Monday, 26 February 2018

Puppies and Palaces in Udaipur

Leaving Mumbai we didn’t really know where to head next so we plumped for Jodhpur, knowing it was several days away at best. Whilst the more relaxed nature of the roads continued for the most part, other frustrations and irritations reared their heads. The places we stopped for the next few nights were mostly unmemorable, save for the fact that simply finding somewhere to stay was in itself a challenge.

In India foreign tourists have to be registered by their accommodation provider and it seems for some guesthouses they just don’t have the means by which to do this. Others could easily comply but seem to find it all too much trouble and choose to turn us away instead. Frustrating as this is, it’s just one of those things, but when it happens at nightfall and there isn’t another option available for many miles it does make me curse under my breath.

The first night after leaving Mumbai we pulled up outside what looked like an old council estate block in 1970’s suburban London with dodgy stairwells that smelled of pee and rat-run balconies between the apartments. Not feeling particularly hopeful I climbed the stairs, bracing myself for a straight rejection. Instead, I found an apartment style hotel with several very nice rooms and a friendly guy on reception who smiled and welcomed me to Daman. A quick and efficient check-in later and with our bags collected from the parking lot, we popped across the road to get the fork seals changed on my bike which had been spitting oil down my left leg for the last 3,000km. Daman was a very friendly little town with more than the usual quota of stares, but not surprising really given that unless you were riding motorbikes and it got late, there would be no reason at all for a foreigner to stop here at all. Or even pass through for that matter. Daman was everything that our next night’s stop wasn’t.

A much grimmer place I think it’d be hard to find, Anand exuded hostility from the second we arrived. We’d already had a challenging day – Evan managed to ride up an Expressway, a road motorbikes are strictly banned from, and stubbornly refused to turn around when we realized the mistake. I chose to turn back and find the right road, and so we ended up separated for the last 40km or so of our ride into town. Pissed off, cold and with rain starting, I arrived in Anand without too much trouble and a couple of turns before reaching the guesthouse ran into Evan who had managed to get off the Expressway by squeezing through a gap in the barrier and riding through some woods during which time he’d hurt his foot on a rock. Suffice to say we were both ready to call it a day.

Access to the guesthouse we had booked was through a tightly packed marketplace and despite local bikes riding through the crowds, we could feel the laser stares of the stallholders as we squeezed through. Outside the guesthouse, that incidentally looked like something out of a horror movie, people were quick to come over and tell us that we could not park there. Explaining that we would check-in and then move was greeted with clear hostility. Deciding that I really didn’t care much what they thought, I left my bike with Evan and went upstairs to check-in. Upon arriving at the reception desk I could tell straight away that this was going to be one of those places. Despite my polite explanation that I had a confirmed booking they made it very clear that we would not be staying there that night. No foreigners. Fuck off. Ok, they didn’t say fuck off, but they were all thinking it.

Now we had a dilemma. The only other place to stay anywhere near was a hotel that would blow a week’s worth of our budget, the next affordable place some hour or so away and it was almost dark. We weighed up the options and decided that an hour in the dark on a main road was preferable and set off. In hindsight it probably was the right choice, but that doesn’t mean it was in any way fun. When we finally arrived it was with a huge sense of relief, having survived dozens of suicide junctions and a final push to the hotel itself that involved riding the wrong way down the opposite side of the road, something that even google seemed to endorse. This time Evan had made the booking and so he went upstairs to the reception. Ten minutes later he came down again. This place, despite having rooms available on Agoda for 1160 rupees ($18) had told him in no uncertain terms that a) they did not sell rooms on Agoda and therefore could not honour our paid-for booking, and b) that they did have rooms that we were very welcome to book via another booking site for which we did not have an app for 3500 rupees ($54). He had hit a brick wall.

That was the final straw for me. I went upstairs, ready for a fight. Staffed by a group of guys in their late teens, I explained that we had a booking that we had paid for and that we were going to stay. Together we looked at Agoda and they had to agree that their hotel was definitely the one in the photos and that rooms were indeed available for $18. Nonchalantly, they told me that I’d have to call Agoda and sort it out. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere until they did that, as it wasn’t my problem. After half an hour or so of discussion that went back and forth and involved several phone calls, suddenly we had a breakthrough. Someone, somewhere decided that either a) they did indeed offer rooms on Agoda and they had found the booking or b) that it really wasn’t worth the inevitable shitty review we’d write if they didn’t give us a room and as if by magic everyone swung into action, our bags were collected and we were deposited in a room that I can well believe normally costs $54 a night. After so much unnecessary grief, I like to think it was the latter and that to this day they still have no idea what Agoda is.

