Live as I do in Jaipur, Rajasthan in the north-western part of India, the one thing that gnawed at the travel-bug inside me for 25 long years was being so close to the ‘Golden City’ of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, and not having the pleasure of visiting it.
Jaisalmer is the princely state in the western-most part of Rajasthan and is famed for its yellow, sandstone architecture and the desert festival. Lying in the middle of the Thar desert, Jaisalmer is a ‘must visit’ for anyone wanting to get a feel of the sand dunes.
The best time to visit most cities in Rajasthan is between November and February. The weather is just awesome in the winters. It is cold until the sun rises but once the sun is up, you can discard your woollens until sundown.
And so, one fine December morning, we made some hurried bookings, loaded our car and were off.
On the Jaipur – Jodhpur National Highway
We set off as the sun was rising and the birds had just started to chirp. The National Highway 48 from Jaipur to Ajmer is one of the most beautiful six-lanes roads and probably the only one in Rajasthan that is barricaded on both sides to prevent cattle from wandering onto the road. With the Aravali mountain ranges on both sides, and its hills still struggling to hold on to the greenery before the summer sun strips them of all foliage, the drive is quite mesmerising.
After we crossed Ajmer which is famous for its Dargah (a ‘dargah’ is the tomb or shrine of a Muslim saint), we stopped to freshen up at a local roadside dhaba. The Rs. 20 (about 30 cents) tea was typically sweet and strong enough to jolt you out of any hypnotic trance you could be getting into while driving.
After crossing Beawar, which is another hour from Ajmer, the landscape becomes indicative of the fact that this road now leads into the desert. The vegetation is thorny and dry and the Aravali ranges are brown. There is not much traffic and hardly any good ‘midways’ to stop at. Goats, sheep and cows can be seen being herded along the road.
Jodhpur — Halfway to Jaisalmer
The ‘SunCity’ or the ‘Blue City’, Jodhpur, 330 kms from Jaipur is a 6-hour drive and the next most important city closest to Jaisalmer. One can bypass Jodhpur enroute to Jaisalmer but we decided to stop there for lunch.
Jodhpur is a city to relish the authentic mirchi vada and pyaaz ki kachori. No other city in Rajasthan makes it so delicious. This itself, can be a full meal when combined with slices of bread and washed down with the famed sweet lassi.
Satiated, we crossed the sleepy city of Jodhpur, stopping to admire the artificial Kaylana lake that falls right next to the road leading to Jaisalmer.
Reaching Jaisalmer from Jodhpur – Terrain like never before
Jaisalmer is about 235 kms from Jodhpur and is a 5-hour drive. We were warned about the flat, sandy, dry and barren terrain leading to Jaisalmer. Although it was just a five hour drive, we were advised to carry snacks and cold drinks and fill up the fuel tank.
We set off, a little apprehensive, as we were travelling on this road for the first time. An hour on the road and we started getting the ‘feel’ of the desert. We could see camels roaming freely on the roadside, feeding on the sparse neem and babul trees. Scattered thorny bushes and cactuses could be seen for miles around on the flat terrain. There was hardly any traffic considering it was peak tourist season. Most traffic consisted of army convoys on their way to the many battalions posted along the Indo-Pakistan border.
Wind energy is harnessed with the help of windmills. They form a part of the skyline of the landscape.
We decided to stop at the first respectable dhaba we came across, freshen up. We knew we wouldn’t have much choice in the desert.
Another hour on the road and the bright sun started to set. Nothing could have prepared us for the spectacle of driving ‘into’ the setting sun. The huge round, orange, setting sun, seen clearly in the distance (since there was hardly any pollution in the sky), slowly turning the bright blue sky to pitch darkness was breathtaking.
Desert Springs Resort (Sam, Rajasthan) – Our destination
To get the feel of the sand dunes, we had booked two luxury tents in Desert Spring Resort in the Sam (pronounced as Sum) sand dunes.
Sam is about 50kms from Jaisalmer City. If you are driving there for the first time, try and reach before the sun sets. Although the roads are wonderful, but driving on this empty stretch of land with just the headlights of your car for solace, is not what we enjoyed.
There are a number of camps just short of Sam, spread around a kilometre into the desert from the main road. We located ours after a few wrong turns.
Staff at the Desert Spring went out of their way to settle us in. The tents were spacious and comfortable and the bathrooms were modern and had running hot and cold water. The buffet dinner was typically Rajasthani with a little continental fare thrown in to appease the foreigners.
After dinner, we lolled in the garden chairs outside the tents, looking up at the most beautiful starlit night. The sky was so clear that we could see every star and recognise so many constellations. We almost felt like we could reach up to pluck out the stars. Peace descended on us like a thick blanket, leading us into oblivion, lulling us to sleep.
