Day 134: Jaisalmer, India. We started the day with a lazy breakfast on the rooftop, with sensational views across Jaisalmer fort and the surrounding city. The heat was already rising rapidly, with temperatures set to reach an intense 37C during the day.
After breakfast, we threw on our day packs and headed out for a walk around the old city and fort. The population of Jaisalmer is small – the last census (from 2011) showed a district population of around 700,000, with only around 65,000 living in the city itself. The city relies heavily on tourism, with the opportunity to spend some quiet (if dusty and hot) time in the Thar desert astride a camel a top attraction for people around the world – though some reports say tourist numbers have been falling.
The tourist season seems to be slow kicking off this year though – good for us, not so good for local businesses. As we walked down through the old city, tourists were few and far between, and shop owners and stallholders were calling out, desperate to sell us something. Including a man who sells a range of ‘magic bed sheets’. The mind boggles.
We reached the fort and started with a stroll around the perimeter. There’s a narrow path that runs the whole way around the battlements, though it occasionally requires a little scrambling in parts to navigate piles of bricks and rubbish. Plus the odd dog.
We stopped for a few minutes at ‘sunset point’ – an elevated platform with an old cannon and spectacular views across the city.
And of course there’s always one goofball who has to stand too close the edge.
The fort is a fabulous old sandstone construction, built in 1156 by the Bhati Rajput ruler, Rawal Jaisal (from whom Jaisalmer gets its name). It’s one of the few ‘living forts’ in the world (another example being Carcassonne, France), with over 4,000 people living within its walls. For the better part of its history, the fort contained the entire city of Jaisalmer – it was only in the 17th century that the first settlements were built outside the fort walls, to accommodate the growing city population.
It’s fascinating wandering up and down the tiny alleyways within the fort boundaries, and amazing to think that so many people still live there operating tiny handicraft shops, restaurants and cafes. There are lots of great havelis, most doubling up as hotels these days. At times it felt like we were living out a fairytale.
Jim was a little challenged by the tiny door sizes – they make you wonder just how small the original residents were.
We stopped for coffee at one of the many cafes inside the fort. We were the only people there, apart from a family who came in to take some photos, and left without buying anything.
A slightly irritating guy blocked our route as we walked through the fort square and waved us into the Fort Palace Museum, which has a ridiculously overpriced entrance fee. An inscription in the visitor book written in monster capital letters (‘SERIOUSLY OVERPRICED ENTRANCE FEE AND SOME EXHIBITS CLOSED, NOT A GOOD EXPERIENCE!’) indicates we aren’t the only ones who think they’re overdoing it. It was also more than twice the entrance fee advertised online, so we’re wondering if it may be a sneaky way of making up for the tourist shortfall.
It’s typical that historical sights charge a ‘camera fee’, however this one wanted money for taking snaps on mobile phones too. Exasperated, we said no. As we walked around, security guards were prowling everywhere, desperate to catch out anyone who dared to sneak a pic without paying the fee. And even more infuriatingly, one of the security guards wanted us to give him some money as a tip for telling us the name of a character in a painting.
Lil got our her phone to look at her compass app while we were on the rooftop, which has an amazing 360 degree view, and the nearby security guard looked like was getting ready to wrestle her to the ground. She was so incensed by the whole thing, he would probably have come out worse off if he’d tried.
The good news is that if you do manage to take some pics, a local business will burn them onto a CD for you.
Perhaps the worst thing about the Palace was the horrific smell of bat poo – it was so bad that one little kid was crying with a tissue clamped over his nose. And there were hundreds of bats hanging from the ceilings around the building, continually adding to the piles of bat poo and smell. Even some lit joss sticks couldn’t mask the odour.
On the way back to the hotel, we poked our head into one of the local wine and beer shops (five alcohol shops seem a little excessive for a town of this size, but perhaps it’s an indication of how little there is to do). Their limited choice of red wine came in two temperatures – bubbling hot from being on the shelf in the sun, or freezing cold from the ice cabinet where the beers are kept (we decided to give it a skip). And of course, they tried to rip us off quoting a price 30% higher than the government web site, which controls liquor prices. The price rapidly decreased as we walked away, with the shopkeeper shouting after us as we walked down the street.
We sat and read for a while on the rooftop, then scrambled up to the top deck above the restaurant to watch the sunset – an incredible fiery orange ball sitting right above the desert. Sadly our phone pics don’t do it justice (but on the plus side, the hotel doesn’t charge a camera fee).
We had dinner on the rooftop again – while we were ordering a live Indian folk band was setting up behind us. They came and asked Lil her name and dedicated one of their local Rajasthani songs to her. There’s no way Shazam could hope to recognise that one.
The music was interrupted at one point by a loud shriek from Lil as a large black bug landed on her. The sort of bug that no amount of insect repellent is ever going to discourage.
And so to bed for another good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’re planning to walk to one of the nearby lakes with the hope of spotting some local birdlife. And hopefully there won’t be security guards enforcing crazy camera fees.