We were about as remote as we could get before hitting the Pakistani border only 50 miles away. Jaisalmer is a small desert town that was built as a strategic trade location on camel train routes back in the 1100s. The highlight of the city is the Jaisalmer Fort, and I think the guidebook does a great job describing it:
The fort of Jaisalmer is a breathtaking sight: a massive sandcastle rising from the sandy plains like a mirage from a bygone era. No place better evokes exotic camel-train trade routes and desert mystery. Ninety-nine bastions encircle the fort’s still-inhabited twisting lanes. Inside are shops swaddled in bright embroideries, a royal palace and numerous businesses looking for your tour- ist rupee. Despite the commercialism it’s hard not to be enchanted by this desert citadel. Beneath the ramparts, particularly to the north, the narrow streets of the old city conceal magnificent havelis, all carved from the same golden-honey sandstone as the fort – hence Jaisalmer’s designation as the Golden City.
The city continues to rely on camels for their economy, yet now it’s all focused on selling camel trekking packages to tourists. There’s no shortage of companies offering to haul you out to the desert and place you in a camel saddle, but our phones stopped working and it was too hot to shop around, so we chose our hotel’s excursion.
We ventured outside in the 109 degree weather only once all day, and even that was unbearable. There was no way sightseeing was an option, so we lounged around the hotel.
In the hopes of seeing some of the town before the blazing sun was in full force, we set our alarms for 6am and walked straight to the fort through twisting golden sandstone roads. We had to pass through four massive archways before finding ourselves within the secure stone walls. Although the fort doesn’t serve the same purpose it used to, there’s 3,000 people still living inside. There’s handicraft shops, beauty parlors, restaurants, guest houses, and temples all contained in the fort. Being situated high above the city,the fort offered a wonderful bird’s eye view of the town, just waking up with the sun. It would have been much more peaceful if there weren’t street dogs barking and nipping at my leg, but I could appreciate how unique it would be to live in such a historic place. We circled the entire fort interior in about half an hour, but drew out our experience by having delicious eggs and fresh squeezed orange juice at one of the rooftop restaurants.
The camel safari jeep picked us up in the afternoon, along with two Brazilian girls, one French guy and a German guy. The driver warned us this was our last chance to buy anything cold to drink since everything in the desert was hot and sandy. He drove like a madman down the dirt road with sand and scrub on either side, and nearly made a wrong turn that would’ve brought us speeding into Pakistan. We pulled over at a Muslim village of mud huts to “observe their lifestyle”, yet I felt like I was intruding in their humble abode.
A sandstorm intensified
as we got closer to our camels, picking up handfuls of sand and throwing it into our eyes, mouth, and ears. We must have looked pretty comical mounting our camels with scarves wrapped around every part of our face except our eyes.
Each camel came with a camel driver to pull the leash and lead it in the right direction. My camel driver was Sunjay and he was among four other teenagers leading us on an unknown path through the sandstorm. The desert was entirely different here compared to our camel trek in the Sahara desert in Morocco. Instead of barren fiery orange sand, this sand was white and broken up by scrub bushes and cacti. Off in the distance we could see giant wind turbines, taking advantage of the whipping wind for energy.
Our camel drivers stopped us at a dune, helped us dismount the camels, and then disappeared down into a patch of cacti. We were left to assume this was our camp for the night, so we tried to find an area with the least amount of wind so we could open our eyes without sand rushing in. A ring of bushes provided a little shelter, but we soon discovered it was home to dozens of black beetles an inch wide and terrifying scorpions the size of a child’s fist. Our camel drivers returned with hot chai and assured us the beetles only tickled but didn’t bite. I couldn’t get a decisive answer on the scorpions.
The six of us huddled on our mound of sand, talking and laughing and generally appreciating the fact that we were experiencing this adventure together with scarves tied around our faces looking like fools. It was a truly authentic desert experience as we bit into the vegetable curry the boys cooked over an open fire and got mouthfuls of sand. We laughed it off and decided it added more texture.
The sun went down rather uneventfully as the sky was so clouded with sand. Without any source of light, it became time to panic about where the beetles were. The girls formed a little wall with our shoes and water bottles hoping it would block the nasty critters while the French dude claimed he loved nature and would embrace the outdoors for all it was worth. Eye roll.
Our camel drivers sang a few traditional songs, but in their varying stages of puberty, there were a few awkward voice cracks. We laid out blankets on top of the sand and I cocooned myself inside, praying that no bugs would crawl on me. I made sure every inch of me was covered, but then it got so hot I started to debate which alternative was worse. The feeling of tiny legs crawling on my face through the blanket solidified my decision to stay covered.
Amazingly, I fell asleep at some point in the night and woke up with the hazy sun at 6am. Everyone else stirred and soon we were all hanging out on top of the dunes, thankful that we survived the sand, scorpions, and beetles. Last night, the camel drivers tied ropes around the camels’ ankles to allow them to wander off, but restrict their movement so they couldn’t go too far. In the morning we had the fun task of finding all our camels. From the height of the dune, we could see them way off in the distance. Byron and I went out to find one of our own and accidentally came across a wild camel. Finally we found one of our own and proudly walked it back to camp.
After a breakfast of fire-grilled toast, boiled eggs, and banana, we mounted the camels again and started our trek back to the jeep, our legs a bit more sore from the day before. Even though it was early, the sun was still beating down on us and warming the earth around us. However, the sandstorm died down, making the ride much more enjoyable.
We thanked our camel drivers and piled into our jeep, counting down the minutes until we could enjoy a cold bottle of water and a hot shower.
Sick of indian food and toast, we walked all the way back up to the fort to enjoy the same scrambled eggs we had a few days before. On my way back down into town, I passed a shop with beautifully embroidered blankets and wall hangings. I have a weakness when it comes to buying souvenir blankets, and these were just too pretty and unique to pass by. The owner ushered me into a room lined with shelves stacked high with folded blankets organized by color, size, and quality. He instructed us to sit in the plastic lawn chairs at the back of the room while he pulled out one after another of intricately stitched fabrics and laid them out on the floor in front of me. The one I finally selected was red with sequins, beads, mirrors and embroidery, which Byron so eloquently described as “glitter vomit”. I had to do some serious bargaining, but I think I’ve gotten quite good at it and got him down to 25 percent of his original asking price. Too bad I can’t use this skill back home.
Somehow I managed to find space for the heavy blanket in my bulging backpack and soon we were on an overnight train to Delhi, our last destination in India.