Udaipur: "The Venice of the East"

Udaipur was a great place to decompress and enjoy life after a month traveling around India. By this point on our Asia travels we had spent a month in China, and had spent time in the Indian cities of Kolkata, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Delhi, Agra, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Khuri before arriving here in the lovely “White City,” “City of Lakes,” “Venice of the East” or whatever you want to call it.

Read more about our India itinerary here, and the Big Trip here.

Udaipur is located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan about 250 miles southwest of Jaipur. It’s not an easy place to get to from Jaisalmer where we were coming from as there is no direct rail link between the two cities, which we found incredibly surprising given India’s vast network of rail. Even if you back track to Jodhpur, there is no direct service, even though Jodhpur and Udaipur constitute two of the most significant population centers in the state and are only about 150 miles apart. If you do want to travel exclusively by rail, you can take the overnight train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, then hop the train to Marwar Junction, then to Ajmer Junction, then on to Udaipur — a very long journey for a very short distance!

Or…better yet…you can do what we ended up doing and take the overnight train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur and catch the early morning express bus to Jaisalmer, which only takes about 5 hours and costs far less. Plus, it’s a surprisingly scenic ride over mountains and through jungle.

In India, the government buses generally seem to be the safest based on our own experience and from what people have told us. They are reliable and fairly timely as well. One trick we did was to get off the train from Jaisalmer a stop early at Raika Bagh (rather than in to Jodhpur station) as this is where the government bus stand is located. From the train station it’s less than a five minute walk out and around to the bus. The over night train arrives around 5:10am and the bus leaves between 5:30 and 6. Tickets can be purchased at the bus stand and the buses are fairly comfortable.

India Train Resources:

Cleartrip.com — Once we learned of this site it was a lifesaver! Best site for foreigners to purchase tickets online, though it does require a convoluted registration process outlined at Seat61.com.

Indianrail.gov.in — Official site of Indian Railways, it’s the best site for checking train schedules and piecing together complex trips.

Seat61.com/India.htm — This guy is simply a freak of nature and we love him. He’s ridden nearly every train line known to modern-day man and shares every little detail on his site — particularly helpful for understanding train travel in India.

We were incredibly caught off guard when our bus pulled over high up in the mountains in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and the driver abandoned the bus. Often, this might be a cause for concern, or a sign of a long delay, but in India on the road to Udaipur, it simply meant that it was time to feed the monkeys! The driver pulled out a box on the ready full of bananas, gave out a loud whistle and we all watched from the bus as a dozen or so Grey Langurs of all ages emerged from the jungle and waited eagerly for their treat. While I’ve seen loads of monkeys over the years, many in the wild, I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like this scenario. Watching this unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was part of the driver’s daily work routine and what compelled him to do it.

Related Article:  Farewell & Reflections

If you ask Lori and I why we travel, it would be hard to explain in less than five minutes, but really it’s because of moments like these — those little surprises that appear quite random and not the least bit contrived and catch you completely off guard, and seem so foreign from anything you would ever experience at home in the States, but at the same time you are able to connect on a deeply human level. I think as a traveler you thrive on experiencing those seemingly exotic, unscripted slices of humanity that are not done for the sake of you, “the tourist” or foreigner, but take place regardless of whether you were present or not. On the surface, such moments seem rare, but at closer inspection, you find they are actually all around, if you stay in a place for long enough and allow yourself to see them. Long term travel also makes it possible to return home and see the mundane through a foreign lens, which fosters a deeper appreciation for places you had taken for granted.

But then again, this shouldn’t surprise me. One thing I took away from my time in India was the deep empathy and connection people have with life around them, which is reflected in their treatment (and worship) of all things bovine, which is widely known to us but only one piece of the puzzle. Sometimes I wondered, though, why this same loving kindness wasn’t extended to other humans. As an outsider, however, we observe based on our own perceptions and it’s difficult to understand how in many ways non-humans are elevated above some groups of people, especially those of the lower castes — that’s not a judgement but merely an observation.

The map (above) lists a few of the top attractions in Udaipur in the context of the central district and our guesthouse (Dream Heaven). There are many reasons to recommend Dream Heaven, but certainly its central location (and unbeatable views of the City Palace and waterfront) ranks high on the list. The center of the city is very walkable, though tuk tuks are available near the water front and deeper into town.

But if you’re looking for something a bit more exotic than a tuk tuk, they’re are always the elephants…

We visited Udaipur toward the end of the monsoon season, when the lakes were at their peak — however, large portions of the lake dry out for much of the year, becoming a popular recreational area for residents (click above panorama to enlarge).

 Shopkeeper with his wares in Udaipur

No matter how you end up in Udaipur, it’s a great city to visit — the first on our trip through India, in fact, that we seriously considered living in for an extended period of time (though Ft. Kochi made it on the list later). While certainly showing its age, Udaipur is a beautiful place built around a handful of lakes and surrounded by dramatic mountains. The city has also provided the setting for a number of Hollywood and Bollywood movies, most notably the James Bond movie Octopussy, which they really play up in these parts (and in fact a number of venues offer daily screenings of the film). Udaipur is also popular for weddings and honeymoons, and is often billed as the most romantic city in India.

 Students strolling after school through the narrow streets of central Udaipur

 

Lori getting henna “tattoo” in the shop next to Dream Heaven

 

The Henna immediately after

 

(Above) Lori’s henna a day or two later (after the paste had dried and fallen off) — the design lasts about two weeks before fading out

Boys playing cricket outside of Dream Heaven

 

Related Article:  Varanasi

Udaipur Eats

We found Udaipur to be a most agreeable place in no small part due to the food! Udaipur has a great selection of cuisines and the food is top notch (not to mention the views were worth the cost of dinner in some places). Here are a few of our favorites:

Dinner @Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel Restaurant

This was our favorite place of all — a bit pricey (ran us around US $13 and we generally share a thali or entree/appetizer) but well worth it. The dining room is in a really cool setting surrounded by the palace with a great view of the lake. Serves Indian, Continental and Chinese dishes, but they are known for their local Indian specialities.

