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Farther into The Thar

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer- 29 to 31 January 2016 Part 2 of 2

sunny 35 °C

In just a few days, I'd already seen a lot of what Jaisalmer had to offer. Now I wanted to see what was out there, in the sands of the Thar.

I have to mention that the Thar Desert is not really the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ kind, although many visitors are persuaded to emulate his adventures by taking an overnight (and overpriced) excursion to popular sand dunes at Sam. This is really semi-desert with low-growing scrub and only occasional sand dunes. Indeed, the Thar as a whole is one of the most heavily-populated desert areas in the world. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the main occupations of its inhabitants, with fields of millet, maize and beans cultivated and harvested during monsoon periods (known as kharif crops) and small herds of goats, sheep and camels being familiar sights.

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We drove for what seemed like an eternity on a single-track road, with sand dotted with thorn scrub, clumps of grass and stands of succulent plants stretching into the distance on either side. Through the open back of the Jeep, I could see sand swirling behind us, some entering my seating area and prompting me to firmly cover my cameras before it entered their delicate mechanisms.

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Our first stop was near the village of Jaseri, at a waterhole devoid of human life except for a couple of women collecting dry sticks for their cooking fires. Beside the water grew shrubby trees with lethal thorns the size of a man’s fingers and tiny plants bearing bright purple and yellow flowers with similar protective thorns (Solanum virginianum for the botanists among you). From out of nowhere, while trying to photograph the lake, I was surrounded by a flock of fluffy white sheep and hairy black goats before they all headed for the water bleating loudly - goats with short tails up, sheep with long tails hanging down.

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We continued to Kuldhara, one of 84 similar abandoned villages, but didn’t enter as this well-known spot now demands a fee from visitors. Instead, we drove on to Khaba, where there was a small fort overlooking another of these abandoned villages.

The story goes that these 13th century villages prospered because of their Brahmin communities’ agricultural and business skills. Then, around 1825, an evil ruler of a neighbouring kingdom demanded to marry the young daughter of one of these villages' chiefs. He stipulated a deadline for the marriage, after which he would forcibly enter the village and take away the girl. The chiefs of all the surrounding villages met to discuss the threat and, for the pride and honour of their caste, decided that the entire population would secretly leave the villages during the night. No-one is sure how they did it, nor where they went. They simply vanished. As they left, they put curses on the villages which would bring death to anyone who tried to inhabit the land. This is thought to be why so much of the ancient villages remains - although houses have tumbled down, they haven’t been stripped for materials. Weird and a bit spooky!

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Just down the road, we came upon a shop - yes, a shop! There wasn’t anything else there. Inside, my driver, the friendly hotel manager, bought a pack of cigarettes. An old man sitting outside, who’d clearly had a drink or three, then entertained us briefly with a tune on a pungi, a familiar type of wind instrument made from a dried gourd and used to charm snakes. I didn’t find the sound particularly charming - but his puffing and panting face made an interesting photo.

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Our journey continued into the Desert National Park, parts of which have been fenced to preserve the tall yellowing grasses that allow the endangered Great Indian Bustard to survive here in quite good numbers (alas, I wasn’t lucky enough to sight one on this occasion - something I'll try to correct on my next visit in a year's time). Many other birds are found here though, particularly raptors like eagles, harriers, vultures, buzzards and kestrels. We saw a few, but the hotel manager was not ornithologically inclined and we tended to whizz past them too fast for me to clearly identify them or to digitally capture their existence!

Next, we popped into a village occupied by people who’d once been nomadic but who had been persuaded by the government to take up permanent residence in the desert and to educate their children in the ways of the modern world. Tourists don’t come to this particular village. My hotel manager had an uncle who lived nearby and he was known to its chief, however. So, without formality, we spent an enjoyable half-hour meeting several families and dozens of very inquisitive children. I was told that these young boys and girls had spent the morning at school - but there was no school building anywhere in sight. It transpired that they'd walked several miles each way to a government-run one in a larger village, as they did every weekday. The standard of education in these schools wasn't great, just basic number and reading/writing skills in Hindi, but it would give these poor families opportunities that they never had as wandering goat-herders. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire holiday. I do enjoy meeting 'real' people.

