Why Udaipur is the Most Romantic City in the East

Udaipur exudes a peacefulness that’s hard to find in India. The lavish palaces and cobblestone streets of this luxurious lakeside city offer visitors a tantalizing taste of the region’s glorious past.

Approaching town, Udaipur is like a mirage on the edge of the desert. It’s the richest kingdom of Rajasthan and feels it. Within the old city walls, the streets overflow with artisans, jewelers, and craftsmen.

One of the highlights of India’s growing upmarket tourism sector, Udaipur boasts world-class resorts and five-star culinary delights. It also boasts quiet lakefront guesthouses and casual rooftop restaurants.

In a country less known for its romantic getaways, Udaipur offers tranquil nights, splendid strolls, and an exotic seduction that’s hard to resist.

Gypsy Music

Rajasthani folk music is some of the most haunting, romantic, and heart-wrenching music on the planet. It’s believed that gypsy music has its origins in Rajasthan, India. While little is known about the culture that generated the Gypsies, linguists and historians believe that the Gypsies were originally from North Central India and began their great migration around 300 BC. It’s said that the Gypsies entered southeastern Europe in the end of the 13th century. Because they were assumed to be from Egypt, Europeans began calling them “Gyptians” and then simply “Gypsies.” The Gypsy tradition is very much alive and well in Rajasthan and it’s not uncommon for a musician to sit down next to you on the street and begin playing the Sarangi.

Art 

The Maru-Gurjar painting style of Rajasthan began in the 5th century and, under royal patronage, various forms developed. Arts in Rajasthan reached their pinnacle between the 15th and 17th centuries. The major style practiced in Udaipur today is miniature painting, which captures in small scale much of what makes the place so harsh and enchanting. If you want to have a mural painted on your fingernails or your name on a piece of rice, there is, perhaps, nowhere better on earth than Udaipur. Traditionally, miniature artists use paint that’s made naturally, mixed from minerals and vegetables found in the area – ochre for red, coal for black, aventurine for green. The style of paintings found in Rajasthan, miniature or otherwise, are typical of what many Westerners imagine when they think of Indian art.

Theater

Drawing upon the rich culture of Rajasthani art, music, and dance, performance is a big part of the culture in Rajasthan. Today, actors and dancers no longer perform for royal audiences, but share their talents for all to see. Many like the Bopa and Kalbellya Gypsies were born into the craft and carry on a longstanding family tradition of dancing with fire, handling marionettes, and twirling around while balancing an unthinkable amount of bowls on their heads.

A Storied History

Formerly known as Mewar, Udaipur was founded in 1559 when Maharaja Udia Singh I took flight from the final sacking of the fort at Chittor by the notorious Mughal emperor Akbar. As Udai Singh and his followers resisted Muslim might, the city grew a reputation for patriotism and independence. The city has a proud heritage and boasts the longest lineage of any modern ruler. A walk through the streets of Udaipur reveals a myriad of ways to explore the fabled history.

Lakefront Setting

Known as the “Venice of the East,” Udaipur encircles the blue waters of Lake Pichola. The lake reflects the delicate marble architecture of the buildings above, which themselves sit below one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, the Aravelli Hills. Within the lake are two palace-covered islands, Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir. Lake Pichola, which is thrillingly out of place in this desert landscape, was artificially created in 1362. It’s now one of several contiguous lakes developed over the past few centuries in and around Udaipur, each of which make lovely backdrops for a sunset stroll.

Edge of the Desert

While downtown Udaipur boasts elegant shops and riverside cafes, just five miles outside of the city you’ll find untouched wilderness in the Aravalli Hills. Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary, which surrounds the Monsoon Palace overlooking Udaipur City, provides jaw-dropping views of town and a chance to see panthers, sambars, blue bulls, hyenas and a variety of birds and reptiles. Head a little further north and you can go on a safari through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Head south, and you can laze away along the world famous Jaisamand Lake in Jaisamand Wildlife Sanctuary. A brush with the wild is never far away in Udaipur.