Dinner @Ambrai

Ambrai was also high on our list and near Dream Heaven with great views of the city. Also a bit pricey by India standards (US $10 splitting a meal), but worth it. You come to Ambrai for the atmosphere and the tasty tandors!

Breakfast @Cafe Namaste and Govinda’s Cafeteria

Lonely Planet bills this as a Euro-themed bakery with all sorts of to-die-for treats, and a rare espresso machine, however when we were there they only had two types of pastries (both of which were just ok) and the espresso machine was non-functional. While Namaste was better than most European breakfast offerings we encountered in India, Govinda’s struck us as a more reliable bet with tasty breakfast treats and sandwiches.

Dinner or Drinks @Jasmine Hookah Lounge

Near Dream Heaven and along the canal, Jasmine is a low key outdoor bar type place that serves snacks and drinks. Good cheap place for a quick snack or relaxing sundowner, but bring your mosquito repellent!

Anything @Dream Heaven restaurant

Our own guesthouse, Dream Heaven, cooks up a tasty array of snacks and breakfast/lunch/dinner all in the comfy confines of the guesthouse.

 

Lodging

Best. Guest house. Ever…or at least one of our top choices in all of Asia. Dream Heaven has it all, rooms with balconies and incredible views, AC and hot water, great food and a really nice common area atmosphere. It’s the right balance of hotel [amenities, comfort, cleanliness, peace and privacy] and backpackers/hostel [a good mix of travelers from all over coming through and hanging out in the restaurant/bar]. Plus, it’s centrally located, yet removed (by a small foot bridge) from the hustle and bustle of the city center and the majority of sights. All for 800 rupees (um..that’s $14 bucks (USD)). Ask for one of the balcony rooms above the restaurant — you won’t be disappointed.

Dream Heaven guesthouse from the other side of the canal with restaurant in full view.

View of the old town Udaipur waterfront and Lake Pichola from our private balcony (which we used every chance we got in between sightseeing and thunderstorms).

Inside our lovely room.

Sunset view of the Monsoon Palace (up on top of the mountain to the right) from our balcony. Sadly, we did not make it to the monsoon palace, because, well, it was monsoon season and was nearly always cloaked in thick dark monsoon clouds.

 

 

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City Palace

In the past, I’ve gone deeper into historical and contextual background, but to be honest, I didn’t find myself engaged as much in the history of Udaipur as I was with Jaisalmer and Jodhpur — call it Maharaja-, or even India-, fatigue or simply just enjoying playing tourist for a few days and pretending I don’t actually delve into such things day in and day out for a living. Plus, to be quite honest, I’m writing this over a year after the fact and have trouble recalling the ins and outs of the Mewar kingdom, so I’ve lifted some info from Wikipedia to accompany the pretty pictures.

 

Wikipedia.org/wiki/Udaipur#Tourism (City Palace):

Standing on the east bank of Lake Pichola is a massive series of palaces built at different times from 1559. The balconies of the palace provide panoramic views of the “Jag Niwas” (the Lake Palace Hotel). They also have views of Jag Mandir on one side and the city of Udaipur on the other. Its main entrance is through the triple-arched gate – the Tripolia, built in 1725. The way now leads to a series of courtyards, overlapping parations, terraces, corridors and gardens. There is a Suraj Gokhda, where the maharanas of Mewar presented themselves in the times of trouble to the people to restore confidence. The Mor-chowk (Peacock courtyard), gets its name from the mosaics in glass decorating its walls. The chini chitrashala is noteworthy while a series of wall paintings of Krishna are on display in Bhim Vilas. There are numerous other palaces such as Dilkhush mahal, Sheesh mahal, Moti mahal and Krishna vilas – in memory of a princess of striking beauty who poisoned herself to avert a bloody battle for her hand by rival princes. Now the palace contains many antique articles, paintings, decorative furniture and utensils and attracts thousands of visitors every day.

The former guesthouse of the city palace, Shiv Niwas Palace and the Fateh Prakash Palace have been converted into heritage hotels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jag Mandir

Part of our City Palace ticket allowed access to the boat docks from where you catch a ride out to Jag Mandir, one of Udaipur’s famed lake palaces. While it’s not the Lake Palace, it’s certainly worth the journey and the time strolling around the grounds.

 

 

If you’ve spent the last month backpacking around India, however, you may find the cafe prices a bit hard to stomach. We passed on the food but opted  for a couple of Kingfishers, which came to nearly US $7.00! Given that we were used to paying about a buck each for beer, it seemed quite ridiculous, but given that there was little else to do but take in the scenery, we thought the midday beers to be a good investment for prime seating in the shade.

From wikipedia:

Jag Mandir is another island in Lake Pichola which is known for its garden courtyard. Shah Jahan took refuge here while revolting against his father. There is a restaurant run by the HRH group of hotels.

To and from Jag Mandir, you get a close-up view of the famous Taj Lake Palace (not to be confused with the Taj Majal in Agra or Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, of course). Scenes from Octopussy were filmed here and now it’s a luxury hotel.

Lori likes the rare photos of us together during our travels, so I try and include them when I can

 

Udaipur and the City Palace by night from our balcony

 

Kathakali
Sleepin' with camels in the desert
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