which was nice, but I did get a little bored.

The fort is magnificent, but it is vulnerable and it is crumbling in places. The citadel and the old town are surrounded by a modern, dusty, busy town full of concrete, cars and cows. ‘Modern’ Jaisalmer has some interesting sights and some of it is very pretty, but when I was there it also had raw sewage running down the streets and huge piles of trash in places. Like a few of the Indian cities that I visited there was obvious investment (the city was surrounded by huge wind farms), but also a lot of the city was dirty and unloved.

All in all, I liked Jaisalmer but I found many of the people to be quite harsh and unfriendly, and it didn’t seem to have the friendliness, kindness and cosiness of Jodhpur. I wrote in my diary that even the cows of Jaisalmer seemed to be more aggressive. I’m glad that I visited, but my visit felt like a must-do, ticking of the box – rather than a dream to be relished. Maybe if I had stayed in a haveli in the citadel, or I had been with the man I love, the visit would have been more magical – instead I mostly just felt like I was biding time in a pretty place. 

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Getting there and getting around

I travelled to Jaisalmer by train from Jodhpur. The journey took about six hours and it was a really boring. Mostly we just travelled through flat, empty, scrubby wasteland, so it was quite dull. 

I travelled to Jaisalmer in a second class, air-conditioned carriage and then back in first class. First class was nicer but I was in a small compartment that was dominated by one family, so I think in some ways I’d rather have paid less and travelled sleeper class. And I saw a mouse on the train in First Class.

Anyhoo – 2AC cost 600 rupees (about £9) and First Class cost 980 rupees (about £12). I booked my tickets through Cleartrip.

The train station is about 2km out of the centre. There were lots of rickshaw drivers waiting at the station to take people into town.

A bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer takes about five hours. You can see all of the available services and prices on RedBus. I haven’t used this website myself so I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it looks pretty tip-top.

Plane wise, there’s a ghost-terminal in Jaisalmer. A passenger terminal was built at the army airfield, 17km south of the city; but from what I understand it is still not used and is just sat there all empty. I just had a look on skyscanner for the whole of the next month (September 2017) and nothing came up, so I don’t think any services currently exist.

Getting around

Mostly, I got about on foot as Jaisalmer is only a small town.

I got a rickshaw from the station to my hotel, as the station is about 2km from the centre of town, and I got a rickshaw so that they could show me where the bank is (it’s on the far side of the citadel to the train station, on the road that runs around the fort (I think it’s called Fort Road)). Otherwise, I walked.

You get some strange tricksters in India and sometimes they aren’t very good, which is kind of sweet. The rickshaw driver who took me to the bank and the citadel told me that because it was his birthday, he was giving British people free lifts (?). He was a lovely guy and I am sure he was supposed to deliver me into the hands of the touts at the castle (hence the free lift) but instead I gave him a tip (i.e. paid) and told the touts where to go.

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What I did on my Holiday

Jaisalmer Fort (UNESCO)

It’s Jaisalmer Fort which draws visitors to Jaisalmer and which makes this town so famous. And I can understand why, as it is wonderful; a real world-class attraction. The citadel is a maze of tangled alleys, temples and havelis (ornate merchant houses), packed into a walled fort – on top of a hill, on the edge of the great wilderness of the Thar desert; somewhere which even today cannot be easily crossed.

In the olden days, when the rest of the urban sprawl wasn’t here, this must have been a magical place: a golden castle rising up out of the desert wastelands; a mirage for the camel trains ending their great adventures. 

The fort, built in 1156, has been a refuge for nearly 900 years. It is one of the largest fort cities in the world. Today, the citadel is still amazing and well worth the long trip to visit it. The castle may be crumbling in places, but the golden stone still stands strong and dominates this town. 

To access the fort you have to enter through the ancient gates and defences: first there are the outer gates and a large, market-place courtyard. Rather than being a place for soldiers and security to gather, today there’s a great Italian restaurant in the gates, with a lovely terrace on the walls, overlooking the square, where salespeople and rickshaws gather.

Past the outer courtyard is a lane leading up through four ancient gates, up to the central square in the fort. Again, rather than guards guarding this ancient entryway, today there are many carpet stalls and souvenir shops; and you need to dodge the touts and sellers to get in, rather than soldiers. And the bats. If you look up at the gateways as you walk in to the city you will see (and smell) that they are covered in bats. It’s really cool!

Rickshaws and cars are allowed to drive right into the heart of the fort, as far as the central square (Dashera Chowk). There were lots of touts here when I visited.