Architectural Marvels

Not only is Udaipur home to India’s second largest palace, City Palace, but it boasts the oft-photographed Lake Palace and the luxurious Fateh Prakash Palace. Scattered about the town, you can also find the dazzling Hivalis (mansions) of the noble elite. Because of a marble quarry nearby, much of Udaipur is built like a fairytale city; the white glistens under the desert’s spitting sun, dancing from roof to roof around the sky blue lake.

Yoga

Going to India and not doing yoga is like going to Italy and not trying the pasta. Whether you’re a novice or a master, start each day off right with some of the best Yoga instructors in India. A great studio is never far away and you’ll find classes from sun up to sun down. From the roof of a palace, to the edge of the lake, there’s no better place on Earth to stretch, relax, and salute the sun!

Rajasthani Food

Rajasthan is a land of sweets and spices – and you may need the sweet to cool off your mouth after the spice. Sweets are never called desserts in Rajasthan because they’re had before, after and during the meal. The streets of Udaipur are full of small sweet shops selling fudge-like treats. The spice content of Rajasthani meals is even hotter than that of other Indian regions. Luckily, it’s slightly cooled down by the cooking method. Because Rajasthan is a desert region, there’s a scarcity of water. Therefore, most dishes are cooked with milk, buttermilk, and butter. Even better than the food is the setting in which you eat it. The skyline of Udaipur is capped with numerous rooftop restaurants offering stunning views of the lakeside city below.

James Bond was Here

You know a city is sexy if it was prominently featured in a James Bond film – especially if that film was one with a name like “Octopussy.” Don’t think this fact is lost on the locals. You’re guaranteed to see “Octopussy” projected onto the walls of at least one rooftop restaurant you visit. Watching the film, you soon realize that not much has changed in Udaipur in the last thirty years. This place is truly timeless!

The Trickery that Tickled the Tibetan Pilgrims

With the pipes frozen, the day started without water.

That meant another day not showering, grimy teeth, and a case of what I like to call “traveler’s face.”

I left the desolate, remote army post of Jomsom for the freezing, windswept nothingness of the “road” north.

Leaving Jomson was like stepping off of earth and onto the moon. With a scarf over my face and glasses over my eyes, every inch of skin was covered as I traversed the rusty strip of rubble. To my side, wildly carved rocks twisted along the valley walls as the blistering sun set out to crack puddles of ice.

In a desolate, cold, lifeless land that was not yet Tibet, but not quite Nepal, I could feel my insides turning numb. Barely bearable in the early morning, the winds picked up and whipped through the valley with such a force that locals warned against travel at midday.

The path itself was littered with the crumbling remains of forgotten homes along this ancient trade route. Made from the rubble of the rock desert that is the Kali Gandaki Valley, the houses were hardly decipherable against the beige backdrop.

Tip-toeing over wobbling rocks as snot dripped down my nose, I glimpsed a crooked sign that read “Lubra,” pointing away from an intersecting river valley.

Scanning my map, I noticed a small village located about an hour off the path along the valley walls of the approaching tributary. Intrigued, and hoping to find some warming tea, I branched off away from the Jomsom track.

En route, I came across a group of pilgrims sitting in the snow in the center of the valley. They were chit-chatting, laughing, and having a nice mid-morning picnic.

“Lubra?” I asked, raising my hands in a questioning motion.

The Tibetan ladies laughed. But one, who spoke a few words in English, pointed me up a nearby hill.

I asked again, “Lubra?” pointing to the snow covered hill, where I couldn’t decipher anything resembling a path.

All the women agreed, pointing up the large hill.

Though I saw no signs of life, a path, or footprints even, I trusted the friendly ladies and left, bowing and thanking them for their kindness.

Halfway up the hill, I was out of breath. Above 4,000 meters (13,125 feet), the oxygen was thinning. Not only was there no path, but the slippery slopes were covered almost knee-deep in snow and my lower body was beginning to drench. Worse, turning around was no longer an option. It was hard enough to climb up the hill, but walking down, I’d surely slip and tumble into the rocks below.

Triumphantly, I found the edge of a stone fence peeking out of the snow. I sat, eating a candy bar and thinking that I had found the village of Lubra. Yet, the remote house had been abandoned.

