We travelled to Rajasthan in search of the beauty of its deserted forts, lake palaces, colours, history and vibrant culture – on a motorbike. If a road trip in India is a challenge, a road trip in India on a motorbike goes far beyond that. It’s the real test for anyone’s concentration and driving skills. The roads are usually in bad conditions; traffic is chaotic; animals such as elephants, cows, dogs, camels ride side by side with tons of tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars, etc. It’s intense. And we love that. Motorcycling in India has some limitations, but a distinctive appeal as well. The majority of which belongs to the thrill of riding a Royal Enfield Bullet. There are not many countries in the world where you can experience so much by just riding on the streets and the motorbike allows for a greater interaction with the surroundings – what else would make people stare with curiosity or admiration as you pass? Everywhere in this restless landscape is movement. I couldn’t stop taking photos. Wherever you look at, there is always a manifestation of an astonishing new aspect of the unpredictable.
Welcome to the Land of Kings. First stop: Udaipur.
I saw marble palaces rising above a beautiful lake for the first time. It was late afternoon when we arrived in Udaipur, perfect for the beautiful sunset cruise that we did around the lake Pichola. The views from the Jagmandir Palace, the summer resort of the former royal families, showed us another angle of this magical place.
There are many palaces here, each more romantic than the next. Many have been converted into five-star hotels, and the maharajas, who have no power anymore have become hoteliers.
Taj Lake Palace Hotel is a wonder apart. Staying there while in Udaipur is the key to experience the ages of the Rajasthan Kingdom. Built in 1743, this romantic white-marble Palace floats on the waters of Lake Pichola, with 360-degree views of surrounding Udaipur. The former palace used to be a summer escape and pleasure resort by the royal dynasty of Mewar and was converted into a hotel during the 1960s. It not only reminded me of the James Bond movie (it was the main location for the Octopussy film), but also gave me the real feeling of staying in a Rajasthan Majestic Palace from the eighteenth-century. It felt like we were travelling in another time. The most glamorous hotel I’ve ever been. We got a room with a beautiful view of the maharaja’s palace on the shore, which made everything even more special. Access is by boat from the hotel’s own jetty in the City Palace gardens.
The service is superb and cuisine standards are high. Breakfast in the patio where James Bond Octopussy was shot is a must. Sunset drinks on the rooftop, followed by dinner at one of its fantastic restaurants is part of the unforgettable experience. We had outstanding food at the indian restaurant in the first night and a romantic dinner at the open air italian place with views to City Palace in the second one.
The City Palace is, in my opinion, the most spectacular attraction in Udaipur. Located on the east bank of Lake Pichola, it was built over a period of nearly 400 years on a hill top that gives a panoramic view of the city, including several monuments such as the Lake Palace, Jag Mandiron and Monsoon Palace. It’s the largest palace in Rajasthan and has several palaces built within its complex, so it’s much easier to navigate if you have a good guide.
We drove along Fateh Sagar Lake and did some textile shopping at Rama Krishna, where we got beautiful Kashmir scarves. In the evening, already with our Royal Enfiled, we drove through the streets and markets of Udaipur. The area around Jagdish Mandir temple next to the city Palace gate is great for street shopping.
Riding 320Km from Udaipur to Jodhpur.
Our motorbike trip in India starts in the early morning of February 12th. The weather was perfect for a ride: not too cold, not too warm. After 35 km of highway we turned right towards Ranakpur and drove through the Ranakpur valley. We spotted Rajasthan countryside as its best.
The famous Ranakpur Jain temple, in the heart of the remote valley of the Arvallis, was on our way. We had a guided tour there done by one of the friendly monks. Rajasthan is famous for its rich art treasures and the Jain temple is for sure one of the most spectacular architectural monuments. It is considered among the best in the world.
We continued to ride for five hours non stop towards Jodhpur. The mountains and green colours of Ranakpur valley slowly turned into a dry vegetation until the landscape changed completely when we finally reached the Indian Thar Desert. Everything spoke of remoteness: the emptiness of the highway; the local women working on the fields dressed with their beautiful saris; villages in the middle of nowhere; herds of animals crossing the road. Although the prescribed Udaipur – Jodhpur trail can be quite obvious, we felt isolated during the journey between the two cities.
We arrived at the Blue City just before sunset and watched the sun going down from the Umaid Bhawan Palace.
Jodhpur’s history is based on the Rajput dominion, merchant traders and polo‑playing princes. The ancient desert city is the second largest in Rajasthan, with more than one million population. Full of chaos, buzz, commerce and shops of handmade goods. It’s divided into two parts – the old and the new city. Surrounded by a huge and legendary fortress wall, the blue buildings in Jodhpur contrast beautifully with the neighbouring Thar Desert. It is referred to as the “Blue City” due to the vivid blue-painted houses around the Mehrangarh Fort. While its royal family may no longer reign, the maharaja still resides in his palace, Umaid Bhawan – reborn as the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel in 2005.
