10 – 13 November 2010, India
We arrived in Udaipur with no plan and a very limited idea of what the city has to offer. Dubbed India’s Most Romantic City, other travelers had simply told us that it was a beautiful place worth including on our itinerary. Eager to put the bus journey behind us, we checked into our guesthouse, threw our bags down and headed straight for the rooftop restaurant. While the cook prepared our curries, we sipped chai and enjoyed unobstructed views of Lake Pichola.
Surrounded by lakes our whole lives, it takes a pretty impressive body of fresh water to impress us. This particular one was nothing special but the Lake Palace that rises out of the middle and seemingly floats on top of the water is what makes it truly memorable. Built in the 1740’s, this marble palace was once the summer home of Indian royalty. More recently it was seen on the James Bond film, “Octopussy” and is now a luxury hotel. Many of the scenes from Octopussy were shot in Udaipur and the city’s businesses are still trying to capitalize on the movie’s popularity. It’s been more than twenty five years since the movie was released and some restaurants continue to have nightly showings of the film.
After dinner, we briefly ventured out into the city’s narrow alleyways. Less than 10 minutes into our noisy stroll, we hightailed it back to the serenity of our room. The next day was all about sightseeing and we needed to refuel. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, our first stop in Udaipur was the City Palace. Nearing the ticket office, we should have suspected that our experience was not going to end well. Hordes of tourists were clogging the entrance to the Palace. Reluctantly, we headed inside telling each other that we could always leave if the large crowds detracted too much from the experience.
The palace was laid out like a one way street, meaning that every visitor has to go through each room in order to get to the next. On a typical day, this system probably works just fine. However, we were there at the tail end of Diwali and the palace could simply not handle the immense crowds. Each room was filled to capacity and catching a glimpse of anything meant elbowing your way through a group of hot, sweaty people. As the rooms narrowed and we walked up and down stairs, visitors were forced to form a line and slowly inch their way through the palace. Guards situated every couple hundred feet ensured that no one got out of line and prevented anyone from jumping ahead. We could only move as fast as the slowest tourist. In many ways, this place embodied everything we had come to dread about the world’s most visited tourist sites. While I have no doubt that the City Palace is a stunning place filled with exquisite architectural details, we saw very little during our visit and couldn’t help but feel trapped as we slowly inched our way through the palace’s many rooms.
Recovering over yet another delicious meal, we brainstormed a plan for the next day. We had read that the countryside outside of Udaipur was beautiful and that there were worthwhile sites just a couple of hours away. Excited to get off the beaten path, we headed back to our hotel and arranged a driver for the next day. Leaving early the next morning, our plan was to visit Kumbhalgarh Fort. Built on a hilltop 3,500 feet high, the fort’s perimeter walls are fifteen feet thick, extend over 36 kilometers and form the world’s second largest continuous wall after the Great Wall of China. Within the fort are 360 temples. An ambitious visitor could explore for days but we had already visited a few forts in India and were content to just spend a couple of hours wandering around and peeking our heads inside some of the temples. We had arrived early so we ran into relatively few people as we climbed up and down the walls of the fort. The highlight of our stop at Kumbhalgarh was the views of the surrounding countryside. Forested hills stretch as far as the eye can see, emphasizing the fort’s ideal defensive location.
Leaving the fort behind we headed for Ranakpur, an elaborate Jain temple carved out of white marble. Jainism is one of the oldest religions in India and stresses nonviolence in all aspects of life. Its followers believe that all living things are sacred. The most devout Jain followers sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so that they don’t squash any insects. Some even wear masks over their mouths so they won’t accidentally swallow any bugs. Ranakpur is one of the most unique temples we have ever visited. It is supported by over 1444 marble pillars, each exquisitely carved and different than the rest. The ceiling of the temple is just as intricately carved and in the very center is a living tree that the roof was built around. After seeing the temple’s incredible details, we weren’t surprised to learn that the building of this temple was a 64 year endeavor.
We decided to call it a day when our necks grew sore from looking up at the carvings. As we drove back to Udaipur through the Rajasthani countryside, we continued to make a number of unscheduled stops. Although we enjoyed our visits to Kumbhalgarh Fort and Ranakpur, the most interesting parts of our day were these random stops where we observed people going through the motions of their daily lives. We saw young men crammed onto the roofs of buses and farmers walking down dirt roads with cattle sporting brightly painted horns. Jason even spotted a cow powered water wheel still in use to lift water for irrigation. At each of these stops we pulled out the camera and asked for permission to take photos. In response, we were met with warm smiles and friendly waves. Moments like this are the ones that make up for the motion sickness inducing bus rides and the crowded temples and palaces. Time and time again we learned on this trip that it almost always pays to spend the time and money to get a little bit further off the beaten path and do some exploring in places where other travelers rarely venture. Months later, on days when I’m stuck in my cubicle, eyes blurry from staring at Excel spreadsheets, these unexpected little moments are the ones I remember most fondly.