Ring of Fire: Castle Bera, Udaipur, Fort Barli, Bundi

Castle Bera:  Next stop on our Rajasthan road trip was Castle Bera.  Alison had suggested that en route we pay a visit to Sardar Samand – a palace/hunting lodge owned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but which is used as a luxury hotel when the royal family are not in residence.  Prince Charles and Camilla have stayed at the Palace, as has Madonna.  I was really keen to see what all the fuss was about even though the trip required a bit of a detour.  After bouncing along some pretty horrendous roads and encountering flood waters, we finally arrived at the gates only to be unceremoniously told there was no way we would be getting in because the royal family had decided to have an extended holiday at the palace.  Raju was not impressed and attempted to pull some strings, but we convinced him that we weren’t that keen on gatecrashing a royal holiday anyway.

The rest of the trip was pretty quiet – the roads to Castle Bera were some of the worst we have encountered and it was an intense time for poor old Raju.  We arrived at the Castle about lunchtime, and Raju immediately sloped off for a cup of tea and a lie down.  Aesthetically, I think you’d describe the Castle as shabby chic – probably in need of a lick of paint and some TLC, but certainly not so much that it detracts from what is a wonderful spot with loads of atmosphere.  The Castle is decorated with portraits of various members of the Singh family who built, and continue to live in the Castle and memorabilia from the distinguished polo career of Umaid Singh (our host, Minku’s, grandfather).  Minku joined us in the evening for drinks and all of the guests had dinner together in a big dining room.  Overall, it was very homely and a very different experience to our accommodation so far.

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The main attraction at the Castle is the leopard watching safaris that it offers.  There is a family of leopards (Mum, Dad and 2 cubs) that live in the mountains close to the village.  We had an incredible experience during our first safari in the evening.  After what felt like quite a long time of waiting and staring at the same spot, our local guide spotted the male leopard wandering down a rock face.  We managed to track him for the next couple of hours as he roamed about and then finally saw him sprint right across the road in front of us, scramble up a bank and head for home.  Apparently our experience was very unusual and a lot of people don’t manage to see the leopards, or only get a fleeting glance.  We weren’t so lucky during our morning safari.  We didn’t manage to see the leopards again, but we did spot a few birds and a crocodile at the nearby lake, which made the 4 am wake-up call worth it (Campbell may beg to differ).

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Udaipur:  We were pretty knackered by the time we got back from the safari and started out on the journey to Udaipur.  Raju wanted to make one stop on the way, so that we could visit the Ranakpur Temple.  The Temple is one of 4 in the same complex, which is one of the main Jain pilgrimage sites in India.  The Temple is undeniably lovely, but our hearts just really weren’t in it.  Campbell, in particular, was suffering from a few sleepless nights and was getting very close to losing his shit completely.  With that as the backdrop, we took a very quick spin around, got scammed by the “High Priest” (whose behaviour was far from holy) and then opted to return to the car.  We had another quick “family” photo shoot in the car park and we were back on the road.

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We both passed out in the car for the rest of the journey and woke just as we were reaching Udaipur (The City of Lakes).  Udaipur is set amongst a hill range and a series of 4 interconnected lakes and, in my opinion, has a lot more visual appeal than the other places we have visited so far.  We stayed in the Old City, which is a jumble of hotels, restaurants and shops that stretch back from the edge of Lake Pichola.  There are also a couple of luxury hotels set in the middle of the lake itself, which are pretty special.  Campbell was content to spend the afternoon watching the Black Caps in action (withdrawals were setting in after 5 months without being able to watch live cricket), so I took a wander around our neighbourhood and the local market.  Udaipur is known for art, particularly miniature paintings and handmade paper and journals, and was my favourite shopping destination, and city so far.

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There’s a bit more variety to the tourist attractions in Udaipur, so we took a break from temples and forts and set out on our second day for a boat trip around Lake Pichola.  It was a very cruisy little trip, which let us see all the different buildings that fringe the Lake and dropped us off at the palace of Jag Mandir (now a hotel) in the middle of the Lake.  We wandered through the grounds of the City Palace after the trip, but chose to spend the rest of our free time taking in the atmosphere of the market and the streets, rather than touring the Palace itself.  The streets of Udaipur were a lot quieter than other places and the absence of large numbers of cows was particularly noticeable.  This was a really nice change – there have been so many times already when I’ve turned around to look at something in a shop, or get something from my bag and look up again to find myself staring straight into the abyss of a cow’s arse, or just about to be shit whipped by a poo encrusted tail.

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When we were in Jodhpur I stumbled across a very old copy of The Listener magazine, which had an article about an amazing barbershop in Udaipur.  I have been fascinated by the barbers ever since we got here – they are typically tiny ‘hole in the wall’ operations (or sometimes just a mirror stuck to the side of a house or a wall in the street, and a chair), but seem to be a hotbed of activity and socialising.  They are always busy.  Since Campbell needed a haircut, I suggested we track this particular barber down and give it a whirl.  Campbell just loves it when I come up with these things, which require nothing from me, some mild discomfort, or awkwardness for him, but which I convince him will be a fun/authentic travel experience.  Luckily for both of us, The Listener did not let us down and Campbell’s haircut was the highlight of our day and one of the most memorable parts of our trip so far.

