The next cities in Rajasthan are entirely different worlds, and with a 17 hour train or bus journey from each other, the choice of visiting these places in this order, is not on many backpackers agenda.
Udaipur is famous for its moment of fame on the red carpet, where Monsoon palace was shown in the old James Bond classic, Octopussy. Apart from the die hard movie fans that visit here, those whom frequent here are hopeless romantics, as Udaipur has been aptly titled “the most romantic place” in India! And if love isn’t on the cards for you, many tour groups and holiday makers come here to try out the plush and boutique hotels here that are aplenty. Udaipur is the gem of Rajasthan, hidden right down in the south, the lake that centers the city is an oasis of calm and beauty, with the sun shimmering on the lakes reflective surface and birds soaring ahead calling out for a partner. The city palace dominates the horizon and has various balconies and viewpoints that hang nervously over the lake. A visit inside is a must- although the staff are surprisingly rude and unhelpful so a word of advice, if you don’t want to take pictures within the palace- don’t take your camera with you. Although in Rajasthan it seems the cities are a never ending cycle of palaces and forts, don’t be frustrated by it. The view from the balconies of the lake as well as the mosaic and gold plated rooms are worth your visit alone.
Another great way to see the lake and the islands within it, is by paying for a cheap boat trip. Rather choosing for the boat that ferries tourists to and fro from places, opt for the boat that is a short 30 minute boat ride as this way you are able to float along the river surveying the number of flashy and expensive palaces- now renovated into hotels, without being forced to stop at one. The boat does a circle around the lake, starting at a small bridge interlinking the two areas of Udaipur together, similar to the bridges over the numerous canals in Amsterdam. The place of Udaipur itself is very touristic, filled to the brim with handicraft shops selling miniature paintings created by artists, “students”- small kids that are forced to paint them because of the influx of tourists, and clothes shops. There are a number of restaurants on rooftops varying in different views and angles of the palaces and lake. Each restaurant varies in style, ambiance and price; you could recline in the cushioned and curtained enclave on the roof in City View restaurant, have a pizza from the wood burning oven at Doctor Cafe or eat at a expensive (for a backpacker) but exquisite meal at Sagar Nagwas, whilst sipping a cocktail in the perfumed and candlelit restaurant, blending in with the other Europeans that dine here, (another real treat for us).
A must do whilst in Udaipur is to go to the evening show at the Haveli museum. With a small entrance fee and a camera charge (be honest if you do want to take pictures here as the continuation of the show solely relies on the income of tourists), you sit in a courtyard under the stars and a canopy of a tree where colourful lights adorn the ancient majestic walls of the gallery. Here, different entertainers and dancers are fitted into a delightful schedule of joy. Dancers fling metal instruments in unison with one another creating a tinkling sound, others swirl their mirror studded saris around them sending reflections to shimmer around the room on every surface, and others balance numerous pots on their head whilst the audience cling to their edge of their seats. An evening here is an evening well spent.
We were in Udaipur for the God: Shiva’s birthday. This meant the whole town came alive at night, fleeing on motorbikes beeping down the hill to the brash and brightly lit temple that played repetitive Hindu songs in a whiny voice. Glasses of mint chocolate lassi were thrust into our hands and locals shouted if we “want to smoke something?” as we wandered to a rooftop restaurant. The cries of excitement intensified when fireworks exploded into the sky, rockets of color and noise creating smiles on children’s faces.
As backpackers, we chose the budget accommodation of Lal Ghat Guesthouse. Basic and with a shared bathroom, dorms here are 120 rupees.
From Udaipur, we descended to Jaisalmer after a treacherous journey of exhaustion. Jaisalmer seems to be a mirage in the desert, a town that is there, that could easily be not. Here I was transported back to my place of birth: Bahrain, with men wearing thobes and styling impressively long beards or moustaches that twirl up on each side. Although Jaisalmer has a lake similar to Udaipur, although I am sure I would find its place unusual in the desert, nestled next to sandstone buildings.
