This is the third blog post from my two week trip to India, covering the start of my travels through Rajasthan. Links to the others are at the foot of the post, and editorial usage licenses and prints can be bought for all images by clicking here (Udaipur) and here (Ranakpur).
I was due to spend 3 x nights & 2 x full days in Udaipur and booked myself into a lakeside guesthouse on the east shore of Lake Pichola which Udaipur straddles. My room came with a cracking balcony view over the lake itself – after waking on my first full day I relaxed over breakfast in the open rooftop restaurant soaking up the view and the morning sun. It was the perfect antidote to the crazy hectic past few days that I had spent in Delhi.
I came to Udaipur with high expectations based on various guidebook reviews & travellers’ blogs that I’d read, and the reports I’d had from some friends who had been a few years previously. Way back in 1829 Udaipur had been tagged ‘the most romantic spot in India’ by the East India Company’s first political agent Colonel James Tod, it is nicknamed ‘The Venice of the East’, and also featured in the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ much as a result of its picturesque views and scenic lakeside palace locations. Hence it sounded pretty promising! A few reports hinted that tourism had picked up in Udaipur, but I found these to have been rather understated.
For me, the best part of my stay within Udaipur itself was getting some chill time out on my balcony or on my guesthouse’s rooftop. As soon as I ventured out of the guest house, that all changed. One of the main tourist attractions is the City Palace, a 15 minute walk south of my gueshouse. I made my way to it through the quieter of the town’s winding streets, but as soon as I neared the palaces I entered Tourist Hell. “Rammed” does not begin to describe it. After paying for a ticket I entered the palace itself and found myself in a heavy throng of tourists, walking in procession through the palace’s many rooms. The Palace is an impressive looking place, but I could barely see it for the high volume and dense concentration of tourists shuffling through it. What made it worse was the strict one way system that we were made to follow, it felt as though I was on a conveyer belt and totally spoilt the enjoyment for me. There was no way to trace my steps back out, so I made my way through the hordes to the exit as quickly as possible and wrote off the experience.
I had heard & read that boat trips on the lake were worth doing. In the middle of the lake is an island on which sits the 16th/17th century place Jag Mandir, so I booked myself onto a boast trip towards sunset. As I made my way towards the pier I again found myself amongst the tourist crowds. Boats arrived every 10 minutes or so to collect their loads, and I donned a life jacket and climbed aboard the little lake-craft along with the other 20/30 tourists. For me, the cruise was pretty limited and hardly the ‘tranquil boat ride’ described in the Lonely Planet. It consisted of a short ride following the section of the lake’s coastline that Udaipur sat alongside, then a direct route to Jag Mandir Island where we were dropped off on a pier along with other tour boats & their loads. As with my experience at the palace, it all felt rather conveyer-belt like and full of organised package tour folk.
As I returned to my guest house that evening, I knew that I wanted to spend my second day and final night in Udaipur away from the touristy centre. During my trip research I had read about a hotel/accommodation that sat about 7/8km outside of Udaipur in the hills which also offered guided treks in the surrounding area and villages. That sounded much more my bag, so after one quick phone call I organized to move out there the following morning.
During the tuk-tuk journey out there I quickly realised I’d totally made the right decision. The sights, sound and smell of open countryside, and a very pleasant absence of tourists was a great relief. On arrival at the hotel my guide was ready and waiting, and along with another traveller we set off on a half day trek into the hills.
During the course of the 4/5 hour trek, we came across ancient springs and religious shrines, farmers and livestock herders, and an assortment of village people going about their daily lives. It was incredibly refreshing to leave the town of Udaipur where much was geared towards capitalising from tourism, and see people who seemed innocent of that concept and who were as comfortable seeing us walk by as we were happy to see them. The biggest surprise for me was when we came across a group of women washing both their clothes and themselves in the river. They were totally at ease in front of the watching westerners (all two of us), despite some being in a slight state of undress they just carried on chatting and laughing to themselves with a delightful lack of self consciousness.
