Just close your eyes, put the hoodie on your head, take the blue pill and imagine that you are in a 5 star hotel.
It seemed like the only choice, sure we could have complained of our misfortunate, but in reality that rarely gets you anything. Lets face it, we are going to be on this bus for the whole night, driving from Udaipur to Jaisalmer.
Traveling with our own car we rarely got to experience the local transports of various countries, so i might be completely off in stating that so far India is the only country where i have seen sleeper buses. Its pretty much what you are imagining, a bus with little compartments for a single or double beds, you even get a curtain for privacy. We got on the bus when it was dark which was probably for the best, we did have a chance to take a look around the “well-used” interior.
We laid down and tried to move as little as possible, but the lack of suspension with the fervor of our F1 driver made that an impossible task as we quiet often would be thrown a couple of inches up in the air while being smushed against the window as the bus cornered at impossible speeds. This would explain why our rabbit cages of a bed had a little sliding door which made the whole bus look like a cosmetics testing facility, they were there so we would be safely bouncing around without falling into the aisle.
The overnight travel in a bus seems like a great idea but in reality i would take a train any day of the week, they are just comfier.
Backpacks on, eyes pried open with sheer will power, we are ambushed by a group of eager tuk-tuk drivers.
This is something that I never quite got under control, even after a year of traveling or all this time in India. Whenever you get off from a bus, train or any long-haul transport, you are immediately surrounded by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers fighting for your attention. Shouts of “where you going, sir?” are coming in from so many directions that I get overwhelmed. Let me get my bag first and then i will talk to you. I’m still working on getting this worked out…issues man, who doesn’t have them, right?
Luckily for everyone, our hostel was close enough and we were too tired to argue too much so the 3rd or 4th driver made an offer that we just didn’t have the stamina to refuse.
Quick shower, breakfast…even a short nap while Hyein takes her shower and we are off to explore.
Jaisalmer (GPS: 26.913, 70.915)
If you have never heard of this place, dont feel bad we never heard of it until we started planning our India trip. A small city in the far West of India, almost on the border with Pakistan, Jaisalmer is a great destination for a day or two. You may argue with us, but we felt like we saw everything we needed to see if two full days.
The main attraction here is the Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156 AD by a guy named Rawal Jaisal. As you can probably already guess the town was named after him. Our hostel was not in the fort itself, but about a 10 minute walk. I’m sure you could find a nice hostel in the fort itself, but there really isn’t any advantage. You end up wandering all over the city either way, so the 10 minute difference will not even be noticed.
Located on a prominent hill, the fort seems to rise up and out of the desert. As you enter the main gate and make your way up the winding road you really get a feel for the medieval times, the ancient cities of Middle East. Something that is straight out of a history book.
Unlike many of the forts found throughout Europe, Jaisalmer is a living city with about a quarter of the town’s population still residing within its walls. This really does make an amazing difference, as you get to see people living their normal lives in the narrow streets.
Throughout the fort you can find a little view point to really appreciate the view of the city and Thar desert beyond it.
We sat for a moment to take in the view, you are at the same time in the middle of the hustle and bustle of India but peacefully siting above it all. Down below are thousands of people running around, delivering food, getting supplies, standing in mile-long queues for ATMs. Its been already a week and we are still struggling, unable to just let go and buy whatever we want.
You know the cash strapped situation would seem like a great money saving opportunity, in reality you end up going to places that accept credit cards, which tend to be more expensive. Plus you’ve already invested all this time and money to get to India, so it sucks not to be able to enjoy it to the fullest.
But we never give up…at least not for long. Yeah, there are times when the burdens of travels get us down, but we just have to remember that there is always a way, always a solution. Get some rest and it will resolve itself in the morning.
Whenever I get worked up about our misfortunes or just general state of hopelessness I turn to my dear wife and ask her to tell me that everything is going to be okay. My favorite response from her is a quote from the Indian movie “Three idiots” – “All is well, all is well” spoken with the thickest accent possible. If you haven’t seen the movie and this just flew over your head, find the time to watch it. I hear that you can just download movies from the internet…crazy right?
You can see the street just below the city walls.
We walked around the fort, through the little streets that at some point were no wider than arms reach from each other, taking in the feel of the old city. Jaisalmer has been an important town on the Silk Route, a stronghold that protected travelers and merchants.
Each house has a history of many generations, each little walkway has felt the soles of thousands of people over many centuries. This doesn’t even seem like a city it has such a community feel to it. With people living in such close quarters, you can’t help but be involved in your neighbors affairs. You know the images of kids running on the streets playing games, while their mothers, sister watch over them? This is still here, old men sitting on their door stoop smoking and chatting, random cow walking along, a lady carrying something on her head…all is still here, just come and visit before this is all gone.
