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Andy and I were both very excited to see Delhi again, but one thing that we were not very excited for was the long journey it would take to get from Hampi to the capital city. We spent about a total of 50 hours on three different Indian trains and went three nights in a row without a hotel room, sleeping only in the small sleeper class train berths. But it’s those types of not so fun experiences that our parents always told us builds character, right?
Arriving at the Nizamuddin train station at 6 in the morning we found ourselves surprisingly alert for the amount of traveling we had just done, and the cool morning air filled with the buzzing energy of Delhi waking up got us really excited to be back. We made our way north to the backpacker strip called Paharganj and refreshed ourselves with a morning cup of street side masala chai (very gingery) and a few biscuits dipped in it for good measure, after which we quickly found a cheap hotel. The area of Paharganj is a cluster of a few busy streets located next to the New Delhi train station and is crowded with budget hotels, cheap restaurants, and shops selling a variety of wares from all over India. A lot of dirt bag travelers are drawn here because of how inexpensive it is and the close proximity to the train station, and we found it to be a fun place to while away the hours exploring.
As the day progressed we found Delhi was a lot less crazy and shocking than the first time we had visited back in early September. We decided that this could be because the temperature was cool and pleasant now in January where as in September we couldn’t walk two blocks without breaking into a sweat. The amount of people in Delhi can quickly become unbearable when you’re sweaty and crowds smell overpoweringly of body odor, not to mention all of the other bodily discharges and trash in the streets growing more pungent and fly ridden in the heat. The other reason that we could be more comfortable now in the big city could be because we had four and a half months of traveling under our belts, rather than walking directly off the plane from the States into the touts waiting arms like the first time we arrived. If there is one thing we’ve learned in our travels it is how to say no and how to spot when someone is trying to take advantage of us. We still get ripped off sometimes, I’m sure everyone does, but now we have a sense of how business in India works, complete with bargaining, commissions, and lies, and the touts don’t really bother us anymore. For whatever reason Delhi was being more manageable, we sure were enjoying it!
The first place that we visited was the tomb of Humayan, the second Mughal
Emperor. It is a very gorgeous sandstone building with marble inlays, and we spent hours walking around the large grounds exploring different buildings and admiring the peacefulness of the area. But the architecture of the buildings we saw only got us more excited to go on to Agra and finally see the Taj Mahal.
Driving back to Paharganj as the sun set our rickshaw driver took us by India Gate. A huge arch which is one of the largest war memorials in India, it commemorates the soldiers who died serving the British Indian Army in WWI and in the Afghan Wars. We only did a quick drive-by since we were told that the entire area was closed off for the preparations leading up to Republic Day on January 26th. Sadly we had to leave just before Republic Day, but I hear that it is quite the exciting party in Delhi every year.
The next day we headed towards Old Delhi and saw the Jama Masjid. The Jama Masjid is the largest Mosque in India and its courtyard alone can hold up to 25,000 devotees! Being non-Muslims we weren’t allowed in during prayer so there were significantly less than 25,000 people when we toured the courtyard. Built in 1656 out of yellow sandstone the mosque was commissioned by Shah Jahan (the man who had the Taj Mahal built) and is beautifully done in the Mughal style complete with minarets and three domes covered in both black and white marble and gold. There are three large entrances to the mosque, each laying at the top of a long flight of steps, and at the entrance a sign is posted listing what is not allowed in the Mosque, one of these items being ‘short pants’. As I looked down at my own pants that came to a few inches below my knee and wondered if they were long enough, a man walked up and tried to wrap a large length of cloth around me and quickly answered my question. At least I didn’t have to wear a mu mu like one of the other foreigners that I saw. This mosque is the most amazing one I’ve ever seen, and something to definitely add to anyone’s Delhi must-see list. It’s also conveniently located in Old Delhi near Chandni Chowk and we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the congested maze that is Old Delhi.
Old Delhi is a place where one can really get a feel for India without tourism. Granted there is the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort which are packed full of tourists, but wander a few streets away and you can get lost among the locals. The streets are lined with shops and strangely the shops always seem to be grouped by product. One block will be filled with shops selling stationary, while the next will sell only wedding saris, and the next will sell only children’s clothing. This works out great for the shopper, but from a business stand point I would think that the competition would be pretty stiff between the groups of similar shops. After our feet could take the punishment of the pavement no longer, we ate some street food and made our way back to the hotel.
That evening it was finally time to meet up with my mom, Allison, and Mark who had flown out of Oregon to come visit us and get a taste of India at the same time. We spent late into that night catching up on the news from home and watching the Obama inauguration on HBO. It was so strange to see people from home after traveling in Asia for four and a half months, the conversations seemed to pick up where we had left off at home, except now we were on completely the opposite side of the world.
The next afternoon, after sufficient rest and lattes, we headed for the Laxminarayan Temple, a temple dedicated to Laxmi the Hindu goddess of wealth. The building was very modern and looked as if it had just had a brand new coat of paint and its large grounds cover an area of 7.5 acres. As well as Laxmi, there are also stautes of Durga, Shiva, Ganesh and Hanuman, and that meant my mom and I had plenty of options as to where we could put our marigold offerings.
Our last stop in Delhi was the museum dedicated to the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. In September 1984, after a group of separatist Sikh militants took up position in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Gandhi made the decision to have the army invade the Sikh’s holiest temple in an attempt to out the militants. Her decision led to the deaths of many innocent worshipers as seven tanks rolled their way into the temple complex. On October 31, 1984 two of her Sikh bodyguards got their final revenge for the desecration of their temple by shooting her as she was walking out of her home. She died on the way to the hospital. The museum is actually in the home where she was living when she was killed and the spot where she fell is marked by a glass pathway. It was interesting to read things that she had written right before her death that were almost premonitions of assination, like she knew she made a mistake with Operation Blue Star and the storming of the Golden Temple. A lot of Indians we saw were in awe and snapping photos of everything in the museum; the sari she was shot in, photos of her as a child, different rooms of her home preserved behind glass, it was pretty interesting to see.
A lot of travelers that we’ve talked to mention how they fly into Delhi and leave immediately on to other cities, gladly leaving the capital behind. It can be pretty shocking to see Delhi the first thing getting of a plane from the U.S. or Europe, the city packed full of people, beggars, cows, dogs, outdoor urinals, trash in the streets, and relentless touts. And it can be especially hard to know when you’re being ripped off if you’re not used to the environment, but if you spend the time to see a little more of Delhi it really does have a lot to offer. Andy and I both loved the high energy of the city, people watching, eating cheap food, and (for me) shopping. We were a little sad to get onto that AC chair car heading to Agra leaving Delhi behind, but the time had come.