Asia » India » National Capital Territory » Delhi - 4 to 6 March 2013
04.03.2013 - 06.03.2013 30 °C
As the protest march (see: Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi) was now north of Mathura on the AH1, we made a detour onto the Yamuna Expressway, a massive six-lane motorway opened just six months earlier. It was almost deserted and we scurried at previously unheard of speed towards Delhi.
Possibly, as this was a new road, drivers weren't yet fully aware of it. Perhaps the tolls were too expensive for most. Or, maybe, as it starts in Uttar Pradesh and passes through the state of Haryana, albeit briefly, before reaching the National Capital Territory, its emptiness may have had something to do with separate vehicle taxes payable in each of the three states.
Our driver, for example, had a Rajasthan-registered car with tax already paid in Uttar Pradesh. He didn't usually go as far north as Delhi and had been a bit reluctant to take us there from Agra because, at the Haryana tax point alone, he had to pay around Rs.3,000 (£37/US$56/€43). That's a lot of money when you consider it's more than we were paying him for a whole day's rental, all-in. (Don't worry, when we found out about this, we fixed it with my friend Vijendra, with whom we'd booked the rental, to reimburse him.)
The almost empty Yamuna Expressway. If you should only stop on the left shoulder, what's the stationary lorry
doing on the right of the carriageway (with warning cones next to it giving no warning whatsoever)?
Whatever the reason, it was clear that people weren't accustomed to using such a fast road anyway. Despite signs urging use of outside lanes for overtaking, vehicles were still driven in any lane, undertaking rather than overtaking, plodding along in the middle lane, roaring along in the inside one. Frequent features were overloaded lorries with broken axles and cars with overheated engines, their drivers squatting in the road with spanners in their hands or sitting on fences beside the road. There were signs of inevitable collisions between speeding cars too, although fortunately on the opposite side of the central reservation.
The 165 kilometres of the Yamuna Expressway from Agra to just south of Delhi, were constructed by the Jaypee Group (an enterprise started by one Jai Prakash (JP!) Gaur). They must have made a small fortune from it because they're busy adding several ribbon developments along the expressway. A world-class 18-hole Greg Norman golf-course and what they term a 'Wish Town' with a vast township and three golf-courses, all called 'Jaypee Greens', were in advanced stages of construction. We also spotted the Buddh International Circuit (formerly the 'Jaypee Group Circuit'), which hosted the Formula One World Championship in 2011.
The growing skyscraper skyline of Delhi soon came into view and we then began to wind our way through heavy traffic to the low-rise residential suburbs.
Outside the homestay we'd chosen for our two-night stay, we bid a reluctant farewell to Yadu, the tall, quietly-spoken, smartly-dressed man who'd been our driver, guide and translator for the past three weeks. Without a shadow of doubt, he'd been the best driver I'd ever had on my journeys around India and he served us exceptionally well. As he has aspirations beyond his present role, he may not stay a driver for ever but, should you need a car in Rajasthan, feel free to ask me for his full name and contact details.
The nation's capital of over 22 million people is the second largest metropolis in India after Mumbai. By day, its roads are a choked, congested, carbon-dioxide-filled car park. It's sometimes colourful, charming and even capricious. Above all, it's crowded, chaotic and characterful. It's a capital city with a capital 'C'!
Mind where you're walking - pavements (sidewalks) are often uneven and manholes sometimes don't have covers.
The sellers of coconuts, flowers and whatever often have their living quarters in the trees behind their stalls.
With only one full day to spare, we had to limit ourselves to seeing just a few things that would give us a feel for this huge place. We walked a bit, took tuk-tuks, tried the cheap and surprisingly good Metro, and even rode on a cycle rickshaw or two. We saw a great historic place, an equally great modern place, and spent far too long among the amazing markets of Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar.
The historic place was in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, the remarkable Qutub Minar.
This 12th century, red sandstone and marble tower, the tallest in India, stands over 72 metres (238 feet) high. Originally, it may have been used as a watch tower. On the outside, it's inscribed with intricately-carved inscriptions from the Qur'an (Koran). Inside, it has stairs but, alas - because the views from the top must be fantastic - it is no longer open to the public. A power cut in the tower once turned out the lights and caused a stampede in which dozens of children died. It's been closed ever since.
The tower's also been damaged by earthquakes and lightning several times over the years and now leans, Torre di Pisa-like, some 60 cms (2 feet) from the vertical. I guess that's still not bad for something this ancient!
Within the complex is something even older - believed to date back to around 400AD and only brought here in the 10th century. It is a tall iron pillar estimated to weigh six tons and notable for the fact that it's never gone rusty. I'd read about a good luck tradition requiring you to stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it. It must have been in an old guidebook because there's a fence around it and you'd now need the arms of King Kong.
There's also a remarkable mosque, the Quwwat ul-Islam. Its intricate stone carvings of idols and figurines on cloister columns, not normally present in mosques, illustrate the Hindu/Jain past of this complex.
