UDAIPUR, INDIA - The City of Lakes
The Udaipur airport is about an hour outside the city, and we arrived mid-day after a morning rainstorm. The rural drive coupled with the mud was a shocking sight to see for our western eyes. To be totally honest, there was a point during the cab drive that we looked at each other and said "should we just leave for Turkey tomorrow?" The poverty in rural communities is the worst in India, and it being the first thing we saw, we experienced quite a bit of culture shock. The muddiness and spillage that had taken over dirt roads, shop floors, homes, trash piles and people in the streets was overwhelming to see. The first couple of days in this country, I found myself staring at young women and girls I saw in town working or driving past us on scooters. I would stare at each of them wondering things like what is her life like? what is her home like? what are her options? is she happy? But that was silly, it is impossible to put yourself in someone else's shoes - especially when you live a world and major economy levels apart.
*Note: Late summer through October is considered monsoon season in India. We knew that going in and as we planned our trip, but the timing worked out best for work and obligations at home - so we decided to take the risk. From our experience, the time of year was perfect. The moments of rain were short-lasting and even a little fun, the weather was warm (but not too warm) at 85 degrees during the day and about 70 degrees at night. Later on in our trip, locals explained to us that October was the end of monsoon season where light rain may occur occasionally, but for the most part, travelers get to see the land in its greenest state - which we loved.
Getting back on track, Udaipur really is a tropical land, where a couple of decades ago native tigers and leopards roamed the hills surrounding the village and the infamous Lake Pichola was inhabited by crocodiles. Today, the cats have been driven out and the crocs caught and poisoned out of the lake. But in town, you'll still see art and paintings that depict the wildlife that used to be here and you can imagine the jungle it used to be.
We stayed at Lake Pichola Hotel, which had the best view of the central city temples and public squares across the lake. We woke up every morning around 6 am to live instruments and song from the temples. Soft sunrises, sounds from the city waking up, and pigeons flying with the morning song as their soundtrack was the most surreal experience. I'd visit this city again and again just to relive that.
During the day, we touristed around to a couple of temples, the City Palace, shopping districts, lakeside eateries and hotels:
City Palace - interesting history, very pretty from afar, not exceptionally spectacular to see inside
Jagdish Temple - we met the man living just around the corner at the top of the stairs. He invited us into his shop and home, where he gave us an art and history lesson (with no expectations for us to purchase anything!) and we talked to him about culture, religion and lifestyle for about an hour.
Little Armani - we befriended a tuk tuk driver who we hired for the rest of our stay in Udaipur. He offered to take us shopping on our last day, and drove us to a great tailor shop. We may have spent a little too much time here, but it was memorable and fun: we learned about traditional fabrics, styles, and modern trends of Indian clothing. After taking our measurements, we were able to choose the style, fabric and pattern for our pieces. I chose a dark blue silk material with leopard print and red accents to make a button-up shirt. The prices were reasonable and the shop owner delivered the pieces to our hotel that evening once they were finished, which we thought was a nice touch.
The Oberoi Udaivillas - 1000% worth a visit. Despite rooms upwards of $3,000 a night, this hotel has the most welcoming and inviting staff to non-hotel guests and amazing restaurants for an affordable price (for westerners). We spent about 4 hours at the property eating and touring. We were welcomed and invited on a private tour of the property, which was so stunning and even more memorable to see given background information behind each room and area. We had a relaxing lunch at Suryamahal, the property's indoor daytime restaurant, where the chefs even offered us complimentary tasters.
JAIPUR, INDIA - Pink City
After a calm and serene couple of days in the lake city spent meeting locals and admiring the view, we arrived in Jaipur to a couple of new culture shocks. I consider myself a prepared traveler, I do my research, I investigate - I always make myself aware of the political scene and current events before traveling to any destination. This is why I was considerably caught off guard and felt some anxiety arriving in Jaipur. Upon arrival, we walked outside the small airport and stood in line for a cab, where we noticed a military vehicle and men standing on top of the hood pointing guns (and not your typical police rifle) across the two lanes of traffic about 30 feet away. There was a moment of confusion once we noticed, but then we hopped into a waiting cab and headed to our hotel. Before entering the property, we were stopped by security who proceeded to lift the hood and trunk of the cab car. We asked our driver what was going on, although we already had an idea, to which he replied, "bombs." The car was cleared and they let us through to the main entrance, where we and our bags were checked through a secondary security system. Throughout our time in Jaipur, we visited several hotels and found that all of them had a similar security system.
