It was time to go to Jaisalmer, not without waiting for a wedding procession to finish passing by the main entrance of our hotel in Pushkar.
November is wedding season in India and if you think you’ve seen big wedding, you haven’t seen anything! The streets get packed with many people, wearing their nicest outfits following a music box, dancing joyfully to celebrate – in most of the cases – another arranged marriage.
Hours later, we were on our first “sleeper train” in India.
When we got on, we saw all these little compartments with beds and people chatting, eating, talking on the phone, getting ready to sleep, etc. We found our compartment and noticed there were four beds. Matt and I looked at each other thinking: “Oy Vey” with the hope of not having any roommates. Now, please don’t think we are anti-social, judgemental or picky people (after all we are embracing India to the fullest-ish) but when you have a 12-hour train ride ahead of you, it would be nice not to be sharing a tiny space with people you don’t know.
Our prayers were heard! No one showed up. We got comfortable and enjoyed the long ride.
It was midnight when we arrived. A man from our hotel was already outside the station waiting for us.
After driving through the city in a rickshaw, we approached the Jaisalmer Fort. The scene changed completely as we crossed the main gate. The old city was already asleep, but unable to hide its beauty.
The streets were empty and silent. It was peaceful – a feeling we haven’t experienced much in India.
“This is how Jerusalem might’ve looked like a hundred years ago” Matt said.
I got goosebumps during the whole drive. I was excited to be there and happy we were staying inside the fort.
We arrived at Himmat Niwas, an old haveli transformed into a hotel. The rickshaw driver showed us our room and we fell asleep almost immediately.
The next morning, we followed a staircase leading up to the rooftop. The hotel had a restaurant there and our breakfast was included. We were greeted with a nice view of the city, a hot pot of coffee, omelettes, toast and jam. Paradise!
A charming Australian woman showed up to introduce herself as Tracy. She married an Indian man 13-years ago and together they run the property.
That day we were scheduled to go on a camel safari in the Thar desert, organized by the hotel. That was a few hours away, so Tracy’s husband recommended us a good friend of his as a tour guide to explore a little bit of the fort, before getting ready for our desert adventure. We loved the idea and accepted the plan.
One hour later, Annu – our guide – was already downstairs ready to show us around.
First stop, a Jain Temple called Chandraprabhu built in 1509. After removing our shoes and making sure we didn’t have any leather on us (two restrictions when visiting a temple of this kind), we got inside.
This was our first Jain Temple on the trip (and for me, in my life!) The carved marble’s detail was beautiful. I was impressed with the craftsmanship.
Next we strolled along streets that were suddenly now filled with carpet sellers, jewelers, puppet masters, coconut stands and other vendors.
At one corner tower of the fort, we were shown a hidden gem (no-pun-intended, you’ll see what I mean in one second). It was a nationally renowned family-owned shop of silver jewelry that goes back generations. The owner, sitting on the floor carving the next piece, greeted us with a smile. He then pointed at the wall where there were some pictures hanging.
“This is President Modi with my father” feeling very proud of being now in charge of the family business.
He proceeded to show us various pieces that were for sale, pointing out the amount of time each one took to make. “The price is determined by the amount of labor” was his subtle way of letting us know there were options for all pockets.
We didn’t buy anything, but it was interesting to see this place that stands out from some other competitors.
Annu dropped us off at a restaurant called Jaisel Italy, right outside the fort. We ordered a couple of pizzas and waited for the safari Jeep to pick us up.
An hour later, Matt and I, along with Xenia and Stefan (a German couple also staying at our hotel) were on our way to the desert.
After a little bit of a drive, the Jeep stopped at a desert village.
A young boy approached us.
“My nickname is Camel and I’ll be your guide. Welcome to my village! Please join us for some chai before we go.”
Just like that, we met the whole community.
Outside the hut, there were 4 camels waiting for us: Tiger, Michael, Ferrari and Al Pacino.
And off we went – the 4 westerners riding camels in the hot Indian Thar desert.
