Udaipur, India – 19th to 21st March
Proclaimed to be India’s most romantic city, Udaipur is strikingly beautiful! During our first steps through the city’s narrowed, inviting streets we are pleasantly surprised by the pristine surroundings. Rubbish is a sight I’ve grown used to in certain parts of India but it seems as if Udaipur prides itself on its cleanliness.
Due to its numerous lakes Udaipur is also known as the ‘Venice of the East’ or ‘Lake City’. It is host to what is considered as India’s most beautiful lakes, Lake Pichola, Fateh Sagar Lake and Udai Sagar.
Our first stop for the day is at a local miniature painting shop which is situated down a picturesque cobbled side street. We are greeted by the main Artist and owner, “Namaste” he says as he places his palms together in a prayer like position and nods in our direction. He stands taller than me (not that it’s hard), is slim in stature, has long thick brown hair, tight worn jeans, a vibrant red long sleeved shirt and a warm inviting ora. As he talks to us and wobbles his head in true Indian fashion he comes across as a genuine and likeable character.
He runs us through the various natural powders and materials he uses on his art work. He presents a deep and vibrant yellow powder. To achieve this state he apparently feeds his cows Mango’s during the summer time. This process twinned with the fact that the cows are slightly dehydrated produces a dark coloured urine that is later dried to formulate the colour that lay beneath our eyes. I’m not sure I believe this as he smiles while he talks Hindi and laughs to our G Adventures leader CP. I smile back but take it with a pinch of salt.
The artists in the shop specialise in miniature finger art and small paintings. They are very proud of their work, boast of competitions they’ve won and that they do not lure customers into the store or pressure sell. We are all treated to a free piece of finger nail art. In under a minute the skilful artist can construct a magnificent piece on the minuscule canvas of your finger nail! He creates a tiger, an elephant and a pretty Indian women. I approach the drawing board last. I look down as he paints in all directions using a pin thin brush. I try to decipher his master piece but even my laser eyed pupils cannot pick up an image. He finishes…
I flip my thumb around so that I can distinguish the drawing. What is it?
His masterpiece is two human come animal creatures fornicating in some sort of lavish Karma Sutra position. Indian banter! Everyone laughs including me and I high five the talented but cheeky artist for not taking himself so serious. We finish our Masala Chai, a tactic used by most shops to try to sell you their products and leave empty handed to wonder the fabulous streets again.
Our second stop of the day was the city palace. Standing on the east bank of Lake Pichola is a massive series of palaces built at different times from 1559 onwards. Various additions to the first palace span over 400 years with each king adding his own twist. Its main entrance is now through the triple-arched gate – the Tripolia, built in 1725.
It’s lunch time, so we find an endearing restaurant based on the edge of one of the many lakes in Udaipur. I opt for a rather spicy chicken tandoor and some chapatti. It’s faultless as always. For those of you familiar with the earlier James Bond films you may be interested to know that situated in the middle of Eichola Lake stands Lake Palace. Inaugurated in 1746 it was used in the legendary ‘Octopussy’ film. It now houses tourists from all over the world in luxurious style . Only accessible by boat it far exceeds our £10 a night travellers budget but I’m just happy staring at its wonder from a distance as I sip my Kingfisher beer and soak up sun rays. This is the life!
We are left to spend the rest of the day wondering the mesmerising streets and on the way back we find an inviting park close to our hotel. We decide to go for a stroll along the dusty paths and the sound of pumping music rings from the distance. Indian people seem to love blaring music past the point of distortion from ghetto blasters and speakers, this celebration is no different.
As we get closer it becomes obvious that there is a Hindu celebration taking place. We have arrived in Udaipur on the eve of the Hindu New Year! Watching from a distance we take a well deserved rest upon one of the park benches as it feels at times like I’ve literally walked most of India! The stone bench sits directly across from a modest statue of Mahatma Gandhi. How fitting.
