We arrived into New Delhi, India on Tuesday 27th February2018 at 7am. Neither of us have been to India before and we both didn’t really know what to expect. Everyone has told us there is no place quite like India even if you’ve been travelling through Asia. We had chosen to go to India in February to make sure we avoided the monsoon season as we didn’t fancy having to deal with heavy rainfall and flooding when we wanted to be exploring. We were both excited to go and in the five weeks we had allocated to be in India, we planned on getting as much of a taster of the country as we could.
We had been given loads of helpful tips and information by my parents and some of our friends that we had made on our trip. Our friend Daisy who we had travelled the east coast of Australia with wrote us two A4 pages of information in a lot of detail which was very helpful and our friend Emma who we met in the Philippines also gave us recommendations of places to go. This was all so helpful as it helped to narrow down where in this vast country to spend our time.
We were exhausted by the time we got to Delhi at around 6am. The airport didn’t have free wifi that we were able to get onto (you needed a phone number and the texts wouldn’t come through to my phone) so we needed a SIM card so that, among other things, so we could get a taxi to take us to the hostel. Both Vodafone and Airtel, the main phone providers in India, were having a shift change so we had to wait half an hour before they even would speak to us about SIM cards just to be told that they wouldn’t be activated until that evening so that was no help. At a loss I asked an airport worker if he knew of an information point and once I got talking to him he very kindly let us use his phone number to get the pin code we needed to get onto the wifi so we could book a taxi and get out of the airport at last! It was now 8:50am and we were glad to finally be heading into Delhi.
Delhi (or New Delhi, the names are used interchangeably) is the capital of India and has been since 1931. It was largely designed by two British architects called Sir Edward Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker. This means a lot of the architecture is very colonial and grand. We had been told about the architecture but also told that, of the places in India, there are better locations to enjoy than in Delhi and we kept getting told not to spend too long here. I can understand that if you’re on a limited time scale but we really enjoyed our time here and I think it’s a very good transition city to get a feel for India. Delhi is the second wealthiest city in India after Mumbai and is the fifth most populous city in the world. Delhi is estimated to have a population of over 18.6 million people (as of 2016) – that’s a lot of people! For comparison, London’s population is around 8.6 million (2015) and New York has a population of around 8.5 million (2016).
We arrived at our hostel, Bunkin, at around 10am and couldn’t check in until 12pm so had no choice but to sit around doing nothing until then as it wasn’t very centrally located and we didn’t want to leave our bags. We had spent the past 12 hours waiting around in airports and now in the hostel so were ready to get checked in and properly start our trip in India. We had to sort out our onward travel from Delhi and so the hostel told us about the train site to use to book out train tickets. The site was called IRCTC and was the Indian railway company’s website so had every train and all the companies that go everywhere on it to book. We quickly found out that trains book up incredibly fast in India and they also have a waiting list for trains in case people cancel. We had, unknowingly, left it very last minute to book the trains and wished we had known about the site before we had got to Delhi so we could have booked trains earlier. We did manage to get our onward travel booked but would certainly not be making that mistake again so that we could always get the more favourable travel times.
After looking into trains we headed out to see some of Delhi. It was mid-afternoon and we were still quite tired so we decided to have a visit of some of ‘new’ New Delhi and leave a lot of the main sites for the next day once we had got more sleep. We got a metro to Rajiv Chowk metro station which was very easy as New Delhi’s metros are modern and only have one train per platform taking the worry away about getting onto the wrong train. All metro and train stations also involved putting your bag through an x-ray as well as going through a metal defector and people searched. Men and women go through different detectors as women are searched only by women so often I was through faster than Niall as there always seemed to be more men using the metros. The metros also have a women only carriage which is a good idea and men get in a lot of trouble if they go in there. We had to be careful not to accidentally try and go in one of these carriages so that Niall didn’t get in any trouble! We went to an area called Connaught Place and is one of the largest financial, commercial and business centres in New Delhi. Due to the architecture that was built during the British colonisation in the 1920’s, 30s and 40s, it is seen as one of the top heritage structures in the city. The buildings were very nice and white. This was also where there is a giant park and lots of shops such as Levi’s, H&M and Adidas. This was a very westernised area and we were told the grand white buildings all of the shops were in were also built by the British.
There was a giant park, Central Park, in the middle of all the shops which had some performances on and lots of grassy areas that had people sitting and socialising together. Apparently it was a half day for people in Delhi in the lead up to the Holi festival (the festival of colours, more on this in my next post) so everywhere was very busy. The park had an enormous Indian flag fluttering in the middle of it. The flag is 27 by 18 metres and the pole is 63 metres high. In 2014, when it was put in the park, it was the largest Indian flag in the world but that’s not the case anymore with more flags throughout the country being raised since in even bigger sizes.
