From Jodhpur I hopped onto an over-night train bound for the desert outpost Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is the last substantial piece of civilization before the Thar Desert (also called the Great Indian Desert). This desert forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. Beyond Jaisalmer is nothing but shrubs, dunes, and nomadic goat herders until the border. Although the southern stretches of the Indian-Pakistani border are much more stable than they are up in Jammu & Kashmir, the military presence is still quite substantial. Here’s a map to give you some context:
Arriving In Jaisalmer
I got off the train in Jaisalmer, with reservations at a hotel called the Tokyo Palace. I haggled the price of a tuk-tuk down from 150 INR (2.27 USD) to 30 INR (0.45 USD), so I was pretty proud of myself. My mad bargaining skills couldn’t protect me from the fact that it was 6 in the morning though. When I arrived at Tokyo Palace, the staff was asleep. I woke them up and they put my backpack behind the front desk. They said that I couldn’t check in for another 6 (ish) hours, so I had some time to kill. I desperately needed some sleep, but it wasn’t option at that point, so I went back out to the streets with my camera to wander.
The typical Indian city is filled with stray dogs, and wandering cows. Jaisalmer definitely had its share of those, but there was a 3rd demographic present that was new to me: pigs. Sure, you’ll see pigs in the slums outside of places like New Delhi when you take the train out, but this was different. They were right there, sniffing around the main stretch of the city, and they were adorable. They had babies too! So, ladies, here are some teacup pigs:
As for the actual city of Jaisalmer, it was pretty empty at 6am. Indians are not early risers. I was tired, but it was nice to walk through a city with some personal space for a change. It was an interesting place. At times it felt like walking through a sand castle city. Everything was brown, as if it had been sculpted out of the desert. I was hard-pressed to find a window that wasn’t a work of art, covered in intricate carvings.
The centerpiece of town was a big fortress (pictured above). It was considerably smaller than the one in Jodhpur, so I wasn’t very motivated to spend the time and money to explore it. I had bigger things on my agenda than that.
The “thing to do” out of Jaisalmer is a camel safari. Within a couple hours' drive of Jaisalmer, the dry shrub land turns into a full-blown sandy desert, dunes and all. I was on the fence about whether or not I would do this… I was really tired. I was at the end of my rope with all the traveling I had been doing.
Bags under my eyes, I was sitting at a restaurant on top of a guesthouse, miserably nibbling on some breakfast. During this breakfast a man from the guesthouse who had a stutter approached me solicited me a camel safari, which was run through the guesthouse. I was curious, so I heard him out, but eventually turned him down. After he left, I thought about his offer, and changed my mind. This is the farthest off the beaten path that I would be for the foreseeable future. From here, I would be taking incremental steps back towards civilization. So if I was going to do anything else crazy, now was the time.
Booking My Camel Safari
I called him back over, haggled the prices down a little bit, and signed myself up. I booked my safari through a place called Shahi Palace Hotel. I’d hardly call it a palace, but it was okay. The price was 1,700 INR (25.72 USD). Here’s what that got me:
- I got a nice room with wifi and a shower so that I could freshen up and rest for the 6 (ish) hours I had before my safari was set to depart.
- They stored my bags while I was gone
- I got a jeep ride out to the desert
- We stopped through ruins of something they had referred to as the “empty city”
- A few hours' camel ride out to the dunes
- Dinner in the dunes
- A bed in the dunes
- Breakfast in the dunes
- A few hours' camel ride back
- A jeep ride back from the desert
- Another few hours to rest and clean up in that nice room they gave me before my bus out.
Oh yeah, and they booked my bus ticket back out of Jaisalmer with no commission. It cost 300 INR (4.54 USD). I was a slow to take them up on their offer, but once I had paid, I literally didn’t need to worry about another thing the entire time I was there. After the paper work was done, they put me on the back of a motorcycle so that I could go fetch my things from the Tokyo Palace, which was still hours away from letting me check in. I was dropped off around the corner so that nobody at Tokyo Palace could see who had stolen their business. I went in, grabbed my backpack, and apologetically canceled my booking. They told me that I still had to pay.
“No… that’s what the deposit was for… in case I canceled," I responded, too tired to be annoyed yet.
They angrily insisted that I pay the full rate of the room for the night. If I've learned anything about doing business in India, it's not to bother being polite in situations like this. I gave them a loud "PSH," picked up my bag, and walked out the door to my get away car. Well actually it was a motorcycle. At that point I had been through way too much to be pushed around any more.
Heading Towards Nowhere
I freshened up, had a nap, and then it was time to go. I was led to a worn looking jeep on the main road. I hopped in the back, and after they loaded up the remaining space with bottles of water, we were off.
