Udaipur - The Thirsty Lake

Trip Start Feb 23, 2009
Trip End Mar 18, 2009

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Where I stayed
Hibiscus Guest House

Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

 From WikiTravel:   Udaipur, the capital of the former princly state of Mewar is a beautiful city in Rajasthan, India famous for its lakes and palaces which in centuries past served as the homes of royalty. A current tourist favorite, especially for up-market Westerners, it was a backdrop for numerous movies including the James Bond flick "Octopussy". When you're in the town, you'll notice that there are about 20 or more restaurants that show "Octopussy" EVERY NIGHT!

     Udaipur is referred to as the "Venice of the East", the "Most Romantic City of India" and the "Kashmir of Rajasthan" (a reference to Dal Lake) and not without reason. Tourists flock to this enchanting old & modern town in the heart of the Aravalli Mountains. It has a rich history. Visitors swear by the romantic sunsets in the backdrop of its lakes. There are three interconnected lakes within the town - the Fateh Sagar Lake, the Pichhola Lake and the smaller Swaroop Sagar Lake. Pichhola is home to one of the most romantic hotels of the world, the Lake Palace Hotel. It's also one of the most expensive, at $1370/night (plus or minus) and they don't allow three in a room, so it wasn't really an option for us.

    After a short flight from Delhi, we arrived in the morning at the glistening new Udaipur airport, which just opened in November. I knew that Updaipur was surrounded by mountains and lakes, so I was confused when we landed, because the area appeared to be completely flat. That was because we had an hour drive to get to Udaipur.

    After the big cities and traffic of Mumbai and Delhi, it was a nice contrast to be in the more rural area. Our driver took us directly to our B&B, the Hibiscus, which was still under construction in the oldest part of the city. The narrow streets had barely enough width for one small car, and we had to zig zag like rats in a maze. Ten years ago there were rarely any cars, but now a nice motorcycle is no longer such a status symbol, and the cars are rubbing elbows with the cattle, donkeys, dogs, and kids on bikes. Often you come to a corner where you can't turn because someone is coming down that street, and negotiations are tricky, but never ill-tempered. I had several worrying encounters with a farm tractor driven by a boy who looked 14 and pulled a wide trailer.

    Carol, the owner of the Hibiscus came out to the car and welcomed us warmly, and was a great asset in consulting on what we would want to see while we were there. She was previously the owner of the nearby (and very successful) "Haveli On The Lake" B&B, but a few months ago they had abruptly lost their lease, and they were starting over again. She gave us a choice of rooms, and Jae and I picked a very large one ($36/night) with a bay window into the back garden (although very little furniture). Miles picked a smaller one ($20/night) with a better view towards the City Palace and the classic Lake Palace Hotel, although he later found out that his room was noisier in the morning and more in the sunlight. The high-ceilinged rooms were not air conditioned, but had powerful overhead fans. Most importantly, the Hibiscus had an 11-week old Great Dane puppy named Oscar, with a little body and oversize head and paws, whom all the guests wanted to play with, even when he chewed on them.

    We walked to a rooftop restaurant called Jag Niwas, which I thought our hostess had recommended, although it didn't seem to be exactly where she said. Many of the restaurants in Udaipur are rooftop restaurants, and some advertise as the highest in the city, or the most spectacular. But I realized as we walked the 6 flights of stairs to Jag Niwas that going up to "rooftop" can be a downer in a city with no elevators. I vowed that future meals I could live with the view from a basement. We had a pretty good meal, although we were the only ones on the rooftop, and we were apparently being served by the chef. When our hostess asked us later in the day how the restaurant was, she seemed surprised that we were enthusiastic, but not wildly so. We eventually figured out that the restaurant she recommend was the nearby Jaggat Niwas, not the Jag Niwas. How could I possibly confuse the two?

    The streets in Udaipur are confusing and very hilly, but like Venice, it's hard to go too far astray, and there's no place that you need to be cautioned to avoid. Miles enjoyed looking at spices, and was tempted to sign up for a cooking class there. The merchants were much less insistent than in Mumbai and Delhi, and they seemed to take pride in it. If you say "no, thank you," they stop right away, and one hawker said to me, "We stop when you say stop. We not like Mumbai."

    I had noticed that, Babu, one of the Indian men running the B & B, had a motorcycle, so I asked him if he'd be willing to give Miles a ride thru the city streets. Miles loved it! The picture here is when they came upon me as I was searching for an internet cafe. Later, when they were safely away from my sight, Miles got a turn at driving it as well.

    Miles got dropped off at one end of the city where there was an aerial tramway, "The Karni Mata Ropeway", to an overlook. It's a popular place to go to watch sunset over the lakes and palaces, so we met him over there in time to take advantage of that. Cost was $1.20/person for the four minute ride. At the top of the mountain there was also a Hindu temple, but we were not allowed admission. Apparently we don't look Hindu enough. But Miles spotted lots of interesting wildlife, including wild peacocks in the tops of trees.

    That night we ate at the Ambrai, one of my favorite restaurants ever, and another recommendation from Carol at Hibiscus. (Hibiscus hopes to have it's own restaurant eventually). It's located at the nearby Amet Hotel, sitting outside under huge trees next to the water, directly in front of the Lake Palace Hotel that's in the middle of the lake, and with wonderful views of the lit up city on the other side. (Okay, I said the Lake Palace Hotel is in the middle of the lake, but one of the things you DON'T get there for your $1370/night is a full lake. The lake has been very dry for the last two years, and there's almost a land bridge leading out to the hotel which used to be an island. In other parts of the city, cattle graze and children play where there used to be channels and water passageways. It hurts the romance of the scene a bit, and may be a partial factor for their tourism suffering recently.)

    It was kind of like the Blue Bayou Restaurant at Disneyland, next to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but much better. The temperature was perfect, we could see night birds and bats skimming bugs out of the air, the night skies were clear, the food was great, and best of all, they had live musicians playing Indian music. It was the first time in our trip that we had heard any, and I was starting to get frustrated that the only thing we ever heard in hotels, restaurants, and airports was smooth bland jazz from America. At Ambrai, one chap played Sarangi (a bowed cello-like instrument with resonating strings) and another played the tabla (hand percussion). They would play a 10-14 minute composition, and then take a looooong break of 5-10 minutes between each piece, which was wonderful because the area was so quiet.

    Miles had a Tandoori Chicken, Jae had a Biryani dish, and I had mutton in a spinach sauce. Awesome. Cost was about $40 for the three of us, including tips for the musicians. (Had to pay all tips in cash in many parts of India, because they weren't allowed to add them to our credit card bill. Probably a fraud concern.)

    I mentioned that many of the restaurants have nightly showings of "Octopussy" but the Ambrai was classier than that; they had set up for a late puppet show. But we didn't stay for it...I was afraid it might be a puppet reenactment of "Octopussy."
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