As we enjoy our 5 minutes of overdue rest and relaxation a young group of well dressed, polite Indian boys say “hello” and start playing cricket in front of us. As they’re called by their parents to join the party they ask if they can hide their crude homemade cricket bat under the bench and we accept their request.
Moments later another group of boys crowd around the bench shaking our hands and asking every question under the sun. They seem more energised and cheeky than the other lads and start pushing each other around and falling into us. Maybe they’ve had too much Chai or Coca Cola but they start to get way to irate shoving each other into our laps and feet and trying to grab our bags.
Now these delinquents were only around ten years old so I couldn’t start throwing them around like tenpin bowling bowls and with the statue of Gandhi over seeing this event I felt the need to exercise non violence, so we simply left the bench and exited the park diplomatically. A somewhat annoying end to another amazing day but as the old saying goes, boys will be… annoying little shits at times… Or was it something else?
We awake to the Hindu New Year and count our lucky stars that we are blessed with spending this occasion in India let alone Udaipur. We go for a lazy walk around the pretty backstreets and meet upon the rooftop of one of the stone, hand built buildings, for a cooking class. We learn how to make our own Masala Chai. It’s a combination of grounded black tea, ginger, cardamon, pepper and enough sugar to begin the onset of type 2 diabetes. It’s around one tablespoon (not teaspoon) of large crystallised, glorious white sugar in one cup. I thought the English were a nation of tea lovers but from what I’ve seen the Indians out do us by a long way. They sell the stuff everywhere! Jet setting planes, rickety trains, overcrowded buses, road side pit stops, local restaurants and tourist hang outs. It’s hard not to become addicted to this soothing drink.
We are also taught how to cook a samosa, chapatti (a form of wholemeal bread cooked on a griddle), dal (a lentil curry) and the all mighty grain, rice! After cooking we scoff our home made cuisine into our mouths and wash it all down with a sugary masala chai, we’re all addicted to it by now. It wasn’t bad grub considering it was our first try at producing Indian delicacies.
Next we scour the shops. This in itself can be an overwhelming yet exiting experience. Every time we pass a shop someone shouts “Hello Sir”, “Where are you from”, “Come see my shop”, “Just browse” and on the odd occasion “I like your beard”. The British in me compels me to say “Hello back” and initiate a conversation while still walking in my original direction. My British DNA forbids me to ignore such a welcome greeting and I’m sure the Indians play on this trait. I’m more than happy to exchange pleasantries but it rarely means I’m going to buy anything seeing as I’m officially unemployed now.
Udaipur is supposedly a great place to pick up some silver so we stop off in a recommended silver shop to see what hidden treasures we can find. All four of the group take a seat in a dainty, inviting shop that holds enough bling to sink the Titanic. The two men behind the counter smile and offer us some cold refreshing beer. I surprisingly decline while the rest of the group accept the offer. The cynic in me wants to remain sober and I’m convinced I’ll be ripped off even though I won’t be buying any silver anyway.
Boxes upon boxes upon boxes of gleaming jewellery is hoisted in front our beading eyes. Sapphire, emerald, ruby, omix and many more stones thrusted in front our faces. More beer is supplied and the inevitable buying and bargaining begins. I’m offered silver rings, brash bracelets and sparkling anklets but I simply decline. Metallic jewellery has never been my thing. As the alcohol infuses into the blood stream and loosens inhibitions one of our group plucks up the courage to get a piercing. Rest assured Mum, it wasn’t me.
Ana our Mexican travel companion wishes to get one the more traditional Indian piercings, a nose ring. We watch in anticipation as the shop keeper rams the silver end of a stud through her left nasal. Her eyes water and wince from the sharp prick of the pain. It’s done! We leave the shop with a healthy amount of products and a jovial owner. I’m pretty sure he’s just made enough money to at least take the rest of the week off.
We refresh back at the hotel and head out amongst the chaotic celebrations. The Hindu New Year’s Day is more significant than it’s eve. We dodge past the herds of well dressed people, unmovable cows, speeding Rickshaws, honking cars and stray dogs. The sound of pumping music and muffled tannoy announcements radiate in the hot and humid air.