I climbed up to another house, but it too was abandoned.

Further up the hill, I saw what looked to be a lone monastery. Nearly 30 minutes later, I crested the top of the hill and found a set of footsteps in the snow leading to a snow-covered field of prayer flags and prayer wheels next to a small stone house that puffed smoke from a metal chimney.

Approaching the small structure, I was warned off by a thrashing guard dog chained to the fence. As the dog barked, a lone maroon-clad monk stepped outside, waved at me with a luminous smile and returned to his home.

Elated but confused, I sat outside observing the prayer wheels and the glistening white peaks in the distance. It was the highest point I would reach in the Himalaya, and there was a quite beauty that took my breath away.

My Western sensibilities had me questioning how this man could live all alone at the top of this snow covered hill with his flags and wheels, but in an instant it all made sense.

I followed his footsteps down the far side of the hill. As I rounded a bumpy corner, I saw bellow me, along the valley edge, the terraced buildings of a bustling town.

There it was, the town I’d been looking for all along! Lubra had been a mere 20 minutes’ walk further into the valley and I’d been tricked by a group of pilgrims into climbing a snowy hill up to the Heavens.

As I slid down the hill, a group of townspeople began pointing and waving. They invited me to join them on their roof for tea and I could not be more thankful for their hospitality.

I sat on a Tibetan rug as an old lady spun yaks wool next to me. The younger lady went downstairs to make tea, and when she returned, she brought with her a group of women.

As the women marched up onto the roof, I realized immediately that it was the pilgrims I had seen before. They took one look at me and erupted in an explosion of laughter.

Our host recounted the tale of watching me slide down the snowy hill as the whole group doubled over laughing.

I couldn’t help but laugh too.

Out of their bags, the women removed an assortment of snacks and prepared me a plate. I reached into my backpack, and offered up some cookies and peanuts.

We sat together on the roof – me and the tickled Tibetan pilgrims – sipping tea, laughing and enjoying the afternoon sun.

The Last Jeep Out of Darjeeling

Before, when I heard the word “Darjeeling,” I thought only of tea and toy trains.  Now, I think of torches and a midnight escape.

My guidebook mentioned checking in on the political situation before heading to Darjeeling, but by the time I read that I was already in the jeep halfway up the foothills of the Himalaya.

I had wished to transfer to the toy train (made famous by Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, “Darjeeling Limited”) at New Jalpaiguri and ride the winding track up to Darjeeling.  A recent mudslide prevented that from happening.

Instead, I piled into a jeep with far too many passengers and braced myself against my bag for the bumping ride up into the heavens.   Having just completed my first overnight train ride in India from Kolkata, I was in no mood for 5 hours in a crowded jeep blasting Indi-pop – but that’s what I got.

After hours spent squished stiff, we raced through the clouds and emerged at the mythical mountaintop city of Darjeeling.  Were the clouds gone, I would have seen Everest from here.  Yet, the clouds never parted.  They sensed something was boiling.  They didn’t dare let the sunshine in.

I spent four days in Darjeeling and never once saw the famous Himalayan peaks.  Four days wandering through the clouds, not seeing up nor down until all I could see was the fire ahead and the headlights of the last jeep out of town.  Four days in a city that I would be forced to leave.

But what a four days they were…

Darjeeling was a famous hill station in the days of the British Raj.  In the mid-19th century the colonial government set up a sanatorium and a military depot.  Subsequently, extensive tea planting occurred in the region, resulting in an internationally recognized crop that ranks among the most popular black teas in the world and provides much of the economy for the town.

The poor roads and remote location keep mass tourism at bay in this romantic and mysterious region.

Darjeeling is nestled along the elbow of India’s eastern arm in close proximity to the Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Bangladeshi borders.  Consequently, to venture further afield, one must first obtain a permit from the Indian government.

I had no intentions of leaving Darjeeling for the nether regions.  My intentions were to stay for a week, breathe the fresh air, and escape the chaos of the low country.  But, India is addicted to a daily dose of unpredictability.

