THE GOLD AND THE PINK CITY: JAISALMER, JODHPUR

We switched the bus for a train to leave the Blue City and get to the Golden City of Jaisalmer. Arriving early morning, we already knew where we were staying as a Couch surfer agreed to host us in his guest house on the fort walls. Our host was somewhat lacking the true Couchsurfing spirit as he hosts people in his guest house rather than his home and is using Couchsurfing as a way to get more business. His idea is to get people to eat at his rooftop restaurant and try to sell them the camel safari that his company is doing. Reading his profile on the website, we were expecting this to happen and he did in fact offer us one but luckily he wasn’t pushy about it and still gave us a wonderful room to stay in for free. The room was basic and nice but it was the fact that we were staying inside the fort walls that was amazing. The room had a lovely view over the city and a miniature balcony with just enough space for one person to sit and enjoy it. The rooftop restaurant’s view was equally amazing, looking over the city on one side and over the fort itself on the other. Staying in the only living fort in India was a good vantage point from where we did most of our activities.

Jaisalmer, situated on the outskirts of the Thar Desert, is otherwise also known as the gold city because most of the buildings are made from beautifully carved out sandstone, which under the strong sunlight almost looks like gold. The detailed carvings on just ordinary houses are amazing and breath taking not to even mention the stunning havelis, which are almost like small palaces. We even checked one out, taking a guided tour to get a good idea of how they are built, what purposes do the small details have and how every day life went on the inside. And it was the calm city vibe that we found really appealing as the city is much more relaxed with only around eighty thousand inhabitants compared to other, noisy, bustling and overcrowded cities of India. Other than the city with its laid back street life, we enjoyed walking and exploring inside the fort as well. We visited an interesting complex of seven Jain temples, which reminded us of the beauty we saw in Ranakpur. The carvings here were just as nice but they were made completely out of sandstone and some of the pieces were damaged by the Muslim invaders hundreds of years ago. It was funny to see how some of these pieces have been restored on a level closer to small children rather than carving artists. One piece in particular was missing its head and the head replacement looked like something a child had made out of clay. It reminded us of the common Indian sloppiness we already came across before. Still, the temples were amazing in their sheer amount of detailed carvings and a very spiritual feel to the place.

Other than the city full of golden sandstone and the only living fort in India, Jaisalmer has something more to offer. Given the fact it sits in the desert, it is a place from where you can go on a camel safari. As curious as we are, we wanted the experience of riding a camel and spending a night in the open desert under the stars. There is no shortage of safari offers in Jaisalmer as everybody is fighting for their business and everybody keeps on convincing you that you should do it with them. The funny thing is that everybody was promising the same non-touristic safari with basically the same service but at very different prices. We weight up the options and chose a more basic and cheaper one. The deal was that they would take us in to the desert by jeep, put us on a camel for a couple of hours till we reached the campsite where we would have dinner and spend the night. We would be back at noon next day after some breakfast and another camel ride.

The following day we were in a jeep, driven by an Indian guy named Lemon Soda, on our way into the desert. After about an hour-long scenic drive we reached the point where we had to switch the four-wheel drive for a camel. We’ve never ridden a camel before and it was an interesting experience to try it out. We thought it was going to be similar to horse ridding but the movement of the camel, the sheer height of its back and the awkward position your sitting in make it completely different. The ride wasn’t the most comfortable one but the scenery more than made up for it. The Thar Desert is different to the Sahara sand desert as it doesn’t have so many sand dunes but rather a more of a bushy feel to it with even a tree or two seen in the distance. It was nice to be finally away from the cities and spend some time in the nature, even though a few wind turbines in the distance were somewhat spoiling the view. After a couple of hours of ridding the camels and getting friendly with them we reached the big sandy dunes where the campsite was. Our small group of four joined the nine that where already there and we climbed a nearby wall of sand to observe the sunset and had a very basic dinner after, sitting around the camp fire warming our bodies, exchanging stories and singing. When it was time to go to bed we carried out mattresses and sleeping bags in a bit more remote spot, away from the group in a small sand dune and under the countless stars. We spent one of the quietest nights out in the open, neatly tucked in our sleeping bags, breathing the cold fresh air and gazing at the stars. We woke up just before sunrise and enjoyed a few more moments of calmness before having a light breakfast and a warm cup of tea. We then saw how they clean the dishes, using sand and water they were rubbing out the food remains and we were told they sometimes also use camel dung as a replacement to washing detergent. Shortly after we were back on our camels, making our way to the jeep that took us back to the golden city. We spent the rest of our day relaxing on a rooftop terrace and letting the whole Jaisalmer experience soak in before we boarded the overnight train to Jaipur.

