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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.



Monday, March 26, 2007

Camel safari in the sand dunes

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Even though most tourist places within a state have same characteristics, some places always tend to be better than others. Jaisalmer is the place which stands out in Rajasthan. It is the ultimate destination in Rajasthan.

I had to take my mother out for a trip on her last visit. Obvious choice would be a location around Delhi or not very far from Delhi as all that I could afford was a weekend. She had seen Agra once and I did not want to go to Jaipur again. Jaisalmer was in my mind for some time ever since I have heard about it. So I started exploring means of reaching there. The 4059 Delhi – Jaisalmer inter city express is the only direct train between these places. The train takes about 20 hours to travel 920 km of distance between these places. But one good thing about is the departure time of 6 pm in the afternoon, which spared me of another day of leave. I had seen snows, backwaters, and lagoons, but never a real desert.

The Journey :
I opted to travel sleeper class at the suggestion of a friend to get a real feel of Rajasthan. Weather was pleasant as the bitter coldness of winter has on its way out. In fact many foreign tourists were also spotted traveling by sleeper class. It is a good choice. One can spare the money of an AC class ticket for spending a night in the desert.

The worst part of the journey was the beginning and the end of it. The train running on office hours turned out to be a virtual local train until Rewari, some 80 km and 3 hours journey from Delhi. It had stopped at almost all stations between these Delhi and Rewari, including the ones about which there is no mention on the time table. The problem remained on return as well, as it reaches Rewari at around 8 am, the perfect office hour time. But beyond that there was hardly any passenger.

The train having 20 coaches plus the engine is one of the longest train I had ever traveled. In fact it was two trains joined together with two different nameplates. Half of the train was detached at Jodhpur to run as Maru Sagar Express between Jaodhpur and Barmer, while the other half continued its journey to Jaisalmer in its original name.

The train has stoppages longer than required. The direction of engine was changed twice --- once at Jodhpur and then again at Pokhran. Remember Pokhran, the place where India conducted its nuclear tests few years back. Beyond Jodhpur, you will have to face the dust attack whipped up by the train running through small sand dunes.

Scarcity of water was visible, specially in the toilets. They were so dirty! Even though the train stopped for almost 40 min at Jodhpur, there is no practice of cleaning the train toilets. It was something strange, specially in a tourist state. The railway had nominated so many stations as CTS (Clean Trains Stations). When we boarded the train for its return journey, I was shocked to find dirty toilets. Fortunately, the train was cleaned at Jaisalmer for its return journey, just before it left.

Accommodation:
I had a list of hotels in Jaisalmer,
downloaded from a website. Unfortunately I could not find the site again. It is a good comprehensive list with phone numbers. (I have the list and can email you if you want) On the station you w ill be approached by agents. Be conservative on your budget and they will take you to appropriate hotel. Journey to hotel will be free. I stayed at Hotel Akashdeep located centrally near the Hanuman Mandir Circle. The 3 bed room cost me Rs.450/-, much cheaper than in Jaisalmer. Within 400 – 500 you will get decent family hotels. Remember the fact that the check out time is 10 am for all hotels in Jaisalmer. One good thing about my hotel is that it had a good Bengali cook in their restaurant. So we could enjoy less spicy food in the roof top restaurant of the hotel.

There are few hotels, located within the Fort. I feel that staying outside the fort provided you a good view of the fort, specially at night. Besides, the fort appears cramped for space with narrow roads. Life outside the fort is more peaceful.

Sightseeing : Day 1:
The normal arrival of Delhi – Jiasalmer Express is about 1 pm. Our train was late by about an hour. You will not be able to make it to Sam sand dunes as you need to leave latest by 3:30 pm. So after getting fresh, you can walk down the narrow lane in the local market to the fort. Jaisalmer is a small place.