The people of Darjeeling run the gamut of Indo-European and Asiatic features.  With a large Tibetan refugee community, Newar Nepalese, Bhutanese, and sprinklings of semi-nomadic Himalayan tribes, the streets of Darjeeling offer an eclectic mix of characters who congregate daily in the town square, Chowrasta.

The origin of the name “Darjeeling” is most likely from the Tibetan words ‘Dorge,’ which means ‘thunderbolt,’ and ‘Ling,’ which means place or land.  Quite literally, it is the ‘Land of the Thunderbolt.’  Originally, this was the name given to the Buddhist monastery atop Observatory Hill but, over time, became the name of the entire surrounding area.

Two local boys in their early twenties beckoned me to join them on their walk up to Observatory Hill.  For them, this hill represented the ultimate Zen paradise.

Monkeys paraded about on the staircase up.   As we approached the hilltop monastery, we were absorbed into a thickly wrapped web of Tibetan prayer flags.  This oasis at the top of the hill was a religious carnival of color where locals gathered to thump gongs and gurgle baritone odes.  I’d never been anywhere quite like it.  So flashy, yet so serene.

I spent the following days wandering through the tea farms, chatting with local shop owners and learning from a slew of local tea experts about a drink that I had never thought much about.  Each seemed to share the same opinions.  Tea must come with milk, green tea is only to be used for medicine, and black tea should be served several times a day.  You can sniff out a top grade tea by blowing hot breath into a handful of leaves and waiting for the aroma.

At the Happy Valley Tea Estate, a drunk man who claimed to run the place took me on a tour of the plantation.  Picking started in March and there were not many people around when I arrived during pruning season.  What I could gather from his slurred and jumbled English, was that the buds of the tea bush are picked, placed on a mesh table and blasted with 8 hours of cold air and 8 hours of hot air.  This takes away 30% of the moisture, and then the buds get compressed in a series of machines and go through fermentation.  The tip of the bud produces the highest quality tea, then the larger leaves, and the stems go into the tea bags.

There are 84 tea gardens in Darjeeling.

Each night, I holed up in my cold, unheated room with a cup of tea and fell asleep in my wool hat and gloves, buried under four blankets to try and block out the Himalayan winter.  In the mornings after tea, I ordered a bucket of boiling water, mixed it with the cold tap water, and splashed liberally as I rubbed a bar of soap over my goose bumped body until I could take it no more.

Somehow, I found this daily routine quite satisfying.

On what would become my final morning in town, I started the day at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (better known as the Darjeeling Zoo) where wild monkeys patrolled the perimeter laughing at their caged brethren.  At 7,000 feet (2,150 meters) this is the highest altitude zoo in the world, and it specializes in Himalayan Wildlife like the rare Snow Leopard and the Tibetan Wolf.

Also within the zoo grounds, was the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), which had a fascinating exhibit on the mountaineers who’ve braved the world’s highest peaks.  HMI is one of the premier places in the world to learn the science and art of mountaineering and its first managing director was also the first man to climb Everest (alongside Edmund Hillary), Tensing Norgay.

When I left the museum and zoo grounds, I noticed that the road was closed and that all cars were stopped from leaving town.  Soon, all shops closed their doors and I asked a policeman what was going on.  He informed me that three men had been shot in a nearby town and that an independence strike had begun.

Ghorkhaland is the name of the proposed state in India demanded by the Nepali/Gorkhali speaking Gorkha ethic group in Darjeeling and the Dooars and Siliguri terai contiguous to Darjeeling in northern West Bengal.  The movement for a separate state gained serious momentum during the 1980s, when a violent agitation was carried out by the Gorkha National Liberaion Front (GNLF).  Things subsided for a time, but in 2008, a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland once again.

On February 8, 2011 (my fourth day in Darjeeling), three GJM activists were shot by the West Bengali police as they tried to enter Jalpaiguri district.  This led to violence in the Darjeeling hills and an indefinite strike called for by GJM.

Every store (save the Chemist shops) in the whole of Darjeeling shut its doors, while the citizens of the city took to the streets.  All roads out of town were shut, and pink posters flew up across the town stating GJM’s demands.