Whilst we were there we were stopped by three different men who asked us where we were from, talked to us about India and then told us about a tourist information centre that would give us a free map of the area. They were very friendly but often wanted us to go to the tourist information centre (a 20 rupee tuk tuk away) straight away due to the half day in the city. We think they were just being friendly but still never got the tuk tuk’s they were offering. All of them spoke very good English and all of them told us to get out of Delhi for Holi as the city wasn’t very nice – it’s always nice to be told your plans aren’t good ones! One of the men eventually showed us somewhere that was in our area to get a free map of Delhi which was a lot more helpful and we weren’t hassled again after having this. Nothing was wrong with being talked to, in fact it was very interesting talking to the men who did tell us a lot of other information aside from telling us to go to the tourism office but we were running on very little sleep and so after a while it got quite tiring!
Due to the western and commercial nature of where we were, we struggled to find any Indian restaurants in the area and we were too tired to explore further around so our first meal in India ended up being at McDonald’s. This was actually quite interesting as pork and beef aren’t sold there and the range of vegetarian options was also the most I’d ever come across! I got a McVeggie Burger which was actually pretty good and Niall got the Chicken Maharaja Mac which we had heard about on the TV show, Big Bang Theory. The burger was enormous and ended up being very spicy which Niall hadn’t expected but he thought it was good. I also liked that on all the packaging they had whether it contained meat or not. It was here that it also struck me that this would be the first time on our trip that I’d not have to worry about whether a place would have options for me to eat there. India is a heavily vegetarian country and I had been told the food in India was also very nice so it was going to be good to be able to have a wide variety of food so easily!
On our way back to the hostel we ended up taking the metro during rush hour which puts how busy Japanese trains are to shame. I have never seen so many people try to cram onto a train, with each stop more people forcing themselves in despite no passengers getting off! We were wedged between some people which wasn’t very comfortable and I was very thankful for the air conditioning on the metro! Even getting off the train involved my feet hardly touching the floor as we were shuffled, pull and pushed out of the train by people near the door helping everyone get out. It involved a mad rush so that you didn’t miss your stop and the whole train seemed to have an understanding on collectively helping one another with the crowds.
We chilled in our hostel the rest of the evening as we were worn out. Unfortunately, the hostel was quite noisy and people in our room weren’t very considerate turning the light on in the middle of the night so we got to sleep late and was woken up early which wasn’t what we needed after the little amount of sleep we had had the past couple of days! After a morning of admin we had our first Indian food of the trip at our hostel of daland rice which was very nice and we were allowed seconds!
We then headed out to go and see the Lotus Temple which was in walking distance to our hostel. The walk there was easy enough and through some very busy streets. Just as we left the hostel some kids with water balloons and water guns started trying to get us very wet from a balcony of a nearby house. We took a while to see them and we spotted them just in time as a water balloon hit Niall square in the face! It was really funny and was all part of the run up to Holi festival where being soaked with water is part of the fun. This made me excited for Holi and hopeful that stuff would be happening in our area for it.
The Lotus Temple was formed by a new religion called Baha’i which had a focus of unifying all religions and showing acceptance for all. For this reason any religion could come to the temple to pray or worship here and so we saw a lot of people there from Hindu to Muslims to Sikh all praying together.
The building itself was very nice and was a much more modern temple than we were used to seeing. There was water around the bottom of the temple to signify the lotus flower and the water was surrounded by manicured gardens as you approached it.
After the temple we headed to Hauz Khas which had been recommended to us by our friend Daisy. It took us longer than we expected to get here and so it was getting dark by the time we arrived. This area is full of bars, galleries and shops and would be a good place to spend your time if you lived in Delhi. We weren’t so bothered about drinking and so we got a tuk tuk back to the metro station and went back to the hostel. Once we were back at the hostel we ended up being invited on a night out by the team running the hostel so headed out with them and some other guests back to Hauz Khas to a place called My Bar. The people who run the hostel are all around our age so are a lot of fun and they were great at looking out for us all and making sure we weren’t hassled or lost from the group. It was a really fun night and all of the Indian staff at the hostel showed off their dance moves which are more energetic than anything I have ever seen before. Ladies got to drink free in the club which was lucky because the drinks where really expensive. They wanted everyone to go in on a few bottles of whiskey but at over 3000 rupees (around £33) Niall didn’t get involved in that and had a beer for 150 rupees (£1.60) or shared my drinks all night instead. On the way back to the hostel we were taken to a small street vendor that makes paratha which is Indian flag bread stuffed with either potatoes, mixed vegetables or cottage cheese. Me and Niall shared a potato stuffed paratha which was cooked in front of us on a giant metal sheet over a fire and was very nice. They took us here as they knew it was clean and safe to eat and so it was great to get to try the street food knowing it wouldn’t make us ill. We didn’t get back until around 2:30am so us getting any rest whilst in Delhi was starting to look very unlikely.
