Our lovely LOT Dreamliner descended into the clouds over Delhi. Except it wasn’t clouds – it was smog, and it was lethal. I watched as the altitude dropped. 750 metres, 600 metres, 500 metres. I should be able to see, almost touch, the ground by now, but all I could see was grey mist. Why can’t I see any lights? Is this going to be like Die Hard 2, when the instruments miscalculate where the runway is and we all die? 400 metres. 300 metres. Shit.
About five seconds before we touched down, the earth finally came into view, as did the notorious Delhi traffic. But visibility was so poor, you couldn’t even see the few hundred metres to the terminal buildings – only smog and lights. So this was the air pollution they’d been talking about in the news.
No time to think about that now, though, for we were soon on our way to the hotel. Our driver came from a really cool project called Women on Wheels, which aims to give low-income women a respectable living by driving taxis. Mohammed and I feel very supportive of the project, and urge you to try it if ever you’re in Delhi. Admittedly, our driver was a bit flummoxed as to the location of our obscure hotel, so I had to get in the front and direct – not ideal when you have no idea where you are and haven’t slept for 3 days, but still, it was an adventure.
Barbs and me were both whacked by this point, but we needed to get some Indian Rupees. It’s a closed currency, so you can’t get it in the UK. Plus, we were hungry, and needed to buy a couple of jumpers because Delhi was freezing. I’m talking bone-chilling cold, and there was no heating anywhere. How we longed for the warmth of Warsaw!
So, we hopped in a car to Select Citywalk Mall, which has got to be one of the fanciest in the city. Stocked with the likes of Calvin Klein and Massimo Dutti (neither of which we could afford, so we had to make do with H&M), this mall has everything – you can join an exercise class, watch a movie, and even visit the spa. All I did was stand like a dad as I waited for Mohammed to choose something, but hey. I could have gone to the spa if I’d wanted.
Mohammed’s friend from Delhi joined us for dinner, which was a bargain feast. We would soon learn that this was the norm in India.
This massive thali cost just £1.75.
Bellies filled with food, we agreed to meet up with our Delhi friend the next day, and headed back to the hotel. Donning our socks, scarves, blankets, and any other layers we could find, we turned the lights out, and went to sleep at last.
The mysterious Polish sleeping pills I’d taken knocked me out for the next 12 hours, so the next day I was raring to go. But first, breakfast. We chowed down on a selection of:
- and some masala chai to wash it all down.
Well, when you’re travelling, you never know when you’re going to eat next. Therefore, you must eat everything that’s in front of you. Which is a lot here. God, I love India.
Our first point of interest was the gargantuan Red Fort, which dominates much of the Old City. Once the main residence of the Mughal Emperors, the Red Fort is a vast mid-17th Century site that comprises many sub-palaces, public buildings, and even colonial-era constructs. We stepped out of the cab near the main car park, and were greeted with the noise, chaos, and street sellers of Old Delhi. Once you pass the police cordon, however, you’re safe.
The Mughals loved their red sandstone, and they liked to build big, imposing things with it.
It’s then a five-minute walk round the old moat to the Lahori gate, the main entrance. The gate is so tall, we couldn’t get a full picture of it, and when you pass under it you certainly feel like a dwarf. Presumably, this was the Emperor’s intention.
See what I mean?
The orange, white and green flag that flies from its ramparts is arguably the most important in India. When the nation achieved independence from the British Empire in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru raised his new country’s flag over the Lahori gate. Every year on 15 August, that tradition is repeated, with the PM making a speech to mark the occasion. The incumbent is Narendra Modi, a divisive man whose name has been in the news a lot recently – he’s got Hindu nationalist tendencies, which isn’t great in a secular country. Anyway, if you come to Delhi in August, you’ll see him raising the flag right here.