From the main square of the citadel, you can go into the Maharajah’s Palace or head off into the warren of lanes. 

My favourite thing to do in the fort was to just walk and explore. There were so many hidden treasures: cool cafés, great shops, nice people, hidden havelis, palaces, temples, statues, books for sale, internet. I spent some time just talking to people and watching the kids play hide and seek. I spent some time chatting to locals, relaxing on their front-steps. There was a lovely community feel here, almost like an Italian village.

You can stay in the fort, and I did originally dream of doing this, but accommodation in the citadel is more expensive and they are starting to ask people not to stay in the fort, as they believe that the high use of water by the tourists is leading the fort to crumble. Despite this, if I had been with my love, I might have stayed here in one of the romantic havelis, as they are so unique. As it was, I was on a budget – so I stayed in Hotel Haveli instead. 

You can find out more about the fort on Wikipedia.

Jain temples

A key site within the fort are the Jain temples. These seven fabulous, ornate temples, built in the 15th and 16th century, are covered in a wonderful cacophony of carvings. Every piece of marble seems to have been sculpted into deities and avatars; from the ceiling to the walls to the steps to get in. The temples are full of statues and stories and I could have spent hours looking at all of the characters.

Jainism is an ancient Indian religion, closely associated with Hinduism. Jains trace their history through 24 saviors and teachers, known as Tirthankaras, and their main tenet is non-violence (you cannot wear leather into the temple).

When I was there, the temples had really restricted hours (they were only open until noon), so they did get quite crowded. My visit lasted about an hour.

Entry was 150 rupees (about £2). We had to take our shoes off and leave them by the door, and we gave a tip to the man who looked after our shoes for us. Also, the monks were quite hassley about donations, which didn’t seem right to me.

If you are interested in Jain temples, apparently there are some more important Jain temples located at Lodhurva, 15km from Jaisalmer. Lodhruva was the capital of the Bhatti people before Jaisalmer was built. The temples in Lodhruva are an important Jain pilgrimage site. Many of the camel tours stop here. You can find out more about it on Wikipedia.

Maharajah’s Palace (Raj Mahal / Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum & Heritage Center)

The Maharajah’s apartments are located by the central entrance gates of the fort and the entrance is just off Dashera Chowk, the main square. 

Compared to the apartments at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, these apartments were very low key and simple. The apartments contained things like stamps, pictures and furniture. The rooms were pretty and interesting.

My favourite part of the tour was the pictures of the maharajah conferences over the years. I loved seeing the English representative surrounded by these Indian princes. I liked seeing which ones looked nice and which nasty and who appeared and disappeared over the years. I love the photo below of two Maharajahs who look as if they are having an argument.

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The other great thing about the apartments was the view from the rooftop. The palace has the highest position in the city, so these are the best views in Jaisalmer and there was a central, birds eye view of the fort, the temples, the wider city and the surrounding desert. 

Entrance cost me 250 rupees (about £4), and this included photography and an audio tour. My visit lasted about an hour and a half.

Old havelis and city gate

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Jaisalmer is famous for its havelis (ornate merchant houses). These are dotted around the city. There are many of these in the citadel and one or two around town. They are very pretty.

The city gate is located on the edge of town, down by the lake side. It is a nice archway in the middle of a busy intersection. You can go look at it if you are bored and just hanging around, like what I was. That is all.

GadiSar Lake

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Whilst waiting to see if I could get on a camel tour, I decided to see the other sights of Jaisalmer. One of the sights featured in the guidebooks is the GadiSar Lake, located on the edge of town. This is the water source for the city, built 650 years ago.

In the photos, this looks like a beautiful, peaceful area with a gorgeous temple in the centre of the lake.

Whilst it is pretty, I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit the reservoir. The temple in the lake is pretty – but not as pretty as in the photos (it looks much smaller and you have to hire a boat to get close to it).

There are some nice, old buildings and a temple next to the site and lots of touristy shops. In the lake, there are hundreds of cat fish which come together to eat the bread that people throw to them – it’s pretty gross.

You can hire a boat (although there didn’t seem much point me doing this on my own) – and that’s about it really.

There were also some really cool camels hanging around outside:

The Desert Cultural Centre and Folklore Museum (DCC&FM)

By far and away, the best thing I did in Jaisalmer was to visit the Desert Cultural Centre and Folklore Museum. Visiting this museum, and meeting the museum curator Mr N.K. Sharma, gave me an insight and understanding to Jaisalmer and Indian culture that I might not have gotten from anywhere else. I left the museum feeling enriched, enlightened and educated.

