Jaisalmer and the Great Indian Desert

We really liked Jaisalmer and I know why: it is small, it is clean, the sandstone architecture inside and outside the fort is stunning and it has a German bakery. Over the past days we’ve been dreaming a lot about food, even Johan. About Schnitzel, about my mother’s meat balls, about Johan’s mothers ‘boerenkool’ and ‘zuurkool met spek en worst’, about my aunties chicken with red cabbage, about cheese cakes, about real German pretzels, about bread with Dutch cheese. I know, our food dreams become very meaty – even mine – as we are in vegetarian Rajasthan and are hardly eating any meat anymore. And then we found this German bakery, fulfilling parts of our dreams: we ate delicious apple pies, cinnamon rolls, cheese sandwiches, nut cakes and bought brown bread for the coming days on the road. Yummy, yummy, yummy, yummy.

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‘Villagers dressed in voluminous red and orange turbans still outnumber foreigners in the bazaar, while the exquisite sandstone architecture of the “Golden City” is quite unlike anything else in India’ is the description of the rough guide, which couldn’t be more true and we are now afraid that we’ve already seen the best of India. Jaisalmer grew rich in the 16th century when the overland silk route between Delhi and Central Asia made it an important entrepôt for goods such as silk, opium and spices. Nowadays Jaisalmer is a major military outpost protecting the Indo-Pakistani border following the wars of 1965, which we noticed on our way to and from Jaisalmer, as the highways  were highly frequented by military convoys, flanked by military stations and overflown by fighting helicopters.

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Two thousand people still live in the Jaisalmer fort. To enter the fort you have to pass four huge gateways, each of them flanked by jewellery, carpet, instrument and other sellers.

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Most impressive are the seven Jain temples inside the fort, connected by small corridors and stairways, which were built between the 12th and 15th centuries. (Jainism is a minority religion in India with the core principle of non-violence. Jains also believe in reincarnation). 

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Are they worshipping Barbapapa?

Are they worshipping Barbapapa?

We also visited the Gadi Sagar Tank, a peaceful lake with sandstone ghats (steps leading to water) and temples staring out at the desert.

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What we didn’t like though were the many people spoiled by tourists. We noticed a difference already on our way to Jaisalmer, when we got pestered by children along the road aggressively asking for money or school pens. And these children didn’t really look poor, they were nicely dressed in school uniforms. Once they even made me stop and tried to pull off things from the back of my bike when I tried to continue cycling. They only stopped when I started yelling at them. Shortly before arriving in Jaisalmer we got annoyed by touts trying to convince us to stay in one of their hotels or go with them on a camel safari. When we stayed at the camp between Bikaner and Jaisalmer the owner warned us about a few villages on the way and told us not to stay there because of ‘naughty people’ (his words). And he was true, even though I didn’t want to believe it, but people were aggressive in the way they approached us, were yelling at us and I didn’t feel at ease cycling alone anymore with Johan far ahead as once a tractor stopped a few meters in front of me and three men jumped off to stop me. Thankfully they let me continue cycling, but as of then Johan stayed close to me.

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Jaisalmer is not only beautiful, the city also has great sales people and even though we didn’t want to buy anything, we couldn’t resist and got ourselves another Christmas present: a beautiful patchwork blanket with an elephant for our bed in our future home. By now it should be on a vessel on its way to Empfingen. And we bought some more shawls, one each, so Johan can wear a Turban and I am warm in the chilly evenings.

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And as we are invited to a wedding at the end of January and our sneakers or embarrassing sandals are certainly not appropriate Johan bought himself beautiful Rajasthani shoes. When we entered the shop the first thing the sales boy said to us was ‘make your bottoms happy’, a nice way to ask someone to sit down.

As I had a bad cough we decided to stay one day longer in town for me to be able to recover. I spent a lot of time on our hotel’s roof terrace overlooking the fort and the city and enjoyed one after the other lemon/ginger/honey tea. You should try that as well, it is absolutely delicious and healthy on top, and definitely better against a cold than hot milk with honey😉. After a couple of days and maybe 20 teas the waiter who was serving us since our arrival asked us before dinner what we would like to drink. I looked at him and asked: “Guess, what I will take tonight?”, and he looked at us, thought a bit and answered: “Beer?” No, we said, try again: “Whiskey? Vodka?” He clearly didn’t get us and was puzzled when we couldn’t stop laughing.

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Despite my coughing didn’t really improve (especially at night) we decided to leave Jaisalmer on Thursday, we were keen on hitting the road again. Our first destination was Ludova, the former capital of Rajasthan, in the Great Indian desert. While there wasn’t much to see anymore, we still enjoyed our ride through the desert as the landscape had changed and with it the vegetation: we spotted for the first time cactuses. Very nice.

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Cycling that day went great and we ended up in Khuri, a small desert village where we wild camped the second time below some sand dunes. Very romantic and this time we could see the stars and I slept through for the first time without coughing.

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For the next four days we continued cycling through the desert on the back roads and very much enjoyed the changing landscape and its wildlife. Despite the many goats, sheep and cows we spotted antelopes, a lot of peacocks and some other birds we don’t know the names of and thankfully no snakes (even though temperatures still climb over 30 degrees Celsius during the day it is too cold for them to show up, and we don’t miss that experience, cobras and vipers are not our favorite animals).

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The going was tough as we often faced headwinds and undulating roads, the desert definitely isn’t flat at all. And if you think the word deserted derives from desert, this surely isn’t the case in India. Wherever we chose to rest, within a few minutes there were people around us, not 50 or 100 as in other villages but up to 10 at times. As they couldn’t speak a single word English they would just stare at us and watch how we prepare lunch.

We again chose a very remote route tourists usually don’t take, hence there were neither hotels nor guesthouses on our way to Jodhpur and we again enjoyed Indian hospitality at a farmhouse and a school, and wild camped another night next to the national highway (a lousy choice, but as we were very late, we couldn’t be picky). The school experience was quite funny, we slept in a classroom and ‘showered’ in another classroom, as there were no bathrooms. It wasn’t only funny but also intimidating for us to see how primitive classrooms are on the countryside. The children sit on the floor on blankets, there is one plastic chair for the teacher and a blackboard. The walls are covered with a few different gods, some drawings, that’s it, all in all a very depressing room.

Our camp in the classroom

Our camp in the classroom

 

The peacock feathers are a farewell present from the farmer's kids we stayed at

The peacock feathers are a farewell present from the farmer’s kids we stayed at

Five days later on December 24 and some four hundred kilometers farther we arrived in Jodhpur. It didn’t start off well, as a rickshaw driver hit my bike while I was standing next to the road and one of my panniers fell off. Johan got upset as the driver didn’t even stop to apologize and followed the coward furiously while I had to unload the bike to be able to fix the pannier again – thankfully nothing broke and hopefully our upcoming experiences in the blue city with the most impressive fort will be better than that.

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