Once you’ve made it past the fort’s ample defences, it’s an entirely different world inside. Gone are the austere fortifications – it’s an opulent paradise in here. The first thing that greets you is a bustling marketplace, originally built to entertain the ladies of court, who probably tired of sitting about looking pretty rather quickly. Amazingly, the marketplace is still filled with sellers, but now everybody can join in the fun.
Pashminas from 300 rupees, and chappals to hit people with from 500. Bargain.
We strolled through the bazaar, stealing glances at shiny objects and colourful fabrics before their sellers caught us and started hustling. I was tempted to buy, but we weren’t accustomed to haggling (yet) and didn’t know what a reasonable price was. We both knew we’d get majorly ripped off, so we walked on. After another grand gateway, we came to a courtyard filled with beautiful grass, and long symmetrical paths towards a few buildings. Forget the chaos of the outside world – the Red Fort was a haven of tranquility in one of the world’s craziest cities.
Tree-lined paths led us to the Hall of Public Audience (or Diwan-i-Aam in Persian), where the Emperor sat and heard the grievances of his people. From a high up, elevated throne of course, because he would never actually deign himself to sit with the plebs. The scalloped arches of the Diwan-i-Aam seem to go on for a lifetime, criss-crossing the floor and towering over our heads.
What you can’t see from this picture is that the arches continue in rows on the inside, serving a practical purpose by supporting the ceiling, and an aesthetic one.
The Diwan-i-Aam is probably the largest Mughal construction inside the Red Fort, but it’s definitely not the most beautiful. That honour goes to the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) – think of this as the House of Lords. Emperor Akbar met up with his advisors under this white marble pavilion, adorned with gorgeous inlay patterns and precious stones. It’s a miracle they got anything done – if it were me, I’d be permanently distracted by the ornate place I was sat in. The Emperor’s advisers sat on rich carpets, while the man himself sat on his fabled Peacock Throne – a gold throne with a peacock-embellished canopy. The glorious chair has since been lost to history, but its old home remains.
Here’s me scaring away the birds outside the Diwan-i-Khas.
And here’s the inside – note the inlay florals at the base of the pillars.
The Mughals were a clever bunch. From the foundations of this building flows a man-made stream, which functioned as a coolant for the hot Delhi summers. It was dry when we saw it, but being a frigid 5 degrees and all, we weren’t in much need of air con.
There are lots more little buildings to explore, and plenty of good photo ops. Something the locals seem to be big fans of – you can’t walk far without bumping into a selfie-taking couple, or a squad of lads snapping shots for their profile pictures. Mohammed and I evaded them and headed out of the Lahori gate, because we had to hot-foot it to our next destination – Humayun’s Tomb.
After some deliberation on which rickshaw driver looked the least dodgy, we hopped into the back of an Auto (like Uber for tuk-tuks), and were on our way.
This guy made driving on a three-lane Delhi highway look like a walk in the park.
Taking an Auto can feel like taking your life into your hands, at times. You are essentially exposed to all the madness of Asian traffic without any protection. Nay, worse – you’re sat on top of the engine of what is basically a converted scooter. Perhaps I should have been more afraid, but I wasn’t. Anaab reckons that to drive in South Asia, you have to have really fast reactions, because anything can happen on the roads. I think she’s right – Indian drivers manage to avoid cows, parked vehicles, and even each other with ease.
My main worry on the road was encountering the poor women and children who come up to you and beg. It tugs at my heart strings every time, but they say you should never give them anything, because it might encourage beggar gangs. I’m not sure what the solution to this is, but I hope there is one soon. Nobody should have to live like that.
Pulling up to the entry to Humayun’s Tomb, we met up with Mohammed’s pal and his housemate André. Turns out, André is a Norfolk-born fella, but has made a life for himself here in India. Our new pals knew where to find the best eats, so when I complained of feeling snacky, they pointed us in the direction of some nearby street food.
This guy had a business set up on the back of his bike. He’s dusting chaat masala on some fried bread, which we ate with potato curry. It was really spicy, but delicious.
