It's easy to get overwhelmed in India—the people, the colors, the food! But starry skies and utter solitude are just a camel ride away. Here's how to get away from it all in India.
Nineteen hours of train travel across northern India in a sleeper car might leave anyone disoriented. So you'll understand my confusion when I emerged in Jaisalmer, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, and marveled at what I thought was a lovely sunset. It was actually early afternoon.
It's an easy mistake to make. This ancient city positively glows. Sunbeams bounce off the honey-colored havelis, mansions wrapped in elaborately carved facades of sandstone and wood. Jaisalmer's 12th-century fort rises out of the ground like a sand castle. The city is small and walkable, with excellent food (rich, spicy dishes made with plenty of ghee, or clarified butter) and great shopping. Jaisalmer's artisans are known for their leather and textiles—the region's pagri, or turbans, are among India's most colorful—and their work is often exported to big American retailers, such as Anthropologie. It also has some of the best prices in Rajasthan, which is renowned for the opulent Amer Fort of Jaipur and the lake palace of Udaipur.
But it's the Thar Desert that defines Jaisalmer, rendering it remote and languid and utterly irresistible. Also called the Great Indian Desert, the Thar is 77,000 square miles of mostly scrubby, flat terrain dotted with dramatic sand dunes, like those near Khuri village that push 200 feet in height. Reaching those dunes is easier than you'd expect. Many Jaisalmer hoteliers depend as much on desert outings for income as they do on renting rooms. At Hotel Jeetmahal, a typical converted 18th-century haveli, you can book a trek right at the front desk.
A trip into the Thar generally begins with a Jeep—anything less intrepid wouldn't make a dent in the journey. About an hour in, we traded horsepower for that most ancient of transportation modes: camel power. The camels are every bit as gangly and awkward as you'd expect, but they bow down almost nobly, as if to invite their passengers aboard. As our modest party (two tourists, three guides) made its way across the bleached, rocky landscape, we passed goats and—not much else. For long stretches, the only sound was the musical clanging of pans hanging from a saddle. When the afternoon heat peaked, the guides set up canopies under a shaggy, evergreen khejri tree, and everyone climbed down for a vegetarian lunch and a nap as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
By day's end, although we'd traveled only a few miles farther, our surroundings had mellowed. The setting sun changed the temperature, the light, the air. Soft, tawny dunes suddenly rose and fell toward the horizon, and we slid off the camels and ran along the shifting crests. The two beers we requested in advance were delivered by a fourth guide, who quickly disappeared into the night.
Our camp consisted of nothing more than a few blankets spread across the sand, and even with our view of the security lights from the Pakistan border (15 miles away, the guides had said), we couldn't have felt more alone. At 2 a.m., we were awakened by the stars, startlingly bright in spite of the full moon. It might as well have been midday, we could see each other so clearly. India had supplied another trick of the light, only this time, we were all too happy to be fooled.