So, I was hanging around Jaisalmer, not doing much, and opposite the reservoir was the DCC&FM – so I decided to pop in to see the puppet show and to have a look around.

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The puppet show was hilarious. I have no idea what was happening or what stories were being told, but it was so bad it was brilliant. I sat at the back of this dusty school-like room, and giggled my way through the last 20 minutes of the show. 

The puppet show takes place in the Desert Cultural Centre and Folklore Museum, which is a tiny museum which has been set up by a local history teacher. I love local museums. I love that someone has gone to the effort to preserve their local history and I love that these museums usually record the minutiae of the normal, everyday life for the locals – especially here, as that life is so foreign to me.

The museum is excellent. It is well laid out and informative and it has loads of interesting exhibits in. It told me a lot about the history of the area and the history of the citadel and the camel trains. 

The best thing about the museum though, was the curator, Mr N.K. Sharma, who used to be a local history teacher. When I visited he was in his late 70s and he spent most of his time running the museum. He came to talk to me as I was looking around and he gave me an amazing, personal, guided tour of the museum.

He told me about the camel trains, about the opium trade, about India’s castes and how the different castes related in the past and now. He told me about how Jaisalmer was when he was a boy and how it has changed; what it was like when the Maharajahs ruled India. His tour was wonderful and possibly the best part of my India trip.

After we had looked around the museum, he took me to his office for a cup of tea and we talked about life and love and culture and history. He was a really astute and interesting man and he gave me an insight to India that I hadn’t had until then. Mr N.K. Sharma is a Brahman (from the priestly caste) and so that did affect what he was saying (some of which I’m not sure that I agree with) – but he was so fascinating none the less.

Entrance was 50 rupees (about 80p).

The Desert Centre has a page on Facebook with limited information. It is located just opposite the lake.

Camel/desert tour

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Most people who come to Jaisalmer come here to do a camel tour into the desert. They spend a day or so riding out to isolated villages and sleep out on the sands, under the stars. Doesn’t that sound romantic?

I rode camels when I lived in Tunisia, and I know that although it can be fun for a little while, riding a camel for longer than an hour or so can be quite boring, uncomfortable and very unromantic.

I wasn’t going to do a camel tour in Jaisalmer; it wasn’t something that I was hugely bothered about. However, I fancied staying out in the desert, sleeping under the stars and I was hoping to find a trip that offered that element but without having to ride a camel through scrub-land for two days. But then some travellers that I met in Jaisalmer raved about riding out into this vast wilderness – so I thought I might give it a go.

I followed the guidebook on this one, and approached the most poplar, well known camel-tour company: Adventure Travel Company (ATC). To make it worthwhile, the camel companies need to have a minimum number of people to run a camel tour and when I signed up they warned me that my tour might not run if they couldn’t find anyone to join me, as I was the only guest booked on it at that time. They told me to return the next day and we would see how things go. 

Sadly, nobody else wanted to sign up for my tour so I wasn’t able to do this, but ATC were great, and to make up for not being able to take me on a camel tour, they offered to take me out into the desert for free, to collect some ladies coming back from a tour – so that I could get a taste of the desert and see a little more of the area. So of course I said yes!

My driver was a lovely teenager who drove us about an hour into the desert (on good roads), in an open top jeep. I have never been so scared in my life! He got up to speeds of 120mph – on a road with sheep and cows just wandering about! 

Once we got to the desert (which was green) he took me to meet some of the camels, and he wandered around picking fruit. Then some old dude turned up and sold us tea and a friend turned up – and we sat on the sand, listening to the silence, waiting for the tour group to come back.

It was very quiet – but also quite boring and it made me glad that I had had a taster of the camel tour, without having to ride a camel for two days.

If you do do the camel tour, apparently it isn’t at all boring and on the tour you visit the ruins of ancient Loduvra, Akal Fissil Ark and the Saharan like sand dunes of Sam.

For their kindness and for being really informative, I’d like to recommend Adventure Travel Agency tours. They were really helpful and nice, and their office is located just outside the outer gates of the citadel. And Indar, the guy who ran it, was lovely.

www.adventurecamels.com

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Where I stayed

Hotel Haveli

The first thing I should tell you about the Hotel Haveli is that I paid £2.50/night for a basic single, private, en-suite room. This room had two beds and a TV.

However, I have really mixed feelings about Hotel Haveli because although it was cheap and okay, there were a lot of problems with it. At £2.50/night, I can’t really complain, but I kind of wish I’d stayed somewhere else.

