Delhi - First Impressions

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May 9th 2011
Published: May 11th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Humayun's TombHumayun's TombHumayun's Tomb

Reflected in the lake at sunset


none of this has been proof read or sense checked, so apologies if it's full of glaring errors! The same goes for ever entry after this!

First impressions

Hot. Crowded. Hectic.

...and pretty dirty.

To be honest, the first things you notice after leaving the deceptively modern airport in Delhi are pretty similar to the first things that stand out on arrival in most South East Asian countries (at least those that I've been to); it's humid, the immediate landscape is an arid tapestry of light brown hues, the roads are crowded and the style of driving doesn't bear a single similarity to anything you'd get away with during a Western driving test. Strong accents and inexperience (on my part) makes communication difficult even with those that can speak some English.

The “hotel” I'm staying in – Hotel New King – is pretty much as I expected from the reviews online. Hidden down a dark, dingy backstreet in a crowded and poor part of town called Paharganj (popular with travellers as there's plenty of activity and accommodation here costs buttons), the area around it wreaks of stale urine and is full of touts and peddlers
Humayn's TombHumayn's TombHumayn's Tomb

A bit of perspective to give some sense of scale
vying for your attention. The room itself is fairly spacious compared to some, and it has a TV. On the downside, there's no nets on the windows so as I sit on my net book in the evening I'm getting plenty visitors coming in. There's no sheets on the grubby bed, or pillowcases on the small hard pillows. There's no hot water in the bathroom and not really enough space by the shower to actually have a shower. Most of the plug sockets don't work and the lights are periodically dimming and going off. At least I have a rickety ceiling fan to take the edge off the 42 degree heat... It's now well into the night and still chocolate is liquid at room temperature. A bottle of water fresh from the fridge is warm to the touch in a few minutes. The walls are also really thin (there's a hole between my bathroom and the next) and the couple in the room next door have been having sex quite loudly for some time.

The guys running the place are also being rather cold with me now after I politely declined their offer of being taken to the “official
Sunset from the Tomb's terracesSunset from the Tomb's terracesSunset from the Tomb's terraces

worth hanging around for!
tourist office” and getting all my trains booked with them in advance; preferring instead to figure it out for myself and try and minimise the risk of getting blagged / scammed / taken for a mug etc. That'll still probably happen while I'm out here, but I'd prefer not to walk into it face first!

Much as it sounds like it, I'm not actually complaining. This is damn close to what I was expecting before I arrived; I just wanted to paint a picture for anyone that might not have looked into it before!

Putting the hotel aside, there's a lot to be said about Delhi itself. Before I start you should remember I've only been here since lunch time and I had to take a nap when I got here (despite getting 4 seats to myself on the plane and sleeping all the way here ). I'm also only talking about my first impressions of Delhi, I'm sure the rest of India will be vastly different!

I arrived here today having spent a couple of great days in the heart of London, so the contrast is really emphasised. The heat is intense, today was between 42
At the second tombsAt the second tombsAt the second tombs

The shot doesn't do the place justice, but I didn't want to intrude with my camera to get a better one.
and 45 degrees Celsius depending where you stood. Driving around, the feeling of the air hitting you through the side of the rickshaw or an open car window is almost identical to the searing heat achieved when you throw water on the coals in a sauna with your face directly above it.

Delhi is bigger than I anticipated, as I found out when I tried to take a walk to a different part of it. Not only did the distance make it difficult, but the constant harassment from persistent touts is also a problem. There are hundred of “tourist advice centres” around the city, but only one actual government ran office. The rest are ran by people who get hefty commission for getting you in a specific shop, on a specific bus, checked into a friend's hotel etc. Every time you take a walk somewhere you're constantly approached by people who strike up a conversation (“Hello, where you from? I'm on holiday here, want to practise English”) then drop in there that they know where the official tourist office is. Now you know they're bullsh**ng you, and that they themselves get commission for getting you through the door of

A trader sells flower garlands to lay on the tombs as offerings
the bogus tourist places, but on the first day in a foreign city, with no idea where you're going, letting them “guide you” to the right place doesn't seem like a bad gamble as you might wind up closer to where you intend to get to. Or, you might not.

An easy way of getting to where you want to be would be to get out a map or guidebook. Unfortunately that's a massive no-no, as to do so is equatable to standing by the road in a sandwich board that reads “Victim” on either side. Eventually I had to stop for a drink, so I found a shop away from the main road and picked up some water. I took the opportunity to ask the grumpy bloke on the till how to get to Connaught Place (Gov't area where the tourist bureau is) and he grunted a direction to me. I pushed my luck and manage to get the first useful set of directions I'd had all day. Having read the map before I started out and now being back on track, I managed to get myself to the tourist office about twenty minutes later.

