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Footloose in Jaisalmer

A Journey to the Middle of Gunga Din Country

March 15, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

JAISALMER, India — This desert outpost town near India's western frontier with Pakistan seems set right in the middle of Gunga Din country, although its beginnings in 1156 as a prosperous stop on the camel-train route from India to Central Asia predate Kipling's water boy by several centuries.

Successful merchants and other luminaries of those early days gave Jaisalmer its most noted characteristic, the haveli mansions of intricately carved sandstone that have the appearance of jewelry in gold filigree wrought on a grand scale. What is even more startling is that people still live and work in these 12th-Century buildings, akin to fixing dinner, selling carpets, groceries, radios and insurance in a museum.

A quarter of Jaisalmer's population is housed in the original fortification that rises 250 feet from the desert floor. Its labyrinth of narrow streets are teeming with children, camels, goats, cows, iridescent saris and turbans. For some reason there seems always to be a wedding parade of singing young women, fireworks and a small band with batt1701995876every turn.

Exotic is an overworked word, but Jaisalmer has it running through its streets like rainwater during a monsoon, one of the most fascinating towns in memory for us. Where else can you take a camel safari into the desert for a day, watch the sky go up in flames at sunset, sleep under the stars, have three meals prepared and served by your camel wallahs, then trek back to town and be out of pocket only $7?

Here to there: Fly British Airways, Lufthansa or KLM to Delhi with one stop in their home countries, Pan Am with several stops along the way. Domestic lines will get you to New York for a change to Air India's Delhi nonstop. From Delhi take the small Vayudoot airline on to Jaisalmer. Or ride the Palace on Wheels train from Delhi on a seven-day journey through Rajasthan, including stops in Jaisalmer and five other interesting cities.

How long/how much? A day should do it, but make sure it includes an overnight for the spectacular sunsets on the desert. Everything here is inexpensive.

A few fast facts: A dollar recently bought 13 Indian rupees, making each worth .077. As in most of India except Kashmir, October to March is best time for a visit. Walk anywhere in the old city, jeeps available for to and from places outside the citadel.

Getting settled in: Wherever you land, don't expect back-home amenities or even those of a large Indian city. Most overnight accommodations settle for a bed, chair or two and always a bath.

Certainly the place with the most charm is Narayan Niwas Palace (in old city; $22 double). This was an old camel caravan stopping point until 1981, the lobby and lounge, once the camel yard, is open to the sky. What, among other things, sets it apart are the lobby couches: frames filled with sand and covered with bright Rajasthani fabrics.

Rooms are new, with carved-stone bedsteads, baths with open showers. Half-pension here is $35 for two, all three meals for $41.

Palace may not be the exact word to describe this place, but Britain's Princess Anne stayed here, and owner-manager Mahendra Singh just snaps his fingers and whatever you want appears in seconds.

Moomal Tourist Bungalow (at gate to city; $16 double) gives you the choice of a separate hut or double room within the bungalow. Huge beds, matting on floors, fresh flowers in bungalow rooms. Huts are set like a small village, peaked roofs, ceiling fans, more huge beds and simple baths. All meals served.

If you can't get into either of these, settle for the Neeraj (down street from Moomal with about same prices). Again, the operative word here is simple, nothing fancy but you'll be reasonably comfortable.

Regional food and drink: India is a vegetarian's nirvana, the favored diet of Brahmins, the country's highest caste and often members of the priesthood. Menus are still divided into vegetarian and non-vegetarian sections, the latter having dishes satisfying to even the most dedicated carnivore.

Dal , or lentils, are prepared in numerous piquant ways, dal urad being a puree cooked slowly with yogurt, herbs and spices, other versions on the blander side. Cauliflower is at its best here, becoming a delight when curried or in pakoras, a Rajasthani specialty of vegetables coated in chick-pea batter and deep-fried. We also grew accustomed to mattar pannir, cubes of fresh cheese and green peas lavished with spices and simmered in a tomato sauce.

Chutney usually winds up on your table in one form or another, imli chatni made with tamarind, dhanya chatni with coriander and the marvelous mango chutney to enjoy with tandoori meats.

Two non-alcoholic drinks are lassi, a yogurt-and-ground-cumin favorite, and fresh lime juice with soda water, a dash of sugar, salt or pepper. Indian beer is excellent, tap water better shunned for the bottled variety at all times.

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