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Then it was off across the sand, pausing briefly to photograph a Variable Wheatear and a young Egyptian Vulture that happened to pose long enough for me to persuade our driver to stop.

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Finally - and I couldn’t come to a desert without doing so - I mounted a camel (if you’ll excuse the expression) for a two-hour saunter across the shifting sands.

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Now, it has to be said that a camel wouldn’t be my first choice of transport in a crisis. It’s a cantankerous beast, complaining vociferously from the moment it’s made to kneel for one to climb onto its saddle. It attracts flies. It lollops rather than walks. It spits and it farts.

However, its big flat feet provide a simple way to negotiate deep sand and a high seating position from which to admire the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, without stirrups, one has to do the splits in order to sit on the saddle. Sitting on the seat in front of the hump results in a pain in the thighs and groins. Sitting on the seat behind the hump results (for men, at least) in a pain elsewhere.

Please promise you won’t laugh at this photo of me pretending to smile at the end of my uncomfortable ride across the arid plains and wind-swept dunes. I was sitting in the seat behind the hump!

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Accommodation:
Hotel The Silk Route, Patwa Haveli Road, Kalakar (Artists) Colony, Jaisalmer Te: +91 9414478125 or +91 2992 251213 email: mail@hotelthesilkroute.com Web: www.hotelthesilkroute.com
Booked through Booking.com - but can be easily (and preferably) booked direct.

This modern hotel, less than a year old, has been constructed amid a small colony of family houses a 20-minute interesting walk from the Fort (unless you get hopelessly lost on the way there, as I did!). Arriving here is something of a shock - from the road, one has to cross an unpleasant damp area littered with rubbish, then walk up a steep path with gullies for waste water before reaching an even steeper flight of steps up to the hotel reception. In fairness, work is being done to tidy up the area as part of a community improvement project. (Written in 2016. In late-2018, work had started to construct a new entrance to the rear of the building, which will result in better and more attractive access.)

Once inside, the rooms are spacious, clean, modern and well-equipped. Great use has been made of local patchwork embroidery for bedspreads and for cushion covers on the window seat. The bed was comfortable and the wet-room-style bathroom was excellent, with a hand-basin, Western toilet and a shower designed to avoid flooding the whole room.

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There’s a great rooftop terrace with views towards the Fort. Here, there’s seating and tables for enjoying breakfast and reasonably priced light meals that are cooked to order in an adjoining kitchen. WiFi is available in the room, although it's better on the rooftop.

The young staff, under manager Guman, were friendly, hard working and always eager to provide the best service possible. A special mention here for Jaseem, the ever-smiling, floor-sweeping, bathroom-cleaning youngster seen in this picture.

The knowledgeable and respected owner, Dileep Singh Pau, acted as my guide with his own jeep for my safari into the desert.

Cost: Double for single occupancy Rs.1200 (£12ish) per night for bed and breakfast. Great value.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:58 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer

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Comments

Mike you are so funny! Mounting a camel indeed! Great descriptions of your day and time in the desert. And of course beautiful photos that reflect your day accurately. Makes me want to go back to India! Keep them coming.

by katieshevlin62

Katie, anywhere in India, as you know, is a photographer's dream - and Jaisalmer, the town and the desert, is certainly no exception. It also has a particular atmosphere (younger people might call it 'a vibe') that called me back the next year and the year after that too. Blogs, without mention of camel mounting, will follow a.s.a.p..

by Keep Smiling

Again, wonderful photos! I especially like the ones of the kids :) And I enjoyed reading about the challenges of your camel ride ;)

by ToonSarah

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