24 July 2015
Lead Me To The Lake Palace: Part Three
LEAD ME TO THE LAKE PALACE: PART THREE
By Annie Owen
I slept through my alarm and my planned early start. When I woke I hurriedly scoffed breakfast and left. It was 07.30 and I wanted to get some hills behind me before the day got too hot. I passed the entrance to the stunning Jain temple around which the town has grown and resisted the temptation to hide there, heading instead uphill into the wildlife sanctuary, home of the elusive leopard. I passed between parched trees and ghosts of riverbeds in this drought stricken landscape as the road climbed higher and higher. My muscles creaked and I gulped water - and I was only 5 km into the day’s cycling! My legs began to complain. My friend suggested ‘snaking’ up the road. This helped a lot but was a little hair-raising when an unsuspecting truck appeared round a bend but, thankfully, these were few.
When I met a group of colourfully dressed female road workers I collapsed sweating profusely onto a bollard and gasped for breath, to their amazement as well as their amusement. My friend filled my water bottle adding a generous dollop of energy powder and muttering “Very perfect time covered” and “Well done”. I realised that the next couple of hours were going to be a private and personal battle between me and the mountain, so I left him with the digital camera to enchant the women with images of themselves and set off. I was absolutely determined to get up to the top. I reminded myself tersely that I am one of the lucky ones after all - at least I have the health and strength to put myself through these challenges.
Rage can be productive. To my surprise I made fairly good progress. There was not an inch of level ground so when I did finally come to a gasping halt I had to drape myself over the handlebars to form a sort of tripod with the two wheels to avoid rolling back down those hard-won slopes. I was thus inelegantly posed when my friend finally rejoined me, but he could see my heaving breath, my slightly manic grin of pride and the defiance in my eyes and simply refilled my bottle without saying a word. Wise man.
At last the road levelled out to mere undulations. I had climbed nearly 20 km of unremittingly steep incline and drunk 5 litres of water doing so. In a small farming town I stood, unable to think, in the centre of 100 or so curious people while my friend bought 2 potatoes from a stall then went into a tiny and extremely dubious looking shop. Minutes later he emerged and beckoned. I left the bike, safe amidst these honest people and was presented with a plate of freshly cooked golden chips with a large wedge of sweet lemon and a burra chai. A banquet. Nothing has ever tasted so good.
The afternoon’s ride took me through a honey coloured landscape - a sort of cross between an Indian style Peak District and the stone walls and narrow twisting lanes of Cornwall. Camels peered snootily at me as I passed. There were many more hills but set apart and therefore less relentless than before. Now I could whoosh down a slope then pedal hard into the incline before slowing to gain the crest at a snails pace, then gain speed to repeat this again and again. This went well until suddenly my chain broke. It is only when you stop that you realise the heat. We were in the back of beyond in the middle of the afternoon and the sun was beating down from a deep blue sky. I wheeled the bike up the hill to the shade of a tree, sweating profusely, and flopped down in the shade.
Every village in India seems to have its resident bicycle mechanic so I suggested to my friend that he drive to the nearest village, wherever that may be, to find a mechanic, leaving me under the tree with the bike, 2 oranges and a bottle of water. I savoured a precious few minutes of isolation - rare in India - until the local children spotted me, emerging, it seemed, from nowhere.
Soon he was back with a man who fixed the chain and I was off. But my muscles had relaxed and stiffened and I found the last hills increasingly difficult so slow progress was made and my final dramatic, blissful descent into Kumbhalgarh was in the rosy light of the fast sinking sun.
Given that everything that goes up stands a good chance of coming down, I was looking forward to this, the final day, and I relished every T-shirt-whipping, joyous, long, speedy and effortless descent that my approach to Udaipur allowed me. This was the fertile side of the Aravali hills and the countryside was lovely as I flashed through the charming farming countryside, beneath elegant green trees and past tiny temples. Children’s voices floated out from school assembly, and laughter rose from behind a hedge where girls were washing at the village pump. A camel train plodded by. A flock of newly shorn sheep trotted along under the watchful eye of a wizened shepherd, tiny bleating lamb tucked under his arm.
My heart sank a little as the suburbs began to appear. I wanted to go on cycling - not to arrive. I stopped at a particularly spectacular vegetable stall, ignoring the approaching loaded bus, familiar and comfortable as I now was on the roads. Soon I was hurtling round busy roundabouts, glued to the Ambassador’s bumper, insinuating myself between rickshaws and giving plausibly Indian and impertinent hand signals when executing perilous right turns. Then I was there - at the gate of the Lake Palace. Well, the street gate at least.
It dawned on me suddenly. Of course. Why had I not thought? All Palaces in Rajasthan are built on hills. I might have arrived at the security gate, but the sunset terrace of the Shiv Niwas Palace with its classic and recogniseable view of the Lake Palace was up a steep incline. My heart sank. I gritted my teeth and set off. I negotiated uncomfortably the 4 speed bumps and pedalled. Past the fountain, past the tourists, past the large Mercedes in which a white bearded man sat smiling in air conditioned comfort as it purred past me. I arrived at one of India’s more fabulously desirable destinations looking like a sodden and exhausted human pomegranate. But I had made it.
The white-bearded gentleman was, in fact, HRH the Maharana of Udaipur and he had apparently asked who this weary woman on a bicycle might be. I was amazed and thrilled to receive an invitation to cocktails and dinner at the Palace. I scurried around trying to make myself presentable and joined Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar at the appointed time on the terrace.
As I watched Cuttack dancing in a marble Mandir on a Palace terrace dripping with lit candles, sipped wine from crystal glasses over dinner beneath the stars at linen covered tables groaning with silverware and scattered with rose petals, lingered over tiny chocolate mousse delicacies, and gazed across Lake Pichola at the trembling reflection of the Lake Palace in the warm night air, I considered the last 6 eventful days. I thought of the basic store-room, the endless dahl, the countless squishy bananas, the dust, the hills, the rough roads and the potholes but more than this I thought of all the kindness, respect and generosity that I feel defines the spirit of the Indian both rich and poor, It had been an extraordinary 6 days, full of challenges and extremes. I felt unbelievably lucky, but found myself already considering, 'What next?'.