It was
Chaos in the bazaarChaos in the bazaarChaos in the bazaar

The centre of the main bazaar in Paharganj erupts into chaos as the evening stalls flaunt their wares
all a bit of a waste of effort really. The guy in the government office just seemed to want me to go to his mates tourist office round the corner and hire a car and driver to take me a days drive away. He wasn't to co-operative when I said I was going to do it all on public transport. He said you need to book a train 90 days in advance, which if true will kill half my plans, but I suspect it's not entirely the case. I'm going to the station in the morning to find out.

Schoolboy Error

As for the rest of the day, I've managed to do a few things. After the massive mission to get no useful information, I thought it best to hop in an auto-rickshaw (similar to a tuk-tuk) to go see a couple of sights while light was still with me. I'd looked up rough price guides for getting around town so spotted the driver trying it on right away as I began bartering for a ride to my next destination. We settled on 80 rupees (about 85p) and set off across the city. On arrival I made the
Main BazaarMain BazaarMain Bazaar

As many people scurry around frantically, a family stand patiently as their daughter gets an intricate henna tattoo
biggest schoolboy error of the day so far. I paid the driver and gave him a 10rp tip as he'd been pretty jolly on the way over. He seemed extraordinarily grateful and offered to wait around while I was here then take me on to my next destination. I politely declined and sent him on his way. As I arrived at the gates of Humayun's Tomb I spotted my error. I'd grabbed notes thinking of the colours of Euro notes and handed over 4 blue ones and a red one (which would be 90 Euro). This was in fact 450 rps, not the 80 we agreed. Luckily this difference only equates to a little under £4, but the difference in the two sums over here is pretty massive!

I let it go and reasoned if nothing else it might help my karma and continued on into Humayun's Tomb. Rated by many as the best sight in Delhi, the tomb is a precursor to the Taj Mahal, built some 30 years previously it is the first large example of tombs built in “Persian style”. The tomb is a squat building, built of white marble and red sandstone and set in
Road blockRoad blockRoad block

Navigating the streets of the bazaar is a challenge for both man and beast, as a seemingly owner-less cow makes its way slowly around the central square
30 acres of formal gardens. Like the Taj, this tomb was built as a monument to a lost spouse, in this case by the wife of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. I watched the sun set gloriously over the entrance gates, dotted with the graceful dances of flocks of birds, from the main terrace of the primary tomb (the gardens are dotted with many exquisite tombs and mausoleums) and gave my camera its first proper running of the trip.

Maze of Marble

With the scrapings of last light left to glow, I hopped on another auto-rickshaw and got dropped off at the entrance to Hazrat Nizam-Ud-Din Dargah. Getting dropped there was an experience in itself, as the rickshaw barged its way down a crowded alleyway, coming to life in the dusk light with the smells of food stalls firing up, incense pouring from stalls and windows and the colours of a myriad silks, glistening in the dusk sunlight and flickering gas lamp and candle lights. The traffic here tends to get around by beeping at other road users. If they don't move then they just drive into their way and make them move. If neither move, they just crash and in most cases one forces the other out of the way and they go about their business (I have seen a couple of people go mad today, but most haven't). I realised as I was driven through this alley-way that the same approach is considered valid for men, women and children too.

After paying the driver I left my flip-flops at the gate, covered my head and was handed two baskets of flowers, one to be offered at each of the two shrines inside. Venturing in to the complex, the place began to seem like a maze. The thin, dark marble corridors are lined with hungry and homeless individuals and families making the little available space their home and shelter. Some were begging, some silent, others seemed simply to be clutching on to the last threads of life, staring vacantly upward through hollow, hopeless and half closed bloodshot eyes; the whole scene was a bit of a shock.

Thanks to some helpful prompts from various people in the maze, I emerged at an open square, alive with activity and buzzing with a tangible energy that was a stark contrast from the dingy vaults of despair through which I'd just passed. This place had to be religiously significant, you could feel the positive emotion in the air. I located the first tomb, and despite now being appropriately dressed and bearing offerings, I opted not to enter as I didn't know what the place was and it felt inappropriate to make such an empty gesture. Had a been a woman it would have been an easier choice, as they're not allowed in at all.

