Northern India in a Month (Part 1/5) - Delhi and Agra

Updated: Mar 29, 2019



Foreword

This trip took place in August and September 2007. It was at the tail end of the rainy season and there were still occasional (very) heavy storms in the northern lowlands. Humidity was a problem - temperatures were constantly between 30-40 C°. It was, in general, a pretty good time to go though - shoulder season, low tourist numbers in most places and no need to book ahead. Very little has changed in India in the intervening years in terms of what you will experience as a budget traveller. It's still a mostly safe country, it's still a bargain (although perhaps slightly less of one) and it's still a maddening, frustrating, dazzling and indescribably visceral experience: an attack on the senses indeed - every single one of them. India is a country which has a lasting impact on you, and is probably the most life-changing country there is to visit. I haven't been back since I went there eleven years ago, although I have been to the "India lite" country at its southern tip, Sri Lanka. (Another blog...) In the four or five weeks my girlfriend at the time and I had, we chose to divide the holiday between the heat of the plains and the cool of the mountains: the first part in Delhi, Agra and the cities of Rajasthan, and the second, a journey through the Himalaya foothills - winding up through Chandigarh to Shimla, then a loop through Himachal Pradesh and the Spitti Valley to Manali, before descending via Dharamshala to Delhi and flying home. It was, in its way, a classic trip - and one I'd very highly recommend, especially if you, like me, are a first-time visitor to India.

Indian women collecting grass, Agra, India
Not travelling light: Indian women collecting grass, Agra

Getting to Delhi

India still isn't a straightforward country to go to; you need a visa. And it's not one you can just get over the counter or on arrival. We had to post our passports to a friend living in Warsaw (we live in Poland) and then get her to take them in person to the Indian Consulate. 220zł ($70) each: relatively pricey too. We then had to go back a week or so later to pick them up, also in person. As we were flying from Warsaw to India with Finnair (2200zł or $700 return), we killed two birds with one stone by picking the passports up the day before we were due to fly and decided to meet a friend for a night out there. We started the trip one Friday in the middle of August. An express train to Warsaw and a taxi to the Indian consulate to pick up the passports and visas in the generous window alloted between 4.30 and 5pm. I'd been sweating a bit that we wouldn't be granted them for some reason but we were swiftly in and out of the building and ready to enjoy a night out in the Polish capital. Flight next day at 10am, Warsaw-Helsinki, then a quick turnaround before boarding the Helsinki-Delhi flight. Clear mostly and good view of the Baltic Sea, which you fly over in about five minutes. Finland looks like a huge expanse of trees and lakes from above, which I suppose it is on the ground. Very pleasant. I read in an in-flight magazine that there's a lake for every Finn, which I think may be an exaggeration, but not much of one. The flight to Delhi took about six and a half hours. This, compared to some of the longer trips I've done recently, pales somewhat, but for some reason in those days I got very nervous flying so it felt a lot longer. Fairly featureless countries (from above) flown over during daylight - European Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. We'd probably have caught a bit of the western Himalyas, but we were flying towards the darkness and caught up with it at some point before we reached them. We did see what remains of the Aral Sea though - a huge, endless expanse of what look like dry mudflats, bordering on desert - I would never have worked out exactly what they were if not for the in-flight map. A sad sight - I remembered pictures of stranded boats in the midst of nothing - truly surreal. A monument to Soviet Russia if ever there was one. We arrived in Delhi at 11.30pm after coming through some extreme turbulence. The plane seemed to take a lifetime to descend, and we were jolted heavily a few times - the sight of forked lightning outside the window did not help my fear of flying. As we landed, the outside temperature was recorded at 30 degrees celsius. I think I'd have been happy if had been -30C - I was just happy to get out of there.