Sightseeing : Day 2:
Local sightseeing is of half day duration only. We hired a Bolero from the hotel for Rs.400/-. An auto or jeep would could little less. It started with the Gadi Sagar Lake. A man made lake in the desert which retains water most of the time. Objects of attraction were a large group of catfish which thrives on feeding by tourists.

Next stop was the Jaisalmer Fort, also known as the Sonar Kella, courtesy the film of this name by the legendary director Satyajit Ray. One needs to have a guide for visiting the fort. We paid Rs.100/ -for the guide. The fort is unique because a town dwells within it.There are shops, hotels, havelis within it. They have been running like this for centuries. By the way, the fort looks magnificent when it literally glows with a golden hue in the afternoon or under the halogen lights at night.

Next was the Patwon Havelis. This is a group of 5 magnificent havelis or mansions. The craftsmanship on sandstones is magnificent. Hiring a guide cost us just Rs.20/-. We visited one of the haveli’s own by Government paying nominal charge of Rs.2/- per head. One of the privately owned has been converted into a museum and it costs Rs.25/- per head. These are the buildings where the famous ‘Coming home to Siyaram’ ad involving Richard Gere and Diya Mirza was shot. They will leave you spellbind.

Avoid the Nachna Haveli. After walking down the lane to this building, we found that people are not allowed inside as this is own and resided by the ancestors of the erstwhile prime minister to the state of Jaisalmer.

That was the local sightseeing. After lunch we started off for the Sam sand dunes.

Safari Tours to Sam Sand Dunes:
All hotels will arrange for camel safari tours to Sam or Khuri sand dunes, located about 45 km from town, but in different directions. The best choice is probably Sam rather than Khuri. The charges per head is Rs.750/- which includes cultural programes and diner at a resort near sand dunes (but not on the sand dunes). If you want to stay at the resort, the charges will be Rs.1200/- per head which includes transporting you back to the town next morning. I decided to stay in the resort, because it was not costing me a lot and also you do not come to these places often. We have come this far to see sand dunes and desert, and so why not utilize this chance to stay in a desert for a night. Even cost wise this appeared to be a good option. If I had taken the back by night safari tour, it would have cost me Rs.2100/- plus Rs.450/- (one day hotel charge) plus Rs.200/- (next morning breakfast), totaling at least Rs.2750/-. Further, I would have to find ways to kill time the next day as my train departs at 4 pm. If I decide to stay put at hotel for next day after 10 am, I would have to shell out another few hundreds. Thus even though I had paid Rs.3600/- for the overnight stay in desert, the effective cost was about Rs.600/- or so. Unfortunately, most Indian tourists come do not stay back in the desert resorts. But one should make it a point to stay there.

Sam Sand Dunes:

Magnificent. Spellbinding. Wow!!!........I have no words to describe it. Just be there once and tell me if you beg to differ.

The place is a photographer’s delight. I felt like keep on clicking. On the way to Sam one can have a longer camel ride to the main dune. The charges per camel was Rs.220/-. The camel safari included in package tours are short ones. So one need to bargain about it while booking your safari trip. Spend few unforgettable hours in the golden sand dunes of Sam till the sun goes down in distant Pakistan.

Beware of the charmers or folk performers in the sand dunes. You will feel pity at their repeated ask to let them perform and pay anything you like. But do not get fooled. They are very smart. You will end up paying at least 50 bucks. They are nothing but smart beggars. They thrive on foreign tourists. Thus everyone expects you to spend like them. You hire a camel for Rs.200/-, but the camel boy will expect you to tip him by Rs.50/-. These poor fellows’ lives on the money they earn in these 4 months of tourist season. Jaisalmer is off the limit when it is very cold or very hot.

Night out at a Desert Resort :
We spent the night at the Thar Resort, some 4 km from the main sand dune. The stay at the resort was also a unique experience. The huts had roof made of straws and had no ceilings. Even though we had covered our bodies with blankets, we could feel the strong desert wind hitting our exposed parts all the night. The worst problem was that of mosquitoes. We had to suffer till all of them satiated themselves with our blood. There was no towel or soaps in the toilets. It is designed to give you real feel of village. The food was so so. But the good thing is that we will live to say that we had stayed in the desert for one night. (For good Rajasthani food, go to Choki Dhani at Jaipur). My advice if you are planning to stay back in a resort : Carry your own bath soap, towel and of course – Mosquito repellants.

