Delhi, India – No time to dilly dally

Full set of Delhi photos are here

It is no surprise to me now that India has so many novelists. Stories ooze from the pores of this country. With over a billion people and 300 million Hindu gods, the streets are full of life: wandering cows, rickshaw riders, chai wallahs, lime soda stands, spice sellers and an endless stream of humans. We arrived with our energy reserves a little low after having too much fun in Turkey. The early morning hot-air balloon followed by a tour of Capadoccia, Sarah’s birthday dinner, an early start the next day, two flights interspersed with a lunch in Istanbul and a late arrival in Dubai had drained what little energy we had. Arriving in India feeling a bit tired was not a prospect we were looking forward to but Delhi was kind to us initially. The wide roads spread the chaos out to the peripheries and we just floated through in the car sent to meet us by our accommodation. Master Guesthouse in Delhi was a fantastic choice, so calm and modern but also imbued with effigies, incense and principles of the strong Hindi faith of the owners. The young men who work there have an hour off each afternoon to practice yoga, at the encouragement of the owners – Sarah was envious. We felt immediately at peace and enjoyed tucking into their Indian food for dinner and breakfast.

Indian breakfasts are quite different to what we would eat in Australia. The two Indian options on the Master Guesthouse menu sum it up nicely: paranthas or puris. Paranthas are fried, stuffed flat bread served with mustard pickle (very spicy) and yoghurt. Puris are puffy deep fried bread and they were served with potato curry. All this with sweet lassi (a yoghurt drink) on the side – it was quite delicious. I am inspired to learn how to make paranthas now as they were ubiquitous for breakfast during our trip throughout northern India. Delhi was having a typical run of hot weather with every day over 40 degrees. We were ok in our air-conditioned room but the bathroom felt like a jungle and the cold water taps ran hot. While it was baking hot at least it was a dry heat so we sweated buckets but drank buckets of replacement water.

That calm feeling didn’t last too long. We went on a mini tour the next day, passing the world’s largest presidential palace which you can only admire briefly between the bars of the gates, then to India Gate, a war memorial inspired by the Arc de Triomph which we wandered up to along the parched grass, fending off the hawkers to take a couple of snaps. This area of Delhi partly has the grand feel of a capital with enormous boulevards and monuments, but the other images of India you carry in your mind are there in the groups of people sleeping under bushes, the emaciated mongrels and the rubbish-strewn waterways festering in the heat.

The next stop was the Tomb of Humayun, cruelly outshone by the Taj Mahal but still lovely on a smaller scale. The building uses the red sandstone for which the area is famous. It was built by the Mughuls in the 16th century, an empire that swept into India from Central Asia bringing Persian infuenced art, religion and food with them. They Tomb of Humayun features that mix of Persian and Indian styling which makes art from that era so distinctive. There are beautifully carved marble window screens giving glimpses of the tomb inside.

Delhi started to heat up when we went to the Old City via the impeccably modern and blissfully air-conditioned metro. Old Delhi probably doesn’t have more people per square kilometre than New Delhi, but they are crammed into much more narrow streets. Here was the India we had been imagining, jostling crowds competing with cows and motorised rickshaws for space, sidestepping the rubbish and excretions. Amidst all the chaos the Red Fort stands tall, its red sandstone – if not exactly gleaming in the weak sunlight penetrating the pollution – at least looking grand and impressive. The rest of India obviously thought so as well because the line for tickets was about half a kilometre long. For once it was a benefit paying more for the foreigners’ ticket as there was no line at all for these tickets, which cost about thirty times as much (still not that expensive). Sarah had planted herself in the line to get into the fort, so once I had the tickets we joined the women in colourful saris and the men in long pants on a day when the temperature was nudging 40 degrees. I had light long pants as well so as not to draw any more attention to myself than strictly necessary. Legs are a shocking sight in India and we try not to offend local custom if we can. Despite not flashing any skin, once inside the fort we were constantly pestered for photos. I’m really not sure why all the locals want photos with foreign tourists. They showed very little interest in finding out where we were from, they just wanted a snap with the exotic white-skinned creatures. It truly felt like being an animal in a zoo sometimes, although it wasn’t rude or hostile. This happened all across India and we submitted most of the time but I cracked it on a few occasions when people were constantly rotating to get their photo and we had better things to be doing with our time than be ogled.

The Red Fort feels more like a facade to the big park inside and the old Mughul living quarters facing the barren river. Even without furnishings or decorations these buildings are sumptuous with carvings in the white marble inset with precious stone. In its heyday they must have been quite a sight. You can also see the influence this style continues to have, for example the new Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi which is reminiscent of this.

After the fort we barged through the crowds on the footpath made narrower by the impromptu stalls on either side selling cheap clothes and other paraphernalia, presumably shipped the short distance from China. We made it to the Jama Masjid mosque and a few photo requests later we made it up one of the minarets for a sunset look at this very flat and endless city.

On one of our Delhi days we took the B&B’s recommendation for lunch and were taken to the kind of grand hotel that we would never go to while travelling in a developed country simply because of price. In India a five star lunch is hideously expensive by local standards but just normally draining on our bank balance back home. The restaurant was in the Imperial Hotel which was very fitting because it was like time had stood still since the British Raj in here. The décor was very fresh and modern but the waiters in their over-the-top uniforms and formal manner harked back to the colonial era. It’s one of the great contrasts of India that you can easily get through a security check (white skin helps) and escape the poverty and chaos of the streets in an instant, being transported to an eerie air-conditioned calm. In the bathroom I was startled by an Indian attendant who had not been standing by the basins when I entered, but on my way to the sink he turned the tap on for me, pumped soap into my hand and passed me a towel. In retrospect I can see that he was expecting a tip, and the look on his face when I didn’t give him one was like he had just bitten a lime in half, but I just found it a bit awkward and in my social confusion he just got a hearty thank you. The food was pretty good and I had some lovely South Indian pancakes. The restaurant was not saturated with foreign tourists. There are plenty of locals making enough money to eat and stay in such places. India is a highly divided society which we were to see in much closer detail in our onward travels.

Our first experience of the Indian train system went fairly smoothly. We had gone to the Tourist Bureau at New Delhi station to pick up some ‘foreign quota’ tickets by flashing our passports. The trains were very full due to the Indian summer holidays so we were thankful for this system which reserves a few seats on key trains for foreign tourists, and were lucky to get tickets on the air-conditioned sleeper compartment to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. It’s extremely difficult to book tickets on Indian trains from overseas (Sarah can give you a very detailed account of this if you have a spare thirty minutes to kill).

Indian train stations live up (or down) to expectations. Anyone can wander in so the teeming multitudes of Indian life can be found here, from the poor beggars sleeping and covered in flies, emaciated dogs lying in places that could not be more in the way if they tried, children walking along the tracks collecting rubbish to sell for recycling, mothers holding their kids over the tracks to go to the toilet (which would explain all the turds – and urinating on the tracks is not limited to the kids), hawkers selling watches and snacks, middle class families heading off for holidays, porters moving huge containers in carts or just strapped to their heads, men brushing their teeth at the shared water spouts. Just before a train leaves the platform becomes packed with people who have to shove their way on to unreserved seating in the third class carriages and end up hanging out of the door as the train pulls away in their effort to squeeze onto the overcrowded carriage.

For our journey to Agra we joined an Indian family in the sleeper compartment as they were having their breakfast after being on the train overnight. We settled down on the ends of the firm beds and watched the scenery unfold.

Full set of Delhi photos are here

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