“Don’t eat street food”, say the NHS, but you’re missing out if you don’t. Be selective, though – make sure it’s piping hot, and doesn’t look grubby. Neither of us wanted the notorious Delhi belly, but thankfully our friends were trustworthy guys.
I can’t say I knew much about Humayun’s Tomb before I went there – only that it was the tomb of a Mughal Emperor called Humayun. Surprise, surprise. But as soon as we passed under the gateway, it took my breath away. It quickly became my favourite site in all Delhi. Mohammed’s friend had described it as a “Red Taj Mahal”, and he’s not wrong…
From certain angles, Humayun’s Tomb could even be confused for the Taj.
We wandered up the gravel pathway towards the tomb. Mohammed and his friend were having a catch up, so André and I got talking. He’s a freelance agricultural consultant, and was explaining how feudalism continues to exist in the Indian countryside. Local landowners have so much power over their labourers, who find it very difficult to leave or find alternative employment. All the while, they become powerful village dons, dominating local politics and the economy. It’s not something I’d thought about before, but it makes perfect sense, and explains why rural India struggles to modernise.
The four of us clambered up the steep steps (stairs in India tend to be very steep, so be sure to hold the handrail) to the main memorial. It looks a bit worse for wear than the Taj, and in terms of decoration is much more basic. But it’s also older than the Taj, and has a more authentic feel to it.
The stars above the archways look like Stars of David, but they’re actually an old Abrahamic symbol – common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike.
The plinth is the perfect place to admire the lovely gardens that surround it, and on a clear day, you can see a fair bit of Delhi. Today wasn’t clear, however, so we turned our attention to the tomb itself. It has these beautifully elaborate stone screens, which act both as windows and ventilators. They’re lovely to run your hands over, but they also make for good Instagram backdrops, because we couldn’t get one to ourselves.
Stepping over the stone threshold, we found the interior to be quite dark and plain, but some pigeons had made a nice home of it. Be careful not to step on Humayun’s cenotaph – there’s no fencing or signs, but you’ll get a lot of disdainful stares if you do. Fortunately, Mohammed’s friend warned me before I was on the receiving end of them, so I’ll do the same for you.
Also part of the complex is the Vizier’s Tomb, the final resting place of one of Humayun’s favourite politicians. Personally, I found it to be even more attractive than Humayun’s – it’s an unusual octagonal shape, and little blue domes adorn its roof (presumably reminding me of my beloved Greece).
It was also a little quieter than Humayun’s monument, as it’s off the main path. We bumped into a school trip as we walked around it, but it was easy enough to find empty spots to take photos in. You can even climb on top of the walls, and see the tomb’s lavish roof decoration from above – it’s a very cool experience.
But as we came down from them, I found myself accosted by a young lad. Speaking a little English, he mentioned something about a video. I thought he wanted me to take one of him. Nope. He took my arm and led me to a picturesque part of the courtyard, and before I had time to look back at my friends, an Indian teenager was dancing around me and singing a Hindi love song. I frowned and looked confused, but then it dawned on me. Tik Tok is huge here. He probably wanted to capitalise on my whiteness and go viral, but I’m afraid I wasn’t a particularly good subject – the British compulsion to wave at the camera and say “hello Mum!” overtook me. Still, he continued, and when his mate had finished filming they looked at André and said “thank you sir”.
There are two issues with this. #1, should he not be thanking me, since I was the one he abducted? And #2, he’s assuming I am with André, and that I am André’s possession to give away. I’m neither of those things. But, I didn’t really have time to be annoyed, because we had to dash back to our suburban hotel to join the National Geographic tour we’d booked onto.
First, however, Mohammed was in need of an Indian SIM card. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just buying one – as a foreigner, you have to show ID, and you have to have a local Delhi-based reference phone number. In this case, it would have been Mohammed’s friend, but either way the process was going to be a pain. Plus, it was Sunday, so most of the shops were shut. Allegedly, there was one open in the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin, just next door. We went there.
