Two days in Jaisalmer, the golden city

Jaisalmer honestly looks like something out of a fairy tale.

The main focal point of the city is the huge living fort that rises up like a sandcastle. You hear it described that way a lot, but it really does look like it was made with buckets tipped upside down. The whole city is made of sandstone, and the city seems to glow in the changing light throughout the day.

Arriving, and recovering

We climbed off the bus to be greeted by an enthusiastic and assertive (but not aggressive) crowd of tuk tuk drivers. Most guesthouses here seem to send a tuk tuk to the bus and train stops for free pick ups to encourage people to stay at their guesthouse, so we were pleased to see a driver holding a sign for our chosen accommodation, Gaji Hotel. They had glowing reviews online, and at 800r ($16NZD) per night for a double room with an ensuite and AC, we couldn't really go wrong.

A short tuk tuk ride later, we were checked in and luxuriating in a big room with a bay window that looked out over the fort. Although I was feeling better after my brush with death in Udaipur (okay, maybe I'm being a little dramatic), the overnight bus ride had really taken it out of me, so we had a quiet day, preparing for a day of exploration the following day.

Forts and havelis

We set off early the next day to see what Jaisalmer had to offer. We were staying just 1km from the entrance to the fort. Wandering through the streets in the morning was a pretty cool experience. The traffic hadn't yet reached fever pitch, but locals were going about their day, opening shops and bustling around.

After a slight detour because we didn't look at a map, we found ourselves entering the walls of the fort.

A history of Jaisalmer Fort

The fort, actually named Trikoot Garh, was built in 1156. Nearly 1/4 of the city's population still lives within the fort walls, making it one of the only (if not the only) 'living' fort in the world. For most of its 800 year history, the fort WAS the city - it wasn't until the 17th century that the growing population of Jaisalmer necessitated that the city spread beyond its walls.

The fort sits on a hill, raising it 76m (250ft) above the surrounding city. At its base, the 4.6m (15ft) walls provide a first line of defense. There are four gates which provide entrance to the fort, and 99 bastions provide strategic viewpoints over the surrounds.

As a desert city, Jaisalmer does not receive much rainfall - it averages 20cm (8 inches) per year, and it rarely rains outside of the wet season. As such, the drainage system within the fort was fairly limited, as it didn't need to cope with much. Residents used to walk to nearby water sources to collect water, as there was no running water.

With the increasing population inside the fort, and the boom of tourism, the infrastructure in the fort was put under enormous pressure. The main issue was water - the pipes and drains were not designed to handle the massive amounts of water that tourists demanded, and leaks began to appear. What happens when you pour water on a sandcastle?

Built of dry sandstone on foundations of clay, sand and rock, the fort began to crumble. This, combined with a major monsoon in 1993, led to the full or partial collapse of over 250 historic buildings.

Enter Jaisalmer in Jeopardy. This charity organisation have worked tirelessly since 1996 to raise funds and awareness to protect the crumbing fort. They have worked extensively to improve drainage systems, and have raised funds to repair damage caused by both humans and nature.

As a result of learning about the pressure being put on the fort as a result of (primarily) increased tourism, we chose to stay outside the fort. As another bonus, you cannot see the fort from inside the fort (obviously), so our handy location within walking distance afforded us wonderful dinner views of the changing colours of the sandstone marvel.

Fort Palace

After winding our way up the steep 'driveway' to the fort, we headed straight into our first stop - the Fort Palace. The palace towers over the main square in the fort, and is the former rulers' 8-storey palace. The palace ticket includes an excellent audio tour, which allows you to get a better insight into the history of the building, and the region as a whole (since the signage is pretty dismal).

Side note: I think audio tours are awesome. They give you the extra information you want when looking around, but allow you to move at your own pace, and choose what you want to know more about. My main love of audio tours is that they do away with the need for guides. Yes, guides are great in that they can give you a personalised tour - you can ask questions, and they can speak in more detail about the things that you're interested in. But guides are a pain in the ass for anyone who's not on your tour. They stop their groups in the most inconvenient places (usually a doorway, or blocking whatever they're looking at so that no one else can see it). They're also foghorns. They have to talk loudly to assure everyone else can hear, and it really ruins the experience for everyone else if they have to listen to your guide screaming at you while they're just trying to enjoy the atmosphere. Grumpy old Sam says that if I ever ran a tourist attraction, it would be audio guides all the way. No tour guides. And no cameras. But I'll write a post about my loathing of cameras another day, so that I can hear all about how I'm a terrible person who needs to move with the times. But I don't, because I'm right.

