25.11.2012 - 27.12.2012
We left Pushkar in jeeps (bags piled on the roof) for the train station in Ajmer. Leaving the hotel, the town was just waking up and people wandered slowly along the streets carrying water and going about their morning business. The drive to Ajmer was just 11k and the view was beautiful - as we drove over the hills a shimmering morning mist hung in the valley and as we entered the town, the soundtrack of India (the incessant honking of various horns) began again, startlingly obvious after the lack of vehicles in Pushkar. We also passed a man walking stark naked down the street which was pretty bizarre, made more so by the fact that he was walking with a fully clothed companion who seemed to think nothing odd of the fact that his friend had seemingly forgotten to get dressed.
At the station, as many people had missed breakfast, we bought snacks at the platform where a cup of chai cost just three rupees (about 3pence) and a small packet of biscuits cost just 10rupees. We used the 'upper class ladies washroom', a smelly unlit hole in the ground and as we passed the sign fornthe 'complaint book' on the platform I refrained from writing a snooty message regarding their lack of toilet roll and lockable doors. Our journey to Udaipur was to take about 5 hours and we were travelling 'with the locals'. We stood in the correct position on the platform and when the train arrived there was a scrabble to get inside - the train tends to stop at each station for just two minutes and, carrying 20kilos of backpack, I didn't fancy running after it. I soon realised that bumping into people was not something to apologise for but rather the thing to do in order to ensure the train didn't leave without you. Any apologies from my side were not to be returned. The carriage seated around 100 people sat on benches either side of the aisle arranged into clusters of 6. The ceiling was covered with fans and the windows opened fully ensuring a good breeze - if anything it was a little cold. We sat six of us squished onto a bench and I was pleased to be both by the window and facing forwards. Indian trains it seems don't close their doors 30 seconds before departure - they don't close their doors at all and later in the journey I stood at the door of the train watching the Rajasthan countryside pass by. When we stopped at a red signal to wait for another train to pass, several people got out to stretch their legs/see what was going on. The journey wasn't as bad as I'd expected but the benches were extremely uncomfortable and I soon had a numb bum and stiff legs from being unable to stretch out. For a shorter journey however, it would have been perfectly fine. And at a fraction of the price of my regular London to Chester train, Virgin trains could learn a lesson or too from Indian rail (apparently the country's largest employer).
Arriving in Udaipur (pleasingly earlier than expected) we were all glad to get off the hard benches and stretch. Then it was back to travelling by auto-rickshaw again to the hotel where we were greeted with a glass of mango juice and were pleased to see both a small swimming pool outside and a coffee shop opposite.
I'd been told by a friend that Udaipur was his favourite place in India and, not knowing much about the place, I was keen to see what it had to offer. We took a cable car to the top of a hill for sunset from where we could see the whole town arranged around a lake and surrounded by mountains. It was particularly beautiful lit up once the sun had disappeared and the city lot up for the night. In the centre of the lake, two water palaces (now hotels) looked amazing. For dinner we headed to a rooftop restaurant at a hotel overlooking the lake (Lake P.... hotel) where they had a good selection of both Rajasthani and Indian food as well as some attempts at western food which I steered well clear of choosing instead a sweet corn and spinach curry which was probably the best meal I'd had so far in India and I was enjoying the choice of vegetable vegetarian options (as opposed to paneer). It was also great to be in a restaurant where all of our meals arrived at the same time - we'd had quite a few where one person had finished by the time the last person was served. They also kept good track of who'd order what. I was surprised to see the price of wine on the menu, - about £5 for a half bottle - seemingly the only thing that costs more in India than England despite them making some local wine that I'd heard good things about. Yet further encouragement to stay off the booze in India! The view from the restaurant was incredible and, across the lake, we watched some big Muslim festival that was going on that day too.
Udaipur, we'd discover had that cafe culture that had so far been lacking. There were numerous rooftop bars around town, great for people watching. Our hotel also had a rooftop with a great view and at 8am the next morning I could be found, headphones in, with my skipping rope on the roof circuit training in the sunshine and admiring the view. After a while one of the hotel staff appeared and stared at me for a while - I took out ,y headphones and asked if he was okay. He said yes he was fine and carried on staring for a while longer before leaving. It felt good to do some proper exercise finally, even with an audience. Thankfully the hotel also had a powerful shower with a seemingly unlimited supply of hot water. Whilst I'd become pretty adept at 'showering' using a bucket and jug, it was nice to able to just stand under hot water for a change.
Attempting breakfast, I headed to the coffee shop opposite the hotel. The previous day they'd had no ice for cold coffee, this morning they had no coffee at all so I asked for orange juice instead and was given a warm sugary bottle of a of something attempting to be fanta. First stop of the day sightseeing-wise was a miniature painting class where they demonstrated the technique on our finger nails - one of the boys had an image for the karma sutra painted on his thumb nail, I had a really detailed peacock painted on mine. In the late morning nine of us attempted an Indian cookery class held on a rooftop with a view of the City Palace. Around one (rather filthy looking) stove, the nine of us learned to make chai, samosas, palak paneer, daal and chapatis (although my chapati was shaped more like India than a perfect circle) before eating our creations for lunch.