The speciality of deserts is, however cold it may become in the night, as the sun rises, so does the heat. We had an early breakfast and set off for the border.
Tanot temple in Jaisalmer – Known for its war bomb
We had decided on visiting Tanot Goddess temple which is very close to the border and Longewala, where the famed Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 had taken place. This is a full day excursion.
Tanot is almost a two-hour drive from Sam. The roads are excellent since they are maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation). Again, this is not an excursion one should take alone. The roads are empty and rarely will a vehicle pass you. There are no shops or shacks or petrol station or help of any kind on this stretch. So it is advisable to return before sunset.
But the drive has to be undertaken if you actually want to see the real desert. We rolled down our windows to allow the clear, crisp air to blow on our faces. There was just sand for miles in some places. The landscape was absolutely stunning.
Tanot temple has a beautiful history. It is said that during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Pakistan had dropped almost 3000 bombs on this temple, in this village, but not one bomb exploded. After the war, the temple has been maintained and revered by the BSF.
One can still see some live bombs on display in the temple.
Regretfully, we had to leave Longewala out as it was getting late.
Kuldhara – The abandoned haunted village
On our way back to Sam, we stopped at the abandoned haunted village, Kuldhara. This village was home to Paliwal brahmins, 200 years ago who disappeared overnight. The ruins were fascinating to see and it seemed every stone there wanted to scream out its story. Typically, these kind of places have an eerie effect, at least on me.
Parasailing activities in Sam, Jaisalmer
We quickly left the place and went parasailing to lift our spirits – quite literally.
Sam is a great place for parasailing. With the vast open ground available, vendors with jeeps and parasails were available at every 500 meters. I wonder how many of them had licenses to run this business, but these men were thorough professionals. The experience of parasailing on sandy terrain was exhilarating.
We were back at our camp just before sunset and the camels were waiting to take us to the sunset point to watch the glorious sun set.
Trying to walk on the sand is a feat in itself. We sat ourselves down on the sand to watch the sun say goodnight, ever so gracefully. Sunset in deserts is a spectacular sight. There were many people there for the spectacle to unfold, but no one spoke while watching in awe. Had the camel keepers not nudged us, we would have continued gazing into the distance.
Since no one ventures out after dark in the dunes, evenings include a fun-filled song and dance programme with dinner on the house.
Desert Spring hosts the world-famous Rajasthani folk dancer, Queen Harish, every night. Harish has his (yes, Queen is a man) own unique style of captivating the audience and involving them in the show. The attire he dons, combined with his grace and poise, holds one mesmerised while at the same time, wanting to break into an impromptu dance with him.
We later met him when he changed into the standard trousers-and-shirt and the transformation was hard to believe. As we sat for dinner, he regaled us with stories about Jaisalmer. The tents are pitched only during the tourist season and are pulled down and packed away after March. That’s not only because of the paucity of tourists — they would be blown away by the strong dust storms that sweep through the desert in the summer season if they were left standing.
If sunset was beautiful, watching the sunrise the next morning, was breathtaking. If you are adventurous enough, take the jeep safari to reach the sunrise point. It’s a WOW experience.
The next day was dedicated to a city tour. Jaisalmer is famous for beautifully carved sandstone structures.
Tirthankars – Jain temple of Jaisalmer
The ‘Tirthankars’ Jain temples of Jaisalmer, are famous world-wide for their intricate architecture. We zeroed down on Lodurva. It is famed for pictures of Lord Parsvanath and the ‘Kalptaru’ (the wish fulfilling divine tree).
No one, but no one can leave Jaisalmer without visiting the omnipresent fort. The Golden Fort is one of the largest preserved fortified cities in the world. The entry is free since it houses residents. Its yellow, sandstone walls, matching with the sand of the desert around, reminds one of how cleverly it was built to escape the notice of enemies.
A typical tour of the fort would take between an hour or two. The breathtaking view of the city from the top, leaves one awestruck and silently one pays homage to those who built the city.
Patwon Ki Haveli – Jaisalmer
If one wants to admire some real intricate architecture, ‘Patwon Ki Haveli’ is the place to visit. It is the largest Haveli in Jaisalmer and actually houses five small Havelis. We saw the finest wall paintings, the most beautiful ‘Jharokhas’ (windows) and archways.
Back at the camp, we were dying to try our hand at paramotoring. The camp had roped in Wingmasters Co, from Jaipur, to help the tourists get a feel of flying and more, of seeing the desert from the sky. Needless to say, it was a wonderful experience.
We were up early the next morning, to start our day long drive back to Jaipur, after experiencing a most wonderful action-packed holiday.