Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1

9th Feb 2020


Everything that glitters is not gold..except Jaisalmer. Famously known as the ‘Golden City’, Jaisalmer appears like a golden mirage in the middle of the arid landscape of Thar, the second largest desert in the world. A city where its fort still breathes, was named after its founder Rawal Jaisal Singh and translates to ‘Hill Fort of Jaisal’. The city although very small, has a rich history. During medieval times, Jaisalmer had a strategic importance as it fell on the way of one of the two trade routes, which connected India from Persia, Egypt, Africa and the west. The rulers used this to their advantage cleverly as they would charge a tax from the travellers, allowing them and the local traders to become rich. Probably this is the reason behind city’s sumptuous palaces, temples and havelis. However, the disappearance of the overland trade routes in the early 20th century led the city into a decline. Its fortunes later changed towards the end of the century, after the release of Satyajit Ray’s thriller ‘Sonar Kella’ in 1974. The city that had remained neglected for decades suddenly was on everyone’s bucket list.

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 1/10 by Amey Pednekar

Jaisalmer enchants you with its beauty made up by the golden dunes, artistic havelis, mesmerising historical treasures and its enthralling fort, carved almost out of the spectacular yellow sandstone as it glitters under the rays of the sun and guards over the rest of the city.

Arrival in Jaisalmer

Having left Jodhpur late, I arrived in Jaisalmer only in the afternoon around 2pm. My first impression of the city was that it was an amalgamation of modern infrastructure and historic architecture. Unlike Jodhpur, where even the main roads were as wide as the walls in my bedroom, Jaisalmer seemed like someone did put some thought into building it. Also, it’s impossible to ignore just how much yellow the city is, considering most of the old city is made from the spectacular yellow sandstone. The fort itself stands atop a sandstone ridge.

My plan was to leave for the desert post lunch. Jaisalmer has two main options you can choose from: Sam and Khuri sand dunes. Both are located around 40km from Jaisalmer, albeit in different directions. Sam is the more touristy one and has a plethora of resorts to choose from for an overnight stay. Khuri on the other hand is the secluded one and hasn’t seen much commercialization. I was headed towards Sam, as the owner of the guest house in Jodhpur where I stayed had told me about the Desert festival held at Sam Sand dunes. It was the last day of the festival and I didn’t want to miss it. The festival is held annually for 3 days, prior to the full moon night in February. For more information on the festival, you can visit the official website here.

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 2/10 by Amey Pednekar

However, post lunch I realized I was out of cash as well as fuel. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be a problem. But it ended becoming one as all the ATMs in the city were out of cash. Probably not all of them literally, but I visited more than a dozen and those indeed were. The likes of Google pay and Paytm may have penetrated the bigger cities and tourist destinations, but some of the remote ones like Jaisalmer still prefer cash over other mediums. Disheartened, I tried my luck at one last place, the petrol station. I was out of fuel as well anyway, so aside refuelling my motorcycle, I hoped that the authorities at the petrol station would also provide me with some cash in exchange for an online/card transfer. Fortunately for me they obliged and I had INR 2000 in my wallet, which I was very well aware wouldn’t be enough for a night stay at the Sand dunes, but something’s always better than nothing.

With both the tasks at hand done and having spent an unexpected amount of time in the treasure hunt, I finally headed for Sam. The road to Sam is serene and this is where the Jaisalmer Windmill Park is located, which is India’s second largest wind farm.

Sam sand dunes & Desert safari

During the one hour ride, I seldom noticed any tourist vehicles. As I started approaching Sam though, the crowd of tourist vehicles increased exponentially. I was even greeted by numerous signboards pointing towards the resorts that offer different types of packages including camel safari, jeep safari, cultural program and meals. The resorts range from luxurious camps to basic eco-farms to cater to every kind of traveller.

Before arriving in Sam, I imagined the camel safari to be a two hour camel ride into the deep desert, watching the sun hide behind the mountain of sand as it paints the sky red and then return as the twinkling stars announce the day’s departure. The truth is, the camel safari could be that, provided you are ready to empty your wallet. The standard camel safari that most tourists experience is a camel ride to the sunset point in the evening, which honestly is within walking distance and is nothing spectacular. For about INR 1000/camel (the rates plummet as the light disappears), you can enter the relatively deeper part of the Desert National Park but still within visible distance. For a truly ‘Arabian nights’ experience, you need to head to Khuri sand dunes.