Whilst so far I'd been successful at avoiding Delhi belly, I was unfortunately starting to feel a tickle at the back of my throat that seemed to be more than just a side effect of too much pollution inhalation. The stuffy nose and incessant sneezing confirmed that I was coming down with a cold. Perhaps my body was aware of the fact that it was November but hadn't quite cottoned on to my geographic location. Either way, whilst I was prepared medically for all sorts of gastric problems, headaches, bites and allergies, I'd unfortunately not packed anything for a common cold or sore throat. I did find however that by just pointing to my throat in a cafe, I'd be brought a soothing concoction of ginger, lemon and honey tea which provided temporary relief.
After an afternoon wandering round the City Palace and seeking out cafes with working free wifi, the evening's entertainment was a Rajasthani cultural show. Initially it consisted of tinny drums, dodgy singing, some poor dancing (including a drunken looking fat woman who kept bumping into things) but the final act was a old woman balancing 11 water pots on her head whilst dancing for a good five minutes which was really impressive. Dinner that night was at an open air, canopied restaurant where I ate a vegetarian version of Laal Mas - a Rajasthani speciality - followed by hookah pipes.
Some then went on for an all night party on the roof top - I went to bed and woke up the next morning feeling pretty refreshed and enjoyed the luxury of another hot shower. I headed to the coffee shop across the road to see if they indeed had any coffee and was in luck. Sitting outside with my cappuccino, Annie - an older german woman also travelling with us - greeted me "good morning Mandy" - I'm not quite sure why she thought I was called Mandy but I chose not to correct her. Ole joined us and, as we discussed Udaipur, he compared it to a Greek island - I'm not sure I quite agree but with its calm lake side setting and many rooftops I can see where he's coming from (sort of).
We headed towards the town for a boat ride which afforded us some beautiful views of the city palace, the surrounding temple-topped hills/mountains and the two lake hotels. The view from the lake was essentially all the good parts of Udaipur without the grime and pollution. We saw several people washing in the lake - the women really scrubbed the clothes with soap before dunking them back in the dirty water to rinse whilst old men and young boys in their underpants scrubbed themselves 'clean'. After the boat ride we haggled for a rickshaw to take us into town for breakfast and free wifi. I ordered poached eggs on toast and when fried eggs on soggy bread appeared I still happily ate a meal that at home I'd have sent back immediately - funny how standards change. We had a lazy day getting better henna done (for much less than the priests wife had charged us) by a cheery guy in an art shop. Whilst the other girls got traditional pretty patterns, I asked for a camel, the Hindu symbol of love (because if you can love camel you can love anyone). I also got him to try out a tattoo I've always wanted just to see what it looked like temporarily - unfortunately he struggled with roman letters and ended up spelling it wrong but at least the camel was pretty cool. After a brief walk around the market, Maria and I chose another rooftop bar to enjoy the last of the day's sunshine. The waiter decided to test out some English phrases that he'd learnt ... 'Does your leg Hurt' .... 'What?'.... 'Because you fall from heaven?' ... and others of similar quality. When Oli and Christine joined us we were treated to a similar demonstration of his German skills. I pointed at my throat and asked for something good - he asked if i drank alcohol and offered to make me a hot rum with lemon and ginger. I declined and opted for a tea. When we commented on how cheap alcohol was in stores here (90 rupees for a small bottle of rum) he said it was because 'Indian people not like Europe, they drink only for the drunk, not for the fun'. On the rickshaw ride back, as Christine popped into the pharmacy, the driver asked Oli if 'German people smoke joint'. Oli assured him that he didn't touch the stuff and I asked if Indian people 'smoked a lot joint'. He opened his palm and said 'in my hand I have very good hash'.
In the evening Zahid took us to eat street food - most of us had so far been too worried about Delhi belly to try any although we were getting more adventurous as time went on. We took rickshaws to an area outside of town where next to the lake, on a busy road were several stalls that looked more fast-foodesque than street food per-say but it was on the side of a street. We shared some momos (steamed dumplings), I order a Bombay Masala Pav (which was essentially a mixed-veg curry sandwich) and we couldn't not order the hot chocolate chilli pizza. It was essentially a small greasy pizza with Hershey's chocolate sauce on top - the general consensus was that it was surprisingly good but, having tried it, there would never be the need to order it again. We ended the meal with a great cup of frothy coffee served in a mud-clay cup. The rickshaw ride back was in another party-rickshaw playing Justin Bieber and, as we raced the others, encouraging him to go faster and attempting to high five the others as we passed by, we commented on how immune we'd become to the driving. We'd asked Zahid if driving tests existed in India and if so what they consisted of (here's the horn, you're ready to go?) - apparently they do and are relatively similar to the rest of the world (I'd hoped they involved some sort of obstacle course around donkeys, taxis and foreigners) but many people bribe various people for one.
Later in the evening I temporarily broke my no-alcohol rule drinking a rum and coke on the rooftop with everyone else - it was our last night in Udaipur before the journey to Ranakpur. A few of us stayed there drinking a bit and chatting until about 1am when it got cold.