#rtw2012 – India

This is one in a series of posts about my recent round-the-world (RTW) trip, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read them in order for context and background.

This one is about my time India, which was spent mostly in Delhi, the capital, but also featured a trip to Agra for the Taj Mahal. Those are detailed below.

The story starts months before I got to India, when I needed to get my visa. It was by far the most painful and cumbersome visa process of my entire trip, or any other trip I’ve ever taken. The entire thing is outsourced by the Indian government to a private firm, Travisa, which does not make it easy. Pro tips in lieu of a long story: use Internet Explorer (yes, it still exists apparently…) on their web site, have many paper copies of everything, and be ready to spend a solid full day or two working to get this visa.
Eventually, though, you get there…

The (new) Delhi airport is not bad. It’s tiny, but clean and air-conditioned.

India is the only place on my trip that I left NOT wanting more. It’s a huge, diverse country, and I only saw a tiny chunk of it. Most people I met, especially my Apache Software Foundation friend Avdesh Yadav, were friendly and great hosts. I imagine other parts of the country are beautiful, offer many experiences, and have about a billion other gracious hosts. In other words, I’m giving India the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not in a rush to get back.

I flew in on Thai Airways, another good flight on that airline. A driver met me at the airport, courtesy of my Delhi hotel. He was a cool dude, fairly young, walking in a big rush. There was a nice “welcome to India” moment where he just stepped over a couple of people who had just fallen on the sidewalk at the airport, bags and all, without helping them. I paused to help them up, and he pulled me by the arm to move on.

There’s a rickshaw on the left, and another on the right…

This was a precursor to his driving, which was pleasantly brisk. At some point we passed between two rickshaws on the “highway,” prompting me to ask whether the passing lane was on the left or the right. He laughed, saying “This is India, no driving rules.”

The temperature was a balmy 110 degrees F (43.3 degrees C) when I arrived, and the highs for the week I spent in India were all about the same. The entire time was smoggy and humid. I last saw blue skies before starting our plane descent into Delhi, and only saw them again on the flight out of the country.


Eventually we made it to my hotel in Connaught Place, in the middle of the city. I checked in, which was handled professionally and quickly, took a long shower, and grabbed a nice lunch at the hotel restaurant.

It’s worth noting all the food I had in India was delicious. I ate some at restaurants, and some on the street, against everyone’s advice. I never got “Delhi Belly” or anything like that. Maybe it’s because I’ve been eating strange stuff all over the world for years, maybe it’s because I carefully watched to see what many locals were getting freshly-made, and got the same, or maybe I just got lucky.

I was still pretty tired from the many Bankgkok shenanigans, so after lunch I watched a couple of episodes of The Wire (thanks again, E ;)), and took a long nap. I met a friend for drinks at Q’Ba, a nearby bar, which claims to be among the top 50 in the world. It’s a decent place, but I can probably think of 50 bars I like better in NYC alone.

Not bad, but way over-rated.

The next day was one of the best in Delhi. I signed up (in advance) for a Delhi “Heritage Walk” in the Chandni Chowk area. These are small group walking tours led by a local guide. To my surprise, I was the only non-local, and one of only two non-native, people on the tour. (The other being an expat who’s there for years.) Our guide, Chhavi Sharma, an archeologist, was excellent. This walk is highly-recommended.

We were to meet at the “Red Temple”, properly named the Sri Digambri Jain Lal mandir. I had read about the Delhi metro, and wanted to try it out. (One of my themes during the trip was to try every common local mode of transportation, e.g. rickshaws and such, where possible.) It’s one of the newest and most modern infrastructures in India.

Waiting for the train at Rajiv Chowk.

In a classic “welcome to India” moment, the token vending machines in this new train system, in a central station (Rajiv Chowk), at rush hour, were all out of service. After standing in line for a while with a lot of other people, I bought a “SmartCard” from an employee, and that got me on. The train ride itself was pretty good, actually. It won’t be confused with Tokyo, but it’s not awful.

The tour had us walking along and around the entire Chandi Chowk area, with several stops, some mentioned in my (iPhone app) guidebook, and some that I would not have found by myself. The street and surrounding markets gradually got more and more crowded as the morning went on.

The main street of Chandi Chowk. Peeps sleep on and around the street like that all over the place.

