After a seventeen hours train journey from Delhi we arrived in the old burrow city Jaisalmer. Somewhat tired but still excited we stepped out of our train onto the platform thinking: we were ready for the golden city of India! Jaisalmer feels entirely different than Delhi: smaller, less busy and less honking cars. The city is located in the western part of the desert state Rajasthan close to the border with Pakistan. Jaisalmer is the gate to the Thar desert and it attracts a lot of tourists who want to spend a night in the desert or want to go on a desert camel safari. My stay in Jaisalmer resulted in a love-hate relationship with the city. In this article I will tell you about the good and bad sides of Jaisalmer.
The golden fort
The absolute highlight of the city is the fort of Jaisalmer, built in the twelfth century as a way-station for caravans and travellers of the Silk Road. This gigantic burrow is located high on a hill and it is surrounded by a thick wall with 99 bastions. Because of the yellow sandstone the fort gets a beautiful golden glow in the evening light. That’s why Jaisalmer is often called the golden city. Within the walls you can see the historic city centre with hundreds havelis, the royal palace and several jain temples. A stroll in the fort is really something you have to experience. It houses a labyrinth of small streets and alleys with colorful details. And another special detail about the fort: it still accommodates more than 3.000 people inside. These residents live in the havelis and earn their money with the tourists. They run a restaurant, a hotel or a souvenir shop. This makes the fort a bit of a tourist trap, but at the same time it brings it more alive.
Spot the beautiful havelis
Not only the fort is beautiful, another not-to-miss highlight are the havelis. These are the old mansions of the rich Indian merchants and political elite. The most beautiful havelis are the Patwon Ki Haveli (consists of 5 havelis), the Nathmal Ki Haveli and the Salim Sing Ki Haveli. Beside the sand colored havelis the Mandir Palace is also nice to visit. This palace annex hotel is just outside the old town and not visited by many tourists. It really caughts your eye because of the Tazia tower, the highest point of the city.
Commercial desert tourism
One of the items on my bucketlist for India was spending a night in the desert. A romantic night sleeping under the starts. A lot of travelers are looking for that same experience, I get that. It’s just a shame that the growing tourism had a commercial effect on the desert camping experience. Almost all the desert tours take you to the Sam Sand Dunes, a piece of the desert 40 kilometers from Jaisalmer. In these dunes there are several luxurious tent camps lined up. These camps are like resorts, complete with beds, toilets and own set of camels. In the evening there is a foklore performance with music and dance by local dancers. If you go to for a walk over the sand dunes, you will be approached by the vendors or kids wanting to dance or sing for you for money. These kids have learned not to let go: they will keep following you and keep asking for money. How I know? My guide first brought us to such a tent village and we walked these dunes. Luckily, we realized this was not for us and left.
What did I do?
Fortunately, there are also other options. Go to another dunes (Khuri or Sundra), sleep in the open air at a thin mattress or choose a private two person tent. We did this last one. Together with a guide, a tent and a jeep we drove deep into the Thar desert looking for a quiet spot. And we found it! While our guide set up the tent, we watched the sunset from a sandy hill. At night we ate a mystery dinner (it is quite hard to see you dinner in the desert dark), we talked with our guide about the Indian culture and fell asleep in our own tent. It was a great experience. The only downfall: the cold! The temperature dropped big time and we woke up in thick fog. Not what we expected from the Indian desert.
A standard part of almost every desert tour in the Thar desert is a camel safari. It seems to be that every desert tour that you book online or in the city comes with a camel or dromedary ride. In the Sam Sand Dunes you will see a lot of camels and dromedaries with colorful saddles waiting for the touring cars with tourists. Personally, I hated to see this tourist animal rides on a massive scale. I understand that camels and dromedaries are transport animals and they can handle a lot of weight on their backs. Still, using these animals for the entertainment of tourists is not okay in my book. The dromedaries I saw were sitting in the sun for hours, had a pin pushed through their nose and had no access to water. Moreover, I wonder how much of the profit goes back to the animal to take care of their health?
What did I do?
And how did I discover the Thar desert? By foot! After the jeep ride from the city to the desert, we walked over the dunes and enjoyed the sunset from the hills. If you ask me, this is a perfect way to enjoy the desert. If you still want to go a camel safari, then I will advice you to always take a look at the animal itself. Is it well fed, is it hurt and does it get enough shade? These are all signals that tell how healthy the camel or dromedary is.
And.. would I recommend Jaisalmer?
Yes, despite of the commercialization and the camel rides I do think Jaisalmer is worth the visit. The city itself is compact and has a nice atmosphere. It has a beautiful fort and an amazing collection of havelis. No wonder everyone wants to see it. But the tourism also has a negative effect. The first example of this is the fort. The inhabitants and the tourism have a negative impact at the drainage system and so the fort is actually sinking. It is also recommended to pick an accommodation outside the fort to help preserve this monument. The second example is the one size fits all desert tours. There seems to be only one type of offer: a camel ride with camping in the Sam Sand Dunes. If you ask for a tour without a camel ride, they will look at you like you’re crazy. Seriously, I have experienced this. If you would ask me, Jaisalmer would be more beautiful if the local tour operators looked into small community based tourism and animal-friendly tours.
Would you visit Jaisalmer?