Palaces, Forts, Golden Temples, and Goose-stepping

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May 2nd 2010
Published: May 2nd 2010
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Since the last post, its been very hot and very busy. However, over the past week or so I've seen some of the best places in India, places that I was most looking forwards to before arriving here. It was a long journey from Mumbai to Udaipur, leaving at noon on the one day and not arriving until 9 am the next. I arrived in Udaipur, a city in southern Rajasthan that boasts a palace in the middle of a lake, it was nice to go to a relatively small place after the megatropolis that is Mumbai. Udaipur is a quiet peaceful, rather touristy place with just enough water in the lake to keep the palace cut off. I stayed in a place with a beautiful roof terrace overlooking the city and the lake, although it was far too hot in the midday heat to spend time in a place without a fan. On the first day I headed to the Marharaja's palace on the side of the lake which turned out to be much more impressive than I expected, and more authentic than the arguably grander but reconstructed palace in Mysore. I only had one night in Udaipur as the following evening I had booked my place on the night train to Agra, so most of the time was spent relaxing reading books and chatting to other travelers beside the beautiful lake palace (which apparently features in the Bond movie Octopussy). These days the palace is an uber-luxurious hotel which the likes of myself will not be visiting any time soon. The next day was mainly spent sheltering from the sun as temperatures hit fifty degrees Celsius, fortunately its the more bearable dry desert heat, rather than spirit-sapping humidity present further down south, all the same it was time to move on.

That evening I found my place on the pleasantly not fully booked night train to Agra. This time there was no first class, much to the relief of my bank account. Shortly after departure two soldiers armed with rifles took up the lower bunks in the sleeper section, which prompted memories of being woken up on a night train in Eastern Europe by soldiers with guns in the middle of the night. They turned out to be nice guys, although it was a little strange that they insisted that I lock my bag to the carriage with two padlocks but then proceeded to go to sleep with their (probably) loaded guns just lying next to them so that any passer by could have taken them!

Eventually the train arrived in Agra, where I would be spending the night (originally I'd intended to take the night train that evening direct to Amritsar but I couldn't get a ticket for that train so I had to go the day after). I was initially greeted by a taxi driver at the station who explained to me a taxi to the hotel I wanted to go to would cost R150 not alot back home but well over the odds in India. A few seconds later, and rather amusingly I was joined by three rickshaw drivers who were all chanting 'this cheating man, to your hotel 50 rupees!' The taxi driver was not impressed, and neither was I, so I quickly ditched the 'cheating man' and went with the rickshaw guys despite the 'cheating man's' new offer of R20. I found a hotel which apparently has one of the best rooftop view of the Taj Mahal, and it certainly didn't disappoint, as I caught my first glimpse of the marble masterpiece. First things first though, and I took a cycle rick-shaw to Agra fort, which is apparently one of the finest and best preserved Mughal forts in all of India. It was just after noon and brutally hot by this point, but the fort was well worth the visit; its a huge structure constructed from red stone which was later converted to a palace, so once inside the sturdy walls there are many intricately carved buildings, and some impressive marble work. After the fort and a spot of lunch I intended to go straight for the Taj but my rickshaw driver was determined to take me to some shops. At first I was not keen, but after all I was paying him about 60 rupees for a return journey to the fort, and whilst I stayed inside he waited in the heat. He explained to me that for every shop he took me to he would receive 10 rupees, so I agreed for him to take me to three places as he was a nice guy who hadn't tried to rip me off, and I was in no rush. The first place he took me to was a carpet shop where they had people working on looms just outside and the owner explained the production process to me, the people working on the carpets work at an incredible speed! After this he took me inside and showed me a range of carpets and told me all about them, this was really interesting and there was no pressure to buy, he was simply happy to let me go with his card and that was that.

Eventually I made it to the Taj, and paid my tourist ticket price of R750 (Indians go in for R20!). It was quite a hazy afternoon and after entering the complex through the grand South Gate I caught my first proper sight of the Taj at the end of the gardens. I stopped off and took plenty of photos from various places that baksheesh hunting 'guides' eagerly pointed out. The building is simply magnificent, the exquisite craftmanship involved is simply incredible. It is not until you get closer to the building that the you can appreciate the intricacy and detail involved in all the complicated marble carving the inlaying with other gems. The inside of the Taj is as impressive as the outside, but no description with words would do the place sufficient justice. I waited around in the complex to take some pictures as the magnificent white marble yellowed in the evening sunset, and then headed back to my hotel's rooftop cafe for some food and beers with three nice Germans I'd met earlier in the day at the fort.

The next morning I was up early, at 04:45 in fact as I had to take the 06:00 train from Agra to Delhi, in order to take my connecting train up to Amritsar. The view at this time of the day in India is not the best, because for some reason people seem to come out from their towns to go to the toilet right by the train tracks, and after a short while I was regretting my window seat, there's just nowhere to look! After a few hours in Delhi I was on the train for Amritsar. A few hours after boarding the train to Amritsar the train set off with no explanation for the delay. I eventually arrived in Amritsar at about 23:00 and went straight to bed.

The following morning I woke very excited as today I'd be going to the Golden Temple, one of the things I'd most wanted to see in India when I was planning this trip. Like the Taj, despite the hype it did not disappoint, and to be fair there are few things more magnificent than a temple made of gold in a lake surrounded by marble. The Golden Temple is the holiest site in the Sikh religion and it is such a welcoming place to anyone, you can stay and eat for free in the temple complex regardless of who you are or where you come from. After sometime spent lazily mooching around the temple and exploring inside the temple, I headed off so a memorial site where the British had massacred hundreds of unarmed Indians engaged in a peaceful protest against British rule. It was rather strange as the entrance has an exhibition showing newspaper clippings from the time and at the back of the garden you can still see many of the bullet holes. After this I headed for some lunch and then met up with an Aussie bloke who I'd bumped into at the Golden Temple to take the 30KM border to the Pakistani border so see the ceremony.

I didn't quite know what to expect from the border ceremony, but it turned out to be somewhere between fascinating and ridiculous. Approximately 10-15,000 people turned up on the Indian side, although the Pakistani side resembled the home crowd at Blackburn against Hull in terms of attendance. For the first hour or so as the place filled up there was load Hindi pop music pumping out from the huge sound system and hundreds of Indian women were dancing in the middle of the road, the atmosphere was very much carnival like. Once everyone was in the soldiers marched out, and a sort of host guy appeared who screamed chants aimed at Pakistan down a microphone which the thundering crowd echoed, it was all very surreal. The soldiers take turns (goose-step) marching to the border and stopping just before with a Monty Python silly walk-esque high foot, tis is followed by some sort of macho posing and rearranging of hats. Then the main man shakes hands with his Pakistani opposite number, the flags come down and the gates are slammed shut, then that's it for the day and the crowd goes home. This happens every single day!

The next day I headed for the bus the Dharamsala where I took a connecting bus to Mcleod Ganj in the Himalayan foot hills. I'm still here, and will be for a while as I take some time to rest from the hot and busy week that has just passed. Hope all is well at home and take it easy!


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