Saturday, October 31, 2009

From Udaipur, with love

Twas the morning of Diwali when I left the Salvation Army dorm and hopped in a taxi to the airport. Most of the streets of the city were empty which gave Mumbai a completely different look and it was bizarre to see the place devoid of chaos! The airport experience is like any other I suppose apart from the fact that Indian people don’t queue very well; a moments lapse in concentration sees you elbowed aside and overtaken. I’ve been here long enough though and my elbows bare the battle scars of many a fallen Indian queue skipper!

The only things wrong with my flight were all my own doing. I was at the airport way too early which I blame solely on Yvonne’s insistence over the past few years to give yourself way too much time hanging around airports. The second thing I did wrong was fall asleep during the flight and miss breakfast! When I finally woke up I noticed all the trays of food being collected. One of the air hostesses noticed my sad face and asked if I wanted my food now that I was awake. I nodded, delighted at my second chance, but as she was coming back we hit some crazy turbulence and she had more pressing things to attend to – such as all the guys who suddenly decided to go to the toilet when it was impossible to do so. They were thrown around the cabin like rag dolls until the air hostesses rescued them. Idiots.

After landing at Udaipur airport I was picked up by an arranged taxi driver and, surprisingly, the owner of the guesthouse I’d booked. I thought it a bit odd that the hotel owner had come all the way to collect me and even odder that he’d waited around despite my flight being an hour late (not sure how that happened). I’d given him the flight number the day before but he was frustrated I hadn’t told him where I was flying from… I started to explain flight numbers but then gave up. The guesthouse was nice and comfortable but the real star of the place was the view; Udaipur is stunning! Imagine a little bit of Venice airlifted and plopped into India and you get a picture of the cities old town area. From my guesthouse I could see all the main sites in the surrounding area and after the dorm experience of the previous few nights I was delighted to have an en-suite room and a bed-bug free bed!

In many ways the star of the city isn’t any of its fancy palaces or temples but instead the man-made lake which the city straddles. Lake Pichola was enlarged by Maharana Udai Singh II once the city was founded by flooding the local village of Pichola but even with this enlargement it’s quite shallow and can apparently dry out occasionally. The lake has two islands (I’ll discuss one later) and the east side is home to the City Palace which swoops right down to the waters edge and towers into the sky above it. It’s a real fairytale palace and despite being made up of many building built by different rulers at different times it all seems to come together and work. The most interesting of the two islands on the lake is Jagniwas Island but it’s better known as The Lake Palace Hotel. This square 1.5 hectare island is completely covered by a palace that is now a luxury hotel and plays host to Indias Bollywood stars and elite. If you’re not staying at the hotel the only way to get across is by booking lunch or dinner both of which were out of my price range. However my ever eager guesthouse owner promised to arrange a special visit for me with his friend that would cost me nothing. Alas, just before departure he regretfully informed me that a very rich businessman was having his wedding there and plebs like me would be shot on sight.

When I arrived at the guesthouse I got talking to a group of English volunteers working for NGO’s over here and taking a few days to relax in Udaipur. They invited me out to dinner and drinks and seeing as I didn’t want to be alone for Diwali I tagged along. I haven’t explained Diwali yet and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it a few times. Diwali is India’s most popular Hindu event and is also known as the Festival of Lights. In this respect it doesn’t disappoint as every street, every shop, every house and vehicle is lit up in some way and on the night itself the whole place seems to sparkle. Even the rivers are alight as candles are set afloat along the water to guide Lord Rama home.

This theme of lights also means fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks! I cannot describe how many explosions light up the night sky and how deafening the constant explosions become. Myself and the English volunteers sat on a rooftop bar overlooking the city and we were soon joined by more of their friends. We had a great vantage point for the festivities and thought we were safe from the thousands of bangers being thrown around the streets (I dislike bangers) but what we didn’t count on was how close we’d be to fireworks exploding. Once or twice it actually felt like we were inside the explosions of colour and as we took photos one particular firework blew up at the level of our table, about 3metres away. I don’t know how someone didn’t lose an eye, or a face for that matter, but with that we took our cue to move inside!

The next morning I’d agreed to go with some of the group for a horse ride. It was nice and relaxing and a good chance to see some of the (pretty sparse) Rajasthan countryside. Later on we went for dinner and once again I met with someone who I’d seen earlier in the trip. It’s amazing how it happens when you consider there’s no ‘tourist route’ through India and that it’s a country with a billion people but by the side of the lake I met up with Matt, who I’d met in Goa. We went for a drink and agreed to rent bicycles the next day and go exploring. The horse ride had left me a little sore so getting onto a bicycle wasn’t ideal, especially with the giant and wide Indian bike seats they have here. Yeesh!

The bike ride took us out of the city and around by Fateh Sagar (another lake, this time housing a garden island called Nehru Park) and up and down back-roads to Badi Ka Talab (Tiger Lake). It was quite a cycle considering the heat and the mostly uphill route! Along the way we met an English couple working in a nearby animal shelter and they invited us in for a look around. It was a pretty grim experience. Most of the animals on the streets over here look on their last limbs as it is so you can imagine the cases that are seen as severe enough to take into care. Dogs that had survived car accidents but had been horribly disfigured, dogs that had been paralysed, or had rabies, or mange. There was also donkeys and cows and birds and all in all it wasn’t really the most pleasant place, despite the good work the people running it were doing.

Anyway, Tiger Lake was nice but we didn’t go for a swim as it’s got a bit of a crocodile problem. What we decided to do was cycle to Monsoon Palace for sunset which is a lovely spot… if you’re driving up! It’s a 4km climb up along winding mountain roads and when you’re trying to cycle it’s an absolute nightmare. We had to push our bikes about 3km and as cars sped past they’d beep, or people would look at us and say that we were mad. We were mad. It nearly killed us. On reaching the palace we were met with the stunned faces of those who’d driven past. I don’t think they expected us to make it but some of them had words of congratulations! After a quick Coca-Cola we sat within the crowds and watched as the sun disappeared.

The moment it did set we sprang into action, jumped on our bikes and freewheeled all the way down. Only the fastest cars could overtake us and the whole ordeal was made worthwhile just for that downhill sprint. Exhilarating! On returning to Udaipur we went to a recommended thali restaurant and stuffed our faces. This particular restaurant only served thali so there’s no menu. It’s also all you can eat so a small army of men is constantly scouring the room for an emptying plate. Once they see some space for more food on your plate they slop it down and you start from scratch. What a place!

One last thing about Udaipur; it’s the city where large parts of the Bond movie Octopussy was shot. The locals have been living off this for a long time! Every single restaurant, hotel or bar advertises the fact that they screen the movie every night at 7pm. We found one such place, which turned out to be some guys sitting room, and watched it. How ridiculous is Roger Moore?

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