On the train again, we were talking about the travellers we’ve met in the last couple of days. We met and really connected with a Belgium couple, Ann and Manu, with whom we spent some time in and out the fort, sharing a few meals and our travel stories and experiences. It was great to see how other traveling couples get along and function together. Another interesting fellow was a UK traveller named Ben with whom we also connected very easily and got along great on the camel safari. It’s funny how quickly you can make this mostly short term but very pleasant friendships. We also met a funny guy who must be in the running for the “most peculiar traveller award”. He was Swiss and on the road for a couple months already but he was the most undecided person we ever met. It was like he couldn’t decide anything by himself, constantly asking others what he should do or where he should go next. Everybody, also ourselves, tried helping him with his decisions but whatever he decided to do he instantly regretted it and was madly upset by it. He would change his mind all the time and was somehow always waiting for the last minute to make a choice, in his opinion the wrong one. He seemed so unhappy and upset that we were baffled how has he managed all this time and why is he traveling alone at all. You really meet so many different types of people while traveling and we were starting to wonder who we’ll meet next.

When we arrived in Jaipur we went to our next Couch surfing host, this time a typical Indian family. They are living a bit outside the city centre but not too far to easily reach by public transport. They’re a small family: husband, wife and two little girls but their house was very big and spacious. They gave us a private room with an attached bathroom to stay in for three nights. We were very grateful for that and they even cooked a few light meals for us. The husband also gave us a few tips and suggestions of what to see in the city. It was an interesting and nice experience to stay with them but we had some mixed feelings when we left since it was not all that great at times. One of the problems where the girls who, although cute, were little monsters at times. Constantly wanting to play, never taking no for an answer and sometimes violently going through our personal belongings. The other problem was probably the cultural differences. The family, although ready to open to the world, is very conservative and traditional. They just started hosting people with Couch surfing two months ago and were still a bit new to talking to westerners, yet alone having them over as guests. So there were some difficulties in communicating and a true connection between us was somewhat missing and never truly established. They were also desperate for us to cook something traditional for them but since they are Hindu and strictly vegetarian, not even eating eggs, it was hard for us to think of something special to prepare. So we decided to make something simple like applesauce (čežana). But since it wasn’t really a meal, they made some chapattis to go along. It was actually a very good example or metaphor of how we got along: chapatti and applesauce. Imagine the combination. It’s edible but the two tastes just don’t mix for everyone. Joke aside, we where happy to stay there and feel grateful that we could. It was en experience we will remember.

Before coming to Jaipur we were on a good run, seeing so many beautiful and different things and places and it felt that everything was kind off escalating in a very good way. Maybe we arrived in Jaipur with too high expectations due to the recommendations and praise of others or maybe we were just a bit tired, but Jaipur somehow failed to capture our mind and soul like some other places did. The city itself is very big, busy, dirty and loud, so that might have been the reason we didn’t like it as much. Still, we saw some amazing and well worth seeing things. We visited the Amber palace, located just outside the city, with its spread out walls, courtyards, chambers and some very detailed work on its inner walls. It was very nice to see, but we where too hyped up and searching for something special that would really amaze us, but it didn’t happen. In the city centre, we went to see the Jantar Mantar, which is an observatory, full of bizarre sculptures that were once used for different astronomy measurements. A Maharaja that was obsessed with astronomy built it, so this place of odd but precise instruments was born. We had a hard time figuring out how certain instrument work but the sheer oddness was very interesting and also pleasing to the eye. Close to the Jantar Mantar lies the city symbol Hawa Mahal. It’s a beautiful palace, made from pink sandstone, which was used to enable the ladies of the royal household to observe the city life without them being seen. Some times called Palace of the Winds, it’s wonderfully decorated. With the pink walls surrounding the old city, it gives Jaipur its second name: The Pink city. We found other parts of the Pink city to be nothing more than busy market streets, full of intrusive people, loud rickshaws, rotting garbage and of course cows.

Therefore our Jaipur experience wasn’t the best one but considering everything it was still O.K. It was also our last stop in Rajasthan as we already booked our train tickets to Agra. In the end we found out that Blue and Gold are much nicer than Pink and we left Jaipur with a bittersweet after taste of chapatti and apple sauce.

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