Sunday, 11 October 2009

Strangers in the night

Last night was, without doubt, one of the most surreal nights the two of us have had in some time. After a pretty straightforward train journey from Mumbai to Udaipur comprising a seated carriage first, then an overnight sleeper from Gujarat with two nice guys heading up to Rajasthan on business, we expected the coach to Jalsaimer to be not too dissimilar. How wrong we were. Boarding the bus to Jaisalmer with us were half a dozen other western travelers, none of whom had ever taken an Indian sleeper coach; but the picture on the ticket clearly depicted a smartish Volvo bus which looked fine. When the bus acutally arrived and we boarded, it was pretty clear we were in for an interesting twelve hours however. The driver appeared to be mute and the coach was being managed by a bossy twelve year old. In addition, the coach which also was about twenty years old basically consisted of a row of scruffy seats either side, some with springs sticking out, above which there were what can only be described as cupboards for sleeping compartments. All of us had booked the sleeper tickets, meaning we had to take the cupboard option as opposed to grabbing a reclining seat which looked infinitely more preferable, loose spings and all. Things kicked off in the first ten minutes when an Israeli guy at the back climbed into his cupbaord to discover it was soaking wet inside and that "someone had pissed in it" argument ensued for 10 mins before the pre-pubescant bus manager finally conceded that the guy didn't have to sleep in it. As it turned out, our new Israeli travel companion was a Calculus professor from Tel Aviv and a very bright guy. Arguing with a small boy with fascist tendencies over a piss-stained mattress really must have been a new intellectual high for him.

When we finally did get going, the driver clearly thought that he was in the Canonball Run, averaging about 85mph along some of the worst roads you can imagine. Any suspension that may once been in place had long since gone, and attempting to grab any kip inside the compartment could only be likened to trying to sleep in horizontal wardrobe while being dragged over a cattle grid and pelted with stones. For 12 hours. Eventually we gave up and climbed down into some free seats below, which turned out to to be a little less brutal. Anyway, at some point we must have drifted off as I woke up to the sound of "Chai, Chai, Coffee, Coffee". Getting off the bus bleary-eyed to grab a drink, I was confronted by a donkey trying to get on the bus, surrounded by interested looking pigs. The service stop was some sort of rural farm with cows chickens, pigs, goats and donkeys all surrounding the bus and hoards of Indians guys relieving themselves in the road. It was pitch black other than the the Chai stall which was belting out Bangra (and also boasted a huge selection of DVDs for sale for some reason).

Back on board things had got even weirder with one of the cows heads now through the coach window and the Isreali guy laughing hysterically and feeding it from a bag of crisps and a packet of Oreos while his girlfriend shouted at him for wasting their food. Later he produced a large knife and a Pineapple and walked round the bus handing out roughly cut chunks to confused Indians and the driver, to whom he shouted sarcastically "try some please! Its recommended in the Lonely Planet!" At one point we the bus had at least double its capacity and we actually watched as four guys climbed out of a compartment made only just comfortably for two. Trains, it seems, are civilized affairs compared to buses...

Anyway, previous to this we had spent a fantastic 4 days in Udaipur; our first stop in Rajasthan. After the hustle and bustle and urban sprawl of Mumbai we were glad to escape to somewhere more rural. Constructed predominantly around the North of lake Pichola, Udaipurs old town is a jumble of buildings set along small busy streets and alleyways that wind their way back from the lake shore. The view of the lake is dominated by two main features; the City Palace with sits atop the towns highest point over looking the water and is impressive in its scale and architecture, and the Lake Palace on Jagniwas Island - which as every rickshaw driver loves to remind you, featured in Octopussy (the not-very-good James Bond with Roger Moore in). There is in fact a bar in the old town which has a sign outside it saying "Roof garden! Nightly showings of Octopussy". Their staff turnover must be very high.

We landed on our feet with our hotel in Udaipur - a really cool busy little bohemian place with about fifteen rooms over four floors, of which we appeared to have got one of the best on the top floor; colourful and spacious, with a big four poster bed and sliding glass doors opened onto 180 degree views over the lake and city. The morning we arrived we sat and watched for half an hour as a huge hawk soared around the top of the hotel, riding the thermals from the buildings and some times getting as close as twenty feet from our balcony. The owners clearly took pride in making sure it was an interesting place to stay -vthere were lots of little terraces with comfy outdoor beds, a good bar on top and a pair of tortoises (the large one thought it was a dog I think) which wandered around amiably. Based in Hanuman Ghat on the quieter North West side of the lake, it was a great base to explore the city and we easily could have stayed longer. Udaipur is not a big city - certainly you can get around very easily to all the main points of interest by rickshaw, but we spent most of our time on foot - and while you do inevitably get hassled to buy local crafts it was worth it, as we found lots of quirky little places we otherwise wouldn't have. As wth much of India it would appear, the real pleasure is not traipsing round temple to fort but watching whats happening on the street.

We did the trips to the City Palace (including the very kitsch "Worlds largest Collection of Ganeshes") and the Jain temples and took a ride out to the surrounding areas to see some of the sites of Udaipurs historical battles and some local tribal houses which our driver informed us several times bizarrely were built from "stone and semen" (later we realised Cement!), but I think what we both enjoyed most were the afternoons on the banks of the lake chatting to the guys in the cafes and watching people doing what they do. Invariably, there is always something going on. It's already very easy to see how seductive the lifestyle can be here for people with time on thier hands.

Food being a big part of traveling, we were keen to check out the local grub too. Rajasthani menus tend to be pretty similar from restaurant to restaurant; there are maybe a dozen to twenty different dishes, breads and rices that appear regularly everywhere you go, with the real difference in being how well these are prepared and produced. The Tandoor we've had so far has been excellent in general and we've been really taken by some of the simple vegetable masalas. Sam has developed a love of Stuffed Parathas, and I've got a taste for Banana Lassi in the morning. Kingfisher too is ubiquitous. Its almost to beer here what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners, but being good lager we haven't minded too much! So far, other than Tandoor meat we've stayed pretty much vegetarian, which following close behind the carnivores paradise that was Tuscany may not be a bad thing. We haven't eaten in any of the higher end hotels yet, and while interested to see how the food differs, there is still more than enough to keep exploring at the budget end. Street food has, as we were told been pretty good too, we've had some really interesting snacks and sweets - and a few weird ones...

Although we felt that 4 days was probably enough to see what we wanted of Udaipur and get a feel for the place, it would have been very easy to stay for a few more. We met some nice people, and spent some brilliant lazy afternoons watching the sky turn crazy colours as the sun set over the lake, but there is lots to see before we head south in mid November. So, from Udaipur we headed North West, to the desert city of Jaisalmer via our comedy twelve hour bus journey...

View our pics here:

India 2 - Udaipur

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