Friday, April 19, 2013

India’s Golden Triangle–First Stop: Delhi

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India's Red Fort in Delhi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were looking for places to go that were a few hours from UAE by air. Mark kept thinking India. Hamza, Mark’s Indian coworker, made some suggestions. “What about the Taj Mahal?” Mark finally asked. "I can't believe I forgot about the most famous place!" Hamza said. That’s how we found the Golden Triangle, India’s tourist route between the cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.

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What intrigued me and made me want to go, even more than seeing the Taj Mahal, was Jaipur, in Rajasthan. The history  of “The Land of Kings.” is a complex mosaic of Rajput (Hindu) rulers, Mughal (Muslim) conquerors, and British control and influence. The maharajas, whose capital was Jaipur, were true kings with a taste for the finest of everything, and Rajasthan is known for its handicrafts, jewels, and fine art. This explains what attracted the British, as well.

But first we had to get there. We flew on Emirates Air from Dubai to Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi, the first city on the Golden Triangle tour. India’s capital is really two cities, 400-year-old Old Delhi, founded by the Taj Mahal’s creator, Shah Jahan, and New Delhi, which dates back 100 years to when the British made it the capital. We booked a room in the Shangri-La Eros in New Delhi just south of Connaught Place, a district built in neat concentric circles with a central green space surrounded by colonnaded buildings housing shops and businesses. On the map, it looked very walkable and inviting.

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Rajpath, AKA King's Way.

A hotel driver picked us up at the airport, and as we pulled into the traffic, he honked his horn. “Beep, beep,” I said, and he laughed. The horn is very important when driving in India. On the way to the hotel he took us on a little whirlwind tour of Rajpath, a wide street with the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential House) at one end, and at the other India Gate, a memorial to 70,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for for the British in WWI, with the Parliament House and National Museum in between.

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We really just wanted to get checked in to the hotel, and I was remembering some hints and warnings that I had read in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but he insisted that I get out so he could take my picture. “Just do it,” Mark said. By the end of the week we would be experts on just how this system works, but at that early stage we were still pretty clueless.

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View from our hotel room

Our travel priorities are now comfort, getting enough rest, and keeping our options open. We figured that we would stay in New Delhi for two nights, but had only booked the first – the weather was getting hotter, signaling the end of the high season, so availability was no problem. We decided to extend for another night, and stick around the hotel that first night to relax, look at maps, read the guidebook, and get the lay of the land.


Our room included access to the Horizon Club on the hotel’s 19th floor, which included breakfast, tea and cookies any time, and a happy hour with free drinks and appetizers from 6 to 8 p.m. Perfect! We went up to check it out and have a cup of tea while we waited for happy hour to begin.

Through the windows we watched the chaotic traffic below moving around Windsor Place, a large roundabout planted with gardens and trees, on a direct line south of Connaught Place. Looking at the map, you can see the grey jumble that is Old Delhi in stark contrast to the pleasant green, orderly, and well-planned New Delhi of the British era.
Delhi labeled

In the morning, we decided to walk the 2 km on Janpath road to Connaught Place, getting an early start before the shops opened at 10 a.m. This, along with traveling during the off season, is part of our strategy for enjoying ourselves while encountering the fewest crowds and being subjected to least amount of hassle.

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As we walked past the taxi cab stand near the hotel, we waved no, thank you to the offers. The street was very torn up, and we had to walk in the road part of the way.

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Auto rickshaw drivers coming up behind slowed down. “You want ride?” No, no, we waved them off. We were relieved that the Janpath Tibetan trinket market was not open yet; it was too early in the morning to be goaded by hawkers.

Approaching Connaught Place we were repeatedly approached by men asking, “Where you from? Your first time in India? Hello … hello!” “What hotel you at? Hello?” and “Where you want to go? What you looking for? Shopping? Not that way. That way.” They kept trying to head us in this direction or that, and because Connaught Place is a big ring of buildings that all look similar, it was easy to be disoriented. Plus, we really didn’t have a destination in mind; we were getting the lay of the land.

