Roaming in Rajasthan
Wednesday 8th - Tuesday 21st
Now where were we?
Udaipur is a truly beautiful city, and its reputation as India’s most romantic is not undeserved. The hub - if you’re a tourist - is the north-eastern shore of Lake Pichola, divided into Lal Ghat and Hanuman Ghat, undulating ancient neighbourhoods littered with guesthouses, cafés, craft shops, havelis and endless steep, cobbled streets.
Many of the guesthouses - ours included - sit literally on the lake, with cavern-like rooms and low windows which look out onto nothing but water - and the ghats are lazy, lovely places simply to wander. But the real draw is the lake itself, with the City Palace piled haphazardly up its eastern edge, and the two ‘floating’ island palaces (now mega-exclusive hotels) of Jagniwas and Jagmandis which, built in the 17th and 18th centuries by ambitious maharajahs, serve as spellbinding echoes of a time long forgotten.
We roamed happily for four days, getting caught in the odd monsoon, then - grudgingly - took a hellish night bus deeper into Rajasthan. Our next port of call, Jodhpur, is known as the Blue City and boasts a stunningly picturesque mish-mash of tightly packed sandstone buildings, half of which - unlike their yellow Pink City counterparts - really are a beautiful cornflower blue (originally as a way for members of the Brahmin (highest) caste to mark their homes, though others have since joined in). The old town is chaotic but oh so atmospheric, filled with spice and sari shops and, of course, the requisite cows who wander all Indian streets (all with an expression which casually asks ‘How did I get here? What now?’), but achieve a frankly staggering presence in Jodhpur. Nevertheless, the show is stolen by the huge, austere fort (the Rajasthan’s do love a fort) which towers over the city, be it set against blue sky or shrouded in the mists of an approaching monsoon.
Next on the agenda was Jaisalmer, where we stayed inside the glowing sandstone walls of yet another huge fort (despite assurance from every tout between there and Jodhpur that it was closed, flooded, burned down, etc) and spent two days gazing over its crumbling walls at the vast expanse of desert racing away to the horizon in every direction, taking photos of it in every possible light, and drinking gin in a restaurant opposite the maharajah’s palace owned by a wonderfully eccentric Australian-Indian couple. But the highlight was, without doubt, the camel safari.
It did not begin well. After a fitful night and early start we were hoping to relax during the hour-long jeep ride into the Thar Desert but, on seeing the hairy single track road with its 70kph two-way traffic, soon realised this was foolishly optimistic. You might suppose such a road would be a recipe for disaster, and you’d be right. Before long the jeep ahead of us had narrowly missed hitting a milk truck head on and, by the time we’d caught up, the two drivers were in the midst of a brawl armed with not unmenacing wooden bats.
Luckily, once we’d arrived in deep desert and were each perched atop a towering, dopey-eyed camel (mine a beautiful, long-lashed lady named Majah), and things improved immeasurably. We loped through sandy scrubland for several hours, our playful, stubborn camels taking every opportunity to misbehave, stopping to rub their necks on each other’s saddle bags, burping loudly and sitting without warning as we lumbered in convoy across the dunes.
At midday we stopped for lunch while the unsaddled camels rolled happily in the sand and we munched vegetables and chapatti. By nightfall we were watching the sunset from our sand dune camp, where we slept in thick blankets under the stars until morning, when we trundled back across the desert into civilisation. All in all a perfect trip - with the exception of the scorpion which got trapped inside my blanket and elected to put its stinger repeatedly through my toe during the night. Oh well, can’t have it all I suppose.
And then it was on to Sikhism’s holiest city, Amritsar, and its main attraction. The Golden Temple sits in the middle of a huge, fish-filled pool and, with its hundreds of turban-wearing pilgrims and prayer-wailing tannoy, is the first place I’ve been in India that has felt genuinely holy. Something about it being sans-admission fee and devoid of touts helped immensely, but generally it is an oasis of goodness and serenity in the midst of a chaotic city - difficult not to love.
Finally we took a trip to the Pakistani border where each evening a huge crowd gathers on either side for the infamous flag-lowering ceremony, a hilarious, exuberant affair featuring chanting, dancing, zealous Pakistani and Indian guards trying to out high-kick each other, and a great whopping dose of patriotism. It has to be said, if you don’t love India by the time it’s finished, you must’ve had your eyes closed.