Friday, May 29, 2009

Jaisalmer

As many locals have reminded me as they ask why the heck I would go there at this time of year, Rajasthan is “the desert,” and it has been a rather barren landscape with mostly red-brown mountains and few, scrubby trees. As the (non-AC) bus heads west from Jodhpur, however, I find that we’re now really in the straight up desert—the land turns to sand, greenery aside from cactus disappears, and the homes become thatch huts. The further we go, I see no houses or people, just an occasional goat or camel hiding from the sun under a tiny excuse for a tree. As usual, much longer than the “4 and a half hours” I was quoted passes, and I really begin to doubt we’ll ever find Jaisalmer.

I was wrong, fortunately. The “Golden City” made of golden-yellow sandstone is relatively small and quite but still lovely. Here, too, the old houses have an ornate style of intricate stone carving and metalwork. I tour a few havelis (I think this basically means mansion), with wide and ornate facades carved into tiny balconies and windows, with richly painted, mirrored, and otherwise decorated rooms. One was apparently constructed by two brothers, each responsible for one half. At first glance it appears perfectly symmetrical, but when I look more closely I see small differences in design between the left and ride sides of the façade. I went to the Maharaja’s Palace (which, typical of Rajasthan, is half a 5-star heritage hotel where you can actually stay), and into the City Palace within the golden walls of the old fort. There was also an audio guide here, but the fort is smaller than that of Jodhpur and Udaipur, and many of its rooms have not yet been restored. Between this and the palace, I conclude that the Maharaja of Jodhpur must be richer than the Maharaja of Jaisalmer.

Finally, to top off my Jaisalmer experience, I headed out into the Thar desert for a sunset camel ride. The rickshaw driver who took me really outdid himself, singing me Rajasthani songs, and he even let me drive the rickshaw. It’s like driving a motorcycle, except a little car shell is built around you. The camel was fun (although very bumpy, and if you ever get talked into a 3-day camel safari, I would recommend pants of the softest silk to avoid butt-chafage) and I sat and watched the sun set and moon rise over the sand dunes while a musician wearing a turban played folk music on a flute-like local instrument. Pretty sweet.

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