Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Hop On – Hop Off Delhi

Entrance to the Red Fort

We decided against breakfast at our hotel as it didn't seem too appetising and instead headed straight to the Hop On – Hop Off bus stop nearest to our hotel, however thanks to a mistake on the map – the “5 minute walk” took nearly an hour as we wandered around the streets trying to find the ticket office. We finally chanced upon it just after we’d given up, typical!. We hurriedly bought a two-day pass each and boarded the waiting bus, heading straight to the Red Fort. When we arrived we tried to find a hygienic place for some food, regretting our decision not to have breakfast as the pickings were very slim. We found somewhere that looked fairly clean and had strange savoury pancakes to fill the void before heading out into the heat to explore the Red Fort. 

We were quite dehydrated as there had been nowhere to buy water all morning, and our water bottle was long empty. There was a massive RO (reverse osmosis) water station with free water inside the Fort but we were unsure whether RO was enough purification to remove the dangerous bacteria. It only took a few minutes deliberation in the heat before we decided to risk it and gratefully drank our fill (thankfully there were no repercussions). 

Inside one of the patios in the Red Fort
After enjoying the Fort we jumped back on the bus and headed to Humayun’s Tomb, a beautiful mausoleum which you unfortunately cannot enter, so it was a quick stop. Sarah’s throat had been on fire all day – aggravated by dehydration and the heat – so the sight of a man selling icy poles from his bike was a very welcome one. We both enjoyed the fruity ice while sweating in the heat as we waited for another bus to do the rounds.

The air-conditioned buses were a godsend and we enjoyed the respite from the heat en route to the Lotus Temple, a Bahá'í House of Worship, which is very impressive from the outside and really imitates a lotus flower. Half-way along the path to Temple we had to remove our shoes and hand them to the waiting attendees in a smelly underground ‘shoe bunker’ and then we braved the remainder of the hot walk to the entrance. Thankfully hessian bags had been laid on the path and they absorbed some of the heat, but to our soft feet it was still like walking on red coals! 

The Lotus Temple
At the entrance we joined the orderly queue and waited our turn to enter the Temple and enjoy our allocated 10 minutes inside the hollow building   which had the unfortunate odour of sweaty feet. We listened to prayers and requests for donations before we were ushered back out and down the hot path to where we could gratefully recollected our shoes. 

A couple more icy poles while we waited for another bus and then it was onto the biggest shopping centre in Delhi. We headed straight to the food court as it was past 5pm and we hadn’t had lunch and our morning 'pancakes' had long since digested. It was for dessert that we discovered what would become a staple for us during our time in India – Kulfi, which is essentially the Indian version of ice cream, but with condensed milk, dried fruits, cardamom and other spices it is delicious!

We weren’t really interested in buying anything in the ginormous department store, especially since the prices were almost European, so it was back out into the heat and into town where we attempted, but failed, to buy the train tickets we needed for the next leg of our journey.

The first task the following morning was a visit to the post office to ship home our large bag of winter clothing that we wouldn’t need for the rest of the trip. We arrived early so we could get it over and done with only to discover that ‘Parcel Post’ didn’t open till 10 am, so no early start for us and instead a long wait. 

When we finally got served, they took our bulky garbage bag-wrapped parcel and neatly sewed it up in calico – it was quite entertaining to watch as the postal worker deftly wielded his needle and thread and we could only imagine what the posties back home would think when it finally arrived. We tried to get insurance, but apparently it doesn’t exist, and we also tried to specify sea mail, but that too also didn’t exist. When we tried to question the latter, the reasoning we were told was that due to pirates all sea mail had been cancelled and we'd have to pay the extra for airmail. It sounded quite dubious and we were sure that we were just being charged airmail prices while our parcel would still be shipped by sea (and it did take more than four months for our parcel to arrive home, not really airmail timing).

Quitab Minar Tower
We were a bit jaded from the time wasted and the cost of our postage but nevertheless we continued on and  to make up for lost time caught the metro to the bottom of the Hop On – Hop Off bus loop to see the Quitab Minar Tower (which you could essentially see from outside so we didn’t bother to pay the extra to walk up to it). The next stop was the Hauz Khas Village, which is a marketplace set up especially for tourists and filled with stalls and food vendors selling produce from all the different regions of India. We decided that since we weren’t going to make it to the South of India in this trip that we’d have lunch from the Southern Kerala region, and we enjoyed thin pancakes, curry and dip with very nice fried rice. 

We were a bit rushed in the end and hurried to get a bus in time to make it to Safdarjung’s Tomb. Unfortunately the bus, which was meant to arrive at each stop every 20 minutes, took over 45 minutes to come and so the Tomb was closed by the time we arrived. Instead we spent the next hour perusing the local markets trying unsuccessfully to buy Dave some shoes.

In the end we decided we’d look elsewhere and headed back to our hotel to collect our, thankfully lighter, bags and went to the train station in preparation for our first overnight train experience in India. When the train arrived it was so long it took us almost 15 minutes just to locate our carriage and we were glad that we’d arrived with plenty of time before departure. We finally located our two beds and starting putting out our provided sheets when two elderly men joined our 4 berth cabin, radio turned up extremely loud, and proceeded to have a very hard to follow conversation with us. There was a lot of head wobbling and smiling, but not much comprehension from any of us!

We were offered some whiskey in exchange for Dave’s bottom bunk. We politely declined the whiskey (given the warnings we read about ‘friendly’ locals offering spiked drinks) and Dave offered to move to the top bunk anyway. It was an interesting trip to say the least, one of the guys jumped out before the train started, but the other stayed and throughout the night other Indian passengers would drop in and our fellow would offer them either a nip from his bottle, or a brand new pen, or some other small token gift. This included the ticket officer who very happily accepted a brand new pen in exchange for the man not having a ticket. 

Needless to say that thanks to the constant ins and outs of people buying whiskey or collecting a pen combined with the radio - we didn’t get a whole lot of sleep and since the train arrived at 5.30am anyway, we were up by 5 to pack our things ready to disembark. Just as we were about to leave our fellow passenger pointed to our red metal water bottle that he’d been eyeing off and pointed happily to himself and said ‘gift’! After he’d robbed us of any sleep we weren’t feeling that generous and smiled as we nodded in the negative to his request…

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