In Chowrasta Square, tribal families with elaborate nose jewelry sat on park benches next to young activists – everyone had something to say.

Down the street from Chowrasta Square, the West Bengali Tourism Building was set on fire.  I had stopped by this building twice that morning to find out information on the zoo and museum, but they were not open.  Perhaps, they sensed what was to come.

The whole town rushed to watch the fire as I looked around confused wondering, what am I to do now?  The roads were closed, the people angry, and I was stuck on the top of a Himalayan hill station with no way down.

I asked several people (the police, the lady at my guesthouse, another set of tourists on the street) what should I do?

What could I do?  Nothing it seemed.  Some said I should stay and wait things out.  Others said I should pack my bags and see if I could somehow bribe an official for a ride out of town.

I wasn’t terribly frightened, but the fact that the tourism building had been targeted irked me.  The police warned that strikes happen frequently, but that this one could be different because several activists were shot.

I waited out the afternoon in my room.  By dinnertime, the woman who ran my guesthouse informed me that the road would open for three hours that evening and, if I wanted to leave, this would be my only way out.  I packed my bags, marched to the bottom of town, and caught the last jeep out of Darjeeling.  In a jeep made for five people, I sped down the mountain well after dusk with 15 fellow passengers – inside, on top of, and hanging onto the frame of the fragile car.

The strike in Darjeeling lasted nine days.  For nine days, the town was paralyzed and shut off from the world.  The night I left, GJM protestors torched several government bungalows and looted ammunition from a police outpost.  There were several more deaths throughout the week and, though the town remains open again, the situation is still unresolved.

–Postscript–

After an unhappy night in Silguri, I caught a bus to the nearby Nepali border.  Finally, I thought, I could see the Himalaya without the clouds, without the protests, and with a bit of peace and quiet.

Little did I know that my plans would again be thwarted by a group of unhappy protesters in the political minority.  Little did I know that Maoists still existed in this day and age.

The Maoist Rebels (who hold a famously brutal reputation in rural Nepal) were holding a protest at the border.  All roads into the Nepali mainland were closed.

After my late night escape from Darjeeling, I was stuck in Nepal at a hostile border – the last place any traveler wants to be.

Check back for more MarkontheMap later this week as the blog heads to Kathmandu, Nepal!

“Are You Liking India?”

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.”

-Mark Twain

Landing in India is like landing on another planet.  There’s no place on Earth quite like it.

It’s the ultimate travelers test.  It provokes your senses, demanding them to breach the extreme boundaries of their limitations.  You smell the most horrific smells.  You see the most audacious sites.  You hear the most deafening noises.  And, more than anything else, you feel such strong emotions that it threatens to overwhelm you.

In Don Delillo’s The Names, a local on the street asks, “Are you liking India?”  “Yes,” the Westerner replies, “although I would have to say it goes beyond liking in almost every direction.”

Life in India has its own set of rules that are utterly foreign to the foreigner.  Respect and privacy carry altogether different meanings.  It’s easy to misunderstand it all, casting the sari-clad characters around you in a demonic light.  It takes a while to get used to the pushing, the burping, and the screeching sounds emitted as your neighbors form the most gelatinous balls of spit to coat the muddy streets.

I’ve heard stories of several travelers who, after 3 days in the country, packed up their bags and caught the first plane back home.  I can’t blame them.  India is not for the faint of heart.  It’s certainly not for the romantics.  But, I could not imagine a more amazing place than India to learn about humanity.  The streets of India are both an explosion and celebration of the human condition.

That said, I have to be careful not to generalize the people or the country as a whole.  With 16 major languages, 1,652 dialects, 5 main religions, over 2,000 castes, thousands of Gods, and the remains of over 500 former kingdoms, India is not so easy encapsulated.  India is much more diverse than most Westerners imagine.  There is nothing typical about India and there is no typical Indian.

Most Westerns enter this country at Mumbai (Bombay) or New Delhi.  I arrived at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata (Calcutta).

Some might describe this as being tossed directly into the fire.  My taxi driver from the airport put it best.  “You see this…” he paused to swerve around a cow in the middle of the road.  “This is Kolkota.  Welcome.  Welcome to the zoo.  Kolkota…” he waved his hands wildly, “India’s zoo.”