Typical truck transport, Delhi, India
Don't expect modern transportation in India

Delhi: wall of heat

I've never been hit by such a wall of heat, at night. Within seconds I was sweating profusely and my shirt was sticking to me. Bags were thankfully there when we came to collect them, which seems to be a blessing these days, especially when you have a connecting flight. As soon as we stepped out of arrivals, we were mobbed. Taxi drivers, hoteliers, beggars. We made straight for the taxi rank and I was determined to get straight out and to the hotel with the minimum of fuss. Of couse, we were in a pretty bad position arriving so late, and in hindsight we should have had a pre-paid cab, but I thought it would be easier and cheaper just to grab a cab outside the airport and go. We tried to do this, but were for some reason led away from the main rank and to a smaller car park, where, after some negotiating, we agreed a price of 350 rupees (about $10) to be taken to our pre-booked hotel in northern Delhi. I was a bit suspicious because there were two guys in the car, so before getting in I made a show of taking the number plate, just in case. The 'fixer', for want of a better word, was kind of friendly, but soon started asking a lot of questions - the kind of questions intended to find out how much of a naive sap you are and how much money can be extorted. ('Is this your first time in this country" is an obvious giveaway when they want to do this). Stupidly though I said yes to this and other questions I should have said no to, and suddenly they had the upper hand. "Do you know exactly where we are going?" I asked. "We can show you on the map if you like." "Oh sir, you know, Delhi is a very big city, we can show you a better hotel if you want, it's closer," to which we obviously said no and then "but sir, it's our responsibility to take you to a good hotel where it's safe" - no, it's ok, we have a nice, safe hotel booked already. "Ok, but at least let us take you to the tourist office where we can check if your reservation is ok" - no, just take us to our hotel. and so on, until eventually they demand double the amount of money originally agreed to take us to where we we want to go because "it's further than we thought". Absolute nightmare, and a good lesson - never get into an unmarked taxi at an airport. One interesting thing about the taxi journey though was seeing how much traffic there was in Delhi at that time of night - like rush hour in Krakow. Oh, that and a couple of lumbering elephants on a roundabout.

Elephant for tourists, Delhi, India
"Trunk road" has a different meaning in India

Keeping it Civil (Lines)

We eventually got dropped outside a hotel in a run-down backpackers' area (thankfully central) called Paharganj. Hotel Singh. We obviously had severe reservations about staying there, as the drivers would get a commission and although we hadn't spent more than the stipulated 350 rupees to get there, we didn't want to be fleeced here. After some haggling (which caused some of the onlooking staff to stare at us with disapproval), we got a room for 1000 rupees a night. Not too bad, considering. The room was fine, a/c and decent bathroom, but we kept getting bothered every five minutes by waiters outside the door asking us if we wanted a drink, bellboys with towels and even some guy wanting to sell us excursions to Nepal! It was 2am. Eventually we were left alone and able to sleep fitfully in the humid room. Next day we awoke to light drizzle, and as I stepped outside onto the pavement, I was almost run over by a bicycle. Several rickshaws and auto-rickshaws stopped to ask for business and three beggars pursued me for petty cash. It took me five minutes to cross the road and get to a stall selling water, and a further five minutes to get back again. Needless to say, we checked out of Hotel Singh straight after getting my free ten minutes on the internet and discovering Newcastle had fought out drab nil-niller with Villa. After strolling around Paharganj for a few minutes, we were convinced we had to get out and stay somewhere less fraught and tourist-trappish; you couldn't walk five steps without someone saying "Hello my friend...how long have you been in India...where are you going next?" We took an auto-rickshaw out of there, and to a neighbourhood north of the charmingly English sounding Civil Lines which was called Majnu ka Tilla. This was where we originally wanted to be, and turned out to be exactly what we wanted. It's a Tibetan refugee colony and hippy backpacker haven. We headed for 'our' hotel,the well-recommended, inexpensive and friendly Wongdhen House, but it was unfortunately booked out and we ended up in a place a little more unkempt but equally friendly, called Peace House. Despite the odd cockroach wondering around the bathroom, it was fine. Certainly at the price of $10 for a private room. The ambiance of the area was great, and best of all there was a fantastic Tibetan/Chinese restaurant there which sold outstanding food for very little indeed. A terrace which looked out over the river Yamuna and some cows grazing on the rubbish dumps there (it wasn't the most pastoral of views after all), which was the icing on the cake.