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I had read about the relentless touts in Lonely Planet. They present themselves as legitimate guides or taxi drivers, when in reality they are paid by certain hotels, restaurants, and merchants to steer tourists into their establishments where they charge extra to pay the tout, and the tourists are often are duped into buying fake or overpriced rugs, jewelry, or art. One guy somehow managed to walk beside Mark for a minute or so and strike up a little conversation. What the heck!? I thought. Why doesn’t he ditch that guy?

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Connaught Place, which I had pictured in my mind as a reasonably classy shopping district housed in historic buildings, was disappointing. The stores seemed dreary and the entire place was torn up. I’m sure it will be nice when it’s finished, but I lost any interest I might have had in shopping there.

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Until. This one place, Khanna Fabrics, caught my eye. Suddenly, I needed a kurti – a top. So Mark and I went inside, and he helped me pick out two kurtis. I hadn’t brought many tops with me, thinking that I would find something along the way, and I was already getting into the mindset of dressing in Indian-style clothing. This green kurti has some of the patterns that we saw in the Hindu and Mughal architecture. It’s modest but still cool because the sides are slit. An Indian woman would wear it with full length leggings and a long scarf draped down her back and, if she is married, her head covered.

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Staying at a good hotel
is the best defense against touts.
We wanted to buy some beer and wine, but didn’t know where the government liquor store was. Of course, there was someone at my elbow who was happy to tell us where it was. Not only did he show us the store, but he went inside and skulked around while we shopped, then followed us out after we made our purchases asking where we were from, how long we were here, what hotel we were at, et cetera. Mark was a little frustrated that I had talked to the guy, but I figured no harm done. After all, he did show us to the liquor store, and when I told him we were at the Shangri-La, he was on his way.

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Wearing a new kurti.

After that, it was time for a beer. We found a sports bar – everything in India is cricket right now – and ordered a Kingfisher on tap. Oh, no beer on tap. This was the first of many – no, of ALL the places we went in India that had taps behind the bar, including the airport, NONE of them had tap beer. It’s like there is an embargo on kegs in India! They didn’t even have bottled Kingfisher, and the Corona was way overpriced. We ended up drinking Miller!

As we sat cooling off, Mark was reading the guidebook. “Look,” he said, “did you read this?” It was the part about the touts. “Uh, yeah,” I said. “Didn’t you?” “No. Not until now.” OMG! I had read it so many times it was etched in my brain. I didn’t realize that he hadn’t even seen it, and we had never gotten around to discussing it! All of this was a surprise to him! These things happen when you’re married for a while. You forget to talk.
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We made our way back to the hotel through the crowded outdoor market which Mark wanted to avoid but I insisted, stopping at the government-run Central Cottage Industries Emporium. This was a great place to be able to see everything that India has to offer. It was huge, and packed with every kind of art, craft and trinket imaginable. A person could spend many hours there, but we wanted to get back to make happy hour.

Shah Jahan Tour Map

I had made reservations online for the Shah Jahan Tour in Old Delhi the next morning with Delhi By Cycle, a three year old enterprise started by a Dutch guy. They do a few different bicycle tours through Old Delhi, and one in New Delhi. It’s a “Not To Be Missed!” on TripAdvisor. The only thing that gave us pause, especially Mark, was the 6:30 a.m. starting time. He gets up at 5:15 to go to work, and he didn’t relish getting up that early on vacation. But he is a cyclist at heart, and he went along with it.

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Delite Cinema
It’s hard to put into words how worth our time and energy it was. I feel like I’m trying to describe a roller coaster ride, or some other you-hadda-be-there experience, but here goes. We were so early that we had to wake up a taxi driver, who was fast asleep in the back seat. “Delite Cinema,” we told him, and after repeating it a few times he seemed to remember where it was.

We arrived at 6:00 a.m., a full half hour early. As we waited on the street, not knowing where the bikes were or what would happen next,  we began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. But I had confidence, having exchanged several emails with the tour operator and seen the glowing reviews.
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Suddenly, right at 6:30, a large group of people showed up in taxis, and we clambered through some construction and there they were – rows and rows of bikes. Our tour guide was named Daniel, and the assistant was Radhu.