Wandering around the walls of the old city, flashes of Jodhpur’s walls combined with the desolate emptiness of Agra formed in my mind. Wandering around the city fort, the main attraction of Jaisalmer city is the sheer number of people who inhibit here, that it is a living and breathing fort, although I was not swayed by the place. Signs of yoga classes and restaurants that had WIFI were hung over the crumbling walls, which I felt ruined the authentic feel of the place. Making our way inwards to the Jain temples within the fort we passed convenience shops selling toilet rolls and more handicraft shops looking for a sale. Although interesting to see families look out of their houses onto the flat roofed city below, scouting the wind turbines in the distance, or the kids joyfully playing in the street- I didn’t enjoy this fort as much as I hoped. The view can be enjoyed at another expensive restaurant: Trio. (I have now promised to myself that after finding the meat meals of Rogan Josh and Jalfrezi- I miss the one from Majestic in Mumbai- I will eat the cheaper option of vegetarian dishes more frequently). A good place to stay for backpackers is Dylan Cafe as the accommodation is furnished well compared to the price you pay, the central location, family run kindness and the restaurant at the top covered in inspirational quotes and words of wisdom makes the perfect hangout for backpackers.
Many who visit Jaisalmer however, visit to escape into the depths of the desert. Most want to go further off the beaten track head past towns like Bikaner deeper into the solitude of the desert, but because of our tight schedule and need for a close proximity to a train station, we decided to take a desert tour there. There are a number of options to choose from, places are competitive and distance and length of stay vary. We decided to go for a tour that was by a company recommended by the Lonely Planet so we would definitely receive what we expected. We chose a 2 day 1 night camel safari with the company: Trotters. This entailed us leaving at 6:15am and heading into the desert by jeep to escape the most visited routes by tourists. After having a breakfast of chai and biscuits with a friendly desert dog I nick named Raul, (I think he needed companionship because he sprinted from afar when we arrived, jumping up in the air in excitement and for attention)– we hopped onto our camels and began our journey into the desert. Myself, Lily and a Russian guy called Alex were accompanied into the barren wilderness of the desert by our camel driver: Moohla. Moohla constantly checked if we were okay and was full of camel facts, so if you can choose a guide, ask for him.
The sun began to rise, and we plodded along sitting attentively on top of our new found furry friends as if we were the three kings, in a school nativity play. The journey was quiet and serene. We watched Raul chase deer to his own amusement, birds of prey circled above us and lizards scampered from beneath the big footed hoofs of our camels. It was refreshing to be away from the becks and calls of people wanting to sell us things, of cows mooing for food and vehicles beeping for space. Although barren and desolate apart from scrub land and a stray carcass, it was nice to be alone with my thoughts, smell fresh air and feel the pounding heat of the sun on my shoulders. My surroundings reminded me of the many times as a kid we’d spend evenings in the desert around a bonfire, or walk our dog, (well more like she walk herself) in the sandy emptiness of the desert in Bahrain. I didn’t realize I had missed this vast emptiness, this recluse and serenity from everything loud and bright, until I was there. I mean, I love the city, I love seeing all types of people at different times of the day doing different things, the constant hustle and bustle, the constant life within a city, but sometimes I crave the solitude that only the desert can bring and satisfy.
Whilst watching the sun set over the desert with a steaming hot cup of chai, we chatted to the other tourists that were from all over the globe, who also had escaped into the desert. Sharing stories of our aches and pains, we circled around a camp fire listening to a group of bewitching gypsies from a local village nearby, who played a number of instruments and sang songs. The entertainment is not part of the tour, but the company organizes them to be there, just in case any of the tour group want to listen. Shared between 10 or 11 people, the price of their entertainment is well worth it, but between any number below, it can work out quite costly. Joining hands around the fire, we danced and copied the cackling, feeling like pagan witches, casting spells. Enchanting and magical. Dining under the the millions of stars that enveloped the ink like night sky above us, our eyes glazed over by the flickering dancing flames of the fire and our bellies full of rice and dal that was cooked for us, our eyelids quickly closed.
We left at 11 in the morning the next day, stopping off at a fort in the desert and an oasis to see the source of water for animals and people in the surrounding areas. Although Alex and many others continued on well into the evening, we left behind the silence for the sights and sounds of Jaisalmer. The camel safari is a fantastic experience, and even though I have ridden on a camel a few times now, I would recommend this tour to all.