Oh how I love India, with its melting pot of distinctly regional mouth-watering culinary specialties; with its embarrassment of natural beauty and manmade architectural wonders; with its warm and friendly people who haven’t even finished saying ‘Namaste’ before beckoning you in to their homes for a hospitable cup of tea.
And yet…oh how I hate India too, with its dust-blown streets overrun with stubborn cows and vehicles piloted by horn-tooting lunatics; with its needlessly complicated train ticket reservation system; with its wearisome rickshaw drivers who insist on taking you past several restaurants and shops owned by ‘my good friend’ enroute to your destination.
Yes, India isn’t so much a love-it-or-hate-it place as a love-it-AND-hate-it place. I can’t think of anywhere that illustrates this better than the South Rajasthan city Udaipur, an optional, extra leg on the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ trail of Northern India.
Read a guidebook, the bumf from an Indian tourism website or, indeed, the information boards fronting the cluster of travel agents that line Udaipur’s crammed streets and you’ll doubtless be captivated by the ‘Venice of India’ hyperbole, complete with images of grand palaces sculpted in to lush green hillsides that frame a sun-dappled lake…
On the other hand, hit the streets for the first time and you’re met with throngs of tourists muddling past garish storefronts. The signs scream at you in squiggly rainbow-coloured fonts to go on such and such an excursion, presumably in the company of the aforementioned wearisome rickshaw drivers looking to exploit you for as many rupees as possible. In fact, it was one such person who I had my first conversation with…
Rickshaw Driver: Hello my friend! Do you want me to take you to the Monsoon Palace?
Bewildered Welshman: No thank you.
Rickshaw Driver: (lowering voice) You want some Marijuana?
Bewildered Welshman: Wha…? Er no, no thank you…
Rickshaw Driver: OK, my friend, OK. So maybe you want to help my friend to carry some precious gems back to your home country. You only have to pay 20000 rupees and then you can sell them there for a profit and…my friend! Wait, why do you go?!
But, as with the rest of India, Udaipur is not all about confidence tricksters, aggressive road bullies and seemingly every building being a travel agent, overpriced restaurant or some other such tourist trap. With its gorgeous lakeside setting – the tranquil, limpid waters are only broken by the graceful splash of locals swimming near the banks – magnificently imperious palace and lavishly carved Jagdish Temple, Udaipur is undeniably a romantic place, even with the attendant Octopussy connotations and dense throngs of tourists.
As with anywhere, escaping the crowds is all about venturing just a little away from the well-worn main streets. All it takes is venturing North of the Hatipol Gate – or indeed to willfully take one unorthodox turn down a crooked alleyway – and you’re in neighbourhoods that are more authentically ‘Indian’, with Hindi-only signs, bustling market stalls filled with people speaking in several different dialects and not a foreign face in sight. In addition the countryside surrounding the city is beautiful, and I do recommend an excursion there if you have the time.
Udaipur is noticeably less stressful than the likes of nearby Delhi and Jaipur, yet it does unmistakably have an air of ‘exploit the moon-eyed tourists’ about it. But as annoying as this may be, it is still a place worth seeing. The sunset over the lake alone is worth the price of an overnight guest house stay, but you also get snapshots of authentic local life as well as the top draws – the history, the food, the genuinely friendly people – that lure you to India in the first place. You just have to accept the bad that goes with it; because, after all, this is a love-it-and-hate-it country!