This is a part of Delhi the tourists really don’t go. It’s a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, and from what I can tell is quite inner-city. There aren’t any major attractions here, except for a famous Sufi dargah (shrine), which we’ll revisit later. So, André and I were the only white faces. Mohammed also looked like a fish out of water, with his unique sense of Yorkshire style.
Nonetheless, I didn’t feel particularly unsafe or culture shocked. Nobody gave us any trouble, and the shops were quite busy. It only felt a bit hairy when the power went out, and the buildings closed in on us, so it got a bit dark. Thankfully, there was a light at the end of our street. Still couldn’t get a SIM card, though.
Rushing back to the hotel, we officially joined our tour, and met the people we’d be travelling with for the next week. It was a real mix of age groups and walks of life, and everybody seemed really enthusiastic about India, which was exciting. Turns out, Mohammed proved a bit of a fascination. As a British Indian, he’s experienced both cultures, which gives him a unique perspective on them. Plus, he’s not afraid to say it – like a true Yorkshireman he “speaks as he finds”. Barbs got on particularly well with our tour leader Manu, as they could speak in Hindi to each other. For my part, I think I confused Manu with my good (for a gori) understanding of desi culture, but that’s just the way I like it.
Mohammed and I opted to spend our evening with his friend, rather than the tour group, because I was keen to visit to Dilli Haat. I’d written an article about the Golden Triangle before I even came here, and heard that this marketplace was one of the best in Delhi. You have to pay to get in, but it’s not expensive, and it’s definitely worthwhile. Dilli Haat is arranged in a very unique way – rather than a random jumble of stalls, each section of the marketplace is divided up by region. So, you’d go to ‘Kashmir’ to pick out the finest shawls and sample some pink chai, but just across the lane would be ‘Tamil Nadu’, from whence you can obtain South Indian delicacies and sarees.
What’s nice about Dilli Haat is that as well as decent quality merchandise, nobody hassles you to look at their stuff. Sure, when you get there they’ll give you the hard sell and you’ll have to haggle them down to a reasonable price. But if you’re new to it, this is quite a safe environment to start off in. If you don’t like the price of something, you can walk away, and if you still don’t get a good offer you can find something similar from the next seller (who, having witnessed your master skills, will hopefully give you a better price).
But I wasn’t really here to buy clothes. I was here for the food, and the food alone. While Mohammed busied himself looking for warm clothing, I scouted out some eateries, and struggled to choose one. They all looked delicious. So, on the recommendation of Barbs’ pal, we headed for a pani puri stall. Essentially, this is a spherical bit of deep fried bread with some chickpeas inside, topped with some spicy water, and is intended to be consumed in one go. I guarantee the seller will be able to make them faster than you can eat them, but you’ll get a bowl to build your stockpile in. I had one and decided it wasn’t for me, leaving Barbs to consume the rest. This was a mistake – the poor man was quite unwell afterwards. With a sick Mohammed in tow, it was time to go home. I made him a peppermint tea from our Polish tea stock, and hoped he’d feel better in the morning.
The next day was to be our first on the tour. We started bright and early – as we would every day for the next week – and headed back into Old Delhi. I thought it would be a basic walking tour, but it turns out it was a walk round a neighbourhood near New Delhi railway station. We were guided by a teenager who once lived on the streets of Delhi, but his life turned around when he encountered the Salaam Baalak Trust – a charity that works to get kids off the streets and back into society. It’s a really worthwhile cause, and you should definitely check it out. Mohammed and I had made a deliberate effort to boycott slum tours, and this didn’t feel like one. Our guide had been given a new lease of life, a skill, and the ability to speak English – which, sadly, is often a prerequisite for success in India.