After one-hour riding and with a big pain between our legs, we thankfully arrived to the dunes. We would be spending the night there under the stars.
“Welcome to your hotel” an excited Camel said. “No other hotel like this one, it doesn’t have 5 but millions of stars”. We all laughed.
The sun was minutes away from disappearing, so we went to the highest point to see the sunset.
It got dark with a sky packed with many bright stars and a picture-perfect moon.
“Wow! I can’t remember the last time I saw a sky like this. I think since my childhood” Matt said.
In the distance, you could hear Camel singing some songs in his local language, while preparing dinner for everyone.
A fire was burning. On top, a pot was cooking daal, cauliflower and potatoes.
Next to it, Rohit (Camel’s assistant) was rolling the chapati. An older man was in charge of the chai. And like that, we had a hearty meal, singing songs as we tried to stay warm while the temperature dropped.
It was getting late and cold so Camel, Rohit and our Jeep driver set us up with some cots with mattresses and thick blankets.
The night got quiet and there we were, looking up counting the shooting stars.
It got colder as the hours passed, but the feeling of sleeping outside, in touch with nature was way more magical than sleeping in a well heated hotel.
The sunrise woke us up, and we watched quietly as it was happening.
I jumped out of bed and went for a morning walk through the dunes. The whole place was being washed by amber light, making it look even more beautiful.
I heard Camel’s voice offering chai from the distance. It was time for me to go back to the group.
What a morning! We would be lucky if we woke up that way every day.
After a few cups of chai, fruit and biscuits, we packed our stuff and drove away from the desert.
In my 36 years of existence I’ve been lucky enough to experience different things and travel to different places (including living in 7 of them), but I can say for sure that sleeping in the Thar desert has been a highlight.
When we were back at the hotel, Annu was waiting for us patiently. It was time for us to finish our tour.
Xenia and Stefan tagged along and this time the plan was to get out of the fort walls and explore what was outside of it.
The streets of Jaisalmer are filled with beautiful havelis, carved with incredible detail. Annu walked us around the most important ones, sharing a little bit of the history and pointing out some of the architectural differences.
To my surprise, some of them are filled with souvenir shops which I was very troubled by. Granted some of them support good causes, but in general it’s something I wasn’t a big fan of.
We, however, went to one where 25 teenage boys were selling pashminas and carpets that are imported from both Kashmir and local villages. We were invited to sit for a textile presentation, outlining the differences between style and technique based on a variety of regions. All this while sipping some chai.
I learned a lot and the boys worked hard, so I decided to buy two of their scarves for my parents. Matt also bought some gifts.
For lunch, Annu took us to a place that serves Rajasthani thalis. The food was so delicious that I think it’s the first time Matt and I finished a whole thali (they are usually big and filling).
Our final stop of the day was an emporium that was quite special. It opened its doors decades ago after the first owner went around villages in the north of India collecting all sorts of things. Now the sons run it and entering the place is like going to a museum where everything is for sale.
There were old postcards, boxes, sculptures, tea sets, furniture, chess pieces – you name it. There was a little bit of everything.
Our time in Jaisalmer was coming to an end. We would take our next train very early the following morning for Jodhpur.
After saying goodbye to Annu, we rested for a few hours and in the evening we went to a restaurant called Cafe The Kaku that had a nice view of the fort. We couldn’t think of a better way to spend our last meal there.
Jaisalmer stole our hearts. It’s been definitely a highlight of our first 6 weeks on the road.
More lessons learned:
– Always pack lunch before getting on a train! You can ask your hotel to have something ready for you before check out. We are glad we did. Our hotel made 4 sandwiches that we took with us, plus we bought some cookies and water at the train station. It would’ve been miserable without any of these.
– For more comfortable train rides, always choose the 2nd or 3rd AC classes when purchasing a train ticket. It’s usually a bit more expensive but you’ll enjoy the journey.
– Stay inside the Jaisalmer Fort. Trust me on this one.