Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jaisalmer, The Golden City

Huldenberg, Belgium: So, as usual, I'm far behind on my posts. I'm already in Belgium and I still haven't got my first Rajasthan post done yet. I blame the computers of course. It may be just that Suwei is not here to help me out with the technical stuff. In any case, I'm something like two or three weeks behind and I'm not going to get caught up anytime soon.

Suwei left for home on the 2nd of October. On the 3rd I caught a train twenty hours west into Rajasthan to the Golden City of Jaisalmer where I stayed until Oct. 7th. Our friend Guru suggested I use my last two weeks in India to see the deserts of Rajasthan. I picked three destinations to visit basing my decision solely on each cities color scheme, or rather the fact that each city actually had a color scheme. I started with gold.

Jaisalmer is called the Golden City because everything there is constructed from the same golden colored sandstone. It's not a large place, easily crossed in 15 minutes or so by foot, if by chance you manage to find your way though the maze of skinny alleyways. Built in 1156, Jaisalmer first found success as a strategic stopping point for the camel trains traveling between India and Central Asia. Now due to the preservation of its impressive fort and its many havelis (exquisitely sculpted stone mansions) Jaisalmer thrives on the tourist trade. A little too touristy for my tastes, but still extremely interesting. Get to the fort early to avoid the crowds.

Most interesting to me was the fact that the town's biggest draw, Jaisalmer Fort, is one of the world's most endangered monuments. About 25% of the city's inhabitants live within the walls of the fort and most of those folks run the many hotels and restaurants that cater to the tourist trade. All of these people are overtaxing a centuries old drainage system that is now trying to cope with 12 times the amount of waste water for which it was originally designed. Since 1993 three of the 12th century bastions have collapsed. There are NGOs working on the problem including the Jaisalmer Conservation Initiative and Jaisalmer in Jeopardy - even Lonely Planet has gotten into the act by encouraging travelers to stay outside the walls of the fort. However, the people living there and relying on the tourists' rupees are not having it. There are signs up all over town reading "Thank you Lonely Planet for destroying our lives". I guess in a way you can't really blame them. The fort has lasted this long. But still, if they loose the fort they will loose everything. I think I'd be looking to diversify.

View of Jaisalmer Fort from Sunset Point

Jaisalmer Fort

Then again, as I was quickly learning, Indians approach business (or at least sales) differently than we do. "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "What do you need?" These are things that are shouted at you constantly. "Burn CD, camera battery, phone home?" One guy followed me for one hour trying to convince me that he was not a tout, he just wanted me to stay at his hotel and eat at his restaurant. The whole time I was telling him that even if he was offering his place for free, I would rather sleep in the street than go with him because he was irritating. "Just look see." I'm guessing that they have enough tourists with over-stuffed wallets waddling by that it never occurs to them that there may be better ways to lure tourists than constant pestering.

My third full day in Jaisalmer was extremely quiet. It turns out, the day before, three Muslim men with a tanker truck killed about 20 to 30 cows in a nearby village. How many cows depends on who was telling the story. I'm also not sure how they were killed...whether they were run over by the tanker truck or if the said Muslims doused the cows in gasoline and had a bit of a roast. This was not clear. What was clear was the fact that the local Hindus were pissed off, and since 80% of Jaisalmer's population are Hindi, they decided to shut down the town in protest. Almost nothing was open except for a few upscale restaurants and some small shops. Although I couldn't check email or buy any snacks, what was very, very nice was that no one was yelling at me for my name or urgently requesting my nationality. I was able to explore the somewhat abandoned fort in relative peace.


Other highlights of Jaisalmer included:
  • A visit to the Gadi Sagar, a man-made lake that was once the water supply of the city. I rented a paddle boat to paddle out to some of the temples for photographs.
  • Climbing up to Sunset Point. Great views of the city complete with magic tricks by dirty street children.
  • Getting lost in the golden alleyways watching pot-makers banging metal, neatly dressed school kids heading home, camel trains dodging rickshaws, 1/2 naked kids with scabby knees playing in the gutters, old women sitting in doorways, men pissing everywhere, children herding goats, and of course, cows everywhere doing whatever they want.
  • Eating great Indian food, especially the Rajasthani specialties with lots of capsicum.

Gadi Sagar

Next stop the Blue City of Jodhpur.

For more pictures of Jaisalmer, check out the slide show here:

Jaisalmer -The Golden City, India


Anonymous said...

I am interested to know why Lonely Planet would want people to avoid visiting the fort instead of staying and contributing to the solution...there are new 2007intiatives happening and I believe Jaisalmer in Jeopardy is gone

Somehowlost said...

Sorry for the slow response, but I've been in the middle of a move to Colorado, and well... I'm way behind on keeping this thing up to date. Will do better when things get a little less crazy. Anyway, I hope you check back as I would like to answer your question.

Lonely planet is not asking people to not visit the fort, they are asking that they not stay there for the night. It comes down to the forts infrastructure. It was built somewhere around the 12th century and cannot support all the waste the tourist industry has to give. They suggest that until the sewage system and the forts foundations are upgraded that it would be best to sleep just outside the gates of the fort. There are many options just outside the fort walls.

When I was there Sept. nothing yet had been down, although I heard talk of the initiatives. Another thing, although the fort gets plenty of visitors, there is no entry fee. None of the money tourist are bringing in is applied to preservation. Too bad.

Anyway, its a great place to visit. I highly recommend it.