A selection of my pics from the trek are below.
To wrap up, without a doubt the best part of Udaipur for me was getting out into the country and doing the trek. However don’t be too put off my my experience of Udaipur – I was there only for one day and probably saw the worst (for me), most touristy bits. If I had had a couple more days there, I think it would have been nice to have relaxed and explored the rest of what the town has to offer at a more leisurely pace. Unfortunately with only two weeks in India I was limited to a tight schedule and making sure I got the most out of my time there.
After Udaipur, the next stop on my itinerary was Jaisalmer. A desert fort town in Western Rajasthan near the Pakistan border, the lack of direct train route made this method of travel impractical under my timescale. As a result I hired a driver through a local travel agency, who estimated a drive time of 11/12 hours. This was due to the 300 miles or so distance in combination with the Indian roads and traffic. However going by car meant I could stop off at the Jain temple near Ranakpur, about a third of the journey in.
I was so glad I made the visit as the sheer impressiveness of the temple absolutely knocked me out. It is crafted from intricately carved marble, and comprises of a number of domes and turrets with over 1,400 pillars supporting these. The combination of this and the way the light shone into the temple to bring out the textures and varying shades, made for spectacular and awe inspiring viewing. I found myself flat on my back taking a picture vertically up of a dome, and just lying there absorbing the visual feast before me. I ended up spending an hour and a half in there soaking it all up, instead of my planned half hour or so, which set me behind schedule somewhat.
On leaving the temple I jumped back in the car, and we headed onwards to Jaisalmer. My time there is covered in my next post, but before arriving there (and not long after leaving the Ranakpur temple) the car got caught up in some Indian road traffic in the form of a herd of goats and their herders. I couldn’t not get out and take a couple of shots, and found the men to be quite comfortable with having their pictures taken. I had heard/read that the Rajasthani people have a strong sense of pride, and I think this shone through in these pics.
That wraps up my jaunt from Udaipur to Ranakpur, below are a few details on the places I stayed at which I recommend to anyone:
The lakeside guest house I stayed at in Udaipur was a really sweet and authentic Haveli, the family that runs it is decent and they’ve got a good chef with a vegetarian menu:
The countryside hotel in the hills I stayed at was again really nice and incredibly cheap for the quality and surroundings. The only shame was that there wasn’t any water in the pool as I could have done with a swim after that trek! Great food, and the other travellers who were staying there (40 something couples) provided good company and conversation over dinner.
I want to make a special mention for my driver (and guide), Kalu. I initially employed him through an Udaipur-based travel agency just to drive me to Jaisalmer, and leave me there. However he gave me such a great service that I ended up employing him as a guide for part of my stay in Jaisalmer, and to take me on to Pushkar. His english is excellent and he’s genuinely enthusiastic at doing the best he can for you, with great advice on what’s worth seeing, good restaurants to go to and accommodation to stay etc. My experience of travelling through Asia is the commission system applies whenever local people recommend hotels/restaurants – guides/drivers will suggest places where they’re going to get a cut or commission. What separates a good guide from a bad one, is that he will recommend only good places. This definitely applied to Kalu, he was open with me in acknowledging how the commission system worked, but the places he took too were always decent with good food and conditions. I never got the sense that I was being ripped off, and didn’t mind paying a bit more for a meal as I trusted that it would always be good. With only a two week trip in India, that was more important to me than wasting time wandering around and risking a dodgy meal and Delhi Belly. It was also because of Kalu’s recommendation that I visited the Ranakpur temples, which wasn’t part of my ‘plan’ but which ended up being one of the highlights of my stay in India. If you need a driver/guide drop him a line:
Here he is during the Jaisalmer stint of my trip:
Links to the other blog posts covering the rest of my stay in India:
* Remembrance Day in Delhi
I’ll finish this post off by saying this was my first time to the country and I couldn’t have done without India Mike, an enormously useful online community for those interested in travelling in India. It has masses of useful information and inspiring posts, check it out.