Most of the houses within the fort are in great condition, with fancy architecture and detailed facades. But once in a while you happen upon a recently renovated temple with unparalleled craftsmanship.
This is our new favorite dessert in the world, Rasmalai. Its a sponge cake soaked in sweetened milk with a few pistachios, served cold in bowl with lots of milk.
In the noon heat of the Great Indian Desert, this delicacy will be a the perfect way to treat yourself for something light, sweet and refreshing.
If done right, the milk only has a bit of rose water added, the sponge just melts on your tongue and the pistachios add a bit of flavor but more importantly a nice contrast to the melting texture of the cake. In our quest to find the best rasmalai in India we ordered it everywhere we saw it and i believe that in a short time we have become true connoisseurs.
Havelis: Nathmal-ki-Haveli (GPS: 26.915774, 70.912595) and Group of five Havelis (GPS: 26.91625, 70.914738)
Back in the lower town we walked through the streets hiding from the sun in the shade of the buildings, killing time by aimlessly walking from one street to the next. For whatever reason, lets blame it on our cash strapped situation, we did not get a sim card for internet. Wifi is not the easiest option in India and going back to the hostel…well, we just didn’t feel like.
With the help of our trusty Maps.me application we managed to find a few interesting mansions scattered around town. Locally they are known as Haveli, which basically means mansion.
Traveling in Northern India you will come across many hotels and hostels with the word Haveli in its name…dont trust them just on the name alone. In Jaisalmer, there is a single Haveli by itself, the Nathmal-Ki Haveli, and a 5 minute walk away is a whole complex of five gorgeous havelis. Supposedly we had to pay to go in the little street between them, but being short of cash we didn’t even bother asking and went right through.
Looking around at the intricate details of the houses you can lose yourself in chasing the patterns, as you try to find every little detail. You cant help but wonder if they have been restored, because they seem to be weathered but still in perfect shape. The dry desert air keeps a watch on these masterpieces and is kind to them through the centuries.
In the little courtyard between the Havelis we came across a most extraordinary man.
Its not just his clothes and majestic beard or the fact that he sells peacock feathers to tourists…no there is something greater in him. We sat down and just talked, he talked of his life and people coming to visit him from all over the world.
He told as that he was photographed by some German photographer and ended up being on a cover of a magazine. In the years since, thousands of people have come to visit him and say hello. It seems that time has been kind to him and he hasn’t changed a bit…or he has always looked like an old man, one or the other.
For a local super-celebrity he was quite friendly and instead of pestering us to buys something, he turned around and gave a peacock feather as a token of our new friendship. The lady selling trinkets right next to us was amazed but definitely not amused. She half-exhaled, half-yelled under her breath that he NEVER gives his treasures away. Either we are lucky or cursed till the end of times.
Continuing with our aimless walk around time, not actually aimless, we are constantly on the look our for a bank or a working ATM…but the results so far have been quite disappointing. Next to another closed ATM we met a German couple that advised us on a little trick, a loophole, in the Indian law. You see, to protect women from harassment in male dominated public spaces, ladies get to have their own space and do not have to wait in lines anywhere.
Armed with a new tactic we marched back to the busy city market
Armed with a new tactic we marched back to the busy city market, to find the State Bank ATM with half the city lined up in line to use it. And as you can guess it…all dudes, just like Computer Science department in your college… the same nationality too. I waited at a distance and Hyein bravely tried to walk to the front of the line, only to be denied in the most absurd way – according to these fine gentlemen the law doesn’t apply to foreign women, just locals.
Hyein persisted, but the heat of the afternoon had evaporated any reason from the line of fathers, sons and husbands. She got out of there before things turned for the worst.
Where is the police when you need them. One minute they seem to be on every corner in their skin tight uniforms and next nowhere to be seen.
Ganesh and Shiva are on our side as we spot and officer on a bike that looks quite promising. We tell him the story and he agrees to help. I stay back to lessen the chance of a full on riot, as Hyein goes with a police escort towards the line. I sit on a curb, looking around at the passing scene but the sense of unease brings me back to my watch as I unconsciously count the minutes and seconds required to perform all the necessary actions to get in and out of there.
It must have been an eternity, when you see me and see my graying hair remember this moment. She comes back with a smile of a Roman conqueror, a Mongolian Emperor, a pre-historic hunter who has killed the prey and dragging it into the cave. But the fight was not an easy one at the peak there were 3 police officers: one to keep the crowd down, one to push help her push through the crowd and the other to watch her back while she takes money out.
