A Fort Among Golden Sands
A journey to the ancient castle of Jaisalmer and a safari by camel into the Thar Desert.
In the dusty recesses of the charred landscape, hours into the desert wasteland, a castle among sand emerges in the horizon.
We approach the town built around this imposing structure seemingly lost in the desert. I open my pocket map to locate ourselves via GPS, and find ourselves in the extreme western edge of India, less than 100 km from Pakistan, and in the heart of the Great India Desert. This said desert, or more commonly referred to as the Thar Desert, encompasses 1/20th of the land of India, and also stands as the 20th largest desert in the world. It’s also the worlds most populated desert, as Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Muslims share the sands, mainly surviving on agriculture and husbandry. Camels still carry folks to and fro here, as seen directly outside our window. But as the sand castle looms larger, the camel population steadily decreases while the people increase as we enter town.
We are coming via a 6-hour ride by rail southwest from the town of Bikaner. As the train draws near the station, I reflect on the long day in Bikaner, where we wandered the dusty streets, explored the Jain temples, and entered palace halls. I smiled at the recollection of our spontaneous invitation to an Indian wedding at the palace, where we gazed at the merry festivities and frenzy dancing, and even treated to a potent drink as guests. The walls were adorned with skins of tigers and leopards, reminding ourselves that these backwaters of western India brought in great wealth and opulence. It are those experiences that make all the weariness of long days and cramped seats worth it. My mind wanders now to our destination of Jaisalmer, even deeper in the desert.
Several days are planned here to slow down and soak the atmosphere of this corner of Rajasthan. What surprises await at this ancient outpost?
At last, our passenger train enters the town of Jaisalmer, and a raucous scene commences - as normal as anywhere in India I suppose. People clamber, shout, and wave around chai, snacks, and trinkets for the weary travelers. Tuktuk drivers come in full force to offer their services. Locals grab their bundles and push their way out while new passengers run to take the available seats. And us… well we get in the action and scramble as if our life depends on it. And now approaching four months in Nepal and India, this lifestyle is becoming unusually normal. We hop into a tuktuk, throw our backpacks on top of ourselves, and before we could even negotiate the driver sped off.
It’s obvious where we are headed as foreigners - to the magnificent Jaisalmer Fort.
We are dropped off outside the main gate of the fort, from whence we walk clockwise around its perimeter to find our hostel. We admire the golden sandstone walls from below, rising sharply from the earth like a carefully constructed sand castle frozen in time. We find our accommodation on the west side of the fort, a slight exaggeration in the name of Shahi Palace. Though not a palace per se, it still retains a nice atmosphere throughout, particularly the rooftop which afforded unobstructed views of Jaisalmer Fort. This guesthouse will be home for us for four nights, and the first time we will “slow” down since entering India.
We quickly left the guesthouse for our first, of many, explorations of the fort. Constructed in 1155 AD by Rajput Jaisal, this structure immediately earned notoriety and stood at a crossroads for important trade routes, most notably the Silk Road. And most remarkably, this fort remains one of the last few “living” forts in the world. That is, a large population of Jaisalmer still live inside the protective walls of the fort.
Not much differences exist I assume from entering the fort in the 13th century and today.
A narrow path leads up inside, past golden sandstone walls draped in colorful textiles that the locals sell. Looking above, ornately decorated havelis house, or once housed, the wealthy merchants. The atmosphere is alive as locals sell goods, engage in conversation, or scurry on by. The visitors, whether Indian or foreigner, equally gape in amazement at the magnitude and splendor of the gate. Walking inside the fort equally enchanted, and it was just as easy to get lost as it was to walk back and forth the same direction.
Jaisalmer feels distinctly unique compared to the other Indian forts we explored, such as Amber or Jodhpur, in that the locals actually live here.
As we peruse the wares and trinkets for sell inside the walls, a storefront catches our attention of golden sandstone bowls and cups, carefully crafted by the owner of the shop. However, we already made a self-vow that we will not carry more weight in our already-stuffed backpacks. We pass by several times though, with the owner every time asking us to take a look, all the while asking more and more questions about us. Like the persistent widow, we finally step into his shop with the intention of buying, and helping our now familiar friend. Somehow, two small cups and a bowl, carved from rock, end up becoming permanent residents in our backpack for several months.
Following the purchase, the owner kindly, and unexpectedly, invites us into his home for some tea and naan - which is just a few steps away through a back door.
We greet his wife and son who sit on a mat in the center of a very simple living room void of most comforts. It afforded a rare glimpse into the life of a family still living in a medieval fort. The owner invited us to the third level where a few dusty boxes sit next to an open window overlooking the fort’s streets. He encourages us to open and peruse the boxes, full of antiques he collected over the years. Quirky wooden sculptures and contraptions, each likely holding a story, sit before us. It is a curious collection, but we wonder why he doesn’t sell it in his storefront. Either way, we decline any offers he make to bring a piece of history, as he calls it home.
Back on the rooftop of Shahi Palace after two days of exploring the fort, we make an agreement with some local guides for a 2-day camel safari into the Thar Desert. Our expectations are scattered, unsure what to expect, but excitement still follows. As the sun sets behind us, the fort glows dark orange, creating an amazing atmosphere.
The morning of our safari arrived with the sun already beating down on the desert landscape. It’s a smooth affair as we depart mid-morning via an old Jeep that showed up in the front of the guesthouse. The backseats are reserved for us and our packs as the guide, and driver, leads us out of Jaisalmer and into the barren lands to the southwest. Vibrant Rajasthani music blasts away from the loud speakers, and we couldn’t help get into the mood. Further and further from civilization we go until we reach a small set of three or four adobe complexes. A cow, a dog, and a child all greet us as we clamber out of the jeep and walk around their yard. It is a evident we are at the premises of their home, with the boys mom glancing at us from the shade of her roof. It also remains slightly awkward as we are unsure how to go about, as we feel inclined to snap some photos of their unique way of life. In the end, we play with the boy, and only take a quick photo of the cow and the dog.
Our driver met up with another guide at this humble abode where they prepare the packs of two large camels - our mode of transportation for the next two days. Traditional rugs, thick blankets, water jugs and cooking utensils all found space between and around the humps, saving space for ourselves as well. And once the packing, like a fine art, finishes, we are greeted to our new friends.
“This is King Kong,” the guide smiled dearly as he shows Mary her beast.
And for mine. “This is Al Pacino.”
King Kong crouches low for Mary and sets itself high on his feet without a hitch. Al Pacino, however, is not feeling it. Stubbornly snorting away, the guide took all the persuading he could conjure to convince Big Al to transport me and all the equipment across the desert. He eventually succombed, and off we went into the golden sands. We felt initially as if merchants along the Silk Roads, crossing deserts on the backs of camels. However, where a caravan on the ancient routes can take months on end, we are only experiencing it for two short days. And how thankful we are for the brevity, as it is quite uncomfortable to say the least.
We eventually end up setting camp in a pocket of sand dunes, along with a trusty dog who followed us the whole way. We placed our sleeping pads in the open air and wandered the landscape as the guides prepared a hearty meal. Sitting by campfire in the middle of the desert, enjoying the meal and a good conversation remains an experience we will always remember.
The simplicity in the moment and the joy of basic life comes in full circle out here. Into far lands we were.