Jaisalmer is the farthest West in Rajasthan you can go and still be in some sort of built up area. Continue West and you hit harsh desert conditions in what is known as the Thar Desert, continue further and after about 70 miles you will hit the Pakistan border, which is essentially an arid region where if the heat doesn’t kill you, a bullet to the head will.
Put simply, India and Pakistan aren’t the best of friends, and haven’t been for years. I was talking to an Indian guy who was telling me that his family lived in Pakistan near the border. He came to Jaisalmer to look for work and brought his wife, what used to be a quick camel ride back into Pakistan is no longer the case. Anyone caught crossing back into Pakistan will be shot dead without question. The only way into Pakistan now is to go up into North West India and cross at the single, official border crossing. It’s a 3 day journey and is beyond the financial reach of most working class Indians thus destroying and dividing families. It is probably no coincidence that when India declared itself a nuclear power in 1998, the testing was done in Western Rajasthan, close to Pakistan.
I had no idea what to expect from Jaisalmer, towns/cities in India tend to be huge sprawling metropolises with millions of inhabitants – India after all is home to over a billion people.
So when we pulled up at the station and saw nothing but a sandy train station I wondered just how far out of town we were. I told a tuk tuk driver where our hotel was and he said 20 rupees, which is suspiciously cheap from a train station. Minutes later we were at the hotel – Just how small was Jaisalmer I wondered. Our hotel was a dive and so we bailed and found a better one a few minutes away. We checked in and set off for some lunch.
Jaisalmer is famous for being a desert oasis and is overshadowed by the huge fort which sits above the city in its sand stone glory. It is a sight to behold and looks breathtaking. Inside the fort is a maze of alley ways and bazaars. We got lost plenty of times and loved it.
When finally we found the perimeter wall we had a great vantage point over Jaisalmer, as we looked down Charlie took the words out of my mouth and said “It’s tiny dad” He was right, Jaisalmer is small. We could see for miles into the desert, it was beautiful. There was a cannon pointing off the edge of the fort and the kids straddled that as we looked out across the seemingly infinite desert.
There isn’t a great deal to do in Jaisalmer and so most travellers use it as a spring board to mount camel safari’s into the Thar Desert. It was the reason we had come and so we set about sorting one out. Many places offer safaris and the standards vary greatly. With this in mind I went to a place that is reputable amongst travellers called Sahara travels, it is at the First Fort gate and run by Mr Desert. Mr Desert is the typical looking desert guy, with the full facial beard and funky twisted moustache, in full Arab attire. Behind his desk is a picture of him in his early days smoking a cigarette. All over the room is old stock posters of him when he was a model. A really friendly guy, he asked what I wanted, listened, made a few suggestions and then gave me a price.
I basically said I wanted to travel deep into the desert by jeep and by about 5pm all have our own camel and then walk across the sand dunes as the sun sets – Just the three of us and a guide. I wanted to find a campsite where we could have a bonfire, food and some dancing/music in the middle of the desert. Then I wanted to sleep under the stars, but on beds in case of snakes. In the morning we would have breakfast and then as the sun rises ride back across the desert on the camels. Meet up with the Jeeps and then get taken to the bus station and loaded onto a bus to Jodhpur. I wanted to be in Jodhpur by about 9pm Saturday night. He said he could do all that, for 2400INR which is about £30. The only thing that might have to change is if Abi can’t/won’t ride a camel on her own. She seems up for it, but we’ll see. Charlie has already found out how to make his camel run and so he can’t wait to race off!
The following morning we hired a Jeep for 600INR to take us out into the desert for a few hours. The guy was breaking the land speed record as we avoided camels, left the ground as we jumped sand dunes and looked out for goats that were just randomly roaming around. All this to the sound of some Hindi music blasting out and with the windows open; Amazing! After about an hour we were far enough into the sand dunes that there was no one around for miles. Gone were the occasional mud huts, goats, we were in complete isolation. The driver stopped and the kids and I said we’d be back soon.
As we struggled to walk on the sand dunes we realised three things – First of all it is very hard and tiring walking on sand dunes, second, the sand is extremely hot (it was about fifty degrees that day) and third, we were alone.
We walked for about half an hour and played around on the dunes, sliding down them, struggling back up them. Abi was digging holes, Charlie doing summersaults off the top. Some of the dunes were about forty foot high and so they were perfect for throwing yourself off the top. The heat was brutal and it sapped every last drop of our energy, but it didn’t matter. We were in a world none of us had ever experienced, it was special.
Jaisalmer always had just one purpose, but we really relaxed there. The heat during the day was excruciating and so the shade of the bazaars in the fort was greatly appreciated.
Jaisalmer is one of the few places in India where Marijuana is legal – In a certain form. There are several ‘Bhang shops’ these are government approved shops that sell drinks (Lassi’s) laced with Cannabis. They are renowned for being extremely potent and have wiped out stoners for days and I have not heard a single good thing about them – Not that I would touch them anyway.
Another interesting, yet sick fact is that the average age girls here get married is between the ages of 7 and 11. Generally when a girl has her first period she is good for marriage, usually I don’t judge cultures but that is hard to come to terms with. The girls usually marry men around 30 years of age and with the utmost of respect to tradition and culture I find it deeply disturbing, disgusting and sickening that this goes on. I find it abhorrent that the government and international community do nothing to stop this sickening abuse of young girls and that it is accepted as the norm. In my mind no girl so young can consent to sex and so the reality is rape and child abuse is accepted and encouraged. The men that find these young girls sexually attractive are deeply disturbed and the families that encourage it disgust me.
75% of Indians live in rural villages and so it is impossible to regulate, but it is disturbing nonetheless and as a parent I can’t help but feel so sad for these poor little girls and the childhood, innocence and freedom they have taken from them by the very people who should be protecting it.
It’s so sad.