Jeep safari includes a fun ride in the sand dunes on-board a Mahindra Thar. It’s called sand dune bashing, wherein the driver basically throws the jeep around in the sand giving an adrenaline rush, while we are left holding on for our dear lives. The cultural program offered by most resorts usually means a folk dance followed by some DJ music. However, there are some resorts that offer an overnight tent stay in the desert under the open skies, which is especially magical if it happens to be a full moon night.

I arrived in Sam with no prior booking and the huge herd of tourists didn’t inspire confidence about finding an accommodation. Half an hour of search brought me to the Payal Safari Camp and I booked the full package that offered both the safaris and meals.

Accommodation: Payal Safari Camp (INR 3000 for one night including meals, camel & jeep safari)

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 3/10 by Amey Pednekar

The camel & jeep safari provided by most resorts is generally in the morning. The evening safari that I mentioned earlier is something you need to pay for separately and is obviously optional. I had skipped it, as it didn’t seem worth the money and instead chose to walk to the sunset point.

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 4/10 by Amey Pednekar

Considering I had already arrived late and ended up spending some more time finding accommodation, I missed most of the activities from the Desert festival. There was barely any time left until sunset and decided to spend it in an isolated spot away from the other tourists.

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 5/10 by Amey Pednekar

If there was one thing I was disappointed and sad about, it was the state of the desert. I had imagined the dunes to be vast and undulating, having seen enough photos on the internet showcasing the typical patterns that are formed in the sand dunes due to wind. However what I saw was a desert littered with plastic bottles, broken pieces of glass (no guessing what that is), wrappers etc. Moreover, the desert had tyre marks everywhere from the jeep safaris and locals pulling off motorcycle stunts in the sand. There are some isolated parts of the desert where you can witness its true beauty, but it’s risky to go there alone unless you are on a safari.

Later, I returned to the resort around 8pm. The resort had set up some snacks and I saw people gathered around the ‘Open Air stage’ and I guessed the cultural program was about to begin. I sat through the program but left halfway when the DJ started playing, post which the scenes looked similar to any pub in Bangalore. The dinner was all local cuisine and absolutely delicious. Local dishes included 'Ker Sangri' (desert beans and capers), 'Kadi Pakoda' (flour dumplings cooked in yogurt sauce) and 'Churma' (wheat flour cooked with ghee and sugar). The DJ fortunately ended by the time I had finished dinner and I headed back to my room for a night’s sleep.

A jeep and camel safari was included in my package and I wasn’t keen on skipping them. The driver of the jeep was ready by 6:45am and I hopped in. There was a family supposed to accompany us but it didn’t look like they were going to arrive anytime soon, so we left without them. The jeep stopped at the sunrise point which offered a pretty unrestricted view of the horizon. Unfortunately, the clouds had decided to play spoilsport as they completely masked the rising sun. The sky had dressed up in its usual blue avatar but the clouds wouldn’t budge.

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 6/10 by Amey Pednekar

I was dejected but was also enthusiastic about the camel safari, especially because I was alone with no other tourists around. This usually means some great photographs. I climbed up the camel nervously and held onto it tightly as it stood up in its characteristic manner. The owner walked the camel about a km into the desert to some secluded areas as he showed me the spot where the filming of ‘Bajrangi Bhaijan’ was done, the particular scene where Salman Khan is shown to cross the border into Pakistan. I hopped down the camel to click some photographs. For the first time during my time in Sam, I had the desert to myself if you exclude the camel and its owner and I took full advantage of the situation. Also considering the place was isolated from tourists, it was a lot cleaner as well. After spending almost an hour there, I finally headed back to the jeep unaware of what was going to hit me only 5min later.

Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 7/10 by Amey Pednekar
Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 8/10 by Amey Pednekar
Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 9/10 by Amey Pednekar
Photo of Tales of the Desert: Jaisalmer Travelogue and Guide | Part 1 10/10 by Amey Pednekar

The driver drove the jeep another km into the desert to a spot where the mountain of sand appeared a lot steeper than I had seen anywhere else in Sam, with some dense tyre marks everywhere. Before driving into it, I remember him telling me to grab whatever part of the jeep that I could as he was about to unleash that beast of a machine.

Those 5min were as good as any of my earlier roller coaster experiences. Later, we headed back to the resort. I had a breakfast of ‘Chola Bhatura’ which again was part of the package, cleared the bill and then left for Jaisalmer city. Overall it was an amazing experience and I promised myself I would come back again, as I wanted to experience the Desert festival in its glory as well as camp under the night sky, in the deeper pockets of the desert.

You can read the second part of my travelogue of Jaisalmer here.

Jodhpur Travelogue

Udaipur Travelogue

Kutch Travelogue