On Thursday 1st March we spent the day exploring all of the main sites in the city. Humuyan’s Tomb Complex was probably my favourite of the sightseeing we did that day. It costs 500 rupees (£5.50) for tourists to visit the site (locals pay around 35 rupees) and that gives you access to all of the grounds and a few tombs that are included in the site.
The first Tomb you come across is called Isa Khan’s Tomb which was a beautiful octagonal building surrounded by a wall that you could walk around. You were instantly hit by the grandeur of the place with the peaceful courtyard and well kept lawns. Straight away, I loved it here. The tomb was actually built during Isa Khan’s lifetime which must have been quite nice to have a say in the grand tomb you would be buried in. He was a noble influence at the court of Sher Shan Suri and the building was dated to be in 1547-1548 AD, so it’s a very old building!
There was a mosque opposite which we also visited which is known as Isa Khan’s mosque as they were built at the same time.
We walked through the grounds through until we reached Humayan’s Tomb which was the main building in the complex. We passed through a number of gateways that led us to the Tomb that were all slightly different and all beautiful in the manicured surroundings and trees.
Humayan’s Tomb itself took my breath away. It was made by the same person who built the Taj Mahal so I’m sure that gives you an idea of the beauty the place would have. It sat on perfect lawns at the bottom of a long, straight pathway which I think made it look even more grand. The detailing of the place was gorgeous and I could have looked at it in its peaceful setting for hours. Stars are heavily featured in the design of the building from being on the walls to covering the floor which I liked and I think the fact that it also wasn’t particularly busy added to the beauty of the place as we could enjoy it in peace.
After marvelling at the tomb, we then got into a taxi to take us to India Gate. We managed to negotiate a taxi down from 150 to 30 rupees but on the proviso that we would go and look around a shopping centre that was near by. I’m not really sure on the logic of that as we expressly told him we wouldn’t buy anything but he must be getting something from the shop for bringing potential customers so as long as we didn’t have to pay as much we didn’t mind. We had to spend 20 minutes in there looking around with a man following us the whole time so we had to really look at the stuff. We asked the price of a few things and then got his business card and said we would come back another day. The taxi driver told us that we had to ask the prices for his company not to get in trouble but that we should just treat it as a game and pretend we would come back another day. We obliged and got a very cheap taxi even if it probably ended up taking longer than if we’d just walked there. The driver was also very friendly and pointed out places of interest as we passed and thanked us a few times for going to the shopping centre so we didn’t mind it really.
India Gate is a war memorial for 70,000 soldiers that died in the Indian Army during the first world war and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. There are 13,300 servicemen’s names including some soldiers and officers from the UK inscribed on the gate. It reminded me a bit of the Arc De Triomphe or I guess a lot of similar gates around the world. There were a lot of people around – probably because people had been given the day off for Holi – and whilst we were there we were asked for quite a few photos with people.
Whilst we were here an old lady was selling jewellery from a basket and dropped some earrings on the floor. I picked them up for her and she was very grateful so told me to keep them which was nice of her! We had only met very friendly people so far in our few days in India so I can only hope that will continue as time goes on. We walked up to the Secretariat and Prime Ministers residence which were grand stone structures at the end of a long straight road leading to India Gate. There was a lot of military around and metal detectors but they didn’t pay much attention to us as we were so clearly tourists.
We then headed to Jama Masjid which means world-reflecting mosque. The mosque was completed in 1656AD and has three gates, four towers and two 40m high minarets (kind of like a lookout tower) that’s made of red sandstone and white marble. The courtyard alone can accommodate more than 25,000 people and the mosque is one of the largest in all of India!
