I want to start this post by admitting that Delhi is a hard place to love. It does not have the wonderful beaches of Goa, the romance of Udaipur, or the golden sunsets of the Thar desert. Strangely, its attraction is largely its unattractiveness. That said, Delhi is a place that no one will ever forget visiting.
If we were able to consider ourselves as ‘backpackers’ so far, we would not be able to claim that tag for our stay in Delhi. In fact, we knew that we could not leave India without visiting the Taj Mahal and I should probably be ashamed to say that our stay there was largely focused about gathering ‘that photo’.
Yet, the Taj Mahal is not based in New Delhi. It is in Agra. For that reason there was a little more to this part of our trip than a visit to one of the wonders of the world.
Our first reason was to decide if we liked Delhi or not. Everyone we had spoken to had warned us about how tourists often have contradictory opinions about the city, with most deciding they hate it.
However, if our comfortable overnight train into the most polluted city on Earth was anything to go by, we were going to enjoy the city. This may have been the most likeable thing about the city.
We positioned ourselves in the hugely populated area of ParahGanj, not far from the train station. There we were able to walk to many of the sites we wanted to see during the day and get a rickshaw to the rest (although we tried to find alternatives when we struggled to avoid the heavily inflated foreigner price wherever we went).
Dehli is as frantic as you imagine: the roads are lawless, the noise is deafening, and the air quality rivals that of China. In fact, the traffic also makes China’s road madness look sane. One of the reasons for this is that China has paths for pedestrians, and another is that it doesn’t regard resting cows as additional roundabouts. Wherever we looked something weird was happening (just as Karl Pilkington pointed out).
Despite the chaos on the roads we decided to explore the pedestrian areas. First of all we went to Connaught Place, signposted by massive Indian flag in the distance. Here we were hounded by everyone in a way that was so tiresome we often resorted to rudeness to desuede them from us.
We then went to a market in Old Dehli, sold to us a ‘moonlit market’. Instead it should have been named ‘mahem market’ due to the thousands of people, rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, motorbikes, cows, dogs, and goats all competing for space in narrow streets. It’s fair to say Dehli had overwhelmed us on our first day. We were left thanking China for introducing us to these kinds of crowds. Without experience of China we would have been shell shocked.
When we went for lunch we saw a nice man with a basket outside of the restaurant. As we got closer to him he lifted the lid of his basket and out popped the head of a snake. He was a charmer. Nicki, who is usually fearless, yelped and coward behind me. I protected her from the snake by walking away.
During the evening we went in search of train tickets for an early morning day trip to Agra the following day. There were many train ticket retailers dotted around the city and we asked a few for tickets. All of them offered us tickets at such extortionate rates that there was no way we could accept. I could sense Nicki’s frustration with the people (men) of Dehli already, and I wasn’t far behind her.
In fact, we saw an Internet cafe advising the sale of train tickets. We walked in and three heads turned towards us from their computer screens. I asked them ‘can we please buy train tickets to Agra tomorrow morning?’. One of them responded ‘servers down’. Quite puzzled I probed further ‘the Internet server?’
I then saw that all three were using the Internet on their three separate computers and said ‘but you’re all on the internet’ to which they all turned back to their computers as if the check. At this point I heard Nicki’s voice say ‘todd’ in the same tone you use to a dog that looks like it’s about to jump on the sofa. That was our cue to leave and our frustrations were levelled.
We found a saving grace in the form of a Sikh man named Jasdeep. He worked for a company selling airline tickets but offered us the opportunity to go to the Taj Mahal and back in his car for a very decent price and on our terms. In exchange he would also come with us. He turned out to be one of my favourite people! With this minor success under our belts we went back to our accommodation for an early night before out 5am wake up call.
We were actually staying in a nice hotel in an ugly back alley which made for a peaceful night, save for the pigeon who had nested in our air vent. We woke up just about on time for our meeting with Jasdeep downstairs. Getting Nicki out of bed at 5am is no easy task.
However, the day had come. We were now visiting the one place synonymous with any trip to India. Not only that, we were visiting the majestic building, created by a man to express his love for his wife, on Valentines Day.
It was a very good idea to leave for Agra so early as it meant that we missed the rush hour traffic and were able to access the Taj Mahal before the mid morning madness. Our trip was not without drama though: Jasdeep was to open his heart to me whilst Nicki pretended to sleep.
He informed me that he had health problems before revealing that his wife had filed for divorce out of the blue with no explanation. He appeared to want me to solve his life problems for him and I am pretty sure Nicki giggled to herself as she heard me try to give both life advice and regularly steer the conversation away from divorce.
Once we arrived at the entrance to the Taj Mahal we had to join the special foreigner queue to pay our inflated fee whilst we waited for Jasdeep to buy his from the local’s queue. He, like both of us, had never visited the Taj Mahal before and was excited about seeing it for the first time with a couple of foreigners. Because he was with us he was able to join the shorter, faster, foreigner queue to enter.
Both Nicki and I had not gone to India with high expectations of the Taj Mahal. We both saw it as something we had to do but did not put it top of our to-do lists. I think we both expected to be underwhelmed by it, but we were not.
As soon as we caught sight of it for the first time I was captivated by it. There is something special about the building and the way it stands serenely in a country clouded by noise, dirt and famine. It really is a spectacular building to look at. Naturally, we took oodles of selfies and photos whilst we were there:
We must have spent 2 hours touring the building, and I enjoyed every moment of it. There was something hypnotic about it and I was certainly not underwhelmed, feeling a little guilty about my original approach to visiting it.
We then drove back to Dehli with Jasdeep via the expressway. I have a sneaky suspicion that Nicki really wanted me to be back in time for the Arsenal vs Leicester game as she seemed more keen to get back quickly than I did (or showed). It was Valentines Day after all. In fact, we made it back and when Arsenal won with the last kick of the game I reacted with such drama that Nicki would have had every right to continue the journey without me. Fortunately she didn’t mind me jumping on the bed.
We then went out for a nice meal in the evening (curry) where an Indian man asked I would take a photo of him giving Nicki a rose so he could send it to his girlfriend. I am not sure that would have gone down as well as he’d planned.
The next morning we explored some more of Delhi, this time on foot. We found ourselves in an under ground market where we were hounded by salespeople telling us what they are selling as if we couldn’t see it ourselves and the air quality worse than outside. We decided to take it a bit easier and eat in a deli in Delhi called ‘Wengers’ because it seemed apt.
Naturally, no trip to India is complete without sharing the road with an elephant:
On reflection, we did not take full advantage of Delhi on this 3 day visit. There is plenty to do in a truly unique city. However, you do need to give yourself time to move anywhere because of the traffic. You also need to have a good night’s sleep before braving the outdoors, because patience is a necessity. I would recommend Delhi to people travelling to India (but not my mother, she’d bloody hate it) but I wouldn’t expect anyone to fall in love with it.
That evening we boarded our train to Varanasi. As we set off a man threw his rubbish out of the window. A foreign passenger quizzed him about why he did. He responded ‘that is our trash can’. It pretty much summed everything up.