A visit to the vast 17th-century Mehrangarh Fort and palace while in Jodhpur is mandatory. A monument packed with legend, towering 120ft and arresting one’s attention from almost any point in the city. It’s the magnificient and spectacular fort that towers over the Blue City. An architectural masterpiece. The fort is massive and stupendous when seen from afar and from there you can enjoy expansive views of the surrounding Thar Desert and the traditional houses all painted Krishna blue. We spent the entire morning there in our second day in Jodhpur.
Even though we had our motorbike with us, we decided to leave it at the hotel in Jodhpur and hire a tuk tuk driver as we didn’t want to spend time getting lost. This was a great idea as the driver turned out to be the most lovely and appealing character and also an amazing guide. We met him right after having a good coffee at Cafe Shesh Maha and from there we explored Jodhpur together.
I usually don’t enjoy spending my time shopping during my travels. Jodhpur, however, was an exception. There are a handful of shops worth exploring. Gems & Jewels Palace produces the traditional confections of silver, gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. But there is beautiful contemporary work as well. In regards to textiles, there is nothing like Maharani Textiles & Handicrafts. We visited the massive showroom they have and almost got lost there.
We walked around the old part of the town behind the Mehrangarh Fort . The medieval streets of the blue city is full of shops, bazaars and animals everywhere. Walking through this area made me understand better what’s going on in Jodhpur: how the locals live, how their houses are and their relationship with the animals and the trash. There are also a few nice points in this area from where you can observe the old town.
The Sadar market next to the Ghanthagar clock tower is a must-see. It’s a full-on Indian market with a barely contained riot of sights, sounds and stinks. Next to it there is an interesting glass bracelet store – Bibaji Churi Wale. They have from the simplest styles to outrageously gilded iterations.
The best hotel in Jodhpur (arguably) is RAAS. It’s located in the heart of the walled city. The 150 year old building was built with Jodhpur’s ‘rose-red’ sandstone and has recently been renovated by local craftsman to create a luxurious hotel. It boasts spectacular views of the fort looming above. Fabulous. The Raas is Jodphur’s very first boutique hotel and is both luxurious and peaceful, with its terraces, courtyard and central swimming pool. From the restaurant you can enjoy stunning views to the fort. They serve delicious Indian, European and southeast asian cuisines. We had the Indian, of course.
Heading to the Indian desert
The journey continued on the road. A five-hour drive from Jodhpur, the trip to Jasailmer included a quick stop at the small village of Pokhran.
Jaisalmer welcomed us with its best as we arrived at the The Serai. Set in the mystical Indian desert, The Serai provides both heritage and luxury, with its tented suites decorated in traditional Victorian-safari-style furnishing. When we thought things couldn’t get better, we got an upgrade to the spectacular Royal Suite, with private spa, separated dining and lounge tents and outdoor pool.
The whole experience in this luxury camp takes travelers far beyond the boundaries of convention. The Serai organised for us a sunset dune excursion with camels and one of the best dinners we’ve had in the bush of the Thar desert.
A 40 minutes ride from The Serai took us to the “Golden Fort”, Jaisalmer’s main attraction.
Jaisalmer is a desert city among the oldest of Rajasthan’s fortress citadels. It is the largest district of Rajasthan and one of the largest in India, located close to the Pakistan border. Though it is dusty, it has its own charms.
The fort is a breathtaking sight. It’s a massive sandcastle filled with sandstone buildings, covered from stoop to roof in intricate carvings of gods and mythological symbols. Unlike most forts in India, the Jaisalmer Fort is a living fort. There are shops, hotels and age old havelis(homes) inside the fort area where families have lived for generations.
Overnight train to Jaipur
At 5pm of February 15th we boarded on a overnight train from Jaisalmer to Jaipur. The journey by train in 02 class would have been fine. However we got the sleeper class instead, by mistake, and by the time we figured that out it was too late. Although not very comfortable, when I think back I am glad we boarded in this section of the train. The trip on the sleeper class added a new dimension to our experience. There was virtually no other tourists in there and it allowed us to interact with the local people and see the spectacular and diverse Indian countryside.
We arrived at the Jaipur train station at 5am and from there we took a ride with a tuk tuk driver to our hotel in town just for a shower and quick rest.
Our guide drove us through Jaipur with stops at the Amber fort, impressive construction with influences of Hindu and Muslim acrchiteture; Hawa Mahal house, located on the edge of the City Palace and Rajmahal palace, for a wonderful lunch in the garden. This Palace also belongs to Sujan, the same group as The Serai. From there we picked up our luggage at the hotel and drove to the airport in order to catch our flight back to Singapore.
We travelled across Udaipur- Jodhpur-Jaisalmer-Jaipur for 7 days. Stayed at Taj Lake Palace Hotel , Bhavyam heritage guesthouse and The Serai hotels. Had delicious indian food at RAAS, Trio restaurant and Rajmahal palace. Went shopping at Rama Krishna, Gems & Jewels Palace (+91 2912516666) and Maharani Textiles & Handicrafts (+91 2912653152). Rented a motorbike Royal Enfield Bullet from Anu Vikram Singh. Our guides: Udaipur – Suresh Nagarkoti (+ 91 9414168781); Jodhpur- Dharmendra (+91 9414678304); Jaisalmer – owner of Krishna Boulangerie roof top restaurant (+ 91 09414763003). We flew with Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Delhi.