To get here we had to travel through a very busy street which involved dodging cars, bicycles and people to get from one end to the other. It was actually how I imagined all of India to be so was cool to walk down the streets and see all of the shops selling Indian street food, sweets and even live chickens! To go in the Mosque we had to pay 300 rupees per camera or phone used and they would come and check that you had a ticket to show payment one you were inside the complex. They then also gave me an overall for my arms as I had a short sleeved top on. I was wearing trousers and a t-shirt that covers my shoulders (which is what I’ll be wearing the full time I’m in India) so I didn’t have to have the cover all fastened like some tourists who visit will. We were only allowed to visit the courtyard of the mosque as the inside of the mosque was reserved only for those wanting to worship which we fully understood and respected so we just wandered about the main square. Whilst we were there a few people asked for pictures with us which was fine with us as they were always very respectful when they asked. As we left a family asked if they could get a picture with me and then a couple asked for a photo straight after. Niall was busy putting his shoes on and said he saw a queue forming all to take pictures with me and he got us to leave as we would have been there for ages and had a tight schedule. I never saw the queue but Niall said that he did feel a bit bad as when we turned to look back the people waiting did look quite disappointed that we had left!
After leaving the Mosque we walked through a very busy market which sold a lot of souvenirs as well as clothes like jeans, shoes and shirts for people to buy. This was a glimpse into how people went shopping in Old Delhi and it was real interesting to see, although it was also apparent the wealth decline in the area compared to where we were staying as there were beggars and street children around us.
We then went to the Red Fort which cost us 500 rupees each to get in (£5.50) but allowed you to pay on card – more developed Asian countries don’t even let us do that – which was a surprise but very handy. The Red Fort is a historic fort that was the main residence for the emperor of the Mughal dynasty for nearly 200 years.
The fort had pretty red buildings but bare interiors so you could only walk the grounds of the site. I later read that this was because the fort was robbed of its artwork and jewels during Nadir Shah’s invasion of the Mughal Empire in 1747 as well as having structures destroyed by the British in 1857.
There was a metro station right next to the fort which took us back to the area our hostel was in, Nehru Place. From here we walked through the nearby park to the Iskcon Temple that sat on top of the hill. As we walked through the park we saw people starting the colourful Holi festivities early and people everywhere were completely covered in coloured powders with the majority of them then being involved in games of cricket throughout the park.
The temple itself is a Hindu temple and worships Krishna. A lot of people were here singing, praying and chanting and people were going to the front of the temple to collect flowers. There was a very graphic statue that people were praying too which was of a lion eating the stomach of a man which really took us by surprise. I had a Google but couldn’t really work out what this stature meant. It was nice to see a little bit of the religious side to Holi which is primarily practiced the night before, leaving the day as a day of fun for everyone.
When we were back at the hostel, we had some food made by the hostel cook. We had vegetable curry, dal and rice and was able to have seconds again so it was a good feed and we really enjoyed it. We then were taken to a nearby temple called Kalkaji Temple to see some of the ceremonies that are performed the day before Holi. We had to walk through a market which was very pretty selling beautiful, jewelled spangles and herbs and spices and then when we arrived at the temple we saw huge lines of people circling the small temple all chanting and clapping. We were told the line would likely take a few hours to go down and we also didn’t want to intrude on very personal rituals for people and so had a look at the outside of the temple and went back to the hostel. I think the day before Holi a lot of people go to their temple and spend time with family and it all seems a lot more personal than what would be occurring the following day.
The biggest thing we noticed about India so far which I imagine we will continue to see throughout our time here was that we get stared at quite a lot. The fact that we’re blonde as well as white makes us stick out a bit and it took a while to get used to having everyone stare at you when you get on a metro or walked along the street. I couldn’t keep count of the number of times I saw people pointing at me or openly talking about us (not that I knew what they were saying) on our first day here but you just learn to not let it bother you and by the second day I was barely noticing it. Nothing was ever done with any form of hostility or threatening behaviour involved but more how you might point out someone who had crazy hair or riding a unicycle down the street. Having been to a lot of countries but all with a heavy backpacker/tourist presence we were never the only white person around by a long shot but here I would look down the metro and not see another white person or we’ll see a handful the entire day we’re walking around so I can see why they stare. We had expected it before arriving in India but I can imagine it would be a bit disconcerting for some people, especially if you were travelling on your own. I think Delhi slowly eases you into India as it’s very westernised and cosmopolitan.
We had planned to come to India in line with the Holi Festival and I was very excited for the following day. Everyone told us not to spend too long in Delhi but we stayed for Holi and are really glad we did as we had a fantastic time. Delhi is also a big travel hub to get to an awful lot of places and so we would be returning here a few more times to get trains and flights in our first few weeks in India. Even though we had a while here I think it went very quickly but I do understand why people, including the locals, tell you not to spend too long here as it is quite modern. We really enjoyed our time here and our time in India was off to a very good start.
Sending love x