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Published: November 7th 2018
It is not the most auspicious start to our seventh trip to India, 1.5 hours late departing due to a bird strike on our plane as it came in to land. Once on board BA seem to confirm that they are continuing their progression to a budget airline even in business class. What a sad deterioration in our national flag carrier.
Arriving in Mumbai and driving in to the city with our driver, we are struck by just how massive the city has become. It is clearly affluent but the squalor of the slums cannot be completely hidden behind the fences and railings for mile after mile along the highway. Compared to Delhi the driving seems almost civilised and there is much less honking of car horns. It’s smoggy too, but not as bad as Delhi. As we drive over the new Bandra bridge, the skyscrapers loom out in the distance through a grey haze.
The Taj Mahal Palace hotel is an oasis. But first your car must pass through security, being checked for carrying explosives inside or carrying a car bomb underneath, before the steel security columns are lowered into the ground and you can enter the driveway.
Then your luggage is X rayed and you pass through a metal detector, and at last you enter the lobby, cool and with the air scented with the smell of jasmine. A room overlooking the harbour and the Gateway of India. Bliss!
We venture out for a promenade around the Gateway, built in 1924 to commemorate the visit of the future King George V in 1911. It was from here that the last British troops departed in 1948. Lots of Indian tourists taking selfies, postcard sellers, all the usual sights you expect. We go a little further, admiring the Raj era buildings in this area.
Next morning we set off early on a walking tour of the main Raj era buildings. Even at 8.15 it’s hot and humid, but the roads are surprisingly empty, allowing us to cross back and forth with moderate impunity as we try to take photos of buildings that are not obscured by traffic signs, dangling cables and rubbish bins. Elphinstone College and the David Sassoon library are both now part of the University of Mumbai. We cut through to the Maidan, a large elongated oval of grass, which even at this early hour
is inevitably hosting a dozen or more informal games of cricket. On one side the buildings are all Art Deco, while on our side they are mock Gothic. One was clearly once a church but now houses a government department, while next door is the High Court. It’s impossible to take a photo from outside as there are double security railings. We finally reach an entrance, but a guard sitting in a fortified sentry point with his Raj era Lee Enfield rifle tells us we’re not allowed to enter. As his rifle is pointing straight at us, we decide to obey. Not that much of a photo anyway....
We stop off at St Thomas Cathedral, a modest building constructed in the early eighteenth century, and try unsuccessfully to take out cash at the HSBC opposite. We similarly fail at the Citibank up the road, despite using a Citibank card, so suspend the hunt for cash and make our way to CST, the massive main railway station of Mumbai, subject of numerous documentaries and travel programmes. It is indeed impressive, but slightly less so than the travel programmes had led us to believe. We were glad to be there at
10am and not in the middle of the morning rush hour, when it must be virtually impassable for the crush of commuters. Suddenly, we feel very hot and bothered, and abandon our original plan of carrying on up to Crawford market. We retrace our steps and discover that our Citibank card does work, you just have to take out no more than ten thousand rupees at a time (about £110) , even though you can make multiple withdrawals one after the other. Each bank tells us the only place we can exchange UK pounds for rupees is Thomas Cook, so that’s our next stop. It’s only just over the road, but the roads are being dug up for the construction of a new metro system, so we are forced to walk half a kilometre past it on our side of the road before we can cross, then back down the other side. Changing money is a lengthy and bureaucratic procedure that takes well over 20 minutes, with the procedure overseen by an elderly security guard brandishing an even older Lee Enfield rifle, with its handle held together with duct tape. Best not disobey...it's approaching noon and about 37C now so
we've definitely had enough.
Back at the hotel, we shower and wash most of what we’ve been wearing, then retire to the wood panelled Palace Lounge for a welcome cup of tea (no riff raff allowed in here, palace guests only). Later in the afternoon we join a short tour of the hotel, billed as a heritage walk. The history is impressive but they specifically don’t mention the 2008 terrorist attack that destroyed much of the hotel, apart from showing us the memorial to the 31 people who died in the attack. Online, we find photos that bring back the full horror of those 3 days, including pictures showing the wing that we’re sleeping in burned to a shell. The restoration work is impressive and the hotel is fully back to its former glory. Later on our way to dinner, we walk past two uniformed guards wearing Kevlar vests and carrying automatic weapons, patrolling the corridors. Security is never far below the surface here.
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