I’d expect to find Jaisalmer rising out of the pages of a fairytale popup book. Instead, this former outpost along the ancient Silk Road trading route rises out of the parched sands and scattered bones of the Thar Desert that stretches out as far as the eye can see in every direction.
Much like the deceptively barren-looking landscape surrounding the city, the dusty market streets that surround the fort are teeming with life in a staggeringly stubborn display of defiance towards such a hostile environment. Expeditions down the cities disorienting and chaotic streets bring you to the doorsteps of Jaisalmer’s rich and eccentric past: havelis, or mansions, with doorways, windows and balconies elaborately garnished in intricate carvings—skeletons of untold fortunes that, like everything else, has long-since dried up under the quivering, blood-red orb of the rising desert sun.
The fort’s high sandstone walls conceal a maze-like network of narrow passageways where life and business seem to be as tightly interwoven as the threads of the soft silks and pashminas that adorn the walls of so many of its shops.
Painstakingly detailed haveli artwork is everywhere inside the fort: its palace, its many jain temples and its cramped living quarters which so many still call home. The fort’s multileveled buildings, stacked haphazardly towards the sky like an unfinished game of Jenga, provide the only respite from the desert sun for the cows, motorcycles and people that crowd its cramped passageways below. Open doorways tease passersby with fleeting glances of colorful hallways that open up into pastel-colored inner courtyards where Rajasthani life is on display in all its many shades.
Aggressive shopkeeper’s lure pedestrians into their shops with invitations of chai and a cool, shady place to sit amongst their exotic fabrics, jewels, leather goods, antiques and paintings.
Women, young and old, giggle and peek out from windows and doorways while solemn-faced men with dark mustaches and weather-beaten faces pass the time on the steps outside. Brightly colored sarees and elegant turbans give the sense, that if they could speak, they’d tell you stories of passion, bravery, love and war, stories long since buried beneath the desert’s sands, stories that only the moon and sun can still recall.
Here’s a brief tour of my favorite places and a few of the people behind them during my recent three week stay in Jaisalmer.
INSIDE THE FORT
You could find me at one of these two cafes every morning. Both cafes are run by the same, friendly crew. Raim, who moved to Jaisalmer from a village in the desert where his family still lives, serves up the most generous and delicious plate of thali (traditional Indian cuisine) in all of Jaisalmer. My favorite was the Maharaja thali which always had an extra large helping of vegetable pulao in lieu of the wheat chapati that’s usually served with it.
Good internet (Shiva Cafe), a nice rooftop view (Laughing Buddha Cafe) and decent coffee make these cafes a nice place to pass the time.
Traveler’s Cup / Dharan Book Store
This comfy little book and coffee shop is down one of the fort’s main alleys. Pankaj’s coffee is by far the best in town—he can do espresso, filter and even french press. He also has a great selection of books where you can trade in your old books. Pankaj’s shop always attracted an interesting group of travelers and I enjoyed the impromptu conversations that often accompanied the coffee. Pankaj and I became became good friends and over the two weeks I spent in his shop and I learned a little about how his shop came to be.
He runs the shop with his brother and had initially opened up a few years back but it hadn’t been very successful and he decided to leave his family in Jaisalmer and take a job with an oil company that was drilling out in the desert. New oil sites ran a sizable risk of collapsing or leaking so they always needed to have someone on call.
With no real replacement, Pankaj was required to work 7 days a week with no holidays. If he took a day off the company took it out of his already very-humble salary. His longest continuous shift, he told me, had been 36 hours.
A year later he left when the company refused his request for two days off each week. He returned to Jaisalmer to work on his passion: coffee. The shop is doing better now and it’s easy to see why: I never saw Pankaj be anything but helpful, kind and honest with everyone who stepped foot in his shop. He also has a mind for business. He sells the artwork that decorates his walls, offers traveling services and we talked about what he might do as e-readers continue to eat into his book business. Once I walked in to find him learning a new way to make coffee on Youtube.
But Pankaj told me business has been tough this year. In September of ’16 an Indian soldier was killed along the border with Pakistan, flaring up an already hostile relationship with Pakistan and causing many governments to issue travel warnings for Jaisalmer. Then later that same year the Indian government, without warning, replaced a large portion of it’s rupee notes. It wasn’t able to supply the subsequent demand for the new bank notes and there was a huge cash crunch across the entire country. Pankaj saw half of the busy season’s business disappear. Between April and August—the off season for Jaisalmer—he might see a customer once every few days.
Pankaj has dreams to lease out a larger space and grow the business but right now all his money goes to supporting his family who depend on the income from his shop. “Everything is going to just surviving.” he said.
This cheap, clean, no-frills guesthouse inside the fort is really good value. Teju, the manager, is very kind and did everything possible to make my stay comfortable.
If you choose to ride out on camelback into the desert (and I’d highly recommend you do) then Teju is your guy. There seemed to be a fair share of bad camel trekking business going on in Jaisalmer but not so with Teju. He organized a really memorable experience and his prices were competitive (be sure you negotiate!). His team was also able to accommodate my gluten-free diet while in the desert which I really appreciated. For more about the Thar Desert and camel safaris see below.
Regardless where you choose to stay, I’d recommend staying inside the fort. When else are you going to be able live in a real life sand castle? Be sparing with your water usage though as the fort’s plumbing isn’t designed to handle loads of water but don’t be fooled by hotels and guesthouses outside that will try to persuade you to stay with them instead. Living in the fort is a one of a kind experience.
