So I’m sitting on a train platform at 11:20pm waiting do my 11:45pm train to Jaisalmer to arrive. There are hoards of people sleeping on the floor, I’m sweaty af, and starting to get tired. Next thing I know, the train is delayed until 1:15am. Awesome. Luckily I meet this Korean girl who’s on the same train and we get to talking. Apparently, I’m not budget enough spending 400-600 Rs a night. She is aiming for 200-300. Amazing.
1:20 rolls around and the train finally arrives. People start rushing for the doors. I don’t know why, since we all have our reserved beds. As I’m getting on the train, this lady is pushing behind me and basically kicks my flip flop right off into the tracks. I just about lost it. This is an aspect of Indian culture I still don’t understand. The “furious rush” or the “mad dash”. I first saw it when exiting a train station in Madurai a few weeks back. People just pushing and shoving their way to the single escalator off the platform, like pushing will allow more people to get on at a time (it doesnt). Same situation here. We all have our seats reserved so why push? No one is taking your place, and there is plenty of time to get on. There goes another pair of my Sole flips…
Off to a rough start but hey, what’s travel without a few ups and downs. 13 hours or so later I find myself approaching the city of Jaisalmer. Now anyone who’s watched Departures and understands my obsession with the show knows that for episode 3 the boys went to Jaisalmer. Ever since then I made it a goal to see it for myself. And boy. What a sight it was.
Jaisalmer, named after the Rajput Jaisal Singh, is know as the “Golden City” because of the beautifully carved houses and temples. The city is crowned by the central fort which houses the palace and other dwellings. It is a living fort, in that people still live within the walls. Many of the houses have beautifully carved exteriors, and the most elaborate are called Havelis, which are just mansions with extra crazy carvings. The whole place is like a fairytale. You feel like you’re in the set of Aladdin. Narrow streets, laundry hung everywhere, cows walking about, markets selling fruit and textiles and beautifully ornate carvings left right and center – all in golden sandstone colour. Here’s the reality check though. Narrow streets mean less surface area. There is a high number of cows on the streets. Cows shit. And when that shit is compressed into a smaller surface area, the concentration of shit is greater, thus the flies in Jaisalmer come in swarms. Expect to be covered in them when you’re out. But still… So beautiful!
I spent a couple days exploring this town. It’s the first chance I get to just walk around and do nothing. Quite refreshing. I get to talking with a server about caste. How most people living within the fort are the priest caste of Brahman (these are upper caste folk). Some are chill, while some practice the strict rules of their caste. For example. When he (a Muslim) goes to his boss’s (a Brahman) house for meals, he has his own set of dinnerware and a designated seating area. He is instructed not to touch anything outside this area, and he must wash his own utensils and plates as it is not proper for a Brahmin to come in contact with stuff from a lower caste, let alone a non-hindu. This whole notion boggles my mind.
We also get to talking about modernization. He believes that it is the key to breaking these social barriers, where there is segregation of different groups. The Hindus apparently aren’t the only culprits. He himself says that in his Muslim village, non Muslim guests will be welcomed, but will also have their designated sleeping area in the periphery of the village. They cannot be allowed within the inner areas of their Muslim community. Same goes for Hindu and Gypsy villages in the desert. We always hear about how people’s villages or tribal cultures are lost as they modernize, yet here is a guy who is actively pushing for it, seeing it as a means for integrations and acceptance. Definitely food for thought. He believes that modernization will open the youngsters up to better education, and an easier life that doesn’t involve toiling away at the quarry or making handicrafts to feed the tourist appetite for souvenirs.
On the flip side of things, not 10 minutes after leaving the cafe where I chatted with the guy, I get to talking with a young shop keeper (22yo kid), who is from a Brahmin family. He says that people from upper castes are having a difficult time competing for jobs because so many of them are reserved for other groups (lower castes, non Hindus etc) – sort of like an affirmative action type deal. More food for though. The situation is definitely muddy and complicated.
My time in Jaisalmer was slower and it really allowed me time to talk to people and learn about their culture. This is truly the treat of travel.
- The hottest (HA) thing to do here is camel safari. There is no shortage of companies and offices offering to take you to a safari. A few things to keep in mind. Summer (low season around June-Aug) is extremely hot. We learned that the hard way. Sam dunes are not too far a drive and is a bit more touristy. Many offices will advertise “less touristic” safaris which are also nice. Make sure you do your research, especially if you’re going overnight. Beds or tents? Food and water provided? Do you share a camel with another guest? Personally I think sleeping in beds or mats in the desert is overrated. I did it and its quite nice for the first bit, until the moon comes out and you can’t see any stars, and you wake up in the morning with a sticky film of fine sand in every crevice of your body. If I had stayed in a tent my opinion may have changed. Finally, do you imagine yourself as Lawrence of Arabia riding your camel out to the dunes? Here’s a reality check. This is the Thar desert, where the dunes are modest, and the ground is covered in shrubbery. Just saying. I thought it was a worthwhile experience for meeting people, riding a camel in the desert, and getting away from annoying touts. More than 2 nights?I’ll pass
- Near the Havelis, be careful of touts. Anyone who seems too nice out of nowhere, just ignore them. They’re up to no good.
- Jaisal Italy (near the gate) has superb evening views of the fort if you choose to dine on the terrace (you should). A little on the pricier side, but its a good alternative if you’re getting sick of Indian
- Saffron restaurant in Nachana Haveli is a hotel/restaurant owned by the current royal family of Jaisalmer. They have their own separate quarters. I didn’t stay here but the restaurant was solid. Great, charming setting to have a coffee or have a meal. I had junli maas, which is essentially mutton that has been confit’d with ghee and dried chilis. This was actually the bomb. I had to go back for a second round before my train back.