|Our Really Big Adventure|
Udaipur - Rajasthan
| Udaipur, set amid
lakes and dotted with palaces, is renowned as one of the most romantic cities
in the world, and from the beginning the omens were good. We arrived refreshed,
having travelled overnight from Delhi in the very posh A/C 2-Tier class
(premium business class, if you like). When we got to our hotel, we left
our bags in the rickshaw it looked too upmarket and we didnt
think it would fall within our $10 limit. Luckily it did, as Caelen would
have had to drag me kicking and screaming away from the swimming pool.
Rajasthan in May is hot - very hot. Being neither mad dogs nor Englishmen, we spent the early afternoon lolling around testing the air conditioning (it worked). At 3pm, naively anticipating that the heat would have begun to fade, we headed out for some sightseeing. Our whirlwind tour of the citys sights gave us a real flavour of the magic of Rajasthan, and we were sorry we didnt have more time and lower temperatures to explore the region. Long a series of proudly independent states, the culture and history is rich and distinctive. Udaipur is a city of heroes and the most popular of all is Chetak, loyal white charger of Maharana Pratap Singh. In 1576, defending the city from the Mughals, both Maharana and horse were injured in battle. Chetak carried his master valiantly to safety before breathing his last, and the steed has been venerated ever since. Without realising its significance, we had travelled from Delhi on the Chetak Express. Chetak Taxis and Chetak Couriers did thriving business, and wherever we went there were Chetak paintings, statues and postcards.
Udaipur is known as the City of Lakes, but its been five years since the last good monsoon, and now its more like the City of Small Ponds. Lake Pichola, in which the famous Lake Palace Hotel is situated, has dropped several metres and the hotel can only just maintain its floating palace illusion. A visit to the Lake Palace is on the must do list for most tourists in Udaipur, but we had been warned about extortionate prices and dodgy food, so we headed elsewhere for a blow out meal. The five-star Trident Hotel is set on the opposite, quiet side of Lake Pichola. Set in extensive grounds, it exudes understated colonial opulence. The staff manage to combine supreme professionalism with a relaxed, friendly manner. Even in India, this does not come cheap, and rack rate at the Trident is around $200 a night. Despite our backpacker status, both Caelen and I have spent enough time in upscale hotels on expense accounts to feel quite at home in such surroundings, and as we enjoyed a perfectly chilled pre-dinner beer on the terrace, we clearly convinced the management that we belonged. Over dinner, they asked where we were staying and how much we were paying, then offered to match that if wed like to move to the Trident. Chuffed though we were, we decided to stay put.
In proper colonial style, we set out on horseback the following morning. The countryside around Udaipur is dry and desertlike, studded with rocky hills that rise sharply from the plains. Here, only a short distance from the city, dress and customs are different. Women in India usually dress colourfully, but here the yellows, oranges and pinks were almost fluorescent. Married women hid their faces completely with their scarves, covering even their eyes. As my horse trailed behind Caelen and our guide, the women would often lift their veils to smile at me once the men had passed. The series of poor monsoons had hit these rural communities especially hard. Poverty deepened with each bad harvest, and with the desiccation of the soil the daily grind of life became increasingly difficult. Collecting water occupied more and more time as the local wells dried up and people had to walk further, balancing the brass pots on their heads.
The old city, with its narrow winding streets, wandering cows and swerving rickshaws, is full of charm. The area is packed with touristy shops and restaurants (all claiming to have the best view from the highest rooftop), but in the off-season the attempts to attract passersby seem half-hearted. The huge City Palace complex occupies a large part of the old city area. Begun in the 1500s, it seems as though each successive Maharana built his own new residence next door rather than being content with what was already there. From the street we got only tantalising glimpses, as it is largely blocked from view by the jumble of surrounding buildings, but once we found our way inside the main gates we were able to truly appreciate the scale and splendour of this immaculately preserved palace.
After some last minute shopping and a final swim in the pool, it was time to leave. With its character, relaxed pace and atmospheric sense of history, we had enjoyed our time in Udaipur, and it was with reluctance that we boarded the sleeper to Jaipur.