Early afternoon we arrive at Deogarh where we are to stay at the very lovely Deogarh Madal. Built for the local ruler in 1670 it was converted into an “extended home” in 1996 after being closed up for 30 years. At check in we are advised, that although we have booked a deluxe room, we will be upgraded to a Royal Suite. The Princes’ Room no less. Now ya talkin’ baby! Our suite, though low in ceiling, (it was built in 1670 and they weren’t putting all those growth hormones into chickens then), consists of the most over-the-top decoration you can imagine. Stained glass, mirrored tiles, ornate tiled ceilings, tiny windows that open to the courtyard three levels below. At one stage it must have consisted of a two-bedroom apartment with a sitting room in between, I guess then bathing was done elsewhere and one Prince’s room has been converted to the bathroom. It’s not so much luxurious as extremely quirky. And we love it. Of course the hot water doesn’t reach to the top of the Palace, and there’s no wi-fi to speak of, but it’s home for a night. When we check in it’s already after 2pm and we’re hungry and so with nothing else but the hotel al-la-carte restaurant, we order a couple of snacks. Essentially a spring roll and a couple of samosas. With a chai and a coke the bill is 800Rp, compared to about 30Rp a few hours before for pretty much the same deal? But we make a solemn resolution that in future we will only have one deep fried meal per day.
We wander the town before cocktails. We are in the extreme minority as the only white faces on the street. But young men come up and shake our hands. Small girls smile and their older sisters take pictures of us. Maggie supports the local economy by buying a beautiful red and gold embroidered shawl and a small silver bangle. Everywhere people are delightfully friendly, and when you say no to the shopkeepers, they just shrug and smile. Prior to dinner we attend a cultural show where a couple of young local women display traditional dancing. One dances with eight pots on her head. She demonstrates how tough her feet are by standing on upturned razor sharp daggers. Then on broken glass. The other young woman dances with a flaming pot of hot oil on her head. We are impressed. We applaud. When the proverbial hat is passed around we contribute 100 Rp. There is a tour group of 14 Germans staying at the hotel and although they applaud they pass on the tipping. 100Rp is just over one Euro, but times are tough in Germany at present. Throughout the hotel are these cheesy homilies taped to the wall. In the restaurant: Our waiters are all married, they’re good at taking orders. On the tip box at reception: Please don’t disturb the peace by dropping coins. Notes are much quieter. It’s like staying in a hotel full of bad Dad jokes. Before we leave Deogarh we take the audio tour of the property. It was built as a defensive fort and the staircases are narrow and steep. They twist and turn so as to foil invaders and it feels like we are trapped in an Escher drawing. But the view from the top of the battlements out over the countryside is spectacular.
On the way to Udaipur we stop at the largest Jain temple in India. The Jains are the third caste and although most of their beliefs are in common with the Hindus they do no harm to anything or anyone, eat only veggies grown above the ground and of course eat no meat, drink no alcohol and wear no leather. Jain nuns can use no other form of transport other than their legs, and we see a gaggle of elderly nuns, walking on the roadside, at least 5kms from the temple.
As we drive along we play our own version of “I Spy” that we created from the propensity of Indian men to water the planting by the side of the road. The rules are strict. The man has to have stopped specifically for a pee and dismounted his motorbike or left his car. Casual roadside pee-ers are not counted. If I can find ten of these blokes, Maggie buys the drinks at dinner. So far my best count is eight, but today I find only six. The drinks are on me, again.
Udaipur is the jewel in the crown of Rajasthan and for another night we find ourselves in another palace, this time the Jagat Niwas on the shore of Lake Pichola. Many of these palace hotels have been created by knocking a couple of historic buildings together to make a resort that is often quite elegant and quite idiosyncratic at the same time. We spend our second-to-last day in Rajasthan sightseeing. The City Palace is Rajasthan’s largest palace and is in very good nick. We tour the usual reception rooms, royal bedchambers and the like, but the surprise here is the crystal collection. As the story goes, the then Maharani of 1674 had crystal makers from Europe visit and he placed an order with F&C Osler & Co of England; an order so large, in both scale and complexity, that it would take 10 years to fill. By the time the numerous crates were delivered to Udaipur, the old Maharani had died, and the consignment was placed in the palace storerooms to gather dust. 110 years later, the great-grandson of the Maharani decided to see what was in all these friggin’ crates, and revealed the biggest, most spectacular collection of crystal imaginable. Apart from glasses, vases and decanters there are also chairs, sofas and beds – just mind-blowing. The current Maharani is the 76th in an unbroken lineage, and only in Japan is there a royal family with a longer line.
