India has been on my bucket list since forever. This country has always intrigued me - the food, the history, the rich mix of sights and sounds and colors - it’s been drawing me in for a long time. So when we decided to do this whole travel thing, India was one of my must-do countries and I became a vocal advocate for us spending some extended time there. Because of that, the duty of planning our India itinerary fell to me.
So I started reading up on India. By now I think I’ve read Lonely Planet India cover to cover at least 3 times and I can’t tell you how many hours of internet research I’ve logged. India is HUGE - you can’t really comprehend it until you start planning a trip and realize that there’s no way you could see everything you want even if you stayed here for years. It was so hard to choose which cities to go to - not only is there so much to see, but because India is incomprehensibly ginormous, getting between cities (even within the same state!) can take up a whole day. When we started planning we thought a month would be sufficient, but I soon realized I wanted more time. I went back and forth with Alex bargaining over the length of our stay - I wanted to do three months, he thought that was insane, and we finally settled on roughly six weeks. So with our time limit established, I started mapping out a potential route.
I happened upon a blog post somewhere about Udaipur and found myself drawn in to the descriptions of a peaceful, small (for India) city on a lake. Plus it’s in Rajasthan, which is an incredibly vibrant state. And I knew that after Delhi we’d need some peace and quiet. And as a bonus it was reasonably close - only a 12-hour train journey from Delhi! Yes, that’s close in India. So I booked us tickets on an overnight train and we were on our way.
We’ve been looking forward to riding trains here. It’s a quintessential part of the Indian travel experience and to be honest we prefer overland transportation to flying. On this train (our first in India), we were in 3AC, which is sort of like 3rd class but it’s air-conditioned and there are several non-AC classes below it. It was a little bit crowded, with 6 people in each berth plus 2 on the other side of the hallway, but we booked top bunks so we were able to get some shut-eye. Plus, we were enthralled by the novelty of the situation. At every stop, guys would come onboard selling everything from chai to chocolate to playing cards. It seemed like there was nonstop activity. It was so fun to be part of the action.
When we got to Udaipur, we got an Uber to our guesthouse. Yes, Uber exists in India and it has been an absolute godsend, because taxi/autorickshaw drivers ALWAYS try to rip you off, and it’s nice to have a hassle-free ride. The thing about Udaipur, though, is that the streets are super narrow in the old part of the city, so we couldn’t make it all the way to the front door of our guesthouse - we had to get out and walk the last couple blocks. And walking in Udaipur is fun, because not only are there people and dogs and motorbikes everywhere, there are also SO MANY COWS. Cows are sacred in India, of course, and so I guess people just let them roam free? We couldn’t really understand it. Some had collars or tags, but others didn’t - they just kinda hung out, scavenging in piles of trash for snacks and lounging around in the shade. They don’t bother people at all and I’d much rather be in a dark alley with a herd of Indian cows than a pack of territorial Indian dogs, but it was just funny seeing them cause traffic jams all the time.
Within the old city of Udiapur, it was easy to walk everywhere (apart from the cows, obviously), which was a breath of fresh air after Delhi where everything is spread out and traffic is a nightmare. Udaipur has a lot of interesting sights ranging from temples to palaces and more, and its claim to fame is that the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed here. The residents here love capitalizing on that fact: many guesthouses and restaurants offer nightly showings of the movie, so if you’re a Bond fan I guess this is the place to be.
We didn’t catch any showings of Octopussy, but we occupied ourselves with plenty of other activities. One highlight was taking a boat ride around Lake Pichola to view the city and also cruise past Jag Mandir, which is a palace in the middle of the lake that is now a luxury hotel. You can actually visit the hotel for tea or dinner, but we were too cheap for that and decided to view it from a safe distance in our 300-rupee boat. The palace’s architecture is absolutely stunning, which has been a recurring theme in India.
Udaipur, as it turns out, has a LOT of palaces. Some of them, I think, are called palaces but are actually just hotels, but some of them are legit and the biggest and most famous one is the City Palace in the heart of town. You can pay 300 rupees or so to go inside the palace and see the museum, or if you’re cheap and tired like us you can pay 30 rupees each (that’s less than 50 cents) to walk around inside the palace complex and take photos. Neither of us cared all THAT much about the museum, I think we’re still museum-ed out from Europe, so we just explored the palace from the outside.
It was amazing: the architecture is incredibly detailed and the whole building is very well-maintained. Plus a family of monkeys lives inside the palace grounds and scared the shit out of us when they jumped down from a tree. They were HUGE. I’ve never encountered a monkey in the wild before, but from some of the horror stories I’ve heard (both about bites and about monkeys stealing stuff), we decided to keep our distance.
We also paid a visit to the Monsoon Palace, which is actually located 5km outside of town. It’s a popular spot for sunsets, and there’s an autorickshaw driver who picks tourists up every night at 5pm near Bagore Ki Haveli (a museum). For 300 rupees each, he drove us up to the palace and back. The building itself is lackluster - it’s not well maintained, though it’s interesting to walk around, but the views really are spectacular. The best part for us, though, was discovering that Indian people LOVE to take selfies with foreign tourists. At first we were confused but looking around we realized that every single foreigner at the palace was being asked for selfies, so we rolled with it. It’s a whole thing here and I don’t really understand it, but it’s all in good fun. We were posing with children, families, groups of teenagers, couples - some people were super polite about it, and others would just kinda come up and pose near us without asking which was weird, but we never felt uncomfortable. It was actually kind of fun! Unfortunately I had a GIANT pimple right in the middle of my forehead that day. Glamorous!
As for food, which is obviously the most important thing, we ate incredibly well in Udaipur. Because a romantic sunset dinner on a rooftop overlooking Lake Pichola is what all the tourists apparently want, 99 percent of the restaurants in the city seem to boast of some kind of lake view and/or rooftop, executed with varying degrees of success. But in a lot of those places, while the food is good (because there are no bad meals in India), it’s not outstanding, and you’re paying extra for the view and amenities. I mean, it’s still not expensive by western standards - that Nando’s meal in Delhi is still our biggest splurge - but there’s definitely a markup for the ‘nicer’ touristy places. So we looked elsewhere. We found a restaurant, Neelam, in the heart of the Old Town that’s literally run by a family - the mom cooks, the dad runs the business, and the son serves - and they were the kindest people and served the most delicious Rajasthani thalis. We found Neelam on our first day and went there every single day for lunch. It felt great being recognized as a ‘regular’ - every day various family members would come out and chat with us, and as we left we’d say “see you tomorrow!” It was lovely.
Of course, some of our ‘fancier’ meals were also epic - Hari Garh, across the lake, had a beautiful setup right along the water and we went there twice. We never had a bad meal during our entire stay, and like in Delhi we’ve been forcing ourselves to try new things at each meal so the list of ‘super dope Indian foods’ in my phone notes is steadily growing. Come to think of it, so is my waistline. So much for that EBC trek weight loss. Shrug.
All in all, I’m glad we picked Udaipur on a whim as our first venture outside of Delhi. It was good to see a different side of India and it set a good tone for the rest of our time in this country. Rajasthan is such a colorful, historic, fascinating state and starting in a city as laid-back as Udaipur was a great choice. Up next is Jaipur, the Rajasthani capital, so stay tuned.