Jaipur is further north than Udaipur, closer to Delhi, and we could feel the difference. As a rule for western India, the further north you go - the greater terrorist risk. Although we never felt unsafe or heard anything alarming, we felt the fear of terrorism. However, once we gave it more thought, we realized that the security was precautionary and should make us feel protected. So, we focused on those positive thoughts and started our tour of the city with excitement.
Jaipur has such a fun and modern scene, with Conde Nast-approved style restaurants, hotels and shops. We also toured most of the historical sites and temples. The mix of hip city and traditional Indian history made our time here unforgettable:
The Patrika Gate - the iconic colored archway in downtown Jaipur. We visited in the morning around 7:30 am, just before the crowd arrived, in order to capture the hallway while it was empty. The only crowd that early in the morning were locals working out on the steps surrounding the arch. Although the surrounding location was not what I expected, it was breathtaking. You can't stand under the colors of the arch and not feel simple joy.
Hotel Narain Niwas Palace - this is THE spot for shopping and dining, with dozens of boutiques and notable restaurants such as the Bar Palladio & Cafe Palladio. We loved the decor and atmosphere of the Bar Palladio so much we had dinner there twice - although the food at the Cafe is much better. There are a number of great shops with unique finds and local designers, my favorite by far was IDLI. I purchased an orange suede tassel belt. I love finding things like this when I travel: those items that you could never find anywhere else and you'd love to actually wear or use at home and not just showcase on a shelf or hang in your closet.
Rambagh Palace - nice hotel, but not nice enough for the price. The grounds looked dried up and neglected, service at the restaurants was mediocre and drinks in the courtyard were actually terrible. The scenery is nice with roaming peacocks and rose bushes, however, and the historical aspect of a real palace-turned hotel made it a cultural experience. I give it a 6/10.
Amer Fort - the trek to the fort was long with traffic and crowds. If you can get past the hour and a half route from central Jaipur and the lengthy uphill walk, the views are worthwhile. You can see and walk portions of the wall that spans 20 miles long (it is the third largest wall in the world!) We had lunch at the famed restaurant, 1135 AD, where photos of politicians, celebrities and cricket players who dined there were documented all over the walls. The food and service were amazing - I had the best champagne that actually cured my headache from walking in the heat.
Monkey Temple - we heard and read horror stories about the Monkey Temple. We decided we were brave enough to go anyway, despite the alarming reviews of filth, scams and aggression. In our experience, however, the temple was so much fun. The property is dirty, of course, (with hundreds of monkeys taken over) but not so dirty to ruin the experience. The monkeys were absolutely hilarious, and we spent all our time recording them. These monkeys were definitely showing off for the camera. A local boy did demand about $3 from us to enter with our cameras and phones, which we're sure was a scam, but it wasn't worth a fight and for only a couple of dollars we gave him the money and didn't have any other issues.
City Palace - unlike in Udaipur, this palace is still inhabited by the prince, and is a true show of opulence and Indian interior design. We chose to pay for the private tour of the interior, including Chhavhi Niwas (the Blue Room), which was well worth the extra cost. We arrived when it opened at 9:00 am to beat the crowds, something that I always do while traveling. This allows for the best photos without crowds of people, cooler weather in the summer and enough time to do more relaxing non-touristy things the remainder of the day. We ate at Baradari, a modern oasis-style restaurant inside the palace with incredible Italian food and cocktails.
PREPARING FOR INDIA
India may be the furthest possible destination for some (like me) halfway across the world. Budgeting for airfare is probably the most important, although there are significantly cheaper airlines now offering roundtrip flights as low as $400 if you time it right. Beyond airfare, hotels are moderately priced and daily expenses like food, cabs and tuk tuks are quite cheap. Doing the research to create a rough itinerary for airfare, stays, food and other travel (even if it's based on average prices vs. actual bookings) is the best way to prepare and budget for a trip. Once you have those numbers in mind, the hard part is making sure you stick to them!
Eat at the best restaurants and hotels. Even if you can't afford the rooms, you can afford the food and the dining experiences are incomparable.
Narain Niwas Palace
Visit in September - November. The late monsoon season has fair weather, green countryside and off-peak season prices.
City of Amer
Outside Jaipur, India
Also: Garlic butter naan > everything
An awestruck week in the Northwestern region of Rajasthan - home to the capital, New Delhi, the infamous Pink City, Jaipur, and Udaipur, the City of Lakes. Destinations I've dreamed of visiting for years, I made sure to make every second and slice on naan count.
The journal below documents my time in India, including tested do's and don'ts, pertinent information for first timers, tips for budgeting and a complete cultural guide for restaurants, hotels, sights and more.