Before I arrived, they’d been really efficient and had messaged me to tell me about the free pick up service and where to meet the hotel rep at the station, which was really helpful; but when I checked in they just kept trying to sell me stuff and the Indian man who ran the hotel (Isaac) kept saying ‘we will do this and we will have a meeting’ – and this annoyed me, as I thought ‘no, we won’t. I’m the client here and I will decide what I’m going to do.’

He also told me that I’d booked a shared room, which I hadn’t and I had to show him my booking to get him to honour the single private deal. I think he might have been trying to scam me into sharing my room, maybe not – either way, it left a bad taste in my mouth on arrival.

The room when I checked in was dirty. I cleaned a lot of it but I asked them to change the sheets to clean sheets. It seemed to be a hotel run by teenage boys, who aren’t the best at noticing things like clean sheets etc.

Over the next few days, the staff were very kind and helpful – although the sales pitch did continue right until I left. I think the Haveli offers cheap rooms to get people in, so that they can sell them their expensive tours. However, it was a preposterously cheap place to stay.

The hotel is located on the lake side of town, in a quiet street with lots of cows and garages. It’s about a fifteen minute walk from the fort. When I was there, there was raw sewage running down the street, although I think the residents of the street were trying to fix this themselves. 

I booked the hotel through Hostel World.

www.hotelhavelijaisalmer.in

The Residence of the Royal Family

I just had a look at Jaisalmer properties on Air B and B and one of the accommodations listed is apparently the old royal palace, where the Maharaj lived and the host is married into the royal family. I think if I return and I’m not on a tight-budget, I’m going to stay here!

www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/15106185

 

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Where I ate and drank

Midpoint Cafe

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Midpoint Café is located in a great spot, overlooking the market square. I could quite happily while away the day on this breezy balcony, watching the goings on below me. They also had fantastically cheap breakfasts and good coffee.

This is what I wrote in my diary whilst in Midpoint Cafe: ‘The cows moved. Where is the cow? Where’s that man taking that trolley? What are those school kids doing? Who are those foreigners? Where are they going? Where’s the cow? I think this is the best table in Jaisalmer…’

www.midtownjaisalmer.co.in

Jaisal Italy

Another great spot was Jaisal Italy; the Italian in the main gate of the outer city walls. They served nice pizzas and had free wifi. They had an outdoor terrace which was on the walls, overlooking the outer square. I went here twice because they were friendly, good value and they let me use their wifi.

jaisalitaly.com

8th July

8th July is located up above the main square of the citadel. This was a brilliant place for western food and a good place to while away the afternoon with a good book and great views.

Hotel Shahi Garh

Hotel Shah Garh is a hotel located in Jaisalmer Fort. This is somewhere that I would have loved to have stayed, as this was the desert palace of my dreams, with sea-shell arches, curtains billowing in the breeze, golden walls, dark wooden furniture.

I went for a cold lhassi in Hotel Shah Garh, as this gave me an excuse to have a look-see inside one of these exclusive haveli hotels. The owners were absolutely lovely and not only did I get to have a nice drink in these day-dream surroundings, they also gave me a tour of their hotel and told me about it’s history. The showed me pictures from when Princess Anne had stayed there, took me to the roof to see the amazing views and gave me a guided tour of the property. Next time, hopefully I can stay here.

www.hotelshahigarh.com

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Useful links and top tips

www.jaisalmer.org.uk

tourism.rajasthan.gov.in/jaisalmer

www.india.com/travel/jaisalmer

wikitravel.org/en/Jaisalmer and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaisalmer

www.lonelyplanet.com/india/rajasthan/jaisalmer

Top Tips

I read somewhere that you had to buy a tax on arrival at Jaislamer station, but this wasn’t the case for me, so I think perhaps they have discontinued this.

Whilst I was there, there were rolling blackouts every day. These typically lasted for two to three hours in the morning. (I made a rule, no getting up in a blackout – even though it was full daylight outside). They may have just been running these to store power for Diwali, but from what I understand, they are a regular thing in Jaisalmer.

There were two ATMs when I was there, though only one worked for my VISA card. There was a Bank of India near to the Hotel Haveli and a bank on Fort Road – on the far side of the fort to the main part of town.

Even if you don’t stay in a haveli hotel in the citadel, you can probably go inside for a drink. I did this and the lovely owners gave me a tour of all of the rooms – and even took me to the roof. 

Disclaimer

Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.

All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.

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