Travelogue ISC 3: Delhi

DELHI

17-18 November 2012

We had to laugh when we disembarked from the plane in Delhi and were herded to a bus that would take us to the terminal. That wouldn’t be funny, except we were directly across the roadway from it, so we alighted the bus only to literally make a U-turn and get off at the other side of the road!

The airport’s a bit more inspiring than Mumbai’s. Newer, cleaner, more modern. And it was a blessing to be met by our tour driver so we didn’t have to think or negotiate transfers. The traffic in Delhi is just as chaotic, although the roads seems to be wider and better maintained in general. There’s still no adherence to road markings and cars, vans and rickshaws straddling the white line is quite common. More of the bike-riders don helmets (very rare in our experiences so far) and there are lots of “don’t drink and drive” billboards; maybe the two are connected. Also hootinghootinghooting, but with requests for hooting painted on the back of most trucks, one shouldn’t expect any less and clearly it’s seen as serving to warn of approach, not signal aggression.

Our hotel is great; nothing short of amazing as compared with the others we’ve stayed in so far! Weirdly, it has no windows because it’s wedged in the middle of a block with neighbours on all sides except the narrow slit of an entrance. I bright-sided that this should make for a good sleep, based on my experience of the inside cabin on the South East Asia cruise and how the pitchest of pitch black made for coma sleep. The hotel is well positioned and mercifully stocked with tourist street maps, so we were soon sent on our merry way to go and explore.

We caught a Metro from a block down to Karol Bagh (8 Rupees each, just over R1,30), which is a shopping district. We been briefed by the hotel concierge that we were to ask for discount in the formal shops and bargain with the stalls for as much as 70% off. We didn’t end up doing any shopping though because what we weren’t prepared for was the chaos – cars hooting their way through hordes of shoppers, not helped by the double- and triple-parked lurkers on either side; dirty with litter everywhere; spitting seemingly culturally acceptable, but entirely disgusting. We ratified the trip with a chicken Momo plate from a street vendor, who served the 6 little dumplings with a searingly hot red chilli relish. Burning aside, it was a great snack (and a bargain at R5).

Then it was back on the Metro to Connaught Place, which had been recommended to us by a chap at the shack as being civilised concentric circles of shops and entertainment. It was exactly that, big fancy shops and recognisable brand name stores (both Indian and international) – with the usual cloud of cars and spray of street vendors.

Wearied by our ‘shopping’, we accepted an invite into Knight’s, a restaurant and lounge upstairs overlooking the hubbub. Cold Kingfishers welcomed, with the sting of double the price being counter-balanced by the 2-for-1 happy hour (from midday to 8.30p m). One turned to several and soon we’d (been) befriended (by) a soldier originally from Goa now stationed up North, who spoke little to no English. Made for laboured conversation, but we persevered. We were also in high demand to be in pictures and posed here and there with anyone who asked; all quite bizarre, but easy to comply. Got carried away a bit and ended up missing dinner entirely (fortunately we’d been compulsively eating for 4 days so were hardly likely to starve). We were well in time for the last train though, but got hopelessly lost returning to the hotel from the Metro station (losing bearings from having mistakenly taken the opposite platform to the one on the way out, meaning we were on the block across the line from where we were supposed to be), so it ended up being quite a late night.

Breakfast was adequate with a meagre buffet of chaffing dishes offering boiled eggs, baked beans, some traditional creamy corn thing, french toast and a flat bread of sorts, as well as the usual fruits, cereals, toast and juice. Was nice enough… But what we really needed was a good old greasy fry-up to get us going!

8.30 we met our tour guide, Yusuf, and the rest of our group. There are 15 people on our tour (mostly Saffas, with 3 Aussies and 2 Brits). We have a full sized bus (luxury, aircon, with a glass door partitioning us from the driver to maintain the temperature) so there’s lots of room to stretch out. Probably the least populated part of this city with its 20 million people!

The tour started in Old Delhi at the Red Fort – Captain Obvious’ly named because it’s made from red sandstone so the building is red in colour. New Delhi was built by the British, but the ‘new’ is a bit of an oversell since a large portion of the buildings were built a hundred years ago. The fort initiates with a high roofed tunnel in the fort walls housing a Chhatta Chowk (covered bazaar), which is apparently unusual in Delhi. The fort complex contains several buildings, including the Court, Rang Mahal (Palace of Colours, mahal means palace), and Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of VIPs) with its hand-made floral art made from precious stone inlays and the famous inscription “if there is paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this” (clearly this person had never been to Goa). It’s reassuring to see that most of these buildings are still all original materials in very good nick, even though tourists can walk into most parts of most buildings and through the expansive gardens.