Sightseeing : Day 3 :
Because of the overnight stay at the resort, we were offered camel ride to another sand dune located few kilometers north to the main sand dune. This dune is about 2/3 the size of the main dune, but it was totally uncrowded, unspoilt as very few people go there. Only tourist I met there were foreign tourists who had probably stayed overnight in the sand dunes. Many intrepid foreign tourists go out on camels for at least a night out in the desert. Cost of this type of adventure safari may be prohibitive for Indian tourist. Further, riding a camel is no fun.

After having breakfast we lazed in the sun to kill time. We had asked for the vehicle at around 12 so that we can go straight to the station. The scheduled departure for train was 4 pm. The resort has no check out by 10 dictat. We could check out at your own pace.

The vehicle arrived on time. Kashim, the driver was a good fellow. On the way, he
asked whether we will like to go to the Kuldhara Heritage Village Ruins. The charges he quoted were 400 rupees. The place is about 6 km off the Jaisalmer – Sam road. The price was a bit high for 10 odd kilometers. As we had time, we said OK, lets go. We paid the entry fee of Rs.10/- per head to the old man manning the gate to the Kuldhara ruins. The more and more we went into the ruins, it appeared that I have seen this place somewhere…. in some film….yes it was in the film Shakti starring Nana Patekar, Karishma Kapoor, etc. Kashim doubled up as a guide. He obviously knew about this place.

This place is worth seeing. Time seems to stood standstill here. A nicely planned village with stone huts, but no villagers. A village where more than 1500 people lived once till about 200 years ago. They left the village within a night following some altercations with the king of Jaisalmer. Wide roads, houses lined up nicely along the roads, wells for waters, etc. They will make you think about their advanced way of life in the heart of a desert. Unscrupulous people have ransacked and spoilt the buildings before Government woke up to declare this as a protected monument. Government has renovated and restored two of the buildings and a temple to give a feel of how it was 200 years back.

There are few other places like the Akal Fossil Park, mentioned in many tourist guides for Jaisalmer. But the locals will say that it is worthless to spend 500 bucks to go to Akal to see plant fossils, unless of course you are a geologist.

We left the place with our heart and souls satisfied. After a brief halt for lunch, we headed for the station to come back the realties of daily life. Jaisalmer trip is history now. But the memories remain. But take my word; Jaisalmer is one of those destinations which one should visit in his lifetime. This is where real Rajasthan is on display. And make it a point to stay in a desert resort.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 3:52 PM | 2 comments

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Jaisalmer : the ultimate destination in Rajasthan

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Think of Rajasthan, and the enduring images of camels, sand dunes, desert, forts and havelis (mansions) conjures up in the mind. Come to Jaisalmer, the only place which offers you all these.

On my reaching there, I could not stop uttering –WOW! What a place! The joy we felt was something similar to what we probably had felt while reaching Lakshadweep. That was a beautiful island in the sea, and this was a small place in the heart of the Thar Desert with magnificent sand dunes.

People from Delhi flocks to Jaipur on weekends. (I too did that once!). After being in Jaisalmer, I found that going to Jaipur is nothing but a wastage of money and time. Jaipur is easily accessible, while Jaisalmer is not. But all beautiful places are not that easily accessible. Jaipur is not beautiful, but Jaisalmer is. Jaisalmer probably receives more foreign tourists than other places in Rajasthan.

Photography was a delight. We spent a night in a resort in the Sam sand dunes, which gave us the opportunity to see two different sand dunes. I am compiling the trip. Meanwhile you can see the photographs on my flickr album.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 6:17 PM | 0 comments

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