Next, we crossed the city, weaving our way through heavy traffic on a white-knuckle tuk-tuk ride to the Lotus Temple.
The lotus is a traditional symbol of peace, purity, love and immortality, and this flower-like temple was built as the Indian sub-continent's mother temple of the Bahá’i faith. It has won numerous awards for its undeniably eye-catching, unique architecture.
Nine is a magic number in all things Bahá’i, so the building's 27 'petals' are arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides, it has nine doors and it's surrounded by nine reflective ponds, which give the impression of a lotus blossom floating on water.
Bahá’i is what's known as a monotheistic religion - belief in the existence of only one God. The temple therefore welcomes people of all religions to worship within its tall central hall. It can hold as many as 2,500 people but there's no altar, no pulpit, no talking - just peace and quiet for personal meditation.
It's estimated that, since it was built in 1986, more than 90 Million people have been here, making it one of the most visited buildings in the world. Around 13,000 come here every day - including large parties of adults and school children of many religions.
Most of our day, however, was spent among the ridiculously chaotic and crowded markets of Old Delhi, by far the most fascinating way to see the real life of this city. We do love a good market!
Strangely, we saw very few other foreigners anywhere among the narrow streets during the whole afternoon. We did see tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws, buses, police traffic officers sitting in lofty towers half-asleep, and lots and lots and lots of local people buying, selling and transporting all manner of goods. It was sometimes difficult to walk along what little footpath existed and impossible to see what might have remained of the historic buildings now covered in gaudy signs and miles of electricity cables.
The Chandni Chowk area dates back to the 17th century and is renowned for the variety of its markets and their 'Indian-ness'. Here you'll find anything and everything - fruit and vegetables, mobile phones, authentic delicacies and sweets, tea and spices, nuts, dried fruits and chillies, lengths of fabric, and stunning saris and jewellery for everyday wear and for weddings. Down narrow lanes, shops - some more like large cupboards, sell books, clothing, shoes and leather goods.
We became easily lost among the maze of a wholesale fabric market, stall after stall controlled by Sikh businessmen, piled high with materials of all kinds in every imaginable colour and pattern.
We wandered for ages around the spice market, our eyes sometimes smarting from sharp scents emanating from piles of pungent spices. We watched porters carrying heavy cloth bags filled with nuts or spices from one place to another. We photographed retail sellers squatting amid their wares at the roadside - one of whom gave me some of his dried dates in return, and we chatted with the shopkeepers or bought some of their goods.
Imperceptibly, we entered the Chawri Bazaar, another wholesale market, this time specialising in brass, copper and paper products. Wedding cards and invitations seemed to be a popular commodity here, although this seemed to be a good place to buy things like biscuits, bangles and all manner of vehicle parts too!
There was so much to look at that I almost fell over a man making 'paan', a peculiar stuff that's chewed and then either swallowed or spat out as a red blob onto the ground. It's a habit-forming stimulant, so I'm told, and is usually made of cured tobacco, coarsely ground areca nut and various spices, all wrapped up in a leaf of the Betel tree and sealed with a smear of slaked lime. Not only does it sound disgusting, the areca nut is believed to be carcinogenic.
Nearing the end of our afternoon, we passed the Jama Masjid, the largest and best-known mosque in the whole of India. Built at the behest of Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-17th century, its courtyard can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. We were hot and tired, so decided against visiting it on this occasion. We have to save something for next time, don't we?
Instead, we opted to cross the road and have a meal at Karim's, a restaurant about which we'd read rave reviews. It was apparent that people don't come here for the ambiance or the décor - it's plain, bare and rather ordinary.
It's the traditional Mughal food they're after and its reputation in this regard was well deserved. The restaurant has been here since 1913, so they must be doing something right.
And so we returned by ancient cycle rickshaw to the nearest ultra-modern Metro for the journey back to our homestay and an early night. We had to catch the Himalayan Queen leaving from Sarai Rohilla Station in the north of the city at 05.45 next morning!
Delhi, like most capital cities, can be extremely expensive. Backpackers might head for Paharganj, where hostel accommodation can be had for next to nothing - but, of course, for next to nothing you'll get next to nothing! Us oldies preferred to go for a homestay (bed and breakfast) and we found a very good one indeed.
It's called the Tree of Life and is well situated within a five-minute stroll of a Metro station in the quiet residential Saket area of the city.
Bedrooms are on the middle two floors of a modern four-storey apartment building served by lift. The friendly, young, English-speaking owner, Ashwani, lives with his family on the top floor and is usually available within a few minutes to provide information or assistance.
Two efficient young men provide luggage handling, breakfast and room maintenance services. The rooms are clean, well-furnished and have exceptionally good bathrooms, including showers that top-class hotels would be proud of. There's free WiFi too. Rates, per night for bed and breakfast, were a very reasonable (by Delhi standards!) Rs.4,500 (£55/US$85/€65) for a double room or Rs.4,000 (£49/US$75/€57) for single occupancy.