Saphar episode 1 – UK to Delhi.

Prepare yourself for a shocking sentence. 

Our flight from Birmingham to Dubai was an absolute pleasure and I was genuinely a little bit dissapointed when we landed.

No, we didn’t go first class, or even business class. Plain old economy for the likes of us, but this time we had a half empty flight and and brand spanky new plane (I don’t know planes, so you’ll have to forgive me, but it was very nice) where everything worked. Due to the half emptiness Mrs A and I had a whole 4 seat row all to ourselves. It was joyous. We spread out and enjoyed the flight loads, especially the in-flight meal and drinks. Yes, I know how sad that sounds, but if you’re as regular a customer as me of the budget airline short haul type of flight when someone offers you ‘free’ stuff on a plane it feels like you’ve won a prize.

A quick stop in Dubai and then onto the final leg to Delhi. A full flight on a much older plane, but a pretty short flightand, a row of 2 seats for Mrs A & I and we got a great storm show outside, the clouds being lit up by the lightning all around us. Pretty ace.

So then we were in Delhi. At 4am it was a good 10 degrees C hotter than the hottest day so far back home in the UK and very humid. We were met by our guy, taken to our car and introduced to Delhi traffic. Even at 4am it seemed plenty chaotic (we realised later that it was very quiet, as you would expect in the early hours). An hour or so later we’d checked into our hotel and were out for the count, having been on the go for pretty well 24 hours straight.

The next day was spent tooling around the hotel and surrounding area, getting used to the idea of walking in the road ignoring the traffic in order to avoid the pavements, and generally getting up to speed with the way India works. Our hotel was a long way outside New Delhi, so the surrounding area was pretty chaotic. Everything was happening on the streets, from food to haircuts and shaves (some of the fancier street barbers even had a chair). It was fascinating. We ate that evening in the hotel restaurant and sat dinking beer on the roof terrace as the sun set. One of the unexpected outputs of visiting during monsoon season was the almost total lack of non-indian guests, which meant we had the whole roof terrace and restaurant to ourselves, with the exception of around 4 pigeons and an eagle. I’m not usually interested in birds in the slightest, but watching huge numbers of eagles circling in the currents above the city was mesmerising.

Next day we hit the roads again, our driver and guide shared with me the secret to driving in Delhi;  the only three things you need are good patience, a good horn and good luck. The traffic of the night before seemed like a quiet night in a country village compared to the full on assualt of the daytime.
We saw the Jama Masjid mosque and went for a cycle rickshaw ride around the chandni chowk (moonlight market) which I can only recommend you avoid like the plague if you’re either an electrician or work in health and safety in any capacity, such was the rats nest of wiring spilling out from every streetlight or distribution box in the streets. If orderliness is an optional thing in your life, you’ll love it…

We saw the memorial at Raj Ghat, where Ghandi was cremated. It was a simple monument, entirely befitting the man, and remarkably serene.

After this we stopped at the presidential palaces to take photos, whilst our driver went round in very slow circles in order to circumvent the “no stopping” rule (most of the people we met seemed to treat rules and regulations in much the same way as streams treat rocks – there’s always a way around them)and. The presidential palace and the buildings that now house the government were built by the British during the Raj, for the viceroy. In my mind it had an unsettling similarity to Hitler’s grand plan for Berlin, with the notable difference that it actually got built before the downfall. 

After that we headed off to the India Gate monument, a huge arch built to commemorate those Indians who lost their lives fighting with the British and later extended to cover those killed in other conflicts after independence. It was surrounded by the kind of chain fencing normally found around pensioners front gardens and patrolled by armed guards. The armed guards got very shirty if anyone touched the fence or posts, which happened quite a lot, despite the signs clearly saying that this was not acceptable behaviour. To be fair, the signs were in English, but the guards were making no allowances for any translation issues.

We avoided buying crap from hawkers.*

Next stop was Humayan’s Tomb, a precursor to the Taj Mahal. The impressiveness cranked up several notches as we walked round the incredible Mughal building. There was another tomb off to the side that was built for one of Humayan’s wives (I think), which our guide was about as interested in as an empty crisp packet. I asked if we had time to go and look, he gave me a look of a man who’s had enough for one day and told us where the car was and his intention to wait in it. Mrs A and I beetled off quite happily to see and were treated to a beautifully unrestored but good condition building of beauty. Not on the scale of the main tomb (well, you can’t be upstaging the king now,can you?) But incredibly beautiful despite and because of the passing of years. Happy travellers were we as we returned to the car.

Last stop of the day was to see the religious kaleidoscope that was the Qutub Minar, the highest tower in India and the tallest brick minaret in the world. It was built to mark the first Muslim kingdom in north India, but the surrounding buildings were constructed using materials from the existing temples in the area and consequently throughout the complex there were many Sikh & Hindu carvings and iconography scattered in amongst the Muslim scripts. It was fascinating.

We also had our first of many moments here where we became as interesting to some of our fellow sightseers as the buildings themselves. Because we were visiting during the monsoon season we were quite often the only European people around and consequently got asked if we would mind having our photo taken with various people (mainly families and young blokes). Our guide told us later in the week that they were probably from the south and would pretend to their friends when they got home that we were very rich friends of theirs. I only wish I knew at the time, I’d have quite happily taken and address and emailed from time to time with pictures of my imaginary yacht and helicopter if it helped the story…

After that, it was time to go back to our digs for the night. I’d asked our guide if he could recommend a good local restaurant that served good local food so that we could get out of the hotel that evening. He gave us a name and also gave me dire warnings about how hot the food would be. I thanked him.

Later, after some late night wandering avoiding huge puddles and the wild traffic we found the restaurant and went in. It was a chinese takeaway/cafe, pretty much as you’d find anywhere in the UK. We had the worst meal we’d had, blander than a 70’s dinner, and called it a night.

Tomorrow, the drive to Agra.

NDC

* – This is harder than you might think. The hawkers are very very persistent, you just need to be even more persistently not buying.

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