From Jaipur, we headed west to the golden city of Jaisalmer. Lost in the middle of the Thar desert, some 80 km away from the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer is nowadays a touristic city known for its camel safaris and desert resorts. Both Julie and I were really excited to come to Jaisalmer, not only because of its unique look and atmosphere, but because it would be our first time in the desert!
Arriving to the city, we already noticed something different. For one, the air was extremely dry and unbearably hot, even early in the morning. All the buildings had a golden glow, made out of yellow sandstone, with a Persian look to them. And instead of auto rickshaws, we took a jeep from the train station into the city.
The many shops and vendors on the streets also hung pieces of fabric as covering to create shade and protect them and their goods from the scorching sun.
One of the largest fortifications in the world, the Jaisalmer Fort dominated the city’s skyline with a powerful presence. The Jaisalmer Fort is the only fort in India that is still “operational,” meaning that there are currently people living there, with guesthouses, restaurants and shops around. A stroll through its small alleys sent me back to medieval times. It was exotic and romantic.
The whole atmosphere made us feel like we were in a fairy tale, living the One Thousand and One Nights dream.
Camel Safari in the Thar Desert
No visit to Jaisalmer would be complete without a camel safari through the Thar Desert. Several packages were available from the local travel agents and we chose one with an overnight stay so we could get a good sense of what life in the desert is like.
We were picked up from our hotel and our jeep headed into the desert, driving on one of the nicest roads we’ve seen in India. Not far from the city, the landscape changed dramatically. The arid yellow plains extended into the horizon with only a few semi-green bushes to break the monotone. Every now and then, some sand flew into our mouths and covered our bags. We were definitely in new territory.
Along the way, we stopped at the abandoned village of Kuldhara, where hundreds of yellowstone houses were left behind in ruins. More than two centuries ago, all the 1500 inhabitants of the village vanished overnight – nobody saw them leaving or found out where they went to. Rumours claimed a death curse for whomever tries to inhabit the village again. To this day, few dare to spend the night there. Luckily, we were only there briefly during the day.
Not far from Kuldhara, what first seemed like a mirage revealed itself to be a real oasis in the middle of the Thar Desert. Even though we’ve seen countless bodies of water during our trip, this one was special. Nurturing the few trees around it and providing water for local villages, this oasis was a breath of life in these harsh conditions. Even though the water seemed rather dirty and we didn’t dare to drink it, if we were wandering the desert for days, I’m sure we would have some in a heartbeat.
From the oasis, we drove a bit more until we pulled over on the side of the road and greeted our new friends – the camels!
Looking at us with their bored half-open eyes, we approached these tall, odd animals. Their big feet supported the extremely long and thin legs that kept their bodies high and far from the burning desert sand. The fuzzy hump on their backs and their long necks completed their strange shape. While these funny-looking animals were certainly not one of the most graceful ones out there, they seemed gentle, harmless and easygoing like no other.
Directed by our guides (local boys), the camels kneeled down so that we could get into the saddle. It’s insane how much these animals can bend their legs. Once we were in the saddle, we were instructed to hold on tight and lean back, as the camel got up by first straightening its hind legs before its front ones. It was a jolt, but we did it without falling off, thankfully. Soon enough, we were riding into the desert.
Riding a camel always looked really cool, but the actual ride was kind of bumpy. The saddles were not the most comfortable seats, and the camel rocked back and forth. It does get a tad uncomfortable for the bum and thighs after a while, to be honest. There was absolutely no shade, so we made sure to cover ourselves up in long sleeves, long pants, and a scarf wrapped around our faces. However, all of that was overshadowed by the sheer experience of riding camels through sand dunes in the desert. We couldn’t believe we were doing this! Woohoo!
We rode for miles and miles, passing through rocks and bushes, going up and down the sand dunes. It didn’t feel like we were going fast, but each step for a camel was pretty big, so in no time, we reached our stop. There, we met our jeep driver again and other locals who were preparing dinner for us.
While we waited for dinner, it was just in time for the sunset. We climbed on top of the sand dunes and watched as the sun slowly came down the horizon.
The sky slowly changed from a beautiful striking yellow to an intense crimson color. There was nothing to block the view and all the shades of colour in the sky were clear to see. It was one of the most unique sunsets we’ve ever seen.
Dinner was a simple rice plus potato and vegetable curry, with masala tea. I’m amazed they were able to cook all this up in the desert with a simple fire. Even though we ate in the dark (to keep the insects away), we chatted with the other travelers that were there with us for the day. As the night got darker and darker, we all sat and stared at the sky as more and more stars appeared. Soon, the other travelers left to go back to the city, and we were only ones left to spend the night.
At first, it felt a bit lonely and scary. It was pitch black as the local boys set up our makeshift beds in the middle of the desert. But after laying down in the bed, we quickly realized how amazing this was. There was nobody around for miles (except the local boys sleeping nearby) and it was so quiet. We couldn’t believe India could be this silent. The best part though, was up above.
We gazed at the most stunning and clear sky we have ever seen. It felt like we could see the whole sky, 180 degrees, like the dome in a planetarium, but real. The infinite number of stars shone bright upon us and we marvelled at the lights of the past.
It wasn’t until 1am when we managed to fall asleep – partially because we couldn’t take our eyes off of the stars and partially because that’s when it got cool enough to sleep. I’m never going to forget that night of stargazing. It was new moon, perfect visibility, and we even used our SkyMap app to identify constellations and planets. We saw satellites moving fast across the sky, and even several shooting stars! It was truly magical, and everything was worth it just for that experience alone.
We woke up only a few hours later, bothered by mosquitoes as the crescent moon rose in the sky. It wasn’t long until the stars, one by one, disappeared as the first rays of sun appeared in the horizon.
Just like the sunset, the sunrise in the desert was a pretty scene – the sky was a mix of yellow and red tones and on the surface, the limited desert wildlife came to life. We wandered around spotting many beetles crawling on the sand and crows landing on the camel’s head.
The local boys prepared breakfast for us and shortly after we were riding camels again, this time back to the meeting point where our jeep would pick us up.
The two-hour long journey was harder than the day before. It was slightly longer and hotter, as temperatures reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 F). At the end of the ride, we said goodbye to our guides, camels, and walked the local village while we waited for our jeep, observing life in the desert.
There were animals drinking water from one of the few reservoirs. We saw a camel unhappy about his bath (apparently they hate cold water). Local women balanced buckets of water on their heads to carry home, after filling them from the roof of a huge water reservoir.
We sat there for almost an hour and both observed and experienced in person how tough it can be to live in the desert. The constant struggle to get water, the exposure to extreme temperatures and the remoteness of the villages made me question why anyone would live here. Nonetheless, it also made me respect the locals that much more.
The jeep picked us up and we made our way back to Jaisalmer. The camel safari through the desert was one of the most awesome and unforgettable experiences we had during this entire trip. It was definitely one of the highlights in all of India. We will treasure it forever. We love you, Jaisalmer!