Kolkata has always lagged behind the nation’s other modernizing megacities.  Mother Theresa gave the city a face, albeit the face of extreme poverty and destitution.

Entering Kolkata was like receiving the golden ticket to a traveling depression-era freak show.  Yet, the excitement and utter curiosity of it all soon waned and manifest itself in an overwhelming sadness.  A man crawled past on all fours, another contorted himself at the side of the street hoping for a rupee.  Women shoved their babies in my face while pleading for money.  Naked kids clamored up my back, demanding payment.

Further down the street, I encountered the chalk etching of a man’s body decorated with patches of crimson red.   On the corner by my guesthouse, a man sat in a daze as a team of westerners prepared for an ad hoc operation on his flesh-exposed arm.

This was my introduction to the nation.  Though by no means an all-encompassing generalization of my experience as a whole, it certainly set the tone and begged me to question, “Can I really spend two months in this country without going insane.”

Maybe traveling in India with a bigger budget would have made my experience more pleasurable, but I set aside a meager $10 a day, which found me in the kind of accommodation you don’t tell your folks about back home.

In Kolata, I slept on a thin brick of a mattress that was swarming with bedbugs.  Fuchsia paint peeled off the cracked walls and a spout from the ceiling set a torrent of cold water down for bathing.  The “western” toilet had no toilet seat, making it a hybrid western/squat.

I was photographed at intake and my details were logged into a computer from the 1980s.  Each foreigner is strictly accounted for in India.  You can’t log onto a computer at an Internet facility without first checking your passport with the attendant.

The streets of Kolkata were a blur of fast moving colors – the Bangladeshi women with their elaborate saris and the men in tight pants and polyester shirts of the 1970s.  Amidst the chaos, the hand painted busses and street signs were all decorated in a sweet, toybox font.  This widespread cuteness was unexpected and in stark contrast to the everyday realities.

The street stalls and quick eats of Kolkata were a greaseball’s glory land. Indians have a vastly different body image for the female than the west.  To be plump means you can afford some luxuries in life.  One Bangladeshi explained to me that Indians love their deep fried snacks and a well off woman will have “shiny hair and shiny lips.”

I spent my first days in India with a samosa sheen.

For such an unruly city, Kolkata has several areas of respite to escape from the busy streets and cacophony of horns.  There are quite gardens, colonial cemeteries, and tidy aircon museums.  The former capital of the British Raj, Kolkata has a jumble of colonial architectural marvels like the Victoria Memorial (which bares a striking resemblance to the White House in Washington D.C.).

I went to an actual zoo in Kolkata.  It was a back alley zoo on the edge of a gated off mansion on the fringe of town.  I had first to obtain a letter of permission from the tourism board to even visit the place.  Surprisingly, it was the most peaceful part of the city – this zoo within the zoo.

Yet, like any peaceful place in Kolkata, a community of squatters had set up homes on the fringe of the park, washing their clothes by the monkey cage and drying them on the rocks near the pheasants.

A mansion, a zoo, and a squatter settlement.

I could hardly think of a better image to describe modern India.  There are over 125,000 millionaires in the country living side by side with those who make much less in a week than the average American does in an hour.  Herein lies many of the problems.  Problems that would lead me to flee the riots and protests in upper West Bengal for Nepal just one week after entering India… But, I’m getting ahead of myself (and you can read about that in the coming weeks)!

I will never properly be able to describe India to someone who hasn’t been.  It’s impossible.  On my first call home from India, my sister said, “India.  Now that’s one place I hope I never have to go,” and I don’t think she’s the only one who feels that way.

I’d have to say of all the places I’ve been in the world, India is probably my favorite.  That said, I have never felt such hatred for a place in my life.  Never have I struggled with simultaneous love and hate like I have in India.

Yet, India casts a spell on its visitors and, like it or not, I was knee deep in the mess and trudging towards the carnival with kaleidoscope goggles.

“Are you liking India?”

It goes beyond liking in almost every direction.