Riding camels in the desert of Jaisalmer, India
Jaisalmer is located at the western end of the Rajasthan Region in India and very close to the Pakistan border. This desert city is known as the Golden City for its golden sandstone building, many with intricate carving and architectural details. Jaisalmer is the picturesque and romantic city of Rajasthan. The narrow, bustling streets filled with local art, luxurious fabrics and sacred cows are a sharp contrast to our experience in Delhi. The hilltop Jaisalmer Fort has an incredible view of the city and rooftop cafes that offer delicious meals. The Golden City is also a hotspot for sand dune camel treks, camping, and jeep tours.
After an 18-hour overnight train journey from Delhi, Jaisalmer was a slice of heaven. The train station was smaller, cleaner and a bit more relaxed. The outside temperature was hot, and the sun was intense. We piled into three tuk-tuks, humans and luggage, waiting for us at the station to take us to our hotel. Although the train journey was semi-relaxing, it was still a long journey, and we were all in need of some downtime and a shower. The drive to the hotel was much less congested — many cows in the road, goats, and small vendors. The children in their school uniform are so cute and friendly. They wave as we drive by, interested to see westerners in their town. No one seems to speak much English, all Hindi.
We were thrilled when the tuk-tuks pulled into the serene, shaded courtyard of the majestic Hotel Nachana Haveli Jaisalmer. Paradise! Hotel Nachana is a small royal palace still owned by descendants for the royal family and made into a hotel. This stop was just a temporary refuge as we were heading out to meet our camel trek and camping guides in a few hours, but we would be back for a night’s stay after the trek.
It was a hot and scenic drive into the sand dunes to meet our camel trek guides. Our trek was set up by Intrepid Travel, our guide, Abhi, and part of our tour, but there are a bunch of different outfits and camel treks available when you google it. You can make a single overnight trip and up to two days. The prices range from INR 1750 (25 USD) to INR 4000 (57 USD).
We saw the first camels grazing in a grassy field about .5 miles from our meeting place. It was kind of cool to see them like that because when I envision a camel, it’s always with blankets, saddle, and someone riding it in the desert. They are strange-looking animals with long, skinny legs and a long thick neck. Their face is kind of stuffed-animal-like with tiny ears, small eyes big nose, and a large mouth full of large teeth. I would venture to liken them too moose, but with a slightly different head shape and a hump on their back.
When we arrived, the camels and their drivers were waiting for us, saddled and ready to go. The drivers were a group of Indian men of all ages. (19 to 70) Some of them wore the traditional dress with sandals, some worn-western clothing with old shoes, and a few were completely barefoot. We were immediately assigned camels, and with little English, sign language, and a few laughs, we saddled up. If no one told you, I will tell you that like other animals, flies and mosquitoes swarm around the camels. Bug spray is a must! Kama, our 19-year-old camel driver, helped me mount my camel “Rambo” and sit on a thick stack of colorful blankets, a harness, and saddle with horn atop additional blankets for the camel’s comfort. The saddle sits in front of the hump. With me on its back, the camel gets up using his back legs first and then his front to lift his body. It’s super awkward for the rider and likely tricky for the camel. A deep back-lean is required for this process, or you could fall right off the front of the camel.
We set off into the desert with the camels and our drivers. The camel-ride is similar to that of a horse but slower. With a driver leading, there isn’t much for you to do but hold on, take photos and chat with the neighboring camel rider. We wandered in and out of a large sand dune area that I’m told moves with the wind. So the location changes week to week. No camel safari is ever the same. The camel drivers talked amongst themselves in Hindi. It sounded like they were debating the trek route being led by the most senior driver. Similar to that of a family lost on a road-trip with intense debate on what is the correct course.
The trek took us up and around the sand dunes with incredible desert landscapes that look like a scene out of “Lawrence of Arabia”. We finished at a simple camp made up of 2 rows of sleeping cots. We were sleeping under the stars tonight. The camel drivers were also our hosts at the camp. After tending to the camels, they started cooking, setting up our cots with two layers of thick blankets and a pillow. They offered us free water and Kingfisher (beer) for sale. We did a little exploring, took pictures, relaxed and chatted until dark when dinner was ready. Dinner was a vegetarian thali with rice and flatbread. Great flavors, and we could have seconds.