In the end she had battled and won, her prize – $30, not much to you…but you had to be there. This is not the last chapter in our banking saga, just another verse in a Shakespeare play.
Sunset viewpoint and City Vista (GPS: 26.91979, 7.910994)
If you are in town on a clear day, which is not that difficult considering that Jaisalmer is in a desert, then head out to the view point to catch the glimpse of the fort in the light of the setting sun.
It is a beautiful view, and you can clearly see the fort rising and standing high of the desert floor. In its time a fortress to be reckoned with, now a beautiful sight and testament to the history of the Silk Route and the people who lived along it.
Thar dessert with Sahara Travels (GPS: 26.898155, 70.554751)
I dont want to hear your condescending tone…we are riding camels again and that’s final!
Previously, after embarking on the most painful 15 minutes in my life in Mongolia, i proclaimed that never again will i waste my time, my money and possibility of ever having children by riding these dinosaurs.
Yet, here we are again, being led through the desert in a camel caravan. It was packaged tour, a bit of horse riding, a bit of driving through the desert in a 4×4 and then enjoy the sunset, followed by a meal by a campfire.
And the price was not bad and the people who have gone said it was quite a good day out, so we agreed.
And it was not that bad. The saddles were much nicer, but i still miss the comfort and independence of a stirrups.
We walked for about 2 hours through the desert, as our guide cracked jokes and gently led the creates along the path they have seen a million times before.
In the excitement of the ride, I managed to somehow lose our GoPro.
The selfie stick was just hanging from my belt and the rocking motion the ride must have loosened the screw holding the camera on. Imagine my excitement when i picked up the selfie stick to shoot a video only to find nothing there. Luckily, we stopped for a little break and I ran back along the camel tracks hoping to find it. After about 100 meters my muscles burning and my lungs on fire, I slowed down to a walk and tried to figure out at which point will i call it quits.
Just another little bit…can lead you all the way back to Mumbai if you are not careful. Once again the gods have been on our side and i spotted a bit of plastic in the dust, dirty but undamaged it laid there among camel poop and sand.
You knew there was a happy ending to that story, otherwise how could we have those photos on the camel?
Everyone in our group ran off into the dunes to play and yell, like little kids. It was a beautiful sight but the traveler’s disappointment of seeing something grander and comparing it left us in peace to enjoy the last few rays of light.
While we were hard at work acting smug about how much of the world we have and have not seen, these guys were busy mixing chickpeas with sand to make our dinner.
The dinner was served by the campfire, i presume only so that we couldn’t see ratio of sand in our dishes. But i can still feel it grinding on my teeth.
To take our minds of the food, the guides sat down next to use and with a help of a bucket and what mother gave them they proceed to wail some local song… Its hard to say what i would like to repeat in the future the dinner or the entertainment.
Overall, i would give this a 4.75 out of 5 for a touristy experience. The guides were super nice and never made you feel like a walking, talking money bag. They did their job, took care of you and were genuine in sharing the beauty of the desert. I only deduct a quarter of the star for authenticity…lets be honest, no one is perfect.
Bada Bagh Ruins (GPS: 26.95538, 70.887592)
If you have misjudged your life and have some extra time in Jaisalmer, then grab a tuk-tuk, negotiate a set price and head over to the Bada Bagh Ruins.
According to the the short wiki article in the world (Bada Bagh wiki) the descendant of the the founder of Jaisalmer, thought it would be a great idea to dam up a river and make a little lush garden in this area.
The dam and the water with it are gone and all that remains are these cenopaths (think…tombs) are that remains here. Oh and birds…lots of birds.
For an architecture student or fanatic there are probably hours, nay DAYS, worth of fun to be had here. But for our ignorant eyes all is equally consumed within minutes, I blame the heat. Somehow it seems to make everything except a chair in the shade a cold drink, seem exceptionally boring.
Hyein’s spoils of war – the new 2000 ruppee note. As part of the demonitization policy all the old 1000 and 500 ruppee bill were taken out of the circulation and this would be the highest currency.
Gadii Sagar Lake and Tilon-ki-Pol (GPS: 26.909257, 70.921586)
Man-made and filled by rain fall this lake is a beautiful oasis in the bone dry Thar desert.
I swear we didn’t do it on purpose, but it seems like sunset is the perfect time to come by and take a leisure ride on the lake. Come to think of it, everything in this climate is perfect at sunset as you say good-bye to the one thing that has kept you in the shadows.
Tonight we board a train, a not a bus thank god, for Jaipur – the capital of this magnificent state of Rajasthan.