The palace itself isn’t overwhelming but the audio guide that was included was worth the price of admission. It’s a good way to get a sense for life in the fort and Jaisalmer’s rich history.
SHOPS WORTH A VISIT
If you plan to do some shopping in Jaisalmer (or anywhere in India) keep three things in mind:
- Every shopkeeper’s got a story. They may be true or they may not be. Enjoy the stories but buy based on what you know for sure: price and quality.
- Negotiate. If you don’t, there’s one thing you can be safely guaranteed of: you overpaid.
- Go alone. If you arrive at a shop with a guide the shop will be forced to pay them a commission for bringing you. How do they afford this? By hiking the price up 30-50%.
Hari Om Jewelers
Three brothers at Hari Om carry on their father’s tradition of unique, award-winning silver work. Each piece is made using a combination of basic hand tools and takes anywhere from a week to months to make. On each piece is carved incredible images of Jaisalmer and other Indian themes. They make silver rings, bracelets, pendants, earrings and do custom work too.
It’s worth stopping by for a chai with them to learn about their incredible work that’s made the famous throughout India. They have two shops in the fort, one at the exit of the palace and the another in a back corner of the fort (turn the right after walking into the main square and right again after passing the temple which will be on your right, then walk all the way down the path). I had a ring made with them which I absolutely love.
Of all the shops I’ve walked into in India, no one seemed less interested in selling me something than Kamal, which is very strange experience in India. Soft-spoken, gentle and always smiling, Kamal seemed truly happy just to have someone there to enjoy his work with him.Kamal works cross legged on the floor behind a small desk at the entrance of his shop. He specializes in incredibly detailed miniature art which he has been doing for over 12 years. There is a noticeable energy in all of Kamal’s work, which he described to me as his meditation. One such meditation was a 2×2 inch tree with 2,880 individually drawn leaves on it.
He makes the paper for each drawing himself from a combination of clay and wood. No piece is alike. After, he rubs the back side with a stone which makes the front side smooth enough for the level of detail that he does. He draws in the traditional sufi style. First he applies a base color. After this no marks can be erased, everything is permanent. He makes all the colors himself from local stones and minerals and uses a tiny brush made of squirrel hair to do the fine detail work—much of which needs a magnifying glass to be truly appreciated. Many of the works in his shop took him months to complete.
Deepak specializes in fantastic, hand-sewn patchwork and quilts made by refugee women from Pakistan who live in the desert. He carries different styles made by muslims, gypsies and hindus. You can find his shop in the back of the fort.
Deepak was a really helpful guy to know. Besides helping me find a very particular quilt he also helped me negotiate very good prices on a large quantity of silks at another shop (without taking a commission), packaged up a large shipment of goods for me, put me in contact with his shipping agent in Delhi and even stitched up a pair of my pants.
Vijay’s shop can be found outside the fort in the bazaar. He continues his grandfather’s leather business and sells a variety of purses, wallets and bags that his family makes by hand. There’s a ton of shops like Vijay’s but I found his goods to be better priced and of better quality than the others I visited. He’ll be happy to show you the leather making process as well.
OUTSIDE THE FORT
There’s a man that runs a small dosa cart outside the fort every evening. You can find him to the right of the main gate (if you are looking at it from outside) just before the fruit stalls that line the fort’s outer wall. He’s usually surrounded by a small crowd of locals, all waiting for one of his tasty masala dosas (fermented crepe made from rice batter and black lentils, and stuffed with potato, fried onions and spices). It’s great as a snack or a light meal.
Just outside the fort, this was my go-to place when I wanted a good curry. Their dishes were always richer and tastier than the rest. They have an outdoor patio with a nice view of the fort.
A small lake that’s only a 15 minute walk from the fort. There’s a temple next to the lake giving it a really nice atmosphere, especially at sunset. Don’t forget to buy a couple loaves of bread for 10 rupees each to feed the freakishly large catfish.
Jaisalmer Desert Festival
I just happened to arrive during Jaisalmer’s annual Desert Festival (also known as the camel festival) which happens every year in February. There was an entertaining Mr. Mustache competition, elaborately decorated camels, camel polo, and various competitions. There was also a lot of standing around and waiting for things to happen so I skipped the final day which was held at Sams Dunes which included camel races. The highlight for me was a showcase of Rajasthani folk songs and dances held on the second night outside the fort. It made for an interesting few days but I wouldn’t base my travel plans around it.
As soon as you arrive in Jaisalmer you’ll be bombarded from every direction with offers of “non-touristic camel safaris.” Don’t let this turn you off—it’s absolutely worth spending some time out in the desert. Visiting desert villages, crossing sand dunes on camelback, cooking a traditional desert-style dinner, watching the sun set and rise and sitting around a campfire on the dunes underneath the stars is a magical experience. At the least, I’d recommend 2 nights and 1 full day in the desert which will give you better feel for desert life than a single night will.
I’d recommend organizing your desert trek with Teju, who is the manager at Temple View where I stayed. Teju runs a tight ship and was extremely well organized and fairly priced. Like his guest house, his desert safari was really good value. If you have any special requests or interests just be sure to discuss them with him beforehand. The guides I went with were knowledgeable and friendly and the areas of the desert we explored were quiet and beautiful. I originally went for just one night but that wasn’t enough and I returned for another 4 nights later on. Had I the chance, I’d have happily stayed longer.