I was trying to figure out why I’ve never even thought about traveling alone. Save for the ambitious, dreamy motorcycle-perched escapades to the Himalayas and Mongolia, the notion just didn’t come to my mind. Maybe it’s the programming, maybe the community, because most people, and particularly Indians, tend to think of traveling as a very social activity that one should only do with other members of the gang of evolved apes you belong to. And with good reason to do so, because in the right company, it’s a total blast, sometimes quite literally (don’t ask). But, that said, gunning it alone is intensely liberating, quite like the first time you hang upside down from the branch of a tree. Don’t want to sound like a hippie but you flip the world around just like that and are puzzled as to how a concept so uncomplicated never sparked between your two ears in all this time you’ve existed. You sit there looking out over a mesmerising lake glowing in the golden dusk radiance, chuckle a bit to yourself, and wonder. Both are quite simple really and require a similar technique the first time around – you hang on right at one end, say a lil’ prayer and all that is left for you to do is to let go. All of a sudden, the world is a very different place!
In my case, the opportunity presented itself and the destination of choice was Udaipur – possibly the epitome of Rajasthani exotica. Udaipur has many names to it – ‘The Venice of the East’, ‘Lake City’ and going by the translation – ‘The city of the sunrise’. Granted, the last literal translation does not lend much meaning to it at first, making complete sense only after you’ve experienced the full blown rush of sensory delights the city offers. Founded as the new and final capital of the Mewar kingdom back in the 16th century by Maharana Udai Singh II, the city of Udaipur sits at the foothills of the glorious Aravalli mountain ranges, amidst three splendid lakes. On offer are a whole lot of sights with deep history and much folklore accompanying them. There are so many in fact that it’s quite easy to end up just running from one spot to another, forgetting that it’s the quality of one’s travel that matters.
It all began at dawn with a drive up to the Lake Pichola, which is, in a way, the heart of the action in the city. The waters actually have hues of blue coming through at places, quite rare for something so popular in India. Perched on top of a hill overlooking the lake, the City Palace is the piece de resistance of Udaipur, built with a flamboyant fusion of Mughal and Mewar architectural styles. The sheer complexity and attention to detail in every bit of the palace is quite splendid and combined with its history, is probably worth a book in itself. From the top, you can sight the erstwhile summer palace – the Lake Palace – which is now a flashy Taj hotel and the famous Jag Mandir which sits as an island in the middle of Lake Pichola. Also of interest are the various temples leading up to the City Palace, the
biggest and grandest of which is the Jagdish Mandir. Trust me, you won’t miss it. Partly because it’s impressive to behold in its Indo-Aryan style of architecture and partly because a whole army of beggars and ‘holy men’ vie for your donation. I did not dare miss the finer points of the carvings in stone there, because the deeper you look the more the bigger picture starts coming in to focus.
Driving back to my hotel outside the city, I conclude and positively so, that driving in Udaipur is a strict no-no. The Alto K10 I was driving is as good a city car as can get and yet, at places it was too big for the gullies, which were barely wide enough for two hamsters to cross. It was close-my-eyes-and-cross-my-fingers at places and embarrassingly but unavoidably so, my left mirror did clip a nice lady’s bum one time. She was sporting enough to hurl back an ‘I’m not that fat’ line right back at me. The traffic, especially in the heart of the city, is borderline maddening and constitutes the finest grade of imbeciles you’d ever find on a public road. Not something you’d want on a holiday, then. Hire a car or a rickshaw and save yourself the trouble. I’ll tell you what is a lovely drive though. It’s going up to the Monsoon Palace, through a sanctuary to get the most magnificent panoramic views of the city possible. It’s the same palace that was used in the Bond flick ‘Octopussy’ and a part of that Bond-ness got to me, so I did pretend I was driving an Aston while coming down and let ’er rip. Good small car fun ensued.
After dusk, I decided that some much needed late-evening relaxing time was in order and promptly set off walking towards the bank of Lake Pichola. Numerous little roof-top restos dot the area, serving everything from authentic Rajasthani to some good world cuisine, and after a bit of searching, I climbed up to one, untied my shoes, put my feet up and let out a sigh of relief, all with a beautiful lake view to go with the mint tea and croissants. The crowd, the ambience, the crisp cold air – all of it reminded me so of Manali or Leh, minus the Himalayas in the distance. The point about Udaipur is that it has developed enough as a tourist hot-spot that it will have something to please everyone, right from restos to sights and hotels. After doodling, letting the camera take in the sights and basically unwinding for multiple hours, I finally decided to drive back to a secluded home stay outside the city. It’s called Mountain Ridge and save the absolutely rubbish path to get there, it’s a little too much like the dream holiday home you wanted all for yourself. Its run by a Brit called Piers, isn’t very crowded, while the staff is great and so is the home-style grub. Dinner was spent chit-chatting with a family of lawyers and later, post-dinner time was enjoyable under the stars, with late-40s swing setting the mood just right. A humungous chorus of the crickets had just begun their late-evening tenor practice, with frogs and wasps providing subtle but noteworthy backing lows and mids. I won’t exaggerate when I say that that night’s sleep was one of the best I’ve had in a long time.
I’m up at daybreak the next day and everywhere I look there is something exquisitely interesting to feast my eyes upon. Turn of the head towards the right and there’s a magnificent fort atop a hill, bathing in the glow of the dawn sky, the creepy half-moon dropping down gradually behind it making the setting even more marvellous. Staring into the distance I could see the flickering swarm of lights from a city only waking up and it occurred to me that no matter where you’ve been before, Udaipur will seem exotic. There’s a certain degree of magic in the air and it’s something hard to part with. Not for nothing is it rated one of the finest places to visit on planet Earth by reputed publications. As I said, whether you’re tramping it all by yourself or with the ones you love to travel with, to truly experience the heart and soul of a city, all you have to do is let go.
Udaipur might seem to be fairly high-end and extravagant from the outside but with some research done before-hand, you can land some really good deals, even in the peak season. A number of very clean, off-beat and fresh inns are on offer – be it a homestay or a small boutique hotel. Mountain Ridge near Sisarma (Rs 1700 onwards) is recommended if you love your peace of mind – extremely relaxing, homey and tastefully done – the approach road is a pain though. On the lake front, there are hotels left, right and centre at various price points. It’s much noisier inside the city, and if you look at a holiday as a break from the life as an urban rat, avoid this place at all costs. Hotel Hibiscus (Rs 1800 onwards), The Tiger and Jaiwana Haveli (Rs 2000-2800) are good places to bunk at. If it is Bond-grade luxury you’re looking at, every nickel and dime will be shaken and stirred out of you, but the experience will be well worth it. Think Lake Palace (45 bloody thousand a night), the Leela Palace Kempinski or The Oberoi Udaivilas (both cheaper at Rs 20-35,000/night). With the recent financial crisis Britain has been through, don’t be surprised if you spot 007 in the neighbouring room at Mewar Haweli.