Udaipur, The Jewel of Rajasthan
It seems like a lifetime ago when we were sitting in our Vancouver condo planning our trip to India. We read so many great reviews about Udaipur as a 'must visit' destination in Rajasthan; in fact it was rated as the world's #1 travel destination for 2008 by a travel website that we cannot seem to remember. It goes without saying that we were very curious and excited about visiting this remote Indian treasure.
Originally we planned to only spend two weeks in Northern India and fly to the Maldives Islands to sample its world renowned scuba diving, but when our tenants broke our lease agreement early we needed to rework the already razor thin budget. Unfortunately the outrageously priced Maldives took the bullet and were eliminated from our travels.
The plan then shifted to Jaisalmer, an isolated northwestern city in the Great Thar Desert, in search of an overnight desert camel safari. I guess it just wasn't meant to be. When we missed our train from Jaipur to Jodhpur we were thrown a curveball that ultimately messed up the train schedules, forcing us to skip it altogether.
We were really hoping that Udaipur would make up for this unwelcomed change in plans.
Labeled as 'the Venice of the East' and 'the fairytale city', Udaipur is built around Lake Pichola and is famed by its marble-white floating Lake Palace. The magical Lake Palace is infamous for being a prime location in the James Bond classic 'Octop**** , a detail that many guesthouses shamelessly promote with evening 'Octop**** showings on televisions that are just as old as the film.
Following a seven hour bus trip from Jodhpur, we arrived in Udaipur puzzled because the city was not what we had envisioned. The desert state of Rajasthan had experienced a long drought and we were told that it was highly likely that the lake had dried up. We imagined a muddy pond surrounded by dusty brown desert hills with the usual heaps of garbage scattered along the water's edge. We were pleasantly surprised that this was not the case!
The picturesque lake was filled with calm water and the surrounding Aravalli hills were actually rolling green mountains with lush vegetation, not what we expected from this drought-plagued city in Northern India. Udaipur is filled with green trees that rise above the many European influenced colonial buildings that blend well with the decorative Rajasthani architecture. As we wandered the narrow streets of the old city we noticed that many of the buildings have detailed Rajasthani artwork depicting ancient wars and past emperors painted on its walls… a cool way to brighten up the city streets.
Udaipur is undeniably the cleanest and most unique city we had visited in India… we quickly understood how the seductive city gained its reputation as an outstanding world destination.
We settled on a great haveli hotel located in the Gangaur Ghat area of the old city, just a stone's throw from the artificial lake and its many ghats. Once again, the star features of this Indian city are its fantastic rooftop restaurants. The sunset dinners were awesome with bright orange, yellow and purples lighting up the clear desert skies. The evenings seemed to beckon the locals to the lakeside ghats to swim, socialize and pray, it reminded us of the holy city of Varanasi. At nightfall, bright colourful lights were used to illuminate the extravagant Indo-Islamic bulbed palaces and Hindu temples.
It was this fairytale setting on the rooftops that had us instantly adding more days to our Udaipur itinerary.
Udaipur is filled with Western tourists, a sight we had rarely seen since the Taj Mahal. Obviously there are pros and cons to being in a tourist location but the huge advantage was that we rediscovered European coffee and afternoon cake… and the French toast with honey was a breakfast favourite. Although the city attracts a lot of visitors it still manages to hold onto its charm and tradition. It's not one of those tourist spots that is swarming with obnoxious party animals... it's more of the tranquil and romantic type.
Cameron was kicking himself that he didn't have more dress shirts made in Vietnam when he had his suit custom-made. India was our last 'cheap' country and we planned on staying in Udaipur for five days so what better place to visit the tailor. When it was all said and done we left with seven new tailored shirts that cost less than a night out at the pub. Hopefully they'll help with the future job interviews!
We spent an afternoon exploring the fabulous Udaipur City Palace, Rajasthan's largest and arguably most spectacular with its views of the lake and distant mountains. The fascinating thing about this palace is that it's actually an amalgamation of five separate palaces that were added by different maharajas over several hundred years (said to be over twenty).
