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Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

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Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

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Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

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From the hotel roof

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Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

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Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

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Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

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Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

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Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

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We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

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Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

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Presidential Palace

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The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

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Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

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India Gate

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At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

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By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

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Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (5)

A more tranquil side to Delhi

India day one continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

On a long day out exploring Delhi with our guide Rajesh and driver Mehar we had already visited the heart of Old Delhi, around the Jama Masjid and the chaotic streets of the Chandni Chowk market, seen the grand architecture of Lutyens' New Delhi, and paid tribute to Gandhi at the Raj Ghat. Now it was time to see a slightly more tranquil side to the city.

Humayun's Tomb

Our next stop was at one of the highlights of the tour for me, Humayun's Tomb. This, the tomb of the second Mughal emperor, is a must-see sight for a number of reasons. It was the first great example of Mughal architecture in India, the first garden tomb, and the first building to use red sandstone on such a scale. Commissioned by Humayun’s first wife, Hamida Begum, fourteen years after his death in 1556, a hundred years later it would inspire the design of the best-known of such tombs, the Taj Mahal itself. Architecturally it forms a bridge between the mausoleum of the Mughals’ ancestor Timur in Samarkand, the Gur Emir and the Taj Mahal. Unsurprisingly it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993).

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Humayun's Tomb

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You enter on the west side where a small museum (which we didn’t visit) tells the story of the tomb and its restoration, partly funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Among other things, this restoration work removed many intrusive shop stalls etc. from the surroundings and recreated the garden setting of the tomb – a garden designed on the lines of a Persian-style charbagh with quadrilateral form. As you approach the main tomb look to your right where you will see an even older structure, the 1547 tomb complex of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble who fought against the Mughals.

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Tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi

Humayun’s Tomb itself stands on a massive platform about seven metres high, dominating its surroundings. It is built from red sandstone, with white marble decoration and a white marble dome. It is 47 metres high and 91 metres wide. Like the garden which surrounds it, it was inspired by Persian architecture and is an early classic of the Mughal style which blends the Islamic elements of the homelands of the foreign dynasties that ruled India from the 12th century with local features, mainly originating from the Rajasthan region. Thus Islamic arches are in-filled with carved sandstone lattices or jaalis, and the Persian-influenced main dome surrounded by small chuttris – the elevated domed pavilions seen on so many Hindu and Mughal buildings and as free-standing structures in cenotaphs at cremation sites.

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You ascend to the platform up a flight of steps under the central arch, and from there can enter the tomb on its south side. The main central chamber contains one cenotaph, that of Humayan himself – although, in accordance with standard Indo-Islamic practice, his body lies on a duplicate cenotaph in a lower chamber, precisely aligned with this one but sealed off from public view. Both are on a north-south axis, with his head to the north and turned to face Mecca which from India lies to the west. The raised cenotaph in this chamber allows those paying their respects to focus on the point of his burial and ensures that no one walks directly above him. We were to see the same burial style in several other places, most notably the Taj Mahal. And as there, the chamber is ornamented with delicate pietra dura work – a technique in which marble is inlayed with coloured, often precious or semi-precious, stones. Another feature echoed in the later Taj Mahal is the network of smaller chambers that surrounds this central one, containing the burial places of a number of other members of the royal family and nobility, including that of Humayun’s widow herself, Hamida Begum. These chambers, like the main one, have eight sides and themselves have even smaller chambers opening off them. As you explore you have a sense of being in something of a rabbit warren, and yet you are drawn to circumnavigate the main chamber from which all others radiate. Also buried on this site, although not in the main tomb building, is Humayun’s favourite barber - in fact, there are over 100 graves in this complex.

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One of the side chambers

When you exit the main structure take the time to stroll around the platform, which provides a bird’s eye view of the gardens and their symmetry. This is also a good vantage point for views over this part of Delhi – look out for a Sikh and a Buddhist temple as a visible sign of the multiplicity of faiths here.

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View from Humayun's Tomb

Qutb Minar

I think however that my favourite of the sights we visited in Delhi was the Qutb Minar, perhaps because we arrived here in the late afternoon when the sun was at the perfect height for photography, making the stones glow and picking out all the details of the carvings.

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Qutb Minar

This is the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 73 metres, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993). It is five storeys high, and tapers from a 15 m diameter at the base to just 2.5 m at the top. The first three storeys are constructed with red sandstone bricks while the top two also incorporate some white marble. The different styles reflect the fact that it was built over a period of time. It was started by the first Muslim ruler of India, Qutab-ud-din Aibak, in 1200 AD, but he only managed to complete the bottom level. His son-in-law who succeeded him, Iltutmush, added three more storeys in 1220, but the topmost of these was destroyed by lightening in 1369, so the then-ruler Firoz Shah Tughlak replaced this with two new ones in red sandstone and white marble.