Upon finding the second tomb, I once again peered inside and opted to leave. I was looking for a fervent, eager face to pass my offerings on to when a voice from inside the tomb entrance beckoned me back inside. I was asked to continue inside and make my offering, despite not being of the same faith. I observed the throng of people going in for a moment to ensure I understood the procedure, then I entered. Inside the small square rooms was elegantly decorated in gold and silk. A small space between the silk covered tomb and the walls of the room was crammed with people, each side stepping clock-wise around the building, covering the tomb with their offerings of pink flowers. When a full coating of flowers had been dusted over the tomb, a fresh piece of green silk was laid over the top to ensure each offering stood out. At all times we faced the tomb, even leaving in a back-step, turning away on when we'd stepped off the marble platform that surrounded the mausoleum. Many turned much later than this. Many people touched each side of the door frame as they entered, kissing their hand and blessing themselves after each touch. Some bent down to put their head under the silk that housed the tomb, others to kiss the leaves. Many held their hands over the faces and stood motionless in front of the tomb. Unfortunately I don't understand the significance of this, though I intend to find out.

After this, still holding my second offering, I returned to the first tomb and repeated the process. I felt it better to show respect to the culture and beliefs of those around me than to disrespect both my throwing away or leaving with an offering that was clearly of such significance to others.

I've discovered since that the site is a marble shrine of the Muslim Sufi saint Nizam-Ud-Din Christi, who died in 1325 at the incredible age of 92. The place is very atmospheric and well worth a visit regardless of your religion. It was in fact quite an eye opener to see the reverence with which people of all ages held this place and the beliefs they attached to it. It's a sight we see rather infrequently at home now.

Evening: house boats and good gear

From the tombs, I took an auto-rickshaw right the way back across the city to Paharganj. My bartering with the drivers is clearly improving, as this 20 minute journey cost a lot less for the distance than the previous two I'd taken. The driver dropped me at the end of the Main Bazaar road through Paharganj and the hunt for my hotel began. The Main Bazaar is a fairly thin, very crowded street, full of all manner of motor vehicle, pedal machines, people and livestock. Cows roam free and jostle for space with the scooter drivers, pedestrians, shop stalls and rickshaws. Branching off either side of the Bazaar are hundreds of dark, imposing, smelly alleyways. Some of these have hotels, some shops, other have open urinals or baskets of flapping poultry – there's no way of telling without having a walk down there to find out. Unfortunately I hadn't paid as much attention to my location as I could have done when I left earlier in the day and as a result it took me an hour and a half of fighting my way through the crowds, politely telling touts where to go and marching up and down alleys of junk gifts and puddles of urine. The fact I found my hotel when I did was down to blind luck – no one I asked had any idea where to send me and I eventually resorted to wandering aimlessly down the back streets, without returning to the Bazaar for orientation at all. I was pretty sweaty and tired when I got to my room, but more than anything I was hungry, so I didn't hang around.

I was recommended a place to eat by the guys at reception, but once again I couldn't find it – instead opting for a dodgy looking first floor place called “Everest Restaurant” overlooking the central hub of the Bazaar. Dinner was an utter bargain – I had Gobi-Aloo (cauliflower and potato curry) with butter Roti (chapatti bread) and a bottle of Fanta on the balcony overlooking the square and it came to less than a quid. I managed to take about 100 photos of the chaos below me as I waited for dinner also, which was great.

After dinner I took a walk down the streets of Paharganj, intending to do a bit of shopping. My day-bag broke on the way here (the zip has gone!) so I need a new bag for carrying stuff around in during the day, plus I want some loose cotton shirts for wearing day to day. In the end I didn't manage to buy anything, but as I was almost back I let myself get chatting to some guy that I assume was another blagger. After asking me the now familiar routine of where I was from, how long I'd been in India for, where I'd been and where I was going (in response to which he received a well versed mountain of verbal crap designed to make it sound like I hadn't just stepped off the plane) he offered me a trip to his houseboat in the north, part of his family run business, which is apparently struggling for custom and conveniently located next to where I just said I might be going. When I politely declined, he offered me to go to his place for Chai (spiced Indian tea – a favourite of mine back home). After another polite refusal, he asked me if I like good gear, and whether I wanted to go back to his to sample how good his gear was as a free taster. After listening to his story move swiftly from family run houseboats to who knows what class-A drugs on the street, I made my last excuse and took off for a convoluted walk back to the hotel.

Personal Bests

As I've sat writing this essay of a blog entry I've realised today has been full of personal bests (or worsts), including (probably):

The most seats I've ever had to myself on a flight, and the longest solid sleep I've ever had on a plane
I've nearly been run over more times in one day than the rest of my life combined
I've been in more (very minor) car crashes in one day than the rest of my life combined
I've ended the day with possibly the dirtiest toes I've ever had
I've probably been exposed to more horrible bugs and diseases than ever before
I've drank more water than I've managed on even the worst of hangovers
I've never been so glad having brought ear plugs to sleep with
This is the hottest place I've ever been in my life by a long way
...and this has to be the longest one day blog entry I've ever written.


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