Interesting story - The walking tour of the palace and museum had us passing through tight claustrophobic passageways and stairwells that felt more like a dark concrete maze than a king's palace. We later found out that this was intentional. Throughout history the palace also served as a fortress. Invaders would get lost and disoriented in these tight hallways and not know how to escape. The slim walls forced intruders to enter single file and prevented them from being able to use swords and weapons… pretty smart!
Surprisingly, while traveling through Nepal and India we've rarely indulged in beer or any alcoholic beverages. Probably because beer hasn't been as cheap as we had hoped and drinking is not a popular hobby in this part of the world. That said, on our third night in Udaipur we decided that we were well overdue for a large Kingfisher beer. Most rooftop restaurants were charging 130 rupees per beer (approx $3 CDN), which seemed steep when we compared it to the 300 rupees we were spending for our hotel room.
There is a common bridge walkway that connects the east and west ghats that line the Swaroop Sagar (the inlet river that connects the two main lakes). On a few occasions we were approached by a younger man to "come have a beer at my bar". We'd become so immune to street peddling that we politely nodded and said "maybe next time", as if we were on auto pilot. His persistency paid off with the magical words, "big beer only 100 rupees!"
I'm telling this story because it had us scratching our head. We were escorted to a small room/cafe that faced the main pathway. The empty room was no more than 20 feet by 10 feet. It had tacky bamboo walls and ceiling, child-sized stools and an entertainment system that was a huge hit in 1989. The 21 year old said "please just wait a moment. I need to go and get your beer from down the street". That seemed odd to us because this establishment clearly looked like a bar, and the blasting Black Eyed Peas on the stereo didn't soften that image.
After ten minutes of sitting in this awkward little room we were finally served our beer… in a brown ceramic coffee mug?
"Where is the bottle? And why are we being served in small coffee mugs?", I asked with a little paranoia about having someone handle my bottle of beer hidden behind the makeshift bar. He raised the bottle up to show me, and then hid it again behind the counter.
Clearly there was a reason they were being so low key…. they had no alcohol license. The funny thing is that everything about the joint said 'drink beer here'! They weren't fooling anyone.
We were the only people drinking the underpriced beer but they seemed content… this was the beginning of something very big for them. We had a good laugh with them, sitting on these ridiculous stools watching people pass by (likely amplified by the beer consumption). Every so often a curious cow would cross our path, stop, pause, look at us with confusion, then carry on with its business. It was all so random!
We got to chatting with the owner, the young man's best friend (also 21 years old). The two had big nightclub dreams… and it appeared this bar was their dream come true. They had three young 'runners' to go to the underground beer distributor (aka. neighbouring hotels). Their proud father sat on a ramshackle chair outside, smiling and attempting to be helpful. Their complete lack of business acumen was amusing, but they were living the dream! The whole scene was quite comical.
I had purchased a new daypack in Vietnam and was still carrying the old one around. It was time to get rid of it to make room for the new tailored shirts. I wanted to give it to a school kid in need and asked the owner if he knew someone. He pointed to a kid who was later called over. The puzzled boy said, "Yes. I go to school". I gave him the backpack with strict orders that it was for school. The kid shrugged his shoulders and said thank you politely, albeit in that typical 'I don't really care' tone common in a 14 year old.
The hilarious thing is that twenty minutes after the kid stuffed the bag in the corner he grabbed it again and handed it to an older man who used it to transport new sales items… right in front of me! This random act of kindness was supposed to be a proud moment for me… evidently it didn't land as expected.
Our time in Udaipur flew by. Before we knew it we were back at the train station awaiting our 18 hour journey to Mumbai. The city was more than we had hoped and it showed us what India can aspire to be. Udaipur is well worth the visit if you ever make your way to the frenzied sub-continent.
September 9, 2009