We did then get a basic walking tour around Chandni Chowk, an area legendary in Bollywood for its markets, character, and religious sites. The lanes are narrow and sheltered, but you still have to dive to the sides when you hear a motorbike coming. If you ever come here, look out for the tall, elaborate wooden doors that guard the entrance to historic buildings – you could probably spend a couple of hours just taking photos of them.
The highlight for me, however, was somewhere Manu had picked out. We stopped for a cuppa freshly made by a chaiwala, and my god it did not disappoint.
The piping hot, milky tea was the perfect antidote to the chill. Fresh ginger really wakes you up and kicks away the cold, the sugar energises you, and the cardamom leaves a pleasant taste on your tongue. How much did this delightful experience cost, I hear you ask? 10 rupees. That is 10 whole pence. What a steal.
Feeling invigorated, we walked through the vibrant wedding market of Chandni Chowk, before entering the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, one of the most important Sikh temples in Delhi. It’s built on the grisly site where the 9th Sikh Guru was beheaded by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (who, by all accounts, was a nutcase) for refusing to convert to Islam. Sikh soldiers continue to salute the Gurdwara whenever they pass by.
We took our shoes off, and an old Sikh uncle with perfect English gave us a talk on what it means to be a Sikh. Much of it went over my head, though there was one point where he compared a concept to the story Beauty and the Beast. In all honesty, I was more confused about Sikhism when I came out than when I went in, but it seems to have a lot of good, common sense ideals.
We sat on the carpet as Sikhs worshipped, with devotional music being played in the background. Mohammed was in his element – he works in Indian classical music, and even seemed to know the words to one of the songs.
Moving swiftly on, I was briefly distracted by a cat, who was munching on some food that had been left out for her. Then, we headed into the Gurdwara’s kitchen, where the cook was preparing prashad (a sweet paste) by frying it in ghee. Everything in northern India comes with copious amounts of the stuff, and it’s delicious, but it’ll probably kill you at an early age if you eat too much.
The next room was a wonderful sight – female volunteers were furiously preparing chapattis, and you can join in if you’re a dab hand with a rolling pin.
I thought I was, but judging by the look on aunty’s face, I’m not. Still, look at me go!
These tasty flatbreads would be cooked over the tawa and served hot to the hundreds of people who had gathered in the main hall. This is the langar meal, one of Sikhism’s most noble concepts. Everyone who comes to the Gurdwara is served a simple vegetarian meal, and everybody sits on the floor together. The guiding principle is equality – it doesn’t matter what caste, creed, or gender you are, if you come to the Gurdwara for langar, you get fed. Simples. In the UK, it has become a vital way of supporting the homeless, where the government has failed to do so.
I left the Gurdwara feeling quite positive about Sikhism, and indeed the diversity of religions here in India. Of course, what I saw was worship at its best – there are lots of downsides to all religions, but they’re usually hidden from view.
Next stop was the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. It looks quite similar to the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore, which I’d visited a year prior. Made from red sandstone, a rectangular building with three white onion domes dominates a vast walled courtyard. After we’d removed our shoes for a second time, Mohammed darted up the steps, as he was late for Friday prayer. I waited outside and wandered the courtyard, taking photos and enjoying the atmosphere.
I’m dressed to the nines because apparently, my coat, jeans, and headscarf weren’t halal enough.
I think my makeshift hijab attracted a lot of attention. It’s not that common to see a blue-eyed face peering out from a pink Asian scarf, let alone someone walking about by herself. A few girls wanted pictures with me. I can’t explain why. White people aren’t even unusual in this part of the world!
Soon, it was time to leave the mosque, and Delhi itself for a while. We picked up some masala Lays for the journey (a much desired packet of crisps among my British Asian friends), and waved goodbye to India’s capital – at least for now.
