New Delhi Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
After praising the baggage men for not fucking up and delivering my bag in one piece and not nicking anything, despite having opened my bag (they obviously did not connect with my fashion sense), I was off.
I arrived at the Silver Oak Hotel greeted by 3 incredibly Indian and even more incredibly grumpy men. I returning there grumpiness, went straight to my room and crashed out. After semi-recovering I went to explore and went to the "heart of Delhi" Connaught Place. Only to get there and to be informed by the guidebook that this used to be the hub and is now a tourist trap. Still had not woken up enough for this shit. After grabbing a bite to eat I decide that this whole incredible India thing is not going to grab me until I sleep more and I had to pick up Taija at the airport.
Still feeling pissed off for having to be up so early. I was waiting for "Incredible India" like a boxer expecting a punch in ultra slow mo. It was not happening. But my head was sticking out, face poised and ready for…. It. The food, and buildings were the same in London, the hawkers and noise the same in Cairo, the stores the same as both.
AAAHHHOOOWWWW. Jama Masjid. Like nothing I had seen before. The largest Mosque in India built by Shah Jahan in 1656. But I was being a wimp (pussy seams to harsh). This mosque did not smack you by its size but caressed you with its peaceful and delicate beauty.
What amazed me at all times in India is how these magnificent historical monuments appeared out of nowhere. Just like the cows bumble down, up and across the streets without people, bicycles or cars paying any attention or giving any recognition to them. These monuments are given no grand introduction but just appear. The Jama Masjid the biggest mosque in India is no different or the Lal Qila (Red Fort). Both massive statements in history and size but yet cannot be seen until relatively close up. The Taj Mahal is the same. I thought you would be able to see the Taj from miles around and it dominating everything around it. But no. Even when you are at the site you still cannot not see it until you enter the compound. It is hidden completely by the soft red sandstone walls around it. Then when you walk through and wwwoooosshhh there it stands.
Away from these large silent statements we went to Chandi Chowk the chaotic, buzzing, getoutofwayorwillrunyouovertikka, mess that is Old Delhi's main historical market across from the Jama Masjid. An amazing shambles of movement consisting of people walking, selling, eating and peeing. Peeing seems to be a national past time here. This with the cow shit mixed with spices, fumes, cooking food gives the streets a somewhat interesting smell. Chandi seems to be the place where you can get, eat, smell, sense, receive all sorts of Chowk. Away from the centrally planned centre of Delhi with big spaces between each building and suburban like feel this was the real nitty gritty city that I was expecting. Where every inch was filled by activity and not a tree in site. People pushing you, carts pushing you, cows pushing you and Taija pushing me.
From Delhi we pushed towards Agra. At bang on 5am I got Taija up, cos she is a lazy cow, and said "Taija we must go to see Taj now!" (It may not have happened exactly like this but close enough). So for sunrise we saw the Taj Mahal, nearly alone. When we got there is was completely dark and like all India monuments with little introduction it quickly appeared out of the dark "THE TAJ MAHAL!" It was only my excitement that could capitalise the taj mahal. As it is the softest and most graceful of buildings. She sits there with bold yet delicate grandeur. As Taija and I walked up to it we lost the 'nearly' and were alone. I thought if I touched her my hand would sