An overnight train took us away from the mayhem of Agra to the serenity of Udaipur, back in Rajasthan. It was Kristina’s first overnight train, and couldn’t have been much worse for her. I’ve been ill on this trip, but it has never hit me hard when on a train. Not what you want. I have a cold – yes, a cold in consistently 30-40’C India, I don’t understand either – but that’s just an irritant, and not serious enough to keep me running to a toilet all night.
As a result we spent our first day not seeing very much of the city dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’. It is a rather tenuous link. Udaipur is a romantic place, and there is more water here than in your standard city, but there are no canals. There are roads. With cars and rickshaws and cows. Things I don’t associate with the city Italians call Venezia.
We probably saw more of Udaipur on TV than in person on that first day, as we watched the first half of Octopussy that evening. Much of this movie was filmed on location in Udaipur. It may well be one of the worst James Bond movies ever made, but don’t say that to the locals. They are proud of it. So proud, it seems, that numerous guesthouses will screen Octopussy at 7.30pm. Every night.
I guess we would have disappointed the locals somewhat by not actually visiting the key locations from the film. The Monsoon Palace is far away and high up on a hill, and we weren’t going to spend Rs700 getting a five-minute boat to the Lake Palace Hotel; a trip that would only make us wish we had more money to throw around. I say that, but we couldn’t complain with the view from our guesthouse. Even though I spent a bit of time moaning about Kristina wanting us to wake up to see it at sunrise. Good decision, actually.
The view after the sun sets is also something to behold. The illuminated building that captures your immediate vision is the City Palace, one of the sights we did see. It possesses great views of the city and equally commanding Lake Pichola below. Ti was a pretty palace, and probably would have been better if we had known what room we were in at any point. The only information we learnt was due to us following a German couple and Kristina listening to their guide, before translating for me. Sly.
The City Palace’s tranquillity was balanced by our trip to the chaotic Mandi Market to buy some spices. When in an Indian market I often let my mind become vacant – partly so I can absorb the bustle, sights and smells; but also because it is silly to try thinking or conversing when you cannot hear yourself do either. Shortly after I had a dish called dal baati choorma; something I was told I had to eat. I don’t know why. Kristina ordered a thali and it seemed as if we had the same food. Still, at Rs50 and with unlimited refills of all foodstuffs, I’ll score it quite highly.
The best sights we saw were actually quite far from Udaipur itself. We hired a cab for a day on the recommendation of the lovely rickshaw driver called Manu, who picked us up from the train station and bought us chai, and were driven to two places. The first, 84km to the north, was a stone fort called Kumbalgarh. It soars impressively on the top of very high, craggy rockfaces. The fort is 1100m above sea level, which is higher than any point in Wales. It did make me wonder if you would actually be able to see enemy forces approaching, but you do realise how impenetrable it must have seemed to those craning their necks below.
It is a great fort and, though it was a hazy day, it is definitely worth persevering the steep hike up through the Kumbha Palace to get to the top. Kumbalgarh houses hundreds of temples and, at 36km, possesses the second longest wall in the world. A distant second, admittedly, but still colossal.
Colossal is one word that can accurately describe the other attraction we saw, the temple at Ranakpur. The structure, made entirely of glistening white marble, is supported by 1444 pillars. Impressive enough, but it is only when you discover that no two pillars are alike in design that you appreciate the intricacy and artistry of the Chaumukha Temple. Of course, some pillars look awfully similar, and even the most passionate architect or sculptor would tire of looking at each individual column, but it is a wonderful complex.
From Ranakpur it is a 90km drive south to return to Udaipur. It is a long day – made longer by the cows ambling leisurely in the middle of the roads – but a beautiful journey through some stunning landscapes, and the two sights are a rich reward for those who make the trip. Our driver, Ganesh (yes, he has the same name as his God, but before you judge think of all those Spaniards who have the cojones to call themselves Jesus), also took us to a sumptuous lake just north of Udaipur, called Fateh Sagar. Good man.
Udaipur was a very relaxing place – we had no need for the joint we were offered in the rickshaw as we were driven to the train station. The peace that I felt as we sat watching families go about their routines and wash in the lake’s shimmering waters are images that I can always revert to when in a more chaotic location. Like Delhi, to where we now return. But I was say to leave Udaipur; a place for the romantics. And James Bond fanatics, of course.
Love you all