Six hours after leaving Jodhpur a giant sandcastle appeared on the horizon, we'd reached Jaisalmer (pronounced Jay-sal-meer), the Golden City of Rajasthan, situated in the heart of the Thar Desert.
Although the journey took two hours longer than anticipated, long-distance Indian bus travel isn't bad at all. While there's precious little room for your luggage - we squeezed our bags into the footwell and wedged our feet on top - there's plenty of stops for chai and snacks. As seats only need to be booked 24 hours in advance, it's a great option if, like us, you don't like to plan too far in advance and, at less than £3 each, it's excellent value for money.
Of course, we were the only foreigners aboard the bus and a cause of great interest to our fellow passengers, in equal parts both fascinated & horrified by our pale faces. One child even burst into tears when Jon waved at him. The female passengers completely covered their faces with their pallus (the loose side of the sari) whilst the men wore turbans tied in a variety of ways, denoting both their tribe and their rank. At one point we were joined by a group of bare-chested, lungi-clad pilgrims, carrying tridents with their faces painted with tiger stripes - but everyone found us far more interesting.
Jaisalmer was founded in 1156 by the Rajput leader, Jaisal, and the clan continued to rule the city until independence in 1947. The early years were tempestuous as the city leaders relied on looting as a source of income but by the 16th century, Jaisalmer was prospering from its strategic position on the camel-train routes between India and Central Asia. During British rule, the rise of the sea trade and railways saw Jaisalmer's importance and population decline. Happily, the city's fortunes have revived in recent years with the advent of tourism and Jaisalmer is now one of Rajasthan's biggest tourist destinations.
Jaisalmer's fort is a living urban centre, with around three thousand people residing within its walls.
We'd been advised not to stay in the fort as habitation, driven in no small part by tourism, is known to be causing irreparable damage to the monument. Instead, our base was the Toyko Palace, a modern, traveller-friendly hotel carved from the local sandstone and less than a ten-minute walk away.
|The Toyko Palace|
Our deluxe room (£20 a night) had a lovely window seat, ideal for watching life unfold on the streets below. But there was no time for lounging around. As soon as we'd unpacked we headed off to explore.
Jaisalmer's narrow lanes are lined with houses and temples, handicraft shops, guesthouses, and restaurants. After the relative quiet of Jodhpur, the busy city was a shock to the system, with large Western tour groups, touts, hawkers, and shopkeepers plying their wares.
Within the honey-coloured city walls lie some of the grandest havelis ever built in India, the former residences of Jaisalmer's merchant barons.
Patwa-ki-haveli is the biggest in Jaisalmer. It towers over a narrow lane, with intricate stonework carved so finely that it resembles golden lace. Divided into five sections, it was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who made their fortune in brocade and jewellery.
How beautiful are these handpainted walls?
Although there are several different entrances to the house, the privately-owned Kothari's Patwa-ki-Haveli Museum is the only one worth the 200 rupee admission fee (approx. £2).
Nathmai-ki-haveli was built by two architect brothers, who each worked independently on his own half. Although the interior is gorgeous, if you look closely you can see slight differences in the carving. The haveli served as the prime minister's residence in the late 19th Century.
The paintings on the first floor were created using 1.5kg of gold leaf.
Still inhabited, the lower floor of the haveli has been turned into a shop by the ancestors of the family and although entrance was free, a donation (or a purchase) is appreciated.
Curiosity sated, for the time being, we returned to the Toyko Palace for dinner. When we'd popped up to the rooftop restaurant earlier for a drink, we were disappointed that the only beer available was an extra-strong imported lager and commented to the manager that as we were in India we wanted to drink Indian beer. He promised he'd get some especially and, true to his word, there was an ice-cold Kingfisher (or three) waiting for us. We were going to enjoy our stay!
For more photos, see HERE.