New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. The trip that shook me around in the chaotically tranquil country that is India. A seven hour train journey landed me in the lakeside town of Udaipur, famous for it being the filming location in the James Bond movie Octopussy. Clearly the locals love to brag about this as I passed three hotels with expansive banners that advertised Octopussy playing every night. If there is one thing about Udaipur I can say, it’s that it thrives on being able to pander to its tourists.
Arriving in Udaipur I could already sense that it was vastly different to my last port, Jaipur. Firstly, the exit from the station was not the usual mad scrum of Tuk-Tuk Drivers seducing me into their beat up scooters. Then it was the streets; the surrounding roads at the station seemed almost empty. This was most disturbing. However, I quickly realised that this place had the same Indian welcome – horns, constant, blaring, screeching horns. It took me almost all of my trip to finally figure out when they were alerting out of anger or whether they were just instructing the person in front that they existed.
I soon arrived outside my Hostel, a new building that I decided to take a chance on due to its quirky title Moustache Hostel. The key word in that last sentence is most definitely “new”. The entire three night stay cost me a mere pittance, 550 rupees (£6 or $10 Australian). So I decided I was not allowed to justify whatever less than favourable feature came my way.
I was fortunate enough at my last hostel to be gifted with the godly existence of air conditioning, seeing as the humidity was close to 75% each day with a temp of 30 degrees celsius, this was a kiss from a million angels. My new room however was more of a lazy lick from a lugubrious feline. The compact room’s (fitting six people) only source of air flow came from six individual fans that, when turned on, provided you with your own personal hurricane that circulated air that was (thankfully) a degree or two lower than the air outside.
Any qualms I had about my room (and lets not even mention the no flushing toilet paper rule) were quickly dashed when I reached the roof and was nearly blown away with the view that greeted me. Above the in-hostel cafe was a 360 degree view of Udaipur’s Lake Pichola. This included the roofs of temples, the floating Palace Hotel, surrounding mountains (with their own Palaces atop the highest point) and a lake that was as still and calm as the harbour which encapsulated it.
Fun fact: Lake Pichola was said to be full at this particular time of year, leaving me to imagine the expanse bare landscape that Udaipur would be if it were empty.
Now the first thing you need to know about travelling in India is this, if you are a lone traveller your experience will vary depending on your gender. For women, it can be very difficult travelling alone. India has been known to have its fair share of incidents that are quite discomforting to put it lightly; the leering eyes of the male population may prove too much for some. Other female travellers however will manage to avoid this and be more than capable of handling themselves in this shape-shifting environment.
Solo male travellers will be thrown the constant question “Where is your wife?” and if you respond by saying you are a single individual the shocked looked will make you feel like you should be lowering your head in shame. I even met one man who said that he has many girlfriends, one of which includes his wife.
This brings me to Udaipur, which has an abundance of tailor-made suit stores. If you don’t see any then you will be shown them quickly enough as the locals will carry out the following conversation:
The setting: You are walking along the street and a man or teenager stops you
Man: Hello my friend, where are you from?
You: I’m from [insert country]
Man: Oh wonderful, very nice place. How long are you in India?
You: [Insert travel time]
Man: Where have you been in India?
You: [Discuss destinations]
Man: How long have you been in Udaipur?
You: [Discuss length of stay]
Man: Oh very good. Well Udaipur is very famous for its suits, my [friend/brother/cousin etc.] and I are actually going to [the country you’re from] next month to showcase our suits at a convention. My store is nearby, can I show you my store? You don’t need to buy, I would just like to show you my work
Of course they will pressure you to buy a suit and odds are you most likely will due to the exchange rate….yes they did manage to get the rupees off me. How many times are you going to get a tailor-made suit? Once you jump the hurdles of haggling and refusing to look at the more expensive materials, even though you’ve already said yes to one suit, you will finally be free to continue to explore. That is until you meet the next tailor on the street and you repeat the exact same conversation again and again. If you become a bit more carefree, it actually becomes quite amusing.
However this is but a mere speck on the abundance of culture and fascinating little corners you will find in Udaipur.
A quick run down of all Udaipur has to offer include the City Palace (a grand castle-like structure that stretches down the banks of Lake Pichola), Monsoon Palace (a less-than-impressive castle on a more-than-impressive mountaintop) where those who do not feel like 30-40 minute walk on the steepest of inclines can choose to pay 100 rupees and wait for a jeep to do the journey for you. There is also Jagdish Temple, one of multiple temples situated throughout Udaipur (be sure to take your shoes off, watch out for wandering cows who come to graze in the food put up for offerings, and definitely no pictures in the shrines of the temples). Locals are not fazed when a foreigner comes wandering into a temple, as long as you are respectful, at its core Indian culture is a very welcoming and hospitable one.
If you are lucky enough you may just be able to catch a cultural classic and see the locals parade one of the many deities down the streets and bridges of Udaipur. This is truly a wonderful scene, with an assault of colour on the senses. It will feel like something out of a film as flower petals fall over you, cascading out of a tube connected to a fan (The locals are clearly MacGyver enthusiasts). The tumultuous noise that comes from the parade will make you want to join in while simultaneously remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. One thing that I do admire about the culture and religion of Hinduism is the sheer joy that everyone has. For individuals who live in a third world country, they clearly are never concerned about it. This is life, they live it and they own it.
If I were to suggest Udaipur to anyone, it would be the traveller who is looking for a breather from the hectic nature throughout the rest of your travels. In comparison, Udaipur is basically a country town, depending if you are staying on the shores of Lake Pichola, where there are a variety of affordable hostels and bedsits.
I may have been too caught up in the serene surroundings of Udaipur because when I hit the old (literally) dusty trail out of Udaipur and back into the wider land of Rajasthan, I very quickly had to get my India cap back on and face the pandemonium of everyday life head on. It’s not for the faint hearted but it holds a rewarding prize at the end. If you manage to come out alive (more on that later).
Watch out for the cows. The streets are small and the cows are large. You do not want to get in their way. Believe me.