Let me begin by saying unequivocally that Ahmedabad is wonderful. When I decided to do this, the requirements for me were to live somewhere completely alien, for at least a year; where I would have to learn some of the language, and not be amongst heaps of other Westerners. I sure as hell ticked that box coming here! Gujarat is a dry state though, and the thought of a cold beer certainly encouraged me to instantly accept when a friend suggested a February mini break into the neighbouring state of Rajastan, to Udaipur.
Rajastan is THE tourist destination, it contains so many of the ‘must see’ things in India, and Udaipur is on the list. It’s a small city perched on the edge of Lake Pichola and surrounded by mountains, it has a ‘floating’ lake palace, ghats, winding lanes in the old city, is a thriving centre for artists, and basically ticks all the tourist boxes – it’s almost exactly what you think of when you think of India. It also has a nice selection of roof top watering holes with spectacular views, delicious food, and cold Kingfisher beer!
We took the bus slightly above the ‘pigs and chickens’ bus – no other Westerners, and a mere RS150 for the seven hour ride. Leaving A’bad certainly gave me a better impression of the sheer size of the place, but once we were out of the city, it was the endlessness of the plains that struck, with small farmhouses and villages baking in the heat amidst fields of castor oil plant and wheat containing dots of bright colour where people were working. Unalleviated flatness for four hours, it was so exciting to see a small hill looming in the distance! By then we had already had one stop in the middle of the highway so the driver could have a heated argument with a man on the side of the road for no apparent reason… as you do.
The small hill eventually developed into others, and we entered Rajastan through an imposing set of stone towers. From there the road wound through mountains dotted with smallholdings, little huts here and there, streams winding through valleys, a village that consisted mainly of temples tucked neatly into a fold of the hills and where we made another quick stop for the driver to make an offering at one on the side of the road.
Coming into Udaipur down the side of a hill and another unscheduled stop, this time to unload multiple bales of something that were tied to the roof of the bus much to the fury of a couple of Indian women passengers – another heated argument – we jumped off and found a rickshaw to take us first to the ‘wine shop’ and then into the old city. Check in at the hotel, which is an old palace with a wonderful central courtyard, a temple, and exquisitely painted ceilings, and over a bridge to Dream Heaven for this……
It’s a lovely place. The touristy area is centred on the old city, the Maharaja’s palace, and the golden capped Jagdish Temple which stands imposingly over ‘the circle’ where five winding lanes meet and two policemen stand with one small metal barrier and attempt to control the traffic, failing dismally – every time they turn their backs on one direction, rickshaws and bikes whizz through behind them, then get shouted and whistled at as the policemen turn back and spot them. Chaos and extreme entertainment sitting on the steps of a smaller temple opposite the Jagdish sipping chai and watching tourists in their nappy pants (seriously, would they wear them at home?) plucking up courage to cross, women selling bundles of fresh greenery to them to feed the cows that are milling around, tour groups of Indian schoolchildren in uniform, local life going on amidst it all.
Wandering through the narrow winding streets, passing art shops and jewellery makers, chai stalls and temples, cows and scooters – it’s pretty! Kind of hard to get used to seeing so many other foreigners though. There are all sorts, dreadlocked hippies, immaculate Koreans, wealthy Americans staying at the Lake Palace and travelling around in air-conditioned 4WD’s with Indian guides, and a lot of Indian tourists as well. All tastes appear to be catered for, with restaurants offering all sorts of cuisines and a bhang store next to a temple, and it’s a short stroll down to the clock tower and the local bazaar where I finally find a pestle and mortar. Lots of clothes on offer including plenty of the dreadful nappy pants which I have as yet not seen a single Indian wearing by the way…..
The art though is fantastic. Intricate, delicate miniatures seem to be a speciality. I get talking to one artist, Chandu, he tells me the piece he is working on in acrylics with incredibly tiny brushes, about 8″ by 10″ with temples, elephants, crowds of people, has taken him three weeks so far and I believe him. Wonderful textile pieces as well.
Dave’s been here many times before, he comes about once a month to have a beer and ‘get Western’ – and he knows heaps of people. We visit a friend of his, Chirog, who cooks me paneer pakoras after we have discussed the merits of besan flour, and I watch white horses all decorated up for the bridegroom to ride heading to a wedding along the edge of the lake from above. I walk down under an elaborate three arched bridge to the ghats as the sun is setting and watch a Rajastani band playing at the waters edge as an almost naked guy pounds his washing and tourists set up an army of tripods to my right on the pedestrian bridge across the neck of the lake to get the perfect sunset shot of the Lake Palace.
Day two was exciting but for completely different reasons – first tummy bug. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to stray too far from the room…. which wasn’t so bad, curled up in the window seat reading and watching the world beneath me. Enough on that topic – my mission was to get my feet pampered as soon as possible. A’bad is so dry at the moment and your feet become almost caustic despite liberal applications of the Body Shop’s best butter. I had a few venues to choose from offering Padicure’s or Pedicars, but opted for the mother of the owner of Dream Heaven.
What a wonderful experience. I was so happy to be talking to Indian women in my age group… the men are the front people here. We checked out each others families, discussed work, and how I had managed to be travelling unencumbered by a male! I was taken deep into the family home, feet in a massive tin bowl soaking, getting my eyebrows threaded, with the entire female side of the family sitting around chatting to each other and me. They run a cooking school as well (doesn’t everyone?!) which I declined, but did purchase a packet of chai masala, tea spice, to Mum’s recipe… it was delicious chai.
The trip home was by train… and you know what they say about Indian trains. Its certainly an experience! Overnight 2AC sleeper, couldn’t see out of the windows, didn’t sleep due to raging Indian children, a conductor who kept opening the sliding door to ‘check we were ok’… but we made it, arriving back home about 4.30am to the vast concourse of A’bad Station with hundreds and hundreds of Indians sleeping on the floor, just a narrow winding pathway through them. Such fun!