I digress. The highlight of the tour was definitely the rooftop view out over the countryside. From there, you can look out over the scores of wind turbines towards the border with Pakistan, just 100km away. You get a stunning view of the sandstone buildings outside the fort walls. The breeze was nice and it was a really cool spot to spend 10 minutes before the sun started frying your brain and it was time to retreat to the relative cool of the inside of the palace.

Another lovely spot was the zenana, or women's quarter. Set in a peaceful, breezy courtyard with seats offering another city view, I happily spent 10 minutes relaxing and waiting for Zev to catch up.

Exploring the fort

After about an hour, with our audio tour complete, we stopped for a quick drink and a snack before spending some time wandering the narrow alleyways of the fort.

Once you leave the main square, the streets are too narrow for motorbikes or tuk tuks, so there's a peaceful respite from the chaotic traffic and honking horns that we've come to know and hate in India. Instead, the alleys are lined with shops selling everything from tee shirts to carvings, books to 'pharmaceuticals'. While almost everyone said hello and asked us to take a look, we didn't feel pressured or harassed - which we expected to, based on our reading. It was really fun ambling around, taking in the sights.

We passed a couple of Jain temples, but opted not to go in. From the outside, they looked nice, but honestly, we're well and truly templed out.

Eventually we ended up at a canon with another view over the city, and decided that it was time to carry on. We found our way out of the fort, and went in search of havelis.

Patwa Ki Haveli

10 minutes of navigating winding back alleyways later, we found our way to Patwa Ki Haveli, the best known of Jaisalmer's havelis (mansions). Built between 1800 and 1860 by five merchant brothers, the huge towering sandstone building is diivided into 5 sections, each with a different entry fee (of course).

We paid to go into three of the sections, but by far the most impressive was Kothari's Patwa Ki Haveli Museum. This is privately owned and beautifully restored, containing artifacts from the 19th century, and offering a glimpse into what these stunning households would have been like in their heyday.

As the heat of the day really started to kick in, we stopped for lunch at a nearby rooftop restaurant before heading back to the hotel to hide. Later that evening, we ventured across the road for another top notch meal. Zev tried Bharwan Tamatar, a dish consisting of tomatoes stuffed with coconut, potato and other vegetables, doused in a delicious gravy. This is his new favourite dish.

Desert safaris

The next day, we headed out on our desert safari. We've written about that separately here, so I don't feel the need to rip the scab of that particular horror again.

Akal Fossil Park and Bara Bagh

On our last full day in Jaisalmer, we decided to enlist the services of a tuk tuk driver and take in some of the sights that were a little further out of town.

First up (Zev's choice, in case you couldn't guess): Akal Fossil Park. This 21 hectare park is 17kms from Jaisalmer, and contains fossils of 25 tree trunks that are over 180 million years old. Even I will admit that it was pretty cool. The park itself was pretty perfunctory - there were cages over the fossils to stop people from touching them, and one sign explaining what we were look at, but other than that, there was nothing there. The setting itself was pretty amazing though - an incredibly desolate landscape that it was difficult to believe was once a forest.

From there, we headed out to the other side of town to check out the royal cenotaphs at Bara Bagh. Situated on a hill completely surrounded by wind turbines, it was pretty surreal to be looking at centuries old memorials to royal family members with these modern marvels whirring away in the background. The carving and details on the cenotaphs was impressive, but again, there wasn't any signage to give context. Still, we spent an enjoyable half hour exploring the area (mostly checking out the turbines if I'm honest - I've never seen any so close up) and avoiding the local children who kept asking us to take their picture (we refused, knowing that it would be followed by demands for payment. Also because it's completely weird and creepy to want to take photos of children you don't know).

After a suitable cool down period in the AC, we headed out again for dinner, this time heading to a restaurant right at the base of the fort. While the food was a little disappointing, the view was great, and the real highlight was the 3 dogs they had which greeted us as we entered the lobby.

Today, we wave a sad goodbye to Jaisalmer. Despite a negative experience with our safari, we've really enjoyed our stay in this stunning little town. We're sad to say goodbye to our new home-away-from-home, Gaji Hotel, but we're excited to see what Jodhpur has in store for us.

Lots of love,
S & Z