The barbershop was certainly nothing special to look at, but we knew we were at the right place when we saw that the walls were plastered with copies of The Listener.  The owner, Hemant, was absolutely thrilled when we said we were from New Zealand and, after a short wait, Campbell was in the chair and ready to go.  I haven’t witnessed many male haircuts, but the level of care and attention to detail that went into this particular haircut was breathtaking.  Campbell’s hair was cut, recut, clippered, styled and reclippered.  He then got an incredibly full-on head, ear, eye socket and neck massage and, just when we thought he’d had the works, Hemant pulled out a handheld massage device shaped like a dolphin and proceeded to massage Campbell’s back, arms and thighs (the discomfort level was through the roof at this point).  In the meantime I drank chai with Hemant’s crazy (actually out of his mind crazy) relative and was encouraged to read the article from The Listener over and over again.  Hemant had helpfully highlighted the most favourable excerpts, so there was no confusion as to how good the author’s review was.

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We made it out of the shop after an hour and the obligatory photo shoot, having turned down offers of manicures, facials, massage and henna.  I’m not sure Campbell will ever be the same again.

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On our last evening in Udapuir we went along to see a cultural show of Rasjasthani singing, dancing and other arts.  It was absolutely pouring with rain and we had to sit barefoot in a tented area that smelt like toe-jam, but the show itself was incredible.  There was a puppeteer, women dancing with fire pots on their heads, wom4n doing elaborate dances with bells strapped to their limbs etc etc.  Our favourite act was the older lady who ended up dancing around and walking over broken glass with 11 water pots stacked on her head.  She started out with just one pot and just kept adding more and more to the point where I almost couldn’t watch.  She had a neck like a Hulk Hogan and it was no wonder!

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Fort Barli:  We arrived at Fort Barli, a beautiful heritage hotel, on Tuesday afternoon.  On the way, we stopped at Chittorgarh Fort, one of the oldest forts in India and a World Heritage Site.  The Fort complex includes a palace, a temple and some other monuments.  It was absolutely pouring with rain, but armed with brollies and with Raju following behind in the car, we set off.  Chittorgarh is a little more off the beaten track and Raju explained that a lot of tourists do not make the trip.  Fair to say, our celebrity status reached new and dizzying heights.  Everywhere we went we had a trail of curious locals following behind us, before someone would pluck up the courage to ask for a photo.  Once we’d agreed to one photo, the floodgates would open and we’d soon have all manner of cameras and phones shoved into our face for photos.  Just when we thought we’d seen it all, somebody started passing their baby through the crowd, and this happened!

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We were the only guests at Fort Barli for the two days we were there and got treated to a suite of rooms, and the team of staff who literally clambered over one other to make sure that we had everything we wanted and needed. We didn’t have any big plans for our stay, which is just as well since I was struck down with the dreaded Delhi Belly on our first night. While I took in the scenery from the bathroom, Campbell explored the Fort climbing up ladders and over the roof terrorising the monkeys and the parrots. He also spent a fair amount of time trying to convince our host that she hadn’t poisoned me with her food and that we wouldn’t be posting a scathing Tripadvisor review the minute we drove out the gates. While being sick always sucks (or, in this case, blows), the timing was pretty perfect since I had a day to recover in bed, rather than having to strap on an adult diaper for the 4 hour car ride to our next destination. There’s also nothing like a bout of bum wees to start making amends for a month of eating souvlaki.

Bundi:  We left Fort Barli yesterday and set off for Bundi, a small and picturesque city.  The weather here has been incredibly wet and Raju once again had to do battle with the roads and a lot of flooding. At some points on the trip there were puddles so big on the roadside that buffalo were swimming in them – like properly, up to their chin practising their freestyle, swimming. The water does make things a whole lot ickier in general as well and, it would be fair to say, that of all the quirks and curveballs India can throw at you, it’s the rubbish and the filth in the streets that I find the most challenging. We went for a wander before tea last night and the streets were literally running with water, excrement and rubbish, which gets into your nostrils, runs into your sandals, splashes up the bottom of your pants and generally makes you feel disgusting. After a bit of a diva, “I want to go home”, moment, we sought solace at Tom and Jerry’s – a psychedelic, rock’n’role themed rooftop restaurant. For whatever reason there is a trend in Bundi for naming restaurants after cartoon characters, and we could have opted instead to visit the Ben 10 Restaurant, or the Pink Panther Cafe.

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We absolutely made the right choice with Tom and Jerry’s. We’d been seated for about ten minutes when Jerry (one of the owners) put Hotel California on the stereo. We drunk our way through the entire CD and ordered dinner in time for The Doors Greatest Hits to come on.  It was a nice little escape from the street and a change of scenery from our own hotel.   We splashed out on a tuk-tuk ride home, so that we didn’t ruin the mood by having to wade through more poo.  Sanity was restored.

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Our Rajasthan adventure is now winding to an end.  We are looking forward to rounding out the trip with the Taj Mahal and Delhi.  At this stage our plan to Varanasi is up in the air – there is extreme flooding and bodies building up on the Ganges.  Watch this space.

A&C

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