The Jama Masjid mosque was impressive. The “guards” at the entrance, who looked like ordinary criminals to me, were trying to charge a lot of money (relatively) for slippers (since one has to take one’s shoes off to walk around a mosque, and it was the usual 110 degrees, on a baking hot floor surface…)

Ablution fountain at Fatehpuri Masjid.

Although Jama Masjid is better known, I actually liked Fatehpuri Masjid better. It’s smaller, calmer, more intricate in some ways. I also enjoyed the spice market with its view, and some of the hidden residences and temples which are set back a few blocks from the street, accessed through shadowy (and shady) little alleys. Although it’s crowded, it felt safe.

That’s us walking through one of the back streets towards a semi-hidden temple. Guide Chhavi is front right. One of this group is not like the others…

One of the cool things about the guided walk was that I was the only person not living in India among our entire group. Almost everyone there were native locals looking to learn more about their culture and heritage, which I appreciate. You can see that in the above picture.

At this point I was hungry for a snack, and there are numerous stands on the streets around the mosque. I grabbed some kulfi, thereby violating just about every piece of advice my international travel + disease doctor gave me before the trip. Street-side, semi-frozen, liquid-based food in Old Delhi? It was delicious, and had no negative side effects.

After this it was time to walk all the way back east along Chandi Chowk, exploring a bit by myself, heading towards the famous Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, seat of the Mughal Empire. I was looking forward to this, and it was kind of disappointing.

First of all, you have to walk a solid kilometer or two from the end of Chandi Chowk, the main approach point, where all the taxis, rickshaws, and buses drop people off, to the actual entrance of the Red Fort. Why not place them more conveniently? Especially on blistering hot days, such as this one, I thought this might be a hindrance to less fit people. And indeed, many locals and visitors alike were sort of sitting by the side of the walking approach road, just in the sand (no benches or anything…), looking about to pass out.

Welcome to India, visitors! Please pay 25x the local entry fee.

The Red Fort itself is OK. It’s not amazing. I see its historical value, but it’s not well-maintained. In fact, and this was another “classic” India moment, I saw local teenagers taking stones off the walls of some of the internal structures. At first I thought I was imagining this, but upon closer approach, I was right. So I notified a guard (who was not nearby at all, in fact I had to search hard for one), who just shrugged and said it was normal. It doesn’t seem “normal” to me to be actively destroying a World Heritage site…

The one area where guards were vigilant was a shaded staircase, which was pleasantly cool at ~90 degrees (compared to the 110-degree surroundings), and where some older visitors were trying to sit down for a moment of rest in the shade. No, no, no! Over there the guards make sure to keep everyone moving, not enjoying the shade, much less sitting down. Such an unwelcoming venue.

One last thing about this big, central tourist attraction: no water (or drinks of any kind) for sale at al. If you want some cheap fake jewelry, there are plenty of options. But water? Not so much.

I was again hungry at this point, and pretty done with the Red Fort, so I started to make my way back out the long, winding access road. As I got close to the main road at Chandi Chowk, we were stopped, everyone. Soldiers blocked off the access, keeping us standing outside in the heat. Why? No one knew. Great.

McAloo Tikki? Hmm. Didn’t try it. Wanted street food.

I still don’t know why, but we waited there about 45 minutes in mid-day heat. I never saw sirens or police or a motorcade, which was my initial guess, e.g. some politician visiting by. Oh well. I took a rickshaw back to my hotel, not feeling like riding the metro again that day.

I met Avdhesh for lunch at a local Punjabi-style restaurant, Pind Baluchi. It was packed with locals, always a great sign, and the food was delicious. Most of my meals in India were excellent.

Lunch at Pind Baluchi.

After that, it was time to chill out for a bit before my next adventure, an attempt to see the sunset at Ashkardam.  I say “attempt” because I was told by the rickshaw driver it might be a bit crowded, and I should get there early. So I did, which was a good thing.

There were huge lines queuing up outside, which I thought was for security, but no. The temple does not allow any electronics inside, so we all had to check our cell phones. This was a bit scary for me, as it was my main device for communicating and navigating during the trip. But that piece turned out fine: just an hour or so in line…

Approaching Ashkardam temple (having taken the metro here).

The Ashkardam temple is beautiful. With the sunset’s golden light, it looks like something out of a Disney movie. But is it worth the hours spent waiting in line? I’m not sure. Is it peaceful with everyone running around? Not really.

The next day, I planned to go to Agra for the Taj Mahal. And I planned to do it by train, so I bought a ticket in advance, having researched the train options, train stations, and particularly train travel classes. There are all sorts of stories about Indian trains and their nightmares, but I wasn’t particularly daunted.

Train ticket from Delhi to Agra

I was wrong. Although the trains are nowhere as crowded as I thought, not nearly as crowded as Tokyo’s or some of the Hong Kong trains I took, they are simply filthy, nasty. All the street food I had was fine, but looking at the train and sitting inside for a few minutes, I got a bad feeling, got up, and left.

My train boarding at the station.

I called the hotel to arrange for a private driver to Agra (and back) the next day. Once they confirmed that, I went to the Qutub Minar, another major historical complex in Delhi. That proved to be perhaps the most positively surprising one of the trip, quite relaxing and peaceful. Walking around there and reading about its history was a nice contrast to the hectic nastiness of the train station.

A plane flying over the Qutub Minar.

From the Qutub Minar, I went to the last major religious complex I wanted to visit in Delhi itself, the Baha’i Lotus Temple. This place was awesome. It’s a beautiful, soaring structure, with nice gardens around it. But more importantly, it has a calm to it, and a welcoming feeling. It was nice to feel, not just read about, that central Baha’i tenet.

Lotus Temple — way better professional photos available online.

Right outside the temple, I had some amazing street-side roti from an old lady. I wish I could have that same roti right now. I think she was mostly there for the construction workers on a project nearby, since they were the only customers beside me. I took the metro back to Rajiv Chowk, by now used to the SmartCard and the metro signage.

Dinner was early-ish at Circa 1193, back near the Qutub Minar. Really nice view from the outdoor terrace, decent food. I was excited for the next day, a trip to Agra for the Taj Mahal.

The next morning my driver Vinay picked me up for Agra. He was a very cool guy, we chatted most of the way there. We started early enough (6am on the road) that we did not encounter much Delhi traffic, and quickly got on the NH2 “highway” to Agra. I put “highway” in quotes because it’s tiny, poorly paved in sections, nearly always full of trucks and other objects, including people and cows crossing…

During this trip to Agra I called my little sister to wish her a happy birthday. Why is this blog-worthy? Because it was my single personal phone conversation with my family during the entire trip.

When we got into Agra, we met up with a certified local guide (extortion, but cheap as such, so not worth arguing), who took me into the Taj Mahal. It’s all that and a bag of chips, no doubt. Absolutely worth visiting. Far better maintained and guarded than the Red Fort or any other tourist attractions I visited in India.

Again, all sorts of better pro shots and posters available online.

It was pretty sparse while I was there in terms of people. Maybe it was the time of year, or the heat, I’m not sure. And most visitors were local to India, although there were definitely others from all over the world.

The Taj Mahal is smaller than I expected, but it’s immaculate and gorgeous. I went everywhere, including the minor sites, and it still only took about an hour. Afterwards I invited driver Vinay to lunch, so we had some Kum Aloo Kashmiri in a local restaurant he chose, before heading back to Delhi.

A couple of observations from the drive: Faridabad is apparently always busy with truck traffic, trucks often have stickers on them saying “blow horn,” and “use dipper at night,” which means to use high beams at night. Why are high beams called “dippers?” Not sure.

Delhi newspaper before the London Olympics…

I was craving coffee, so I bought a local newspaper and went to a coffeehouse recommended by Vinay. The coffee was awful, but it was interesting to read the newspaper.

I went back to Q’Ba (above) to watch the NBA Finals game, and then it was time to pack things up for my airport transfer. The airport process itself was painful as expected, because the entrance guards require a printed (on paper) itinerary, no digital substitutes (e.g. looking at the email on my phone) accepted. Oy.

There was one redeeming quality: the Turkish Airlines (shared with other airlines) business lounge at Delhi’s international terminal is awesome. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. And I was there alone at 5am, so it was super-quiet and peaceful, a change from everything else in India.

The airport lounge.

Overall, India is a fascinating huge country, and I only saw a tiny chunk of it for a short time. There are a lot of places I haven’t seen, like the entire countryside, Mumbai, the other big cities, the tech sectors and such, Kashmir, and lots more. Almost everyone I met was very nice. Maybe I’ll come back one day…

Next stop, Istanbul!