We returned to Delhi a week later, though only for one night. As the tour had suffered so much in the freezing cold hotel, our last Delhi hotel was upgraded to a very fancy one indeed. It had heating, it had a pool, it even had a fancy wedding ballroom next door. Not that Mohammed and I spent much time there, for we once again headed out into the not-very-touristy neighbourhood in search of a bureau de change. This time, Google took us down a dark alleyway, which was the one thing Manu had instructed us not to do. Thinking better of it, we went back to the hotel – though not before stopping in a cake shop to pick up a creamy dessert. Four men stood behind the counter, and stared in bemusement as I sang along to a music video that was playing. Mohammed might prefer classical, but I’m forever a Bollywood girl.
Our very last morning in Delhi was a lovely one. The fog had lifted enough for the sun to break through, and at one point, we even considered taking our coats off. Madness. To make the most of it, we headed for the Qutb Minar and surrounding Mehrauli Archaeological Park. At nearly 250 feet tall, the Qutb Minar is the tallest brick tower in India, and it was built in the 12th century by the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. These guys were a Turkic clan, conquered most of India, and managed to last for hundreds of years before the Mughals turned up and spoiled everything.
The minaret is attached to a mosque, which gave off some Roman vibes. I don’t think there’s any connection, but the use of brick reminded me of Rome’s ancient buildings.
To admire the amazing details, you really have to get up close. They go all the way to the top. And because this is India, you’ll find a telecoms system at the very tip.
It’s certainly an impressive sight to behold, especially on a clear day like this one. But the Qutb Minar is just one of many awesome attractions in the Mehrauli complex – there are pre-Islamic excavations going on, an ancient iron pillar that never rusts, and even the tomb of historical bad boy Alauddin Khalji is here.
Khalji was a conquering ruler and religious fanatic, but he did keep those pesky Mongols at bay. Perhaps you know him from controversial Bollywood epic Padmaavat, in which a rather lusty version of Khalji is portrayed by man of the moment Ranveer Singh.
Under this drab stone slab lies one of India’s most important rulers.
After enjoying the sunshine, birdsong and relatively pollution-free air (just kidding, it was still ‘hazardous’), we left the Qutb complex. Mohammed was desperate to see Mehrauli’s Jamali Kamali mosque, which acts as the tomb of a Sufi saint and his unknown male companion. It’s about ten minutes’ walk from Qutb Minar, set in a park where rose fields bloom, kids play cricket and families enjoy lunchtime picnics. The mosque itself is abandoned, and has an eerie feel to it, especially because nobody ever goes there. It was just us, a couple of Indian tourists, and an Australian couple being given a guided tour by a friendly/bored security guard.
It’s been stripped bare of all its ornaments, but its beauty is still very much there.
You can’t actually go inside the tomb itself, though pictures on the internet tell me it has a stunning ceiling mosaic. We gazed longingly through the metal bars of a gate, then got on our way to Nizamuddin railway station, soon to say goodbye to Delhi for the last time.
There was just one more stop left. Mohammed was keen to visit the Nizamuddin Dargah, but the vibe of the neighbourhood had changed. We had entered via a different street, but what had previously felt nondescript and harmless now felt alien and threatening. Men shouted at us to take our shoes off, not because we had to, but because they wanted to guard them so they could ask for money later. The persistent shouting and staring got to me, so I went back to our driver, while Mohammed continued on. When he emerged quarter of an hour later, he looked rather dishevelled and angry. The dargah hadn’t been what he expected, apparently – it was loud, crowded, and there were people out to make money from selling religious paraphernalia everywhere he looked. Far from the usual, calm atmosphere of regular mosques.
Eager to forget his experience, we dashed off to the train station, arriving in plenty of time to make sense of the railway system. Predictably, the train was delayed by 90 minutes (that’s not bad by Indian standards), so we bought a ticket to the first-class waiting room and a 150 rupee thali for lunch. It was just the thing to set us up for the next leg of our journey – a 5 hour ride to Rajasthan. We took our seats and slowly crawled out of Delhi, promptly forgetting about everything else because we were too excited for our first experience on an Indian train. Join me again soon to enjoy it with us.