Rajasthan: Places to Explore


Jaisalmer and Environs

The stark, compelling beauty of the Thar Desert draws travelers to far-western Rajasthan—for good reason. Jaisalmer, a medieval city resplendent with golden buildings and a towering citadel, is an intriguing city in its own right, and is an excellent base for camel safaris into the desert and for day trips to the photogenic Sam Sand Dunes and Desert National Park.

Jaisalmer seems like a mirage: its array of sandstone buildings are surrounded by the stark desert and illuminated in a gold hue by the sun. The medieval city is defined by its carved spires and palaces and the massive sandcastle-like fort that towers over the imposing wall that encircles the town. Jaisalmer is a remote and unusual city; it's out of the way, but it's worth it if you want to see a different side of India, and definitely if you want to take a camel safari.

Founded in 1156 by Rawal Jaisal, Jaisalmer is on the western edge of Rajasthan's Thar Desert, about 160 km (100 miles) east of the India-Pakistan border. The city started as a trade center: from the 12th through the 18th centuries, rulers here amassed their wealth from taxes levied on caravans passing through from Africa, Persia, Arabia, and Central Asia. Smugglers were also known to frequent Jaisalmer to work the profitable opium trade. The rise of Mumbai (known then as Bombay) as a major trading port in the 19th century, however, began to eclipse Jaisalmer.

Today Jaisalmer draws travelers attracted by the city's fairy-tale architecture and the mystery and harsh, remote charm of the desert. At night the golden fort is bathed in light, which illuminates its seemingly impregnable walls (most of the buildings inside are made out of yellow sandstone).

Jaisalmer is also known for its ornate 19th-century havelis—city mansions with facades so intricately carved that the stonework looks like lace. It's also worth wandering through the mazelike alleys and bazaars, although the shopkeepers here can be annoyingly pushy, perhaps because they see fewer tourists than elsewhere in Rajasthan.

Camel safaris are a good way to see the desert. These are great fun, but choose your outfitter carefully—don't skimp and choose a cheap one. Take a light scarf to protect your face in case of a sandstorm, wear sunglasses, and use sun protection lotion.

In terms of lodgings, you can stay inside the fort area, but most of the hotels and guesthouses are outside its golden walls; if you do choose to stay in the fort, make sure to choose accommodations that use sustainable plumbing methods, because an increase in tourism over the past few decades has led to an increase in water drainage and this, in turn, has caused structural damage to the fort's foundation.

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