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Situated beside the Yamuna River, Delhi was founded in 1639 by Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who also built the Taj Mahal. Originally named Shahjahanabad, it was surrounded by a wall with fourteen gates. The wall has almost entirely disappeared. Our first stop was at one of the eight gates that still exist.

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The meat wagon is on the left.

Early morning deliveries were being made, and one of the most powerful sights was a wagon full of fresh carcasses, probably goat, being pulled by a rickshaw, which we were soon to pass by again, this time uncovered, exposed limbs and ribs piled high. It wasn’t hot yet, but it would be very soon. This is not a place for the faint of heart, I thought.

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Holy Cow!

Then the real fun started, as we took off into the maze of Old Delhi. I had my camera in one hand trying to take photos while I steered with the other, but that didn’t last long. We were careening through narrow, crowded passageways barely the width of one small car and teeming with motorbikes, rickshaws, carts, donkeys, people, dogs, and even cows.

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We saw stacks of milk tins, sacks of grain, produce, animal fodder, dry goods, you name it. People, dogs, cows, and donkeys were everywhere. They were waking up, cooking, baking bread, setting up shop, and killing chickens.

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You really need to watch out in front,
but it's hard not to be distracted.

I had to put the camera away and hang on to steer with both hands. When I did have the camera out, so many sights flashed by so fast, I could barely see them, much less get photos. What we needed was a GoPro camera. Plus it was all we could do to keep up with Daniel’s pace; he rode like a bat out of hell. Good thing Radhu was in the back making sure nobody got lost.

We emerged from a narrow passageway onto Chandni Chowk, the oldest street in Delhi and a famous marketplace. The name is Urdu for “Moonlight Market.” In Shah Jahan’s time, the streets were canals, and there was a marketplace square with a pool which reflected the moonlight. It must have been beautiful back then.

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Spice Market area

At this point Daniel stopped, got off his bike, leaned it against a wall, and everyone else did the same. Suddenly I was aware that people all around were coughing, and a second or two later I too had the irresistible urge to cough. We were at Khari Baoli, the largest spice market in Asia.

While Radhu stayed with the bikes, Daniel led us, coughing and choking, up a maze of dark passages and stairways, past nooks and crannies piled with bags of spices, to a rooftop where we looked down upon Fatehpuri Masjid, a mosque built by one of Shah Jahan’s wives.

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On the other side of the rooftop was a courtyard packed with living spaces, where we watched people going about their morning routines – a young man primping himself in a mirror …

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… and a nearby neighbor baking bread over a wood fire.

We emerged from Old Delhi into a serene, tree-filled district called the Civil Lines, where British military and civil buildings were built during the British Raj, or reign, which lasted from 1858 to 1947. We took a break behind the Maidens Hotel, built in the early 1900’s and one of India’s first modern hotels.

As we enjoyed some chai tea from a street cart, a small car stopped, and a man with a long beard got out. “What are you,” Mark said, “a swami?” “If I were a swami,” he replied, “would I be driving a car like this? A swami is a very big man. I am a yogi.” He was also a professor, he said. He chatted a while, and handed his business card to anybody who would take it.

I asked Daniel if there was a restroom nearby, hoping it couldn’t be too bad in this good neighborhood, and he pointed me around a corner. Alas, it was a two-stepper, but clean. I didn’t take a picture but, if you are curious, read this. I won’t go into any more detail on my experience there, but let’s just say that having experience squatting while camping helped.
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Jama Masjid steps

We headed back into the Old Delhi maelstrom, and emerged at the east end of Chandni Chowk, stopping in front of the massive sandstone Red Fort, begun in 1638 by Shah Jahan and where, in 1947, India’s flag was first raised upon independence from Britain. We also paused at the bottom of the steps of the giant mosque, Jama Masjid, built in the 1680’s.
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Nearby we could see the Hindu Gauri Shankar Temple and Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, Delhi’s oldest Jain temple. Jains are strict vegetarians and believe that all living things are sacred. In the temple complex they operate an avian veterinary hospital, where they board only birds that are herbivores, but will take carnivorous birds as outpatients.

