Every time someone talks about an offbeat travel destination in India, our minds immediately meander to the city of Jaisalmer in the far remote corner of Rajasthan. It maybe on top of the tourist circuits but there’s a reason we call Jaisalmer offbeat.
It wasn’t love at first sight, though. Arriving into the desert city after an excruciatingly long train ride, we were unimpressed with most things we saw. Unlike the forts in other parts of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort seemed tattered. Shops selling multi-coloured clothes, traditional embroidery lined up the intricate lanes of the fort, leading to much destruction. There were more tourists than it could handle and tour agencies haggled to onboard us to their ‘guided tours’. Our hotel, located on top of the fort, did little to add excitement… till the moment we opened up the windows.
There, in front of us, strewn across miles lay the golden city. Dust engulfed it and the desert called out to us from far. We sat there by the window looking down into the city for long and somewhere in that fleeting moment from sitting down to getting up, we’d fallen a tad bit in love already. At that moment, we knew one thing for sure – If the real Jaisalmer was to open itself up to us, we’d to stay far away from its tourist traps. It had to be admired from far, like a painting in a museum. And so we did, we took off the beaten path & the real Jaisalmer left us in awe.
Begin with a b(h)ang!
It all began with a walk down the fort where we spotted a govt. authorised bhang shop. Not that bhang in itself isn’t awesome, but having it from a government backed shop, legally, induced an additional joy. We ordered some vanilla and strawberry milkshakes (no, seriously) after engaging in a tete-a-tete with the owner. We told him to keep it gentle but guess there’s only so much he can do. While it tasted (and felt) like any other ‘milkshake’, the effects kicked in much later. We’ll leave the tale of what transpired after, for another time.
Where: Bhang Shop, Khejer Para Fort Road
Rent a 2-wheeler
Before Jaisalmer, we weren’t the biggest proponents of two-wheeler drives but our time in Jaisalmer changed that for good. Thanks to our friend who insisted we try renting a two-wheeler, we chucked our plans of going around in a jeep, renting a cab et al. It was a bit of a struggle to find a rental place given it isn’t the most common way of exploring Jaisalmer. We found a shop towards the south side of the fort that rented out everything from Enfields to Activas. Things have improved a lot today with about 3-4 rental shops available in/around the city.
Where: Shiva Motorbike Rental, First Fort Gate
Explore Kuldhara – The Haunted Town
From the get-go, Kuldhara was on our list of places to visit in Jaisalmer. The village, once inhabited by the Paliwal Brahmins, was vacated one fine morning around 300 years ago. The desolate houses and temples still lie there carrying a whiff of the past. Walking through the deserted village under the raging Rajasthan sun, we were pleasantly surprised by how much beauty an uninhabited village had. At the gate, an old uncle caught our hands, sat us down, and recited the unlikely story of how Kuldhara turned into a ghost village. We’re getting the chills, just writing this.
Self-drive the Desert National Park
The Desert National Park is no Kanha or Kaziranga. It is incredibly hard to spot any of the desert dwellers. In fact, we did not spot even a bird through our drive there. But, driving our 100cc bike through the barren land left us wanting more. We were stopped by kids roaming about in the villages, demanding that we play with them. We were drawn to stop at a chai stall where we exchanged stories with the turban-clad locals. We got lost a million times, only to be guided by friendly people passing by, each time. We chanced upon windmills, drove through many unknown miles of wilderness, played hide & seek with desert snakes, gawked at the vast parched landscape, and fell in love a bit more. It is apparently possible to do a guided safari here but we wouldn’t blame you if you choose not to.
Live with a local in Khuri
If only we could bring some places back with us, Khuri would be right beside us today. An idyllic village with the Thar desert by its sides, time comes to a halt here. Apart from a few thatched houses, a handful of locals, their pet camels and goats, the village is empty. Here is where our love story with Jaisalmer truly bloomed. We lived with Badal Singh ji & his children, in his cute courtyard house aptly named ‘Badal House’. We gulped down the hot parathas that his children prepared, sipped on the camel-milk tea, put our heads down on good-old wire mattresses, made friends with Jagjeet (his pet camel!), and lived the way the villagers do.
We considered not writing about this place for long, worried it would open up a flurry of tourists. But well… here you go.
Catch shooting stars in open desert
If Khuri was wonderful, the night we spent with Badal Singh ji’s aides in the middle of the desert was pure magic. After an hour and half long Camel ride deep into the depths of the desert, we reached our camping point for the night in the midst of nothing. Not a soul was to be seen for miles barring for the endangered desert fox lurking around. As the night fell, we sat down on the sand around a fire and ate a freshly cooked meal. The moon was out in full force on this night leaving us very little hope of star-gazing. Freezing in the cold, we put down our sheets and slipped into the blankets in the open sand. With no horns, humans, or machines to disturb us, we quickly fell asleep.
A few hours later when we opened our eyes, the moon had quietly disappeared behind the horizon turning the sky into a star-spangled canopy. We broke into a song..’starry starry night, paint your palette blue and gray’.. with our mouth wide open in disbelief. The hidden beauty of our galaxy had decided to throw its veil aside and show itself to us. In a matter of thirty minutes, we counted as many as 12 shooting stars, a dozen times more than we’d seen in our whole life until then. As the night slowly started passing the baton to day, we drifted back into a world of beautiful dreams. We’ve seen starry nights in various parts of the globe but nothing has quite compared to that night in the Thar desert.