At 8 a.m. Manu is at the hotel door, waiting.
Our bags loaded, we set off for Udaipur, famed for its palace turned hotel floating in Lake Pichola. It is a 260-kilometre drive, and Manu says it will take about 5 hours.
The Border Between Green Gujarat and the Desert State of Rajasthan.
The road is hectic as we head out of town – crazier with people, camels, buffalo and dogs than any road we've seen so far. It takes the better part of an hour to get out of the sprawl of Ahmedabad, and once we do we are on a beautiful 4 lane motorway, able to move at about 100 kilometres an hour, except for the occasional monkey or buffalo crossing the highway. The land is very much as we've seen it around Ahmedabad – flat, dusty green going to brown in the late summer heat and haze. And it stays this way for another 90 minutes. All of a sudden, out of the haze, a high brown ridge emerges like a solid line from as far left as we can see to as far right as we can see: the Araralli Range, the border between green Gujarat and the desert state of Rajasthan. At the border there is chaos as all trucks stop to deal with the interstate inspections and taxes, but we pick our way through, about the only private automobile on this stretch of road.
Immediately across the border, the road – National Highway 8 – virtually disappears. It goes from 4 lanes to something less than 2 but more than 1, barely paved and clearly under construction, for another 2 lanes are being worked on across a median. We ascend through the hills, passing trucks as they slowly go up, weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic. The hills are brown and scree-covered – it reminds us of the drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs in California in late fall.
Through Brown Hills and Treated Like Royalty
From here until we get to Udaipur we drive through brown hills, although an hour into Rajasthan the road turns back into a 4 lane motorway. The air is thick with haze – visibility can’t be more than a few hundred metres. All of a sudden we are in Udaipur, earlier than expected, about 4 hours into the trip. We drive through town, the haze still so thick that little can be seen, until we drive down a ramp to a boat dock. From here, we are treated like royalty – we are staying at the Lake Palace Hotel, ultra luxurious. The woman at the land-side entrance asks us our names, and from here on, everywhere we go in the hotel we are greeted by name: “are you enjoying your stay, Mr. Mountain”; “may I help you with anything, Mr. George.” It makes us laugh – through the rest of India, everyone wants to know our name; here, everyone already does.
The boat takes us across the lake – tinier than we expected from the pictures we have seen, and reduced even more by seven years of abnormally low monsoon rainfall. You can see that the lake is probably three metres lower than normal; the hotel is almost connected to the land. And it is idyllic – built around beautiful courtyards, everything white marble or painted white plaster. Our room has a view back to the city palace. We spend the afternoon luxuriating.
Before dinner, there is a show of traditional Rajasthani music and dancing on one of the terraces. Quite beautiful. We then head for dinner in the hotel dining room, claimed by our guidebook to be the most romantic dining experience in India.
Indeed, it is.