It took no time at all for what little civilization there was out there to fade away to a raw, inhospitable, scraggly, dust bowl. Out in the distance there was nothing but haze. I pulled my shirt over my nose to avoid breathing in all the dust, and braced myself against the walls of the jeep to keep from being thrown around at every bump and turn in the road, of which there were many.
Eventually we came to a stop on the side of the road. I didn’t see anything much around me, so I asked what we were doing. They told me that I could jump out and see a traditional village here. Looking out across the road, squinting, I didn’t see much of anything. But I hopped out and walked over to what little there was. With this set of pictures, what you see is literally what you get. I had no idea what was going on.
One little boy came up and said “money?” I told him no, so he, seeing the bulge of my wallet in my back pocket, grabbed said bulge. I wheeled around and scolded him. I took a brief walk around this small settlement. The boy followed me the entire time, continuously saying “money… money… money… money… money…”, which eventually devolved into “mehnehhh… meonhuu… muhhhma… mehhneh… mehhgifgiuaiuhksduh”
Just kidding. He was annoying me though. I used to feel terrible about not giving to every poor person that stuck out their hand in my direction, but after over a year on the road, I have become immune to it. I've also come to learn that these people who hassle westerners for money tend to make a pretty good living doing so. And when it's a little kid like this, there's usually an adult behind the scenes coaching them and then taking the money.
THE CURSED RAJASTHANI GHOST CITY
I got back into the car, putting this campsite behind me, and we continued on. We made a few turns off down dirt/sand roads, and eventually we came to what they had called the “empty village”. It was indeed empty. Here's the story...
The city is, or was called Kuldhara, and it was founded in 1291 by the Paliwal Brahmin clan, along with 83 other separate villages in the area. Of these 84 villages, Kuldhara was the largest. Here, in the hopeless shrubbery of the Thar Desert, the Paliwal Brahmin prospered due to their uncanny ability to grow amazing crops in the middle of the desert. These 84 villages flourished here for hundreds of years... until one day, in 1825, they simply vanished.
The story goes that there was an evil man who had a lot of power in the government of the ruling kingdom, and he had his eye of the daughter of the chief of Kuldhara. This evil man's position title was "dewan", or minister, so that's what I'll call him. The dewan came to the chief and asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. The chief told him that it was against their customs to marry outside of their own clan. The dewan grew very angry and gave the chief a deadline on accepting his offer. If the chief failed to accept the dewan's offer by the deadline, the dewan's army would enter Kuldhara, take the chief's daughter forcibly, and slaughter the rest of the Paliwal Brahmin.
The chief didn't know what to do. Finally, he convened with the chiefs of the other 83 villages, and they reached a decision together. To preserve the pride and honor of their people, they were going to leave. Here's where it gets a little weird. All 84 villages - this means thousands of people - left overnight. Nobody even saw them leave either, which is pretty unbelievable, considering the flat terrain and the sheer number of people that were fleeing, but it gets weirder. Nobody even knows where they went! They vanished into thin air! We do know one thing though: before they left, they cursed this village to bring death to anybody that tried to live there in the future.
The theory is that they relocated to somewhere near Jodhpur, but that hypothesis is seriously lacking in evidence. In the mean time, Kuldhara remains sitting in the shrubbery of the Thar Desert as ruins - an actual ghost town. Here are a few pictures:
When we arrived I got out of the jeep and took a look around. Some of the houses had clearly been the subject of some restoration efforts, while others looked like they were as old as they claimed. I walked around through a few houses, but there wasn’t much to see. It was completely in ruins. A young boy, who had apparently been wandering through this ghost town, spotted me and came over to talk to me. He spoke a little bit of English so I was able to find out that he was 14 years old, and lived 2 kilometers away with his family. His family members were likely goat herders or farmers. He asked for me to take his picture, so I did. He did the stone-face, which is cool for a mug shot, but I did my best to explain to him that you are supposed to smile in pictures. Here’s take 2:
We got back in the jeep and moved on. There was another hour or so of driving ahead of us. The farther out we went, the more sand there was, gusting over the road. A child of the North, this reminded me of snow banks gusting over the roads in strong winds. I kept my shirt over my nose to keep myself from inhaling sand. This was just the beginning of the sandiness though.
Off in the distance on either side of us were giant windmills – apparently India is investing in alternative energy. They were everywhere. We had long since been on dirt roads, so I figured that we must have been getting close to wherever it was we were going, but the jeep just kept driving.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity in the uncomfortable, sandy vortex that was the back of that jeep, we came to the edge of India. The road ended a few hundred meters away from a single mud shack. Beyond that was a shrubby, dusty, windswept haze. It was time to strike out into the dunes of the Thar Desert.
To Be Continued...