By the light of our headlamps, we had an hour or two of storytelling, beer-drinking, and laughs. It was more time for our group to get to know one another, and it brought us closer. One by one, people dropped off to sleep. Being the freak that I am, I was bit creeped out by the thick blankets and pillow provided. The wind was starting to pick up, and I knew It was going to be cold. So I pulled out my sleeping bag liner and sleeping bag and placed them on top of the thick blanket and then pulled out my can’t_travel_without pillow. The wind was blowing by then, and I could feel the sand in my hair. I was so happy to have my puffy jacket in my bag. I had second-guessed bringing a puffy to the desert, but I’m glad I did. I put it on and zipped up in the sleeping bag and ultimately pulled that big blanket on top of me. I was in my own little cocoon. I highly recommend having these items if you do any desert camping without a tent. They saved me from being sandblasted all night long!
It wasn’t a great sleep. I woke up a couple of times to look at the stars and listen to the wind. It was a surreal experience, and the glowing sunrise was lovely. The group started waking up, and chai tea flowed in addition to a simple breakfast. We packed up and loaded up again on our camels for the trek back. Cama and Rambo were great! I enjoyed that experience.
We arrived back in Jaisalmer in the afternoon to check into Hotel Nachana, clean up and have lunch at the hotel cafe Saffron and then a private tour of the city.
Nath Nal ki Haveli (haveli) was once the home to the Prime Minister of Jaisalmer, Diwan Mohata Nathmal, in the late 19th century. This grand haveli has an intriguing history. It was constructed by two brothers whose competitive spirts produced this dramatic structure. The two sides are similar but not identical. The descendants of Nathmal still live in the home and run the tour to keep up with the maintenance of the upkeep of the grand haveli. There is a gift shop, or you can donate.
Jaisalmer Fort is an active and famous landmark in the city. There are many forts in India, but this is one of the largest and one of Rajasthan’s biggest tourist attractions. Built-in 1156 AD, the fort is also known as Sonar Quila, or Golden Fort is still active with residents, shops, art galleries, and cafes. There are no cars in the fort, again only scooters. There is a parking lot outside of the fort where many out of town street vendors have set up shop to the dismay of the town business owners. The famous Indian film director Satyajit Ray wrote Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1971), a detective novel based on the fort, and he later filmed it here. The film became a classic, and a large number of tourists from Bengal and around the world visit the fort annually to experience for themselves the world that Ray portrayed in the movie.
We finished the day with a visit and textile presentation at KB Co-operative Art, which has some of the best collections of Rajasthani textile art. The coop works with tribes around the region and also recycles discarded dresses, opium bags, and tapestries. It was a treat and an education.
Our final evening in Jaisalmer, our Intrepid leader set up a dinner with a local family at their home. In the India caste system, this family was at the top of the hierarchy, Brahmins, because the father was a Hindi Priest. Three generations, eight people lived in the simple five-room home. Only the kitchen had a specified purpose; the other rooms were considered all-purpose rooms. We ate dinner on and around a bed. We learned a lot about the caste system, arranged marriages, and the 1950s Independent India’s constitution banning discrimination based on caste and an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the untouchables. The constitution established quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for the lower caste. For the first generation, this was a successful movement, but now there is controversy regarding the quotas that don’t sit well with the higher castes regarding acceptance into university and employment. It was a fascinating evening with incredible food and intense educational conversations.
- Camel Trek, with an overnight under the stars, is a must in Jaisalmer. One night is perfect; two nights maybe too much.
- Naan Flatbread came to my attention in Jaisalmer. This soft, chewy, buttery delight comes with most India meals. Made with wheat flour, yogurt, milk, yeast, and butter and likely the reason I gained about 10 lbs in India.
- Rooftop cafes are plentiful throughout the city and in the Fort, but my favorite was the spacious rooftop terrace of the Saffron Restaurant at the Hotel Nachana Haveli had excellent veg and non-veg Indian food at reasonable prices 350 Rupees ($5USD).
- Textiles and Tapestries in Jaisalmer are unique and exceptional. KB Co-operative Art offered an incredible presentation and worked with our budget and taste to find the perfect art and keepsake for our home. We were able to ship our purchases back to the states and the package arrived before we did.
- Sacred Cows were prominent in this city. They wandered around the streets and in storefronts and around cafes. It was entertaining to watch and says a lot about our contrasting cultures.
Behind the Scenes
Jaisalmer was one of my favorite destinations in India. I enjoyed the small city, the food, and the camel trek. It was a quick trip, and I wish it were a more extended stay as I felt like a princess at the Hotel Nachana. I loved the food and ate too much. We leave for Jodpur on another train tomorrow morning at 5:15am. The fast pace of this tour is not very relaxing, but I understand we have a lot to see in this country. We are getting to know our group and guide more each day. I am feeling thankful that everyone is very unique and interesting, so there is always something to talk about.
Enjoy the Climb!
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