Someone told me once the Delhi is like Rome – everywhere you turn there are ancient ruins.
Ever since I found out that Xanadu is a real place, the Mongols have fascinated me. Xanadu was the capital city of the Mongolian empire under Kublai Khan and I passed close to the ruins of the old city on a train ride through to Mongolia from Beijing. I learnt about the vast reach of the empire that was built in two generations between Genghis Khan to his grandson Kublai Khan.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree …” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
The empire started on the east coast of China and continued across Asia to Hungary and Finland.
Roughly two hundred years later this heritage was combined with some illustrious Persian ancestry, and a bit of Rajput to become the Mughal Dynasty that ruled India between the mid 1500s to the mid 1800s. The language at court was Persian. Among other things they built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.
So there’s that.
Then there’s today’s Old Delhi – a densely populated section of Delhi that was enclosed by a wall until the British knocked the wall down. Reality Tours offer an Old Delhi Tour and having done the Dharavi Tour in Mumbai I was keen to join them again in Delhi. It was nuts! A quick ride on the metro to land in Chandni Chowk station. From there we had a ride in an electric Tuk Tuk (!) to the spice markets. These guys sell everything wholesale – dried fruit, cinnamon bark, turmeric roots.
Before it got dark we went to the roof top of the chilli markets to look down on the hustle and bustle. We were warned about the chilli markets by Sagar our guide. He called it the sneezing market, but it would be more accurate to call it the convulsive coughing until you vomit markets. The chilli vapour engaged with the back of my throat and I exited, scarf over mouth to try to stop the fumes.
Next stop on the tour was the Sikh Temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib. Quiz question – what are the four religions that started in India. Give up? Hindu, Bhuddism, Sikh and Jain. I’m not 100 percent clear on the theology. For the Sikhs there are gurus, one of whom had his head chopped off by the Mughal Emperor of the time because he refused to convert to Islam. But the impressive thing and one of the reasons for the visit is that the temple feeds anyone who asks for food, and not only that but the food is all prepared by volunteers. Anyone can eat and anyone can volunteer.
Finally we went to the wedding market. Gold and shiny things. The number of guests at Indian weddings can be mind boggling. We looked at ‘party favour’ bags with embroidery and jewels, that can only be supplied by the 100s. There were ribbons, lace, buttons, and colour, and I wanted to buy, buy, buy. And perhaps make some Christmas decorations or table runners that I’d only use once in a while, but treasure.
At the end of the tour we exited the labyrinth of the Old Delhi near the Red Fort, slightly dazed.
The next morning there was a fairly unsuccessful attempt to tour ‘New Delhi’, to see the large and impressive buildings of India’s Government.
Quite often in India, if something ends in ‘bhavan’ it’s a big house. Likely the house of the Chief Minister or the President. In Kolkata the Raj Bhavan is the home of the Governor of West Bengal. In Delhi the Rashtrapati Bhavan is the home of the President. There are exceptions – the Saravana Bhavan is the vegetarian Indian restaurant on the corner.
You have to book to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a fact that that I had overlooked when I went to Delhi. Fail. The gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan are only open for the month of February, so epic fail there. The house was the home of the Viceroy, and one of the reasons that I’d wanted to visit was the movie called ‘The Viceroy’s House’, about Lord Mountbatten and the partitioning of the Pakistan.
So in the end a tuk tuk drove us to the gates and back down past Parliament House, on the Rajpat Marg – where the view in the opposite direction is India Gate. All the major buildings were heavily guarded and no pedestrians other than those with uniforms or passes can walk past.
That afternoon a train took us to Agra where we were to stay overnight and get up at dawn’s crack to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. My first train trip in India. Having seen the pictures of people sitting on top of trains and looked from a distance at the crowds on the stations I was a bit nervous. But on the other hand my mates all travel by train in India as commuters so I knew there was no need to worry. But back to the original hand –
. There was no information about the carriage or seat number on our ticket.
. The train number on the ticket matched the train on two platforms so we had to guess which was the correct one.
. There is no information written on the carriage about which is the correct one.
. The Station is crowded.
. The ‘assistance’ counter (seems to be) for security enquiries. The ‘enquiries’ man who is apparently outside the station can answer questions about which carriage to get on.
. There were no announcements about which station the train was stopping at.
Of course we muddled through.
All the blogs and information that I read said to go to the Taj at 6am, ready for the Gates to open at 6.30am. Everyone else has clearly read the same blogs. When we arrived at 6.15 the queue was several hundred people deep. At about 8.30am on the way out, there were virtually no people waiting to get in but there were an awful lot of people inside.
The Taj Mahal, was built by Shah Jahan for his wife who had died giving birth to their 14th child (!). He was so distraught by her death that he went into seclusion for a year and when he returned to public life his hair had turned white and he was an old man. If it was built today it would cost more than US$800 million.
Even amongst the crowd the site is magical. The building is beautiful, perfectly balanced with a mix of inlaid mosaics and carvings all over the surface of the white marble. It is flanked by red sandstone buildings on either side, the eastern one of which is a mosque.
From the Taj Mahal we took a tuk tuk over to the Old Fort. Part of the fort was the home of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s wife. The building is not so famous, but quite beautiful and a must see. Nowhere near the amount of people visiting.
Because of the randomness of the decision to visit Delhi we’d booked nothing in advance and the train was fully booked for the return journey so we hired a car. It didn’t come. We had to pay triple the price to hire a taxi from the hotel – but it happens. We made it in time for the flight and randomly decided that it would be a good idea to re-visit Connaught Place on a Saturday evening and then catch the Metro to the airport from there.
Elevated stress levels when I fell victim to the ‘shoe poo’ scam where a shoe cleaner works in tandem with his mate who drops poo on your shoe and then the shoe cleaner walks by and exclaims ‘oh you’ve got poo on your shoe, let me clean it for you’.
DO: Add the Taj Mahal to your bucket list if it is not there already. If you do want to avoid the early queues in October then you’d need to be there by 5.30am. But failing that, it is ok to get there a bit later as well.
DO: Try to catch the train in at least one direction. 1st or 2nd class are both fine. 2nd class perhaps preferable because you can open the window.
DO: Take the Reality Tours Old Delhi tour.
DO: Visit the Old Fort in Agra as well as the Taj Mahal.
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