When we decided a vague route around India we knew that we wanted to go to the desert and see the camels. Everyone we had spoken to who had been to India told us go to Jaisalmer, go on a camel safari and see the desert. It sounded a bit like one of the things that are created for tourists that you are not really sure is worth doing, but kind of feel obliged to because you are there and that’s what you do. I’m pretty sure the locals don’t ride off on camels and sit in the desert and look at desert stuff (actually that sounds really like what the locals would do) but we thought if everyone says go, we must be polite and do what they say.
With our route to Jaisalmer booked, complete with camel safari trip and a night in the desert awaiting us, we made the long train journey to an area within spitting distance of the disputed land between Pakistan and India. Due to fairly heightened tensions at the moment the town was fairly quiet (that’s what the hotel said), however if anything it only made the actual town of Jaisalmer even better.
The town is situated around a large fort, which is built on the one piece of topographical excess on an otherwise flat piece of earth, aka a large rock. From a long way you can see Jaisalmer stick up out of the barren desert like a massive great thumb trying to a hitch a ride to somewhere with a wetter climate.
Most of the hotels are situated outside of the fort, but the fort is where you want to spend your days. While most of the forts in Rajasthan are just for tourists and are mostly given over to museums and gift shops, Jaisalmer is a living, working fortress. Within the impenetrable walls that would make attacking it seem like a useless idea, you find an absolute warren of tiny alleys and covered walkways filled with shops selling travelling trousers, mysteriously unique antiques that seem to be the same as the shop next door, a vast number of book sellers and of course the many leather sellers that you can recognise from the heady smell of dyed cow. If you are able to maintain your sanity as you say ‘no thank you’ for the hundredth time, getting lost in the town is incredibly enjoyable. You go in through one route, down a tiny meandering alley, making your way around a cow that’s decided to pretend to be a roundabout and find yourself emerging on the city walls by a cannon, to look over the vast desertscape that extends as far as you can see all the way to Pakistan.
However, once you’ve had your fill of the town, a camel safari is what’s in order. We were picked up towards the afternoon and headed off in a fairly beat up old 4×4 (the amount of damage a slightly worrying indication of what could happen) to a village situated in the desert. The use of the word desert is very much in the literal sense. If you want endless sand dunes then this desert is not the one for you. There are sand dunes but these are very much pockets of sand and while you can find a place where you can’t see anything but sand, if you go a few hundred metres in any direction the scenery will change back to trees.
After hanging around in the village, apparently waiting for our trusty spitting steeds to be prepped and given the necessary pre-match talk, we headed out to meet them. If you’ve never been on a camel they really are fucking tall. Having clambered onto its back, the lofty journey from sitting to standing feels like you are taking a ride on the BFG. The cumbersome nature of their long legs and the awkward to and froing of their ascent makes for a good balancing act which regardless of how cool-headed you are will always make you look like you’re going to shit yourself.
Having managed to stay on the camel, feeling smug (for the moment) we had decided not to pay the extra travel insurance for camel rides, we marched off into the desert scrub land led by a group of desert dwellers. The lopping camels actually keep up a good pace as their long legs swing forward like massive twiglets balancing a human pork pie on top. As we made our way through the scrubland, we headed into the dunes and worked our way through the still incredibly hot afternoon sun to a ridge of sand to watch the sunset on a perfectly flat horizon. This alone made the trip to the desert worthwhile, if was absolutely beautiful and was genuinely like something from a film. To the back of us we could only see sand, camels, and a few locals seeing if tourists had accidentally brought too much money with them and wanted to let them generously take the weight of it off their hands. To the front was almost nothing, a vast landscape of sand and trees that looked more like something out of Star Wars than anything I’d seen before. The sky changed from pastel blue to orange, red and finally to purple as the massive orange orb of the Sun made it’s way beyond the horizon. With a grin and glassy-eyed happiness smacked across our faces we made our way back to the village like the happiest looking zombies you’ve ever seen, really not sure whether what we had seen could have been real.
Back at the village we were treated to a feast of desert food. To be honest I am not sure what much of it was. As I tried to ask what each thing was the response was: desert aubergine, desert beans, desert pudding. We also had ‘normal’ (the chef’s words) potatoes, a delicious spicy tomato soup which is very similar to sambhal and the most delicious yogurt curry.
With most things being desert versions of their less sandy cousins, we ate it all up realising that whatever it was, desert food was incredible. The yogurt curry was the best. It was a fairly thin yogurt-based sauce that had been spiced with a masala mix that must have contained turmeric, coriander, cumin and chilli. The only thing on the menu which I really had no idea what it was were the desert beans. These were beans about the size of butter beans and stalks that were fairly similar to samphire, only a lot less salty. If you were okay with the slightly woody texture, they tasted delicious and had been delicately spiced with cumin and coriander and then roasted near an open flame. The food tasted like very little we had eaten before in India, but also fairly familiar at the same time. Having spoken with the cook after, he assured us it was to do with the fact it was all freshly made rather than using sauces made earlier in the day as many Indian restaurants do.
With bellies full of desert vegetables we then headed back out into the desert, being pulled by a camel and cart to the dune we had watched the sunset from. When we got to the desert, far away from the lights of the village, we slowly crept through the dunes which were illuminated to near daylight levels by the moon. Thinking torches necessary we never touched them, as we instead become slightly entranced by seeing lunar shadows and everything bathed in a surreal white light.
We made our way to the middle of the dunes so that you couldn’t see anything but sand and set up a camp bed covered with blankets and lay looking up at the sky that became even more illuminated with an endless sea of stars. While I had not imagined the desert to get quite so cold at night, my head froze to the point I thought it genuinely might fall of it I touched it, the night in the desert was one of the most unforgettable experiences I have ever had.
If you find yourself in Jaisalmer, or Bikaner, then go on a camel safari. It may seem like a bit of money at the time but the food and the whole experience is worth far more than they will charge. Regardless of how cold you get, the journey back through the early morning sun will thaw your head and you’ll be back into the sweaty magic of medieval Jaisalmer.