(This is Part 2 - scroll down to Part 1 if that is news to you)
After bouncing for 6 hours or so through the heat of Rajasthan's dust-filled backroads, and going on an optimistically-up-rounded 3 hours of sleep, we were quite excited to finally arrive in Udaipur, our first stop of many Rajasthani destinations that we are currently cruising through. As our visa time decreases more, we have tried to pick up our pace, as the preciousness of each day becomes more apparent. As we look at all the amazing places we want to go, its tough some times not to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities!
Many of the places in Rajasthan we have some personal recommendations from friends on where to stay, that has (and will continue) helped significantly in finding nice, affordable, lodging, as well as tasty food. Many of these places are overflowing with hotels, so it can be very hard to pick amongst 20 options which place will be the best. And carrying one's heavy cargo between more than a few hotels grows quite exhausting and tedious, particularly since we are undoubtedly being assailed by touts for hotel offers, rickshaw rides, etc. Stimulation overload.
Udaipur is famous because it is a city of lakeside palaces, including one, discriptively entitled The Lake Palace. It is on an island, completely surrounded by water, and since it is the slow season, we were able to get a room with a killer view for only 275 Rs. We stayed at the Lake Star Hotel, deep in the Hanuman Ghat, and so we were fortunately a ways away from the main tourist maze, where small streets are crammed with overstuffed shops, scurrying people, and an entourage of 2, 3, and 4-wheeled vehicles, plus the usual onslaught of animals, all packed into half the space that they usually are. Usually navigating Indian streets is at least a little hectic, but Udaipur was definitely the most congested place we've been yet. We spent four days in Udaipur then, siteseeing being our main priority, so we started at the City Palace complex, which is a massive building that has been being built continually for the last 500 years by various ruling kings of the Mewar family. It is full of elaborately decorated rooms, including some with massive peacock murals made out of glass (?) that were pretty spectacular, plus there was a pair of museums with all sorts of relics, etc., etc. Another day we took a rickshaw tour to a few destinations, including a nice park once occupied by the royal handmaidens, before heading out to a mountaintop palatial lookout point. Monsoon Palace, (which, along with Lake Palace & City Palace, was featured in the James Bond 007 movie "Octopussy," which every respecting rooftop restaurant in Udaipur plays EVERY NIGHT, which we found a little unbelievable, as working there must be like some twisted Bond enemy's hell). The movie itself isn't even that great, and the palaces are featured for a scant few minutes at the beginning and end of the film, but at least we saw it, so we'll never make that mistake again!
Monsoon Palace was also not really that exciting, but fortunately our journey by rickshaw up the mountainside was, as our rick kept smoking and overheating, so at several points we just got out and walked up the road while the engine cooled for a few minutes. But we did finally make it, to be underwhelmed by the damaged, deserted palace, though the views of Udaipur city, lake, and palaces were pretty nice, if you ignored the smoke from all the freshly burnt garbage. So far most of Rajasthan has been covered with a thin layer of nasty, smokey, haze, that limits your views of the surrounding arid plains. From the mountain-top then, we raced back to the city, trying to get to the royal Vintage Car Collection, which in addition (of course) to the Rolls Royce featured in Octopussy, had some pretty nice old BMW, Ford, and even some prototype solar vehicles. We actually arrived late, after closing time, but rupees are rupees and so after some mild discussion we were quickly hurried, but guided, through the collection. Our tardiness paid off, however, as the current king (one of only 3 royalty technically remaining in India) arrived (since they are his cars, and one of them had been taken out of its semi-permanent storage, for the Mewar festival that was occurring, we think), so although we didn't get to meet His Highness, we did get to covertly snap a photo of him and his entourage.
We also decided to take an Indian cooking class, and after a bit of shopping around, we decided on a nice woman named Shashi, who charged 400 Rs./person for around 4 hours of culinary arts. So we learned to cook, and received recipes for, around 10 recipes (many Indian dishes use the same sauces, with different seasonal vegetables substituted where appropriate), including proper chai, malai kofta, vegetable pullao, vegetable pakora, chapatti, parantha, and nan. Shashi has lived an amazing life, being born to the highest (Brahmin) caste, but then her husband was murdered over a business deal (for about $500), and then her husband's family effectively disowned her and their two children, so for a few years she got by washing laundry (which is definitely "beneath her caste" before a Western friend of one of her sons encouraged her to start teaching tourists how to cook... so the mealtime conversation was very interesting, and the food was simply spectacular, and we were both ecstatic to finally learn how to cook at least a few of the numerous delicious dishes that we eat everyday here in India.
That was our last night in Udaipur, despite our landlady's attempts to cajole us into staying longer - every Indian has a sales tactic, and hers was to attempt to overwhelm us with kindness, which was certainly nice comparable to the alternatives, but its hard to overlook her casual efforts to cook every meal for us, decorate Liz's 4 appendages with henna (she caved and got one foot painted...), have us in for chai whenever we walked by, etc. Even kindness can be a bit much sometimes!
