Delhi, India – 11th to 13th March 2015
It is human nature to sometimes judge a place or even a person by your first impression and I for one can be guilty of this act. Luckily my first experience of Delhi was a somewhat chaotic yet charming taxi ride from the airport to the city centre. Not originally from Delhi, our taxi driver had moved to the city around twenty years ago to work as a driver and had stayed ever since. He was very welcoming and jovial. He was happy to make conversation in English with us and we exchanged words with him for the duration of our car journey.
My preconceptions of Indian motor travel were confirmed within the first 15 minutes of the taxi ride. The onslaught of beeping horns, bottlenecks of traffic, the total disregard to road markings, dented tuk tuk, peddled rickshaws, ancient cow and carts, rickety bicycles, gleaming Royal Enfield motorbikes, disheveled beggars and even monkeys were part and parcel of a normal high street road. I couldn’t help but open the window to feel a little bit closer to the mayhem. For some reason I expected to be greeted by the smell of pollution and sewage but I was pleasantly surprised with the freshness of the air and the enchanting sounds of streets.
“There are over five thousand hotels in Delhi” announced the taxi driver and with a quick glance at our hotel address he was confident that he would be able to find it. It must have been rush hour during the drive because when I say there was traffic I mean it. Our driver weaved, dodged and honked his way through the waves of objects in his way. I’m not sure if anyone would actually get anywhere in this country if they adhered to English driving law. In someway I think this style of driving suits the conditions over here.
We arrived at our hotel to be greeted by welcoming porters who insisted on carrying our luggage. I always find this type of service slightly over bearing. Many earn a living through this type of work in India so without objection I am happy to watch my bags be transported into the lobby. We check in and I’m given a salute and a smile from the hotel security guard who I can best describe as looking like an Indian version of the KFC cournal. He stood proud with an outrageous moustache and a large black baton at his side.
One thing that strikes me is the amount of people working in such a small hotel. There were four people behind the check in desk, a security guard, a floor sweeper, three porters, a travel agent and a number of other people standing around who were employed to do something I hadn’t quite figured out yet. The hotel was very nice, with a roof top restaurant, spacious modern rooms, complimentary food and drinks. It was a world ahead of what we would get back home for the modest 25 pounds a night we paid. However this hotel was a rare treat before we down graded to a ‘back-packers’ budget for the rest of our trip.
We dumped our bags, packed a day back pack and set off with a driver for the afternoon. Again our driver was very pleasant and enriched us with some invaluable tips for steering clear of scammers and fakes which is part and parcel of any big city in the world. Our first stop was the Red Fort, ‘Lal Qila’. Made of red sandstone it is one of the most magnificent monuments in Delhi. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1638. It was here that the Indian nation flag was hoisted for the very first time when India gained its independence on the 15th August 1947. The origins of the Indian revolution against the British were party onset by the use of pig and cow extracts used in rifle bullets which Muslims and Hindus profoundly objected against. The sheer size of the Red Fort was striking. The fort walls seemed to climb all the way to the clear blue skies overhanging Delhi and the circumference was intangible at ground level.
Walking to, around and back from the Red Fort I was persistently asked to partake in photos with predominately Indian men, which at first was very strange but has become a common activity as we travel around Delhi. Make what you want of this act but I’ve put it down to them seeing a strange white man with a beard and taking the opportunity to tell their friends back home. I’m not quite sure where these photos will end up, a post card, a birthday card, Facebook or someone’s fridge but I was sure to take a few snaps of my own when the opportunity came by. I was even offered to be accompanied to Pakistan if I wished to add this destination my trip, however I politely declined.
Our next destination was ‘Raj Ghat’, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi. The site of his cremation is set amidst large, well kept gardens. It is a sacred pilgrimage for all Indians and emits tranquility and peace in comparison to the hectic, hustle and bustle of most of Delhi. We were requested to remove our shoes as a sign of respect and it was a pleasant walk around this sacred monument.
We jumped back in our taxi and headed for the India Gate, a war memorial built to honour 90,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives in World War 1. Below it burns the Amar Jawan Jyoti, the eternal flame in tribute to all martyred soldiers of India. The India Gate reminded me of the Champs Elyees, as you can tell from the photo below it is very similar in stature. There were lots of people selling all kinds of things at this spot so we decided to try our first taste of street food. For 40 rupees (40p) we had a dish of ………. which I can best describe as small hollow crisp like balls that come with a dipping sauce, they’re very tasty.
With minimal sleep in the last 24 hours we decided to head back to the hotel to grab some food on the roof top terrace and an early night. We both went for green spinach based curries which were delicious and the starters I had was unbelievable. It was a dish of round pastries with a small bowl of vegetarian curry. I’m not quite sure what it was called but it topped any Indian dish I’ve had in the UK.
The next day we woke up for breakfast and decided to make use of the hotel’s basic gym to burn some of last nights curry off. As each member of the hotel staff passed by the glass window they would peer through as if they were looking at Gorillas at Bristol zoo. I’m pretty sure we were the first guests to ever use the gym.
We headed to our new hotel by taxi. Slightly less appealing and luxurious than the last we offloaded our bags and heading to Jama Masjid by tut tut. For anyone that doesn’t know what a tuk tuk is, it is literally a small motorised trike with a drivers seat at the front, two passenger seats at the rear and a frame. No doors, no wind mirrors, no belts, not a lot, but it has a horn and it’s a hell of a fun ride.
The Jama Masjid was built in 1665 by Emperor Shah Jahan (who also built the famous Taj Mahal) it is the biggest mosque in India. It can sit up to 20,000 people, similar to Ashton Gate. We walked to a viewing tower within the mosque which allows you to get a great view of the marble towers and the surrounding Delhi landscape. I don’t think the ticket attendant was keeping tabs of the number of people in the tower as it started to get rather crowded. As we began to feel a bit like caged chickens we decided to head back down to the Mosque where many Muslims were going through their prayer rituals.
As we walked down the steps to exit the mosque there lay lines of beggars each side. Some old, some young and some disabled to the extent that I can’t explain in this blog. It’s a hard side of India to deal with and the shear amount of people living in poverty is unbelievable. I cannot relate to that lifestyle or situation. You are advised not to give out money as it will attract more beggars. It is also hard to distinguish between the genuine beggars and the fakes but either way every time I dismiss or turn away a beggar a wave of guilt passes over me.
The tut tut driver dropped us off at Connaught Place (CP), a circular ring of shops with a picturesque park in the middle, where an enormous Indian flag stood proud. Shops like Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss ring the park, smartly dressed students wearing designer sun glasses walk the street, it felt like a million miles from where we had just been. We certainly hadn’t come to CP for the shops. We had come to marvel at one of the most prominent architectural remnants of British rule. We grabbed some masala sweetcorn and a giant samosa off the street and walked around CP admiring the buildings. It was the best samosa I have had to date.
We headed back to our hotel to meet our G Adventure’s tour guide for the next two weeks. His name was CB and from the frequency he mentioned the word ‘booze’ I had a feeling we would get along. We were off to Agra in the morning so we went out with CB for a quick curry and a few beers. We were joined by two other guests on the tour. Ana a journalist from Mexico City and Caydn a student on his gap year from Washington DC.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”