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The tour ended with breakfast at Karim’s, a local restaurant famous for its Mughal cuisine, serving “royal food to the common man.” The breakfast menu was limited to two dishes, and our hungry group dipped bread into bowls of spicy sauce, one with meat and the other with vegetables.

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We haven’t been eating much meat. When we do eat Middle Eastern or Indian meat dishes, we have noticed that the carcass is hacked up every which way, which means you are very likely to get a piece of bone or knuckle with just a scrap of meat on it. It makes a very flavorful sauce, but don’t expect much meat.

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At the end of the tour, Daniel handed us each a little booklet with excellent descriptions of the highlights of each of the five tours they offer. If you are a bicyclist and find yourself in Delhi, you MUST take a tour with Delhi By Cycle. If we were there longer I would have taken all their tours. They are adventurous, not for the frail, fearful or unfit, but if you are longing see the real Delhi, this is the way to do it.
  India - Delhi By Cycle

Back at the hotel, we realized that we had made our first mistake. With all our relaxing and sightseeing, we had neglected to book our train to Agra – and we were hoping to leave in a couple of hours. It turned out that we had waited a little too long and the only train we could get on was an Intercity commuter train which makes a lot of stops and takes longer. It left at 6 p.m. and arrived in Agra at 10:00. The good news was, we could book a private sleeper car, and it was very cheap compared to a car and driver, which would cost $400 U.S. because, in addition to the fee for our ride to Agra, we would also have to pay for the driver to return to New Delhi.

The hotel travel agent booked our ticket, and as he handed us the printout he said something about checking a list for our name; it was hard to understand exactly what he was saying. He also sternly warned us, “Don’t let anyone tell you this ticket is no good.”

The taxi dropped us at the Old Delhi train depot. Before we went inside, Mark wanted to confirm our ticket. We were about to get in line at the ticket window when a man told us not to get in that line, it’s “just for Indians.” I thought our receipt was our ticket, and I wanted to go ahead and go through security and get out onto the platform. Mark reluctantly agreed. There was a guy at the security screening, and before we put our bags on the conveyor, he checked our ticket.

“Wrong place,” he said. “You need to go there.” He pointed down the street. What? Where? We were sure we were at the right train station. He told us again, and we said we didn’t understand, trying to get away from him, but he followed us, pulling out a map. “Here,” he said, “you go here.” He was pointing to the New Delhi station at Connaught Place! I knew what he was trying to do. He wanted to confuse us and make us miss our train, so we would have to go to a hotel and spend money eating, drinking and shopping!

“I’m going to ask,” I told Mark, heading back toward the ticket window. “But that’s for Indians!” he said. I didn’t believe that, nor did I care. The tout kept following and trying to distract us, until I finally turned around, and said “NO!” right into his face. Actually it came out sounding more like the angry bark of a female dog. He backed off.

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I noticed an “Enquiries” window, and showed our receipt. After three people examined it, it was declared OK, and we went through security. This time there was no tout to stop us. On the platform, we couldn’t find our name on the lists posted on the cars, but I suspected that was because we had booked our ticket so late.

Ironically, nobody paid any attention to us, no matter how many times we walked back and forth beside the train, dragging our luggage and debating about whether this was the right train and where our car might be.
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Finally, we found the conductor with the manifest. Our name was on it! They escorted us to our sleeper car. It was dingy, and the window was cracked, but it was ours, it was private, it would get us to Agra, and it would be home for a few hours. They brought us each two sheets and two pillows, and we settled in, wondering if there would be any food.

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There was. Spicy veggie patties with white bread and little packets of ketchup, and chai tea.
Next stop: Agra


cathy said...

Anne, well India certainly is NOT for the faint of heart!! The bikeride through Delhi sounds really interesting, but I would have been afraid for my life in that crazy city. It was scary enough in a rickshaw. Those touts are so obnoxious. So overall, did you enjoy the experience? I guess I'll have to wait for the continuing installments to find out!!

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