In the Valley of Lakes

DSC00378 (2)Situated in the rolling hills of South Rajasthan, Udaipur is famous for its grandiose palaces spilling onto gentle lake fronts. Jyotsna, Jittu, Ashu and I set out for an Independence Day long weekend adventure, wondering if Udaipur really could live up to its claim as the “most romantic city in India”. Travelling with friends who speak Hindi is truly a blessing. We rented a car and driver, with the flexibility to come and go as we pleased. Car travelling is a world away from solo backpacking, and I still have my head stuck in the mindset of the latter. Though I was a little jaded we were staying far from the downtown core, we were able to make an incredible day trip to the ancient Kumbhalgarh fortress with our trusty driver. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Udaipur was founded in 1553 during the Mewar dynasty, and was a former British princely state before being incorporated in the province of Rajasthan post-independence. Relics of Rajasthani architecture are everywhere, from palaces to forts, 5-star hotels and tacky roadside inns. It seems that every building wants to display the iconic arched windows – with such a beautiful view, I don’t blame them. Nestled among steep hills (or mountains, depending on your perspective), is Lake Pichola and Lake Fateh Sagar, with the city itself spread around the bodies of water in a disorienting way. The geography of Udaipur lends to a blissfully cool breeze. No wonder Mewar royalty were always chilling at their hilltop palaces. I was fascinated that Lake Pichola is actually man made! The water table in the region is quite high, so it was an easy area to flood. But the management of such a system, as well as constructing enormous marble palaces hundreds of feet up a hill without modern technology, is an unbelievable feat. The Monsoon Palace, or Sajjan Garh, built in 1884, even houses an artfully constructed rain water collection system which previously provided water for the entire palace. We nearly missed the Monsoon Palace due to its distance and terrible Trip Advisor reviews. True, the ‘palace’ is in disrepair after being handed over to the Government Forest Department, but both its view and architectural feat made the risky uphill drive worth it. Supposedly, Sajjan Garh was built solely for the purpose of watching the monsoon clouds! Admission is cheap, a jeep can drive you up, and the 30 rupee chai in terra cotta cups rivals the hundreds of other cups I’ve consumed in the last 3 weeks.

Udaipur’s City Palace proved to be a better-structured historical experience of the city. We definitely paid too much for the palace and boat tour, but I still rank it the most beautiful spot in Udaipur. Watch out for price differentials based on time– despite the fact that the sun does not set until after 7 p.m., from 4-7 p.m., the boat tour price doubles for a ‘sunset viewing’. Sometimes, you don’t get what you pay for… The small boat will take you across Pichola to Jag Mandir island. Much to our confusion, Jag Mandir is neither a palace nor a temple, rather an old hanging-out place for the rich  – which is now converted into a new hanging-out place for the rich. But, when one is in the city of lakes, a boat ride is a necessity. Located next to the boat jetty is City Palace – incredible in its size and beauty. Throughout its sprawling interior, it houses an average ‘museum’ collection. The crowds were frustrating, but the haveli-style palace meant each new turn led to a different small oasis. Interestingly, the palace is still owned by the current heir of the Mewars. Admission may be steep, but the condition of the palace proves that the cost is for a reason.

 

For a more reasonable price of 60 cents (and $2 for foreigners), Kumbhalgarh Fortress was the most surprising part of our trip. Located nowhere near Udaipur, we didn’t think many people would be crazy enough to spend 4 hours on a dirt road to see a fort. Alas, we were met with bottle-neck traffic and hordes of fashionable families on holiday. Kumbhalgarh is the second longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China. Mewar kings were pretty concerned about their safety, thus necessitating the impressive stone wall winding among the high peaks. Udaipur and the surrounding Mewar region are unique in that they signed a treaty with the British Government whom agreed to protect the territory of Mewar. In return, Mewar rulers held no other political relations, instead acknowledging British supremacy. Though Kumbhalgarh seemed to be in an impossibly faraway forest, it was built to decrease the distance between Delhi and Udaipur – as if the terrible drive and steep climb to the fort was a nonchalant stop-over! Not bringing food was a huge mistake, as we rushed around trying to see everything before hunger got the best of us. We barely made it back to Udaipur before dark, but scouted out dal bati – a famous Rajasthan eat for Jittu’s birthday dinner. Bati is a round bread made of wheat flour, then brushed in ghee, with a crunchy outside and soft inside. It’s served alongside any sort of dal, with chutney, onion and lemon. The most satisfying is crushing the bati with your fingers before mixing the dal in. We feasted on bati three days in a row!

 

Despite our expert adventuring into unexpected places, most of Udaipur is 5 star hotels. Some mimic the Mewar style, and some are actual old palaces which have been converted, charging outrageous prices for a luxurious stay. Ironically, this means most of Udaipur’s skyline is hotels, which narrows down options for exploring. Nonetheless, we spent hours wandering the narrow streets of Lal Ghat. The winding, hilly streets pressed against the lake shore and canal are reminiscent of Florence, and I’m glad we took the time to slow down and get a little lost. We anticipated a beautiful sunset, and raced back to City Palace for the best view over Lake Pichola. The only way to make it on time was via auto – no problem, that’s usually the best way to move around. But this auto driver was from another world! Tumbling down impossibly narrow alleys, he stopped for nothing. Kids on bicycles? Women selling vegetables? Sleepy cows? A motorcycle flying towards us head-on? Nope, nah. After one harrowing turn we were a second away from a front-end collision with a motorcyclist. Our fiery driver cut the gas, jumped out of the auto and proceeded to shout a slur of angry Hindi as the equally angry biker yelled back. By then, we had created a small scene and a traffic jam, but of course our trusty driver got his way in the end. After holding on for dear life, we stumbled out towards the lakefront, joking that the auto only tried to charge us double due to the life-altering experience. We were rewarded with an amazingly pink sunset that lingered among the hills. Though we had planned out every museum and tourist stop, it was getting lost in Lal Ghat and watching the sun slip away that truly mesmerized us. Despite the exhausting day, nature has a way of rejuvenating even the weariest of travelers. We ambled back to the city centre in search of a rooftop view, and laughed over simple paneer from an unsuspecting terrace. Most of the time you don’t need a plan or the top Zomato review – a good attitude and a willingness to get lost will go a long way.

This post is of course dedicated to the endlessly kind Jyotsna and Jittu – friends, mentors, colleagues and travel pals.

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Sunset over Lake Pichola

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