We caught bicycle rickshaws outside the fort which took us past the mosques and temples and through some of the narrow shopping streets (grungy and dirty with electricity lines webbing between buildings), and deposited us at the main Mosque. It technically holds 20,000 people, but exceeds this on Fridays. It’s 360 years old still with all the original parts, the only difference being water piped to the central fountain for hands and feet washing, which used to be manually brought bucket by bucket from the river.

According to our guide, contrary to what I’d imagine global trend to be, religion is expanding in India. People can only be a Hindu or Muslim by birth and the population is expanding; uncertain times have people clinging to religion because they’re scared of world aggression and poverty and need something positive to believe in. Hard work though this Islam story, with it’s five prayer times every day!

We then moved on to Gandhi’s final resting place, a mausoleum where his ashes are accompanied by an eternal flame and orange floral wreaths atop a plain grey marble housing, with Gandhi’s final words inlaid in bronze (2 words, ‘her ram’ which means ‘my God’ in hindi). Suitably simple structure for a fella who got by on a bowl of rice and a safety pin, with lovely surrounding gardens that speak to his quest for peace and serenity when he was alive.

On the way to lunch we past the India Gate arch, built in 1929 to pay homage to the soldiers fallen in World War 1 (India lost 80,000 men even though they weren’t officially part of the war; each one of these men’s names are inscribed on the inside arch of the monument). There are gardens and lawns surrounding it and, as the tour guide says, anywhere there’s any open space, a game of cricket will start. True to form, there were several games going on.

Way overdue, we were relieved to arrive at our lunch spot – Have More curry house, renowned for it’s award-winning Best Butter Chicken in Delhi status. Of course we had to try it and can confirm that it’s amazing, especially with the boneless tikka chicken they use. We paired it with a mutton saag wala (spinach), which was a bit off-putting being almost black, but what it lacked in appearance it more than made up for in taste. We had sides of garlic naan and garlic and onion kulcha.

We made a turn past the presidential palace (all 380 rooms of it!), but couldn’t stop because of security so it was just a ‘take snaps from the bus’ thing. Then proceeded to have a nap on the bus on the ride over to South Delhi.

We awoke on arrival at the Qutub Archeological complex, which is home to the tallest stone minaret in the world, which is over 800 years old. The minaret was a display of power by the Muslims to demarcate the Eastern edge of the Muslim religion’s reach (with the West being Spain). The minaret has 5 distinctive sections with different shape stones, balconies between sections that use screws (very advanced technology for this time) and extends 72,5 metres into the sky off it’s 14m base… And even that’s less than 3/4 of the height of Taj Mahal! The complex also has a mosque that was abandoned before completion because the Muslims had used stones from a Hindu temple to build it and only realised half way in that this wasn’t going to work because the stones have pictures of humans and animals, which is not allowed in a mosque. You’d think someone would have noticed sooner before the poor humpers had to schlep those heavy stones around the place and the poor Hindus had to lose their temple for nothing! Nonetheless, the arches, carvings, Qu’ran inscriptions and 1600 year old iron flagpole all made for interesting enough gandering.

There is merit in group tour sight-seeing. We usually make our own plans as we go along, but the pre-organisation of the tour company has meant that we didn’t really have to think or queue, which has been a blessing. We haven’t had to manage any ticket buying or handling at any of the sights, as these were all pre-arranged, but I’d imagine they get discounts for group buying. All the sights have had different prices for Indians and for tourists (as much as 25 times more for tourists, with 250 Rupee vs 10), but good on them for making it easy for their people to experience their history and learn about their culture. Someone quoted today that the average Indian has to survive on 200 Rupees a day and I spend that before I’ve left the hotel room on a bottle of water to brush my teeth with!

The group is also a manageable size so there hasn’t been any lingerers holding the group up. Typically, the (South African) Indians all seem to stick together, the Aussies have packed and we have bonded with the Brits, who are really well travelled so it’s nice to swap stories and where to and how to advice.

We had an hour to freshen up and then back in the bus to cross town to an (allegedly) famous restaurant, called Chor Bizarre. The reception is decorated with framed certificates of their awards, so they must have been doing something right. We had a veritable feast served to us plated for starters and desert and mese-style main courses in multiple dishes spread across the length of the table. We had: Popadoms Paneer (cheese) Keema (mince kebab) Tandoori chicken Dahl (lentils) Butter chicken Lamb in yoghurt sauce Paneer in spinach Aloo jeera (potatoes sauteed in onion, garlic, ginger and cumin) Rice Naan Gulab jamun

Well fed and ready for bed, we headed back to the hotel to pack and ready for our departure to Agra bright and early in the morning.