We also got some long-overdue massages, though we opted for a bit of a more upmarket place, where the masseuse also focused on bodily alignment. So the massage itself felt great, and we seem to have better balance, but we'll have to see if it lasts or not! So we left Udaipur around mid-day, and headed to the small town (aka village) of Ranakpur, about 90 km to the north. After endless winding mountain roads we finally arrived at our destination, and amazing Jain temple complex. Turns out it actually had closed 5 minutes prior to our arrival, but fortunately the gate keeper was quite kindly, and allowed us (but not our camera) into the temple, despite the evening prayers that were occurring. Ranakpur was the first of 3 Jain temple sites in Rajasthan that we have now seen, and they have all been spectacular. They have all been in amazing condition, with virtually all the immaculately detailed carvings left intact, and since they are multi-level complexes, that means there is a lot of carving! The Ranakpur temple's "claim to fame" is that it's 1,444 columns (or so) are all carved differently... basically it's mind blowing, and of course the booklet and postcards that we purchased hardly do the place any justice at all. After viewing the temple we received some more modern-day Jain kindness, in the form of the nightly dinner that the temple prepares each afternoon for any faithful who may be hungry. So for the low, low price of only 20 Rs., we got an above-average tasty thali, which was quite fortunate since there didn't really seem to be any other hotel (restaurant) options. Our plan was to leave Ranakpur and ride the local bus to Kumbulgarh, a nearby (we thought) 16th-century fort, but due to mountain roads being impassable/under construction, there was no direct route, and we were directed to catch a bus to Syrah, from which we were assured getting to Kumbulgarh would be no problem. Ha.
What that means is that we ended up getting stuck in Syrah, a small mountain village well off any sense of the phrase "beaten path," since there was, in addition to no nighttime transportation out of town, also no lodging options. Fortunately, a Jain dharmasala (holy sanctuary, or resting place, for pilgrims), which some kindly people managed to track down the owner of to open up for us. So we ended up with our cheapest lodging yet, 30 Rs./person for the night, and we also had our largest room ever, since it was meant to sleep around 20 pilgrims on small mats, but we were the only ones on any sort of journey that night, "strangers in a strange land" if you will.
We did get a great night of sleep, though, peacefully snoozing, though a "helpful" non-English-speaking man kept trying to wake us up early (first at 6:15, then 7:15), since he couldn't seem to understand that we wanted to sleep in until 9 am, when we had to vacate the dharmasala. Explaining relatively complex concepts like that can be frustratingly impossible, but all in all definitely a small price to pay for all the amazing things that we see and do on a daily basis. Arising at 9 am, then, we headed to the bus stand, but that turned out to be futile, as we actually needed to be a jeep stand at the other end of town, since due to road repairs no vehicles could get through (on certain routes) to the center of Syrah. After a jeep ride to some un-rememberable town, we then caught a local bus to Kumbulgarh, which dropped us off near the fort.
Usually Indian food is spectacular, but unfortunately the only available restaurant (which did nicely keep our packs locked up for us) was among the worst we've had, as the vegetable biriani was a flavorless mush, and the gruel-esque dish that came with was hardly much better. The fact that we waited almost an hour was merely the proverbial icing on the cake...
However, the owner did give us a ride to the fort on his motorbike, and by now we've long since forgotten just how vile the food was, so all's well that ends well, right?
The fort of Kumbulgarh (which is a pretty fun word to say!) was immense, with its walls enclosing an area of 36 km, filled with fortifications and numerous temples, Jain and Hindu both. Most of the temples were locked up, but one we were able to sit upstairs, amongst the bird poo, and admire our view of the fort. The forts defenses, which were only penetrated once, were pretty intense, with numerous huge gates (complete with anti-elephant spikes), slots for arrows or boiling liquids, plus numerous watch-towers and guard-posts. The whole fort-building occupies a high hill, so from the top we had some sweet views of the surrounding desolate country-side... We were also able to wander through much of the very-abandoned fort, though an intensely-echoing bedroom was probably the highlight (besides the abundance of scenery). After wandering the footpaths between temples for a few hours, we then headed back to the best restaurant in the sub-continent to retrieve our bags, settle our bill, and catch a bus back to Udaipur, since there was an utter lack of direct transportation to Mt. Abu, Rajasthan's sole hill station and our next destination.
By happenstance we picked an all-too-local bus, which meant that our ride to Udaipur (well, almost all the way there, we had to switch buses for the last 45 minutes or so) took practically twice the time that it had taken us to get to Ranakpur in the first place, though part of that was due to the same road problems that had stranded us in Syrah the night before. To translate, that means that our micro-bus (2/3 of a normal bus) had to barrel down a path surely intended only for off-road vehicles, launching we passengers sky-high on the bumps, and scraping the roof against numerous trees. At one point the conductor and another guy had to hop out and remove a pile of rocks that was obstructing our path, while some old ladies became quite vocal about the entire situation - good Indian fun!
We did finally make it back to Udaipur, though between buses Liz did manage to attract one of the local drunkards, which resulted in some amusing conversation (if you can call it that), before fortunately our bus arrived. Back in Udaipur then, we picked a hotel pretty much at random, by the bus station, to catch some sleep before riding to Mt. Abu the next day...
So that's Rajasthan, Pt. II, more to come soon, including Mt. Abu, Jaisalmer, & Jodhpur, our current location.