Our last day is one of R&R so we take a boat trip to Jagmandir Palace, the island in the lake so often seen in travel guides for Rajasthan. There has been yet another a wedding the night before in this season of weddings and the detritus is still being cleaned away. We drink an expensive cup of coffee and while away an hour. We have dined twice with our new German besties in Udaipur and have farewelled them on their journey to Varanasi promising to catch up with them in Berlin or somewhere else in the world next year.
As we check out of the hotel we are reminded that because of the narrow laneways, our driver cannot bring the car to the hotel so we take a tuktuk to the place where the car waits. The tuktuk driver has a maniacal glean is his eye and we set off at a cracking pace. There was a scene from the James Bond movie Octopussy filmed in Udaipur featuring Roger Moore in a tuktuk driven by some famous Bollywood star. Our tuktuk driver has seen this movie too and we barrel down tiny alleyways, horn blaring, narrowly missing tuktuks and other traffic. We tear across a market as if we’re in the movie and it seems that chickens are flying out of our way and pariah dogs are barking. Ladies selling fruit wave their fists as we rush past and we are eventually reunited with our driver who takes us safely and sedately, as he has done for the past eight days, to Udaipur station. We say goodbye and make a generous tip.
As we board the Mewar Express to Delhi there is some confusion with our tickets. We understood we had purchased an AC1 twin compartment but it seems we have purchased a potential upgrade, not a confirmed seat. We are shown to an AC2 car, which while better than AC3, is not what we had in mind. There are four bunks per space, with another two against the wall where the corridor would be. 65 people to a car. It’s tight. The good news is we are sharing the space with a very nice Indian woman, her two daughters and her granddaughter. Sleeping is going to be challenging in this situation, but as the train pulls out of Udaipur, we settle in, five and a half of us squeezed on the two bottom bunks, exchange life stories and eat the baguettes we purchased before leaving the hotel. The Indian family share their fruit and in return we share our chocolate brownies that they enjoy enormously. Their little girl is between two and three years old and I help her with her colouring-in book. We are colouring-in an owl. Which is to say I am colouring-in and she is watching me suspiciously. When the train stops at Chittogarh for twenty minutes to move the engine from one end to the other I wander the platform to watch the process. When I return the family are mopping up a puddle. “She almost always tells me”, says her mother. Our confined space now smells of little girl wee. An elderly Indian man (oh look, we were the only white faces on the 20 car train, I’m going to stop saying “Indian”), opposite needs help setting up his bed and Maggie and I lay out his sheets and blankets and help him into bed. We literally tuck him in and pull his curtain shut. We shuffle our sleeping arrangements and Maggie ends up in the top bunk with the gals and I end up above the elderly man. Going to bed is like pulling yourself into a coffin, and had it been six inches longer and had there been a softish mattress, once you close your curtain it could be described as cosy. But it’s not and there isn’t, and even with a sleeping pill, a book and a couple of podcasts, it’s a very, very long night.
We have a day to pass in Delhi before catching the train to Shimla and we try to tick off a few remaining sights. Our first stop is the Lotus Temple but it’s closed on a Monday. The Iskcon (Hare Krisha) Temple is open and we sit peacefully for a while and enjoy the chanting. There is a sign asking you not to take photos of yourself with the deities. (Selfie, self-control?) At Safdajang’s Tomb, one of the last triumphs of Mughal architecture, the entrance fee is 5Rp for locals, 100Rp for us. Maggie marches up to the counter and demands, “Two Indian tickets please”. The ticket seller thinks this is a huge joke, and sells her two 100Rp tickets. We hatch a plan that we will split up and I will go to the National Railway Museum and Maggie will go to Ghandi Smriti, the house where Ghandi was killed. But both are closed on Monday. We start to pay attention. Every museum in Delhi is closed on Monday. We have lunch in a bookshop and return to the hotel for a snooze. On the coffee table in our room there’s a small sign that says, “When smoking occurs during your stay, a charge of….” As if smoking is something over which you have no control.
Next morning we will lave for Shimla and the final few days of this adventure.