Almost everyone who visits India goes through Rajasthan at some point. It's a state with history, ruins, deserts, centuries of traditions.. in many ways visiting Rajasthan is that quintessential romantic Indian experience.
But it's also packed with tourists, especially during the wintertime when temperatures are cool and comfortable. As we left Bundi and got back on the crazy "Rajasthani Circuit" we hoped our efforts would pay off as we attempted to cover a lot of ground in just over a week.
First stop: Udaipur
Built along lovely Lake Pichola, Udaipur has been called the Venice of the East (although isn't almost every city with water dubbed a Venice of some kind? "The Venice of the Former Soviet Bloc" ... "The Venice of the Steel Industry"). The old area of the city undoubtedly makes for a pretty view, but up close it's almost completely dominated by guesthouses, souvenir shops, and rickshaw drivers looking for work. The quality of the shopping is decent, but both Brendan and I were completely burned out after Jaipur and not really interested. As backpackers, we have nowhere to stash what we buy, even if we really love it. Besides, hang out in India long enough and you'll start to notice that all the westerners are dressed alike, with the same oddly crotch-sagging pants, linen tunics, and embroidered cloth over-the-shoulder bags. There's Indian fashion, and then there's "Indian tourist fashion". Dabble too much in the latter and you'll end up a walking cliche.
Ok fine, so I bought a pair of earrings. But they're really cute and non-touristy and instead of packing them I just wear them 24/7. So there.
Udaipur has its own former royal palace which, again, looks very pretty from afar, but isn't the most spectacular palace in the world. It's been preserved beautifully and turned into more of a museum, but in the process seems to have lost some authenticity. Brendan sulked through it.
After three days, we were ready to leave Udaipur. In my opinion, it's a bit overrated unless you've got the cash to stay somewhere ritzy like the Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of the water. Which we do not.
Second stop: Jodhpur
I made Brendan come to Jodhpur for the palace and fort. I have this fear that the one palace and fort we skip will be the best palace and fort ever and I'll spend the rest of my life ruing the day I passed them up. The idea was to arrive by bus (4 hours northwest from Udaipur), get a hotel, wake up early the next morning, do the palace and fort, go to sleep, wake up, and get back on a bus out of town.
Once we got to Jodhpur, we immediately wished we'd alloted more time for ourselves. The "Blue City" is indeed awesomely blue, and our guesthouse was literally right under the fort hill in the old part of town. I liked the scene a lot better than Udaipur. More dramatic.
I'm not sure if Jodhpur's palace and fort are the best palace and fort ever, but they're absolutely worth stopping for (yay me!). Make sure you take advantage of the audio tour. It helped put everything we saw into context and was actually very educational (yes, I realize that I am channeling my grandmother). The views from the top of the fort are phenomenal, and from our perch we could see thousands of people hanging out on flat roofs all across the city. Indians really do love their roofs.
At one point in our fort tour, Brendan came up to me with a funny look on his face. "That's Liz Hurley over there," he said through clenched teeth as he jerked his head in her direction. She was there with her son and fiancee, who happens to be Indian. B took an unintrusive picture and we went on our way. Later he asked me why Liz Hurley was famous.
Third stop: Jaisalmer
Another several hours west of Jodhpur lies the city of Jaisalmer, smack dab in the middle of the desert. Unsurprisingly, it also comes complete with its own fort, but Jaisalmer's is actually still inhabited. Supposedly the cool thing to do is to stay somewhere up inside the fort, but our hotel (Shahi Guesthouse) had better views from the bottom (although the roof deck was practically an icebox after sundown - it's cold in January!).
Jaisalmer's big draw is its proximity to endless sand dunes, which are naturally best visited on the back of a camel. Booking a two-day camel trek is one of those touristy things that we felt obligated to do, being all the way out here and all.
Ours was a good group: me, Brendan, Maria from Colombia, and Nicki from Australia, along with four camel men who were our guides and cooks (and buddies for Brendan, who was otherwise stuck with us three chicks). My camel had intestinal issues and farted a lot, but otherwise made for a good companion. After a few hours of ambling through the desert, we stopped to rest and made lunch. Another few hours later, we arrived at our camp for the night, situated right on the edge of some picture-perfect sand dunes. We watched the sun go down over Pakistan, performed stupid desert tricks, ate dinner, sang songs around the campfire (along with two lovely gentlemen from London who joined us later from another trek), and finally settled into our blankets for the night. We were neither very warm nor cozy sleeping under the stars, but what the desert lacked in comfort it more than made up for in atmosphere. For one night, anyway.
Back at our hotel the next afternoon, we traded stories with another group who had just gotten back from a similar camel trek and were disappointed with their experience. Apparently their sand dunes were rather lackluster, there weren't enough blankets, and they felt cheated overall. I guess we got lucky.
Fourth Stop: Jodhpur
We didn't mean to get stuck here again, but our bus from Jaisalmer had to come back this way anyway, and it just got late. Didn't see anything new. Caught a bus out of town early the next morning.
Fifth Stop: Udaipur
We arrived back in the city where we started around noon (after our bus rear-ended an SUV on the highway and delayed us an hour or two), wasted some time eating and surfing the net, and caught a night train out of the state.
It's been fun, Rajasthan!
Gujarat, here we come!