Leaving town the next day we fought our way through some of the worst traffic we’ve ever seen. There must have been an accident somewhere on the opposite carriageway, because suddenly we had trucks coming towards us on our side. As much as any side is ‘our side’ of course. We’re talking M25 here, to give you an idea of the kind of road we were on. As we neared a toll booth everything snarled to a standstill, not an inch of space between vehicles. At one point a tuk tuk rolled back into me, pushing me backwards and in turn I rolled into a car behind with a solid ‘clunk’ as my wheel hit his bumper. Luckily, it was one of the few cars driven by a sensible person with a brain and they smiled kindly and shrugged, acknowledging that I really had no choice in the matter. To add an extra comedy element to proceedings, a couple of retriever-sized dogs appeared out of nowhere and started attacking the side of a car to the left of me, throwing themselves at it repeatedly. They seemed pretty fixated on that one car so heaven only knows what the person inside it had done to upset them. Eventually, with a lot of pushing and shoving and kicking we made it through, only to find a mile down the road over a hundred cows calmly walking towards us. This place is truly insane.

The highlight of our day was reaching the border between Gujarat and Rajasthan. I appreciate that we only spent a few days riding through it, but Gujarat was not a place I will remember fondly. Unlike most other state lines we had crossed, this one felt for some reason like a Latin American border crossing. As we neared the line we rode past a long queue of trucks, waved through by a very smiley cop who paused as we passed to give us an extra big grin, pressing his hands together and nodding to us as we rode by. I knew then that I was going to like Rajasthan.

The landscape at this point changed dramatically, to sandy, ochre-hued hills and scrubby grassland. It felt like we’d left the towns and cities behind and were heading out into the unknown. We’d spoken to several people who spoke highly of this state, assuring us that we’d love it and I can see why people do. We hadn’t read anything about Rajasthan, happier really to just see what we found and on this particular day that turned out to be Udaipur.

I think it’s fair to say that Udaipur was the first city we arrived in in India that immediately excited us. As we negotiated its narrow streets, barely wide enough for a tuk tuk, we discovered a place steeped in history. We paused by the river that runs through the middle of the old town and were immediately approached by a guy who seemed friendly enough and was adamant that his friend wanted to buy one of our bikes when it came time for us to sell. It seems that Unicorn’s are a rarity in the north of the country.  

A little suspicious of his friendliness, we declined his offer to find us a room and instead we chose a little Haveli on the opposite side of the river where they welcomed us with a genuine warmth we haven’t been used to in India. As we took our bags off our bikes outside we were approached by another local guy keen to tell us about his own road trip along virtually the same route we have taken, albeit by car. He turned out to be a photographer coming to the end of a project in which he asks random people to sit on his Royal Enfield bike to be photographed against the backdrop of an old wall that is to be removed any day to improve views of the river. It seems even here, in a place full of history, that nothing is sacred. He showed us his photos and they really were very good. Check out his Instagram - rajeshsoniudaipur.

We liked Udaipur. Really liked it. If I had to change one thing about it it’d be blowing all of the town's tuk tuk’s off the face of the earth, but then I feel like that about them in most places we’ve been. For a couple of days we wandered the narrow streets, constantly wary of where our ankles were in relation to whichever vehicle thought they were more entitled to the space we were standing. Down every lane we found numerous contented, well fed dogs, again a complete contrast to the common idea that animals are disregarded and often ill-treated here. They seemed quite adept at dodging the traffic, as did the goats we found taking advantage of a group of monkeys in some treetops above another street, shaking branches and thus dropping food to them below. 

Udaipur is a beautiful city with an abundance of historic buildings, the most notable perhaps its City Palace where Octopussy was filmed. For a relatively modest fee, we spent the best part of a day marveling at its beautifully decorated stately rooms, some covered in ornate coloured glass and mirrors and enjoying the views out over the city. We’ve been to a lot of temples and palaces and historical buildings on our travels but this was unusual, something a bit different to the many others we have seen. 

Later in the afternoon we beat down a tuk tuk and took a ride up to Pichola hill where the Udaipur Ropeway, a cable car of sorts, offers rides to the top for a handful of rupees. In the evening we went to a local cultural dance performance that is held every night at Bagore Ki Haveli Museum, but I have to say it wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been, the cast of dancers clearly tired of the routine, allowing their fixed smiles to drop long before the end of their performance. The highlight was a lady who danced with nine pots balanced on her head, but even she looked fed up and really, it felt a lot like a circus, the performers clearly seeing very little of the entrance ticket money that had been paid out by the packed audience in their hundreds. Tired and hungry we decided to splash out and ate that night at Charcoal, a BBQ restaurant in the lanes with a good reputation and a slightly heftier price tag than we’re used to – lamb kebabs and BBQ chicken with baked potato, corn and sides for around £10.

Looking back now, we had no idea as we contentedly rode out of town the following day of what was about to happen that would throw our whole trip into an uncertain spin.  

1 comment:

  1. AT LAST. I can hear a change in your attitude to your trip. It's so good to know things are looking up for you both. I can't wait to read what tomorrow brings xx