February 2013 – I shipped out from Varanasi by night train. But not before the town treated me to one last reminder of just how wonderfully unpredictable it can be. It seemed that one of my fellow patrons at the train station had caught a bit of a chill in the cool evening air while waiting for her train. How did she solve this problem?
That’s right. She made a fire. And no one seemed to give her fire a second thought. As my train left the station, I could see her still warming her bones by the fire without a station official in sight. Such is the brilliance of India in general and Varanasi in particular.
None other than the Taj Mahal. It’s been described as “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity” and “the embodiment of all things pure” which makes for lofty praise and even loftier prose. I won’t try to compete. Simply put… it’s a spectacular building and one of the best I’ve ever seen. Watching it ever so subtly change colors with the setting of the sun was fantastic. They say sunrise and sunset are the best time to see it. I can’t speak to the former. But I can certainly attest to the latter for while the Taj was impressive at midday, it was absolutely sublime in the late afternoon.
The Taj is brilliant. But I can’t say the same for my visit itself and those of you who read my entry on Angkor Wat can probably guess why. That’s right. Crowds. Again. And this time those crowds were all the more crowded due to the fact that my visit coincided with a long holiday weekend. On the bright side the people watching was of top quality. But peaceful observation and enjoyment of the star attraction were all but impossible from within the walls of the grounds. Luckily the rooftop cafes just outside the South Gate provided for much less crowded and much more peaceful viewing albeit from a much greater distance. I enjoyed dinner at one such café both nights I was in town and would highly recommend you do the same. I’ve eaten at countless Indian joints in the States with photos, paintings and miniatures of the Taj featuring prominently in their décor. But here I was eating a far tastier and cheaper biryani than I’d ever had in the US and I was doing so within sight of the real deal.
I’d suggest checking out Agra Fort if you’re spending more than a few hours in town. It’s no Taj but it’s compelling nonetheless and as an added bonus it affords a great downriver view of its more impressive neighbor.
The fort also provided the backdrop for the photo below which is one of my favorites from among those I took in India.
Once again I took a night train out of town and once again the train station was a treasure trove for those of us who love people watching.
Udaipur… a town that featured prominently in what is easily the most ludicrously named installment in the illustrious James Bond franchise.
That’s Octopussy for those of you who can’t read graffiti. Fellow admirers of 007 will recall that Bond (played here by Sir Roger Moore) journeyed to Udaipur in pursuit of Kamal Khan and his sultry associate for whom the film is named. It’s certainly not one of the better of the Bond films. But it’s hard not to enjoy it when it’s being projected on a decent sized screen in a rooftop café with views of the lake. Add a tasty curry, a side of lentils and an icy cold Kingfisher into the mix and you’ve got yourself one hell of an enjoyable evening in Udaipur, at least per the standards of this road weary traveler.
It’s been said that Udaipur is the most romantic city in India. If that’s true then India would appear to be romantically challenged. Then again I suspect that Udaipur has changed considerably since the days when it was so proclaimed. It’s certainly a pleasant town and not without its charms. But much of the lakeside buildings and neighborhood seem to have been given over exclusively to tourism thereby sucking the charm out of what must have been a very special place for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of tourists like me.
I had a good time nonetheless. It was my first time staying in one of the many old mansions found throughout Rajasthan that have been converted into guesthouses. They are called havelis. Mine was nothing fancy. But it made for a more unique lodging experience and something that felt much more uniquely Indian than some of the more modern budget hotels. I made a point of doing the same in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer after my experience in Udaipur.
Upon the advice of the cabdriver who drove me from the train station to my guesthouse (a man named Chill), I took a cab towards the edge of town one day where I rode this vaguely gondola like contraption up to an observation point on the top of a nearby peak.
The top afforded excellent views of the lake and the city and the surrounding area.
It also gave me a great view of the Lake Palace (aka Octopussy’s ladies only lair) which was constructed smack dab in the middle of Lake Pichola. You might recall that Bond was able to sneak into the fortress via a small submarine/boat designed to look like a crocodile. Alas I was unable to find a crocodile boat and thus I had to settle for views from afar.
I also paid a visit to the City Palace while in town. It was interesting and certainly worth the time. But I found myself rather annoyed at the policy of charging higher prices for tickets that allowed for photo taking within the walls of the Palace. In retrospect I suppose the two tier ticketing is a better policy than the possible alternative of charging everyone the photographer’s rate. But it still bothered me for some reason.
Aside from that, I spent the remainder of my time in Udaipur wandering about town and exploring some really interesting shops and markets and drinking tea in a variety of cafes with good views of the lake. I also got my first ayurvedic massage which was interesting but not nearly as compelling as Thai massage.
Udaipur is a relaxing town and it made for a nice change of pace from the tourist hordes (and the hustlers who love them) in Agra, the brilliant insanity of Varanasi and the many worthwhile challenges of Kolkata.
From Udaipur I was off to Jodhpur. But I wouldn’t be going by train this time for there is no line running directly between the two and thus I hit the road in a taxi (really just a driver and his car) with two backpackers from the U.K. The drive took us through small towns, tiny farming villages and dusty settlements. There was plenty to see along the way and even the empty expanses of arid land were a welcome change from the crowded cities and trains in which I’d spent most of my time to date. The most famous of the sights was the ancient castle of Kumbhalgarh where we had a look around for an hour or two.
But most interesting to me were the many glimpses of rural life that I caught out of the car window as we made our way from one village to another. We stopped briefly in one such village to get a closer look at this seemingly timeless cow-powered water wheel.
I love the fact that it was virtually impossible for me to tell how long that thing had been turning. Was it 10 years? 100 years? 500 years? And for how many more will it turn? The sound of its steady motion was hypnotic and I wished we had time to just sit in the sun and listen to it for the rest of the afternoon. But Jodhpur beckoned and none of us were too enthusiastic about being in the car after dark as things were sketchy enough on the roads in daylight.
Jodhpur is sometimes called the Blue City and here’s why…
And while having a great many blue buildings is certainly cool, the most striking and notable feature of the city is the giant Mehrangarh Fort (c. 1459) which looms over the old city.
It’s an impressive structure and a visit to the top is a must as its ramparts afford excellent views of the town and beyond.
When not gallantly perched atop the ramparts of Mehrangarh, I spent my time wandering around town particularly within the central market square which was abuzz at all hours of the day. I somehow managed to restrain myself from ordering a bargar (aka burger) from this seemingly delectable eatery located in the middle of the square…
Why? Because I’d caught a glimpse in town of what I was afraid might have been part of Bombay Fast Food’s supply chain grazing in a back alley…
I’m guessing that’s not organic beef. I guess I should have tried their hot donet instead. Mmmmm… donets. But I didn’t and thus I was off to Jaisalmer donetless but very much ready to travel deeper into…