With its sandstone fortress rising out over the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer feels like it belongs to another world, never mind another century
Rajasthan loves its nicknames – there’s the blue city (Jodhpur), the pink city (Jaipur), the lake city (Udaipur), and the golden city (Jaisalmer) – all of which sound very alluring. But while they smack of something dreamed up as marketing ploys by a tourist board, there’s plenty of substance behind the slogans. Jodhpur really is a haze of blue, Udaipur is a place of tranquil waters – well, unless there is a severe drought – and Jaisalmer is indeed a yellowy-gold.
Given its location way out west near the border with Pakistan, and the fact there are so many other ‘themed’ cities to visit in the vast state, you’d be forgiven for considering skipping Jaisalmer. For sure, it’s a long way from anywhere (Jodhpur is a 300km drive away). But anyone whose imagination as a child was captured by stories of citadels, deserts, and grand warring tribes will feel right back in the pages of a storybook.
As you approach across the plains and start to see the vast impenetrable-looking fortress come in to view, it’s an awesome moment. Today, though, you don’t have to fight battling Rajputs to enter the city walls, just the touts – and as you make your way up through the 12th-century fortress, the streets narrow and you become pleasantly lost in a warren of fabric shops, temples, and the famous elaborately painted houses – these are the old mansions, known as havelis, that were built by the rich merchants.
One of Jaisalmer’s best havelis is Patwon ki Haveli, a monument to excess, with its numerous balconies. You should also make time to see inside the Jain temples, which are packed with intricate carvings.
Manak Chowk is the typical Indian market experience (bustling is an understatement) and if you’ve yet to see one on your travels, this is one of the best. There are stalls piled high with numerous spices, bubbling cauldrons of fat cooking up bhajis, and cows obstinately blocking every path.
When your energy levels are flagging, there are a number of rooftop restaurants in Jaisalmer – and they offer the perfect respite from the chaotic streets below. Among the best is Trio, with views out over the fort – even more stunning when lit up at night. With its tented roof, Trio is an atmospheric spot. Try the regional specialty of desert beans - asparagus they’re not, but you’ve got to say you’ve tried them.
Given the pressures on the infrastructure inside the fortress-town, it is better to stay outside the walls – you can also enjoy the view of the city at sunset, when the sandstone citadel is at its most golden.
Fort Rajwada is the upmarket pick of the bunch. Like a Disneyfied Jaisalmer, this modern hotel has been built to resemble a fortress. The theatrical interior – it was created by an opera set designer – is all marble floors and myriad archways, with 450-year-old carvings and balconies adorning the lobby. There are all the things you need to escape the desert heat – namely a delightful courtyard pool, air con and tranquil bar with ice-cold gin and tonics. The evening barbecue by the pool is a refined affair – and delicious.
Taking a camel for a ride through the Thar Desert is one of the big attractions of Jaisalmer. Consequently, don’t come expecting a desolate Lawrence of Arabia experience, as you’ll be sharing the desert with a fair few others. And romantic it’s not – the camels fart like crazy and you’ll find sand in places you didn’t know existed for days afterwards. Still, it is great fun, especially as you watch the sun set over the rolling dunes.
While Jaisalmer and the surrounding area do feel straight out of a storybook, if you were more the sort of child that loved the Brothers Grimm rather than enchanting fairy tales, then feed the catfish on the lake – it really is a hideous spectacle, with hundreds of the utterly revolting beasts fighting over your scraps.
Fly to Jodhpur from the UK via Mumbai with Jet Airways – flights take from around 11 hours. From there, you can take a train (six hours), deluxe bus (just over five hours) or hire a car with a driver. Dominion Travel organises tailor-made tours of the region. There are some peak season flights direct from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer with Kingfisher Air.