In 1803 it was badly damaged again, this time by earthquake, and restored by Robert Smith of the British Indian Army in 1828. For some reason he decided it would look better with a cupola on the top, so he added one, but this was removed some twenty years or so later under instructions from Lord Hardinge, then Governor General of India, and it now sits in the grounds.

The minaret is surrounded by a number of other buildings, all partially ruined, most notably the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India in 1192. It was built by reusing stones from Hindu temples so you will see many defaced carvings of faces and animals, because of the Muslim prohibition on portraying living things.

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Also nearby is a famous iron pillar, seven metres in height. This is older even than the minaret, dating from the early part of the 5th century AD. It has stood on this site since 1233 but there is a lot of debate, and no firm agreement, on its original location. It is notable for its lack of corrosion. Tradition holds that you will have good fortune if you can stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it, but it is nowadays impossible to test that superstition as years of wear and tear have led the authorities to build a low fence around it. Wikipedia has a detailed description and exploration of the various theories that have been expounded relating to its construction and original location: Iron pillar of Delhi

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Iron pillar and Qutb Minar

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Opposite the Qutb Minar you will see the base of another minaret which our guide told us was to have been twice the height, but this was never finished. I haven’t however found any reference to this in my online research – maybe someone else can shed some light? I did though find some theorising that Qutb Minar could be older than is usually stated, pre-dating Islam in India: http://www.qutubminar.org/. As this is founded on the use of stones with Hindu images, which can be explained by the reuse of the temples, this seems dubious at best but I note it here for interest.

This was the first place on our trip when we encountered what was to become a regular occurrence - local people (in this case a group of young tourists) asking us to pose for photos with them. We were always happy to oblige on these occasions, and sometimes, as here, made sure we got a photo too. It seems likely that there are now photos of us all over Rajasthan and elsewhere in India!

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With young tourists at the Qutb Minar

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Other tourists

Life lived on the streets

Delhi was our first stop of a tour spent mostly in Rajasthan, and our first chance to observe daily life which, even in this bustling metropolis, is lived much more on the street than we are used to in the UK. Partly this is a factor of the climate, and partly one of culture. On the whole, it seems that Indian people don't have the reservations and need for privacy that we Brits are famed for. Everywhere we went, we found that people were quite open in showing their curiosity about us, which made it easier for us to do the same in return. Here, as everywhere, I enjoyed taking lots of candid street photos as well as others for which people were happy to pose.

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Traffic in Delhi

As we were driven around the city by our fantastic driver Mehar I was continually fascinated to watch all the activity and the skill of those who, for the most part, avoided what seemed to me to be inevitable accidents. There are few rules, and those that exist are ignored. It is definitely a case of "every man for himself" - and yes, the vast majority of drivers are men. At every junction or roundabout the vehicle that goes first is not the one with the right of way (an alien concept here it seems) but the one with the most confident or aggressive driver. To misquote another proverb, he who hesitates may not be lost, but he will definitely still be sitting at that junction at nightfall. Signs do exhort drivers to be more courteous and careful – giving way to pedestrians and “no honking”! But these are ignored, and as everyone knows this and is playing by the same “rules” it seems not to cause anything but fairly minor scrapes and bumps.

But of course all this traffic results in many problems for the city. The roads are so congested that to get anywhere takes ages. And worse, the pollution is terrible. When we visited in 2015 we were told that Delhi had overtaken Beijing to become the world's most polluted city - a dubious honour to say the least. The authorities are trying to tackle the problem. The Metro, which is already used by a million people a day, is being extended to encourage more to leave the car at home - but meanwhile it seems that the extension works are themselves adding to the traffic problems on the roads. Diesel cars over ten years old are banned, and all auto-rickshaws must run on clean energy (CNG). And they are considering introducing a congestion charge as in London. But for now the roads remain a frustrating but constantly fascinating spectacle, where mini dramas are played out every minute.

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To get just a brief taste of the experience watch my short video, shot from the car.

Train journeys to and from Delhi

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After two nights in Delhi we left on an early morning train to Agra from New Delhi Railway Station, one of five main stations in the city. The journey took about two hours. It was dark when we left Delhi at 6.00 AM, but the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus. However I did manage to shoot another short video.

We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by "Meals on Wheels" but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.

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Meals on Wheels team waits to board the train at Delhi

The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi, and we were soon on our way to our hotel...

Two weeks after we had left Delhi for Agra we returned by the same means, a train, although this time arriving at Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

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Seen from the train

When we arrived in Delhi we were pleased to find that our “meet and greet” rep was our guide from our previous stay at the start of the trip, Rajesh. And although we were at first a little disappointed that Mehar wasn’t to be our driver for this final transfer, imagine how pleased we were, and he also, when his car pulled up outside the station as we stood waiting for ours! He was there to meet another English couple who had travelled on our train, and hurried over to say hello and ask about our time in Ranthambore. It was lovely to see him one last time, before our car arrived and we headed to our hotel for our last night in Delhi.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:14 Archived in India Tagged buildings traffic india city delhi Comments (6)

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