JAISALMER, India — The view from atop the nearly 900-year-old walls of one of the oldest inhabited forts in the world was distracting, to say the least. About 250 feet below me, the sandstone city of Jaisalmer in eastern Rajasthan resembled an earthen cubist painting of angular card-houses, surrounded by an endless sand-and-scrub landscape. Above it all, the evening sky glowed a dusky purple.I had come to Jaisalmer, in the midst of the nearly 77,000-square-mile Thar Desert, to explore this ancient part of Rajasthan and go on a three-day camel trek into the wilderness. Jaisalmer Fort, known as Sonar quila or “Golden Fort” for the way sun lights its sandstone walls from amber to gold throughout the day, was a major draw for my visit.But I soon learned that Jaisalmer has its own charms. Though dusty, the city provided a welcome departure from the grimy crush of New Delhi, where I had entered the country. On the evening before my camel trek, I spent 30 minutes chatting with Dilip, the owner of the government-licensed bhang shop. The shop sells legal preparations of marijuana in edible, or drinkable, form. But a warning: It’s strong stuff.The next morning, I was an early riser and made my way to the office of Adventure Travel Agency, where two other travelers, three guides and I crammed into an old 4-by-4 for the predawn ride into the desert. Over the next three days we’d forgo showers, eat mostly vegetarian meals cooked over a fire and sleep on bedrolls spread out on dunes. Everything we needed we’d carry with us; all of our trash, we’d pack out.After about 45 minutes in the truck, we debarked at the side of a road, where a half-dozen camels grazed on stubby trees near a temporary camp. Once I was in the saddle, Deena, our 20-year-old lead guide, made a percussive “ck-ck” noise, abruptly sending the camel up on its hind legs and nearly pitching me over the animal’s head.We passed by mud-and-straw villages where women were dressed in brilliant red and yellow saris with gold lace details, and men wore red, green or orange paggar turbans. By late afternoon, I caught glimpses of wild antelope grazing on dried vegetation. Eventually, we stopped at a suitable place to make camp: a sand dune rising out of the mostly flat landscape like the back of a serpent. Exhausted from the long day, we unpacked our sleeping rolls. I lay supine for a while, staring at a clear sky filled with stars.The second day was much like the first, but with more frequent stops at small villages, where our guides, who had various religious backgrounds, would say, “This one is Muslim,” or “This one is Hindu.”At each of our stops, a goatherd or a few children joined us to share our food and try on our sunglasses. At lunch, an extended family of 10 led us over a nearby ridge to their small compound, where they showed us their fields of guar and peanuts and offered freshly made goat or sheep curd.“We found a goat,” Deena announced as we stopped to set up camp later that evening. “If you still want it, they will bring it here tonight, and we can make mutton curry and barbecue.”For around 3,000 rupees (about $50), we bought the animal, and an older relative of one of our guides slaughtered and butchered the goat according to halal tradition. By the time the meat was ready, we were three tourists, three guides and a half-dozen men from a nearby village, sitting around three fires and chatting about our lives.As I lay under the stars, I was more ecstatic than the night I tried bhang, and more exhausted than I had been in a long time.
If you go
Where to stay
• Hotel Desert Boys (inside fort, Jaisalmer, 91-2992-253091) has 10 rooms decorated with local fabrics, antiques and mosaic wall pieces, providing a desert-camp style with modern amenities. The rooftop has incredible views. Rooms, with Wi-Fi and attached bathroom, are 1,200 to 2,800 rupees (from about $20 to $47) online, and as little as half that when negotiated in person.
• Hotel Killa Bhawan (inside fort, Jaisalmer, 91-2992-251204; killabhawan.com) has five antiqued luxury “heritage” rooms, with attached bathrooms, $140-$210. There are also three rooms with common bathrooms, starting at $85. Rates include breakfast and Wi-Fi, and access to terraces overlooking the city.
Adventure Travel Agency (fort first gate, near police post, Jaisalmer, 91-2992-25255; adventurecamels.com) is an excellent choice for those who want to see the less traveled parts of the Thar. Owner Indar Singh Ujjwal hires top guides and charges fair prices, though his demeanor can swing between warm and cool. My three-day outing was 1,250 rupees (about $20) a day.