Feb 24, 2013

Running across Rajasthan: Part 2 - Jaisalmer

Ram Ram Sa!

A friend and I backpacked across Rajasthan last year, planning pretty much the entire trip on our own, right from travel, bookings, hotel, itinerary, etc. And I decided to share the experiences with you. Since writing about all the cities in one post would be looonnnggg, I am writing one city at a time.

Some useful websites, our itinerary and all about our first destination - Jaipur can be found in this post: http://haemlet.blogspot.in/2013/02/running-across-rajasthan.html

I move on to our second destination.
Please allow me to proclaim right at the outset that Jaisalmer was my favourite destination on this trip. So anything I say will reflect my awe of the place.

Jaisalmer is a small desert town, located in Western Rajasthan. The main attraction there is a live fort (that means, people still live inside it) called The Golden Fort. But it is not just the fort, the entire city seems to be basking in this golden glow with the houses surrounding the fort all the same colour. Jaisalmer is also a culture   haven, with a delightful local flavour. You will love just walking down the streets taking in the atmosphere. Another attraction here are the sand dunes, that are situated on the outskirts. You can visit these dunes, even stay the night there in tents, or simply take a camel ride and return.

Reaching there
Unlike Jaipur, Jaisalmer is not easily accessible from anywhere in the country. The train we took to Jaisalmer starts from Delhi, and we boarded the same at Jaipur. If you are coming in from any other city, the best way to reach here would be via Jodhpur. Jodhpur is relatively well-connected to other parts of the country, and you can find regular buses/trains from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.

How many days
We were in Jaisalmer for two whole days and one night. It is quite comfortable, unless you plan to stay at the dunes. Then you could add a night in a tent at the dunes.

Where to stay
I loved the little hotel we stayed at in Jaisalmer. Called the Artist Hotel, it is not something that everyone may like, because it completely no-frills and quite small. A friend recommended it highly, and after staying there, we couldn't agree more. The hotel had clean, simple rooms starting Rs. 400 (you read right!) and a rooftop with a few tables where you could have your meals (and maybe a beer). I was going to direct you to their site (http://www.artisthotel.info/) and highly recommend them, but then I just read that the management has changed. Aladin, who was everyone's go-to man there, has started his own little hotel though, and his hospitality is definitely memorable.                
Artist Hotel

If you prefer luxury though, Jaisalmer also has heritage hotels that are well-known. As the locals told us, many havelis (houses of wealthy merchants) are turned into a hotel, and since all havelis have the flourish, the stone carvings et al, they are dubbed as heritage hotels.

You can also live in the hotels INSIDE the fort, but personally, I found them over-priced. Everything is within walking distance of the fort anyway, so distance is not something you need to worry about. 

Let me begin with THE GOLDEN FORT. Jaisalmer is built around this fort, that stands tall forming a golden backdrop. The fort itself is one of the few remaining living forts in the world. As you walk in, you will be greeted by people selling colourful wares, from puppets to wall hangings, artifacts, idols and more.
A tightrope walker at the fort entrance

The entrance to the fort
Within the fort, there is the main palace turned museum. It shuts by 5 pm, and takes about 2-3 hours inside. The best part about this when we visited was the Audio Guide System. The Rajasthan government has started this in almost all tourist destinations, where you can avail this audio guide in various languages. They have numbered boards and arrows directing you around. Reach a board, press a number on the guide, and hear all about it, with special sound effects mind you! Since we were just two, they were nice enough to give us one guide, and two earphones.
Audio guide systems
The palace is beautiful. It has several sections, and I could not stop admiring the lattice work on the windows, the carvings and the intricate detailing. The way they kept the rooms cool with khus curtains or how they ensured water supply with brilliant engineering are astounding. 
The palace has a lovely view from the top, where you can also spot the windmills in the distance.
View from the palace roof
After the palace, we sat outside at a local tea stall, chatting up the locals. I think that is the best way to know about a place. The locals told us about the past, the current situation, how the fort manages to survive wear and tear over the years and more. A helpful shopkeeper directed us to a cannon inside the fort, and then to a rooftop where we could watch the sun set. Usually the rooftop place is a hotel/restaurant during peak season, but we got a free tour *grins*.
A rooftop restaurant inside the fort
Inside the fort are also a few havelis and temples. We visited the LAXMI-NARAYAN TEMPLE that had some admirable stonework. It was also a cricket field for local kids.
Laxmi Narayan Temple stone-work
We strolled back to the hotel, chatting up locals on the way. That evening was spent  on the hotel roof, where they had local musicians performing. The musicians, brilliant nonetheless, refused to stop! We also met some lovely people here for dinner, from different parts of the world.

The next day, we started off with a visit to the two major havelis. There is the PATWON KI HAVELI (which is pretty big), and NATHMAL KI HAVELI.
Patwon ki Haveli

Nathmal ki Haveli

We had booked a visit to the dunes, and left by 3 pm. The most popular dunes are the SAM SAND DUNES. There are also the KHURI DUNES and some smaller ones. We were taken to the Khuri dunes, but I would suggest travellers to pick Sam Dunes instead. Khuri is hardly frequented, and as a result we were the only two people there, plus the camels.

The experience itself was pretty nice, with a two hour jeep ride to the Khuri Dunes first, that was dotted with windmills along the way.

From the main area where the tents are pitched is an hour long camel ride to the dunes (ouch!), where you can watch the sun set. While we waited for the sun to set, we also decided to roll down the dunes, which was a lot of fun, and a lot of sand inside all your clothes! 

After sunset, we returned to the main area for dinner and performances. The dancer and a little boy who was singing were spectacular!
The performers for the night
Besides these, there is also GADSISER LAKE, which is picturesque and should not take a lot of your time. You can time your visit around the Camel Festival (we went just before it started), but if you do so, plan months ahead, book months ahead, and prepare for a large amount of crowd.

We took the night train to Jodhpur. Jaisalmer, even though it has very little in terms of sightseeing, was a town that I absolutely loved.

Shopping and food
As you walk down the narrow lanes to the fort, the shopkeepers here have found the most innovative way to attract tourists - hilarious signs like these.
Jaisalmer does not have much to offer for shopaholics. You can find all of it and more at cheaper rates in Jaipur and Udaipur. Tip: The silver and stone jewellery at shops here, though stunning, is very overpriced. If you really like something, be sure to bargain your best.

The food is ordinary fare. You will not find a variety of cuisines, and even if you do, I am not sure how much you can trust them to make an 'Au gratin'. I would say stick to the normal dal-rice-chapati-vegetable fare unless the hotel you are staying at offers something more.

My learning
  • Chat up the locals, but politely refuse if they try to sell you anything. They do not take offense and are still eager to help tourists as long as you are polite.
  • Ask the locals about the history and background of the town.
  • Do not experiment with meals. Stick to normal fare.
  • You can book tours from your hotel guide, but be sure to check around for prices first.
  • Don't fall for the 'it is less touristy' speech. Less touristy can also mean no one except you, which is, quite frankly very boring. In a small place like Jaisalmer, rest assured that even touristy will not mean crowded.
  • Take the audio tours!
The next post shall be about Jodhpur and Udaipur. See you around!

P.S.: A reminder that these pictures are my copyright. No stealing. No copy pasting. Give credit, link back to my blog, respect my rights. Capiche?

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