One thing that I’ve noticed in India is that people like to dress well. Some women wear bright, stylish Sari’s that seem to come in every colour imaginable. Some are full length, others expose plump mid drifts. The younger men wear tight, crotch strangling denim jeans, long sleeve checked shirts, fashionable sandals and comb or play with their hair to ensure they look their best. The older men often wear subtle shirts and sport some sort of facial hair. The moustache seems to be a favourable choice among the elder. Some colour their greying hair with Henna to produce a reddish come orange tint as dying of hair using consumer dye is unfit in Hindu religion.
We walk among the celebrations and finally make it to our destination. This evening we will be riding a shaky cable cart into the hills so that we can gain a 360 degree view of this incredible city. After a short and relatively smooth ride we make it to the top of the hill. The landscape in front of our eyes is breathtaking. Glorious mountain ranges circle the horizon and stunning lakes dot in between the bustling city beneath us. It is by far one of the most astonishing views I have ever seen.
As we watch the burning sun descend behind the mountain peaks like a sunburnt child playing peekaboo our senses run into overload. The smell of fresh, clean air streams through our noses. The sound of distant Hindu music slowly transcends into our ear drums like a Chinese whisper. The touch of warm, humid air brushes against our bodies and the glorious sight of the landscape in front of us pushes us towards euphoria.
Sparkling technicolored lights emerge from the city below; hung from trees and buildings it looks like Christmas Day . The area is decorated as part of the celebrations. Loud, brash fireworks explode in the sky and ripple through the darkness.
We walk back towards the bustling streets and grab an auto rickshaw. Like I’ve said before there is an obvious hierarchy to Indian roads. First comes the mere mortal on foot, second the rickety pedalled rickshaw or bicycle, third the traffic dodging motorcycle, fourth the erratic auto rickshaws, fifth the speeding car, sixth the winding bus and seventh the immovable mooing cow! If something above your hierarchy crosses your path then you’d better hope you can get out of the way!
We jump in the auto rickshaw. All five of us plus the jovial driver plough forwards in a fury of honking, dodging and weaving as if we were a Muhammad Ali Transformer with wheels. Now may I remind you that it’s the Hindu New Year’s Day. Indian traffic is bad at the best of times so imagine Bristol City centre around 5:30pm and multiply that by around a thousand. It’s not pretty but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
We fly blind out of a bustling t-junction turning left and a dominating gleaming white 4×4 heads straight towards us like a great white shark hunting its helpless prey. Our driver doesn’t slow! His bracelet cladded wrist turns frantically at the accelerator hoping to gain enough power to escape the jaws of the ever closing predator. It’s not enough!
The cars jagged teeth sink into the rear right hand wing of the rickshaws shell and we are thrusted forward. We hear a smash as the cars left light is shattered! Our driver accelerates onwards and leaves the 4×4 in a dust bowl. He doesn’t even stop to exchange car insurance details. Madness I hear you think. He doesn’t care for ‘Compare the Market’, he doesn’t even want a free meerkat. He just wants his fare and a handsome tip for keeping us alive and unscathed.
The traffic gets worse so we bid farewell to the captain of our ship and heroically head towards the restaurant on foot. We finally make it and everyone remains intact. Somehow nobody loses any fingers or toes. We approach the restaurant. Tonight we are dining lakeside at one of the more upmarket restaurants.
We push the boat out and spend an outlandish 90p on King Fisher Ultra instead of 60p on its less appealing younger brother King Fisher Premium. Its tag line reads ‘The Emperor of Good Times’ instead of the lesser ‘King of Good times’. As always our food is sublime and the service is impeccable. For the same price as a meal at one of Bristol’s notorious Weatherspoon pubs we are treated to another tasty Indian dish and a view of an incredible lake. We spend a ridiculous £5 as the stars glimmer gracefully in the reflection of the calm lake and the fireworks continue to ignite the nights sky. It’s another incredible evening to be in India.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries”