How do you write an honest blog about a capital city that will not upset a cadre of its proudest readers? I guess the answer is that you don't... but I am getting ahead of myself.
I never really had any specific desire to go to Delhi. But a few years after I had returned from Bhutan in 2006 I stumbled on a rather spectacular photo on a photography site. It showed a white monastic building in the traditional Himalayan style clinging in that unmistakeable way to the side of a rock, next to it a cluster of similar buildings perching below. I was surprised to learn that this building was not located in a typical small mountain kingdom but in northern India. Quite some time later Kay told me about this place in India that was full of beautiful barren mountains. It all sounded really interesting, I made a mental note of the name Ladakh and then sort of proceeded to immediately forget about it and store it somewhere in the back of my head. It was not until she brought home a book about Ladakh in 2010 that I really started to put two and two together and
get really interested about this mysterious Buddhist realm. Some random googlings of the monasteries in the region and I was hooked.
Still, Ladakh would have to wait. Come February we were busy planning for the Songkran holiday in mid-April. This year offered an optimal opportunity for a long holiday. We'd discussed another trip to Sweden but neither was particularily thrilled about the idea and the rather forbidding prices of tickets effectively cooled it off. We both longed to get back to Japan and considered some places of interest. April though, with Sakura and spring festivals was pretty much sold out on every airline we could find. Not a single seat from Bangkok to be found. Let's go to Iran, I suggested, and started drafting a plan but when the random travel agent I contacted failed to respond the enthusiasm died down a bit in the general armageddon at the office. When, Kay and I finally sat down to decide on what to do we both floated some suggestions and landed on Ladakh.
How to go about it then? I sat down with Google Earth for a few nights and started charting the area, looking for interesting
places. The more I looked the more I found, literally turning stones came up with new otherworldly monasteries, all waiting to be seen. It started to dawn on me that it would be a good idea not to try to tackle this beast on our own, since we didn't really have that much time to prepare and what little was left was rapidly being consumed in an intensive phase of the project I was currently assigned to. I picked a random travel agent in Sweden specializing in India and after some correspondence had an itinerary worked out. The agent suggested we'd be better off doing a trip to Sikkim, as the weather was still quite grim up in Ladakh and that facilities would be quite limited there, seeing as the tourist season would not yet begin. But, our minds were made up. Ladakh was where we wanted to go. It took some additional jostling and preparations, but in the end the plan started to come together. Lodging was initially a problem, and there's the ever present risk of flight cancellations due to the rough weather conditions in the mountains but I decided to put it on a gamble to maximize
our time in the mountains.
Since most domestic flights appear to be morning flights we were faced with some downtime in Delhi on both legs in and out of Ladakh which we decided to make some use of. With all the planning for the north though, we did not really focus on the capital at all, and it was only the day before departure that we had some quick looks for maps and suitable things to see and do. With that in hand we were ready to begin our Indian adventure.
We boarded an early morning flight out of Bangkok, a flight which I could not help notice was not even half full. Passengers spread out straight in the couches and the general mood was quite lazy.
As we landed at Indira Gandhi Int'l our bird was engulfed in a cloud of smog. Smoke, announced the captain, and it appeared as if it was there to stay. As we disembarked the aircraft, winter jackets in hand, the damp and hot morning air inside the terminal building began weaving its tight embrace. We treaded out onto the soft carpet of Terminal 3, in some way it feels quite
Changi-esque. Immigration and luggage pick up was a breeze, and outside we were greeted by a local agency representative who swiftly took us to our nearby hotel, the Airport Residency. The location had been chosen with the coming 5 am morning flight in mind. You could say though, that this hotel was located in the middle of nowhere, and it quickly dawned on us that we might have some difficulties getting into town.
The first impression left a sour taste, no one in the staff didn't so much as smile, and a request to help break one of the 500rs bills we'd got through exchange was denied. As I enquired about getting a ride into town I was told not many taxis passed outside since this was the highway, but that they could arrange a transport to the nearest metro station (Dwarka Sector 21, which wasn't really near at all) if I felt like coughing up 470 rupies. I took the offer though it seemed rather suspicious, but not knowing the distance or the fares I had nothing to compare to. After the five minute something ride though, it seemed we were taken on a proverbial ride. Not really
wanting to dwell on it anymore we went inside the huge Sector 21 building, a newly constructed metro station just waiting to have nearby shops, food stalls and supplies around it. Right now though, there is precisely nothing in the vicinity. A look on the metro map counted 29 stations to the destination we'd chosen more or less at random, Chawri Bazar. Fortunately the newly installed Airport Express Train made a halt here at Sector 21, so at an inflated price of 100 rupies compared to the 30-something for the 90 minute subway ride we of course jumped the express train.
We'd already seen a lot of armed guards in the airport, so it was not so surprising that security was rather tight, with metal detectors and customary body frisking at the stations. Women and men have separate lines meaning Kay'd fly through quickly while I usually got caught up in much longer lines. The quiet spacious stations and half empty trains of the airport express were a stark contrast to the Delhi metro itself, which was exploding with people and the lines at the ticket offices and metal detectors were at times formidable but never really seemed to
Kay at Jama Masjid
The ambience of this place was completely ruined by aggressive peddlers, I suggest a visit to Uzbekistan instead...
occupy too much of our time. The unashamed staring everywhere was something we simply got used to, but when people hauled out their cell phones to take photos I thought it was a bit much. This is something I'd expect out of ignorant tourists, not necessarily a living, breathing city. Still, quid pro quo my dear traveller.
As we got off the train downtown Old Delhi at the huge market station Chawri Bazar my plan was to head due east towards the Friday Mosque. I expected to pop up in a square with big streets leading off in the four directions, how wrong I was. Instead we dove up right into a middle of a chaos the likes you usually see as backdrop in a clichéd 80's adventure movie. Narrow and dusty roads veered off in any and all directions, I had to break out my compass to pick one which seemed more or less eastward and then we hit the streets. We found ourselves in the metals market, there were crowds of sellers, buyers, errand boys, rickshaws, threewheeler trucks, bicycles, mopeds, pigeons, chilling cows and huge throngs of slow and fat flies all seemingly going around on random
in a stream of beings at first hard to grasp. The instant shock was quickly converted to a fascination and negotiating the current of people and vehicles was great fun. We slowly made our way to the east, picking streets more or less at random in the junctions but soon we could see the cupolas of the Jama Masjid, the Friday mosque, in the distance. It was when we finally reached there, that things started to go downhill.
It was here, at India's great mosque, that I realized how the Indian tourism business worked. Its modus operandi; squeeze as much as you can from the hapless traveller.
There was a huge sign outside the mosque; camera charge, 200rs, per camera and phone. A rip off but what the heck, we purchased two tickets and a young man handed them over to us and beckoned us to follow him into the entrance. Here Kay was covered in a robe of slightly more moral fibre and then the guy dragged us along into the courtyard and started spewing facts about the building at lightspeed. Random facts about tiles from Persia and historic personae flew by in the hot afternoon sun,
mostly a set of half-intelligble passages. The guide took us through the sights at a frantic pace, obviously working hard on maximizing his number of commissions. Did we have any questions, he asked. Sure, I had a few, but it was clear that he had no extra information to add to what had already been memorized before. He then demanded a fee of 250rs per person for his services. A fine trick, that.
As he wandered back to the gate to eye a new pair of suckers we finally had some time to enjoy the beauty of the mosque on our own. Once again the staring brigade popped out their mobiles and started taking pics of Kay, some even attempting some sort of posing. By this time we were beginning to get really annoyed in the hot afternoon sun and made it to the exit opposite Lal Qila, the huge red fort located just across a busy market. At the exit we were approached by some random guy informing us that we needed to pay a "cover charge" for the garment Kay had borrowed at the entrance gate. We were getting really tired by now and just ignored him
Lal Qila, the red fort
This is as much you will see, we didn't pursue sightseeing any further
and he did nothing to persist. The experience left us with a bad taste and we decided not to visit any other sights in the area and instead made a quick round of the market and made a huge circle back toward the subway station.
It is quite easy getting lost in the market area and even though there are monumental buildings just a block or two away they can be difficult to spot, here the compass came in quite handy again. We rode the train back toward Sector 21 intending to grab something to eat down there. Back on site a further inspection revealed that there were absolutely no prospects of getting even a fried potato in the area. We decided to go back to the hotel and approached some taxi drivers but it was clear that they had no idea where the hotel was located, in spite of the street map and ten minute distance involved. Finally we came across one Mr. Babu Lal who was absolutely certain of its location and in we went. And stupid me was so involved in the explaining that I forgot to check that he switched on the meter...
Lal Qila, the red fort
Use your imagination as to how it looks inside, I certainly have no clue
enroute Mr. Lal continued to make conversation along the lines of how long we had been in Delhi and would we need a taxi to Agra and the Taj Mahal? While trying to milk us he continued to spout random useless facts about India, such as the distance by car to Mumbai from Delhi. We also had to point out to him the location of the hotel but by that time he'd made it onto the expressway toward the airport so that there was no way to get off but riding a few extra kilometers. "No problem" he kept persisting, but finally had to pull over by the road side to call up the hotel for directions. As we finally made it back to the hotel he wanted 600rs. Yeah right... He also gave me his phone number in a vain hope I'd be looking for more trivia and a ten hour roundtrip-joyride to Agra. I gave him 500rs seeing it was a fitting equal number to the rip off by the hotel earlier this morning and then gave his number to the guy at the reception...
We were both now too pissed off with Delhi to bother with
going out again and we refused to spend another dime on the hotel and instead went to bed early.
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