Sunday, February 13, 2005

Bond's the Name

Yesterday we arrived in Udaipur, the "most romantic city in Rajastan" according to Lonely Planet. The city was built in the 16th century by some royals ducking out from Moghul invaders in the Aravelli mountains, one of the oldest mountain chain in the world. Basically it began as a series of jaw-droppingly gorgeous palaces built around Lake Pichola, or in smack dab in the lake, in the case of the "Floating Palace". This impressive structure was Octopussy's lair in that 1983 James Bond flick. Roger Moore braves crocodiles to meet red catsuit-clad girls inside.

Unfortunately this palace is no longer floating, since the lake has just about dried up, what with dwindling monsoons in the past five years. The whole scene is pretty strange. Instead of graceful ships ferrying tourists back and forth between ghats (stairs that are supposed to lead into water), there's parched earth, except for rivlets of sewage. Cows and boars graze on green grass around them. Every now and then you see a couple of decked-out elephants being led from their parking spots by the massive City Palace complex across to the "Lake" Palace, on their way to impress some ritzy tourists.

Bored of watching the comings and goings here, we headed up a mountain to the Monsoon Palace. Back in the day, Princes retreated up here during the rainy season, to do, well whatever it was princes did. Toke on a hookah, ride around on elephants, browse through their latest harem selection? Maybe shoot leopards in the scrubby forest surrounding. Today there are still leopards (though not stupid enough to walk for miles in the blazing sun, as we did today), but since the Maharana gave his palace "to the people" it's become an empty graffitied shell. I must admit it was a relief to not see any more endless war paintings, which all the palace museums showcase. Rajputs rulers revel in recounting tales of blood shed.

Having successfully crashed chi chi hotel pools like the Taj in Jodhpur, we tried to sneak into the City Palace's swanky Shiv Nivas. It was a no go. This is a more tourism-savvy town than Jodhpur: the rickshaw drivers--tooling around in the same diesel-guzzling vehicles Roger Moore's Bond popped wheelys in--can even speak English.

Tomorrow we're splurging on a Rs 500 horseback ride in the mountains, early. Then we'll resume our mission: getting past those hotels' shiny marble fortresses and having a dunk, before the 8 hour bus ride back to Jodhpur.

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