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Into the Thar

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer- 29 to 31 January 2016 Part 1 of 2

sunny 35 °C

It was with considerable reluctance that I left behind the Demoiselle Cranes and drove another couple of hours west into the Thar Desert.

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The ancient 'Golden City' of Jaisalmer is about as far west as you can go in India - unless you're in the country's armed forces. This dry and dusty part of Rajasthan lies close to the border with Pakistan to the west & south-west. Main roads just half-an-hour from the city centre are reserved for military use and there's a significant air force station on the outskirts. Jet engines occasionally roar loudly across the town, after-burners like bright flames on take-off suddenly disappearing as fighter aircraft climb into inky night-time skies.

Yet it's a peaceful enough place, dominated by a massive sandcastle of a 12th-century fort and, although it’s a bit out on a limb some 360 miles (575kms) from the State capital of Jaipur, it continues to be one of Rajasthan's most popular tourist destinations.

I’d arrived shortly after midday. I could see the fort from my bedroom window, so decided to venture out to find some lunch there.

'It's a 15-minute walk', they said.

'Turn left and then go straight', they said.

The only problem was there were no straight roads!

The narrow walkways between tall buildings with colourful, over-stocked shops at street level also prevented any view of the fort, which I thought must be somewhere up on the hill above me. One narrow alleyway and one bazaar looked very much like another and I must have turned right when I should have turned left, or turned left when I should have turned right!

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Three hours later, I returned to the hotel, having asked the way a dozen times and been given a lift on the back of a motorbike for part of the way by someone going in that general direction. I never did find the fort that day!

I did, however, find places that weren’t on the tourist trail. I chatted to people who’d almost certainly never had a European enquiring about what their little shop contained. A couple of old gents in a courtyard behind an intriguing green door beckoned me in and we spent an enjoyable few minutes exchanging sign language. I even had a bite to eat outside a hole-in-wall restaurant with locals curious to know why I was with them and not up in the fort with all the tourists!

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I enjoyed getting lost; it brought a new perspective to the realities of life in a big, remote city and it provided some great photo opportunities. I must do it again soon!

The next morning I did find my way to that citadel in the sky, although somewhat by accident and it definitely took much longer than the promised 15 minutes to get there. It took even longer to get back again!

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The city was founded in 1156 - as you might guess, by a man named Jaisal. He was the leader of the Bhati Rajput clan, who apparently claim a lineage back to Lord Krishna and who ruled here until India’s independence in 1947. In early times, the Bhatis lived by looting, but 500 years on, as it found itself on the camel-train ‘Silk Route' between Central Asia and India, it became a prosperous trading post. The British Raj put paid to that with the introduction of railways, an increase in sea trade through Mumbai to the south and finally with Partition in 1947 cutting trade routes with Pakistan. In subsequent years, disputes between India and Pakistan gave the city a new strategic military importance and opening of the Indira Ghandi Canal to the north revitalised the desert environment.

Inevitably though, tourism has brought the greatest wealth and even greater problems. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a living one with more than a quarter of the city’s population living inside it. It was built on shaky foundations and water seepage, inadequate drains and sewers, an ever-growing population and increasing visitor numbers have all led to parts of it crumbling and even collapsing. Millions have been spent trying to conserve it but, hey, this is India. A lack of co ordination among government departments presents on-going difficulties in restoration and, importantly, maintenance; I guess it will for many years to come.

The fort’s tall, rounded bastions and sandstone walls, a lion-like colour during the day, turn a deep honey-gold as the bright sun drops below the horizon. The streets leading up to it are - as I discovered - a maze of homes with a fascinating array of doors and markets selling all manner of everyday things. Inside the fort, through four huge gates, is another honeycomb of lanes lined with shops, all seemingly similar. There are some interesting temples too and cafés and small restaurants galore.

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Beside the walls, there are busy market stalls and, inside, a host of shops with stuff for tourists: blouses and pantaloons in fancy patterns that locals would never even consider wearing, fabric and leather bags, mirrored umbrellas and beautiful bright embroideries. It's an ideal place for camel safari touts to give backpackers some hard-sell too. As this is very much an inhabited fort, the residents also shop here, albeit at less than tourist prices.

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Away from the well-trodden tourist paths, cows and pigs wander at will, dirty water runs in open channels beside the foot-way, old men sit outside in the sun reading yesterday’s news, and kids play a game of marbles until, noticing a rare camera-toting tourist (me!), they leap to their feet demanding a photo.

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Bored with all the commercialisation, however, I climbed up onto the ramparts and walked around just inside the walls, enjoying the solitude and views.

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Later, after leaving the fort, I got lost again trying to find my way back down to the hotel. Should I have turned right or left, straight on, back up then right…? Eventually, when I’d given up all hope of recognising my whereabouts, I flagged down a passing auto-rickshaw and invested 40 Rupees (40p) for the last leg of the journey back!

Gadisar Lake

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I did a deal with the auto-rickshaw driver to take me that afternoon to Gadisar Lake, wait there an hour, then bring me back - all for the princely sum of 200 Rupees (£2). It was a bit farther than I’d imagined from the map and the road was potholed, littered with unannounced speed humps and busy with local traffic. Perhaps I should have booked a taxi cab!

However, once there, I found a pleasant man-made lake (usually referred to here as a ‘tank’) dating back to the 14th century. Formerly the main source of drinking water for the city, it’s filled only by rainwater and sometimes dries out if the monsoon is poor. Around the edge and on small islands are some old temples but its main function seems to be a place of recreation for the local populace, who enjoy pedalo rides on the water and feeding huge catfish that gather in anticipation of a meal of stale chapatis.

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My final afternoon was spent in the company of the hotel’s owner, using his Jeep and driver to visit ‘untouristy’ parts of the surrounding desert. Turn to Part 2 'Farther Into The Thar' to read all about it.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:52 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer thar_desert

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Comments

Great photos as usual! An interesting day.

by katieshevlin62

Wonderful photos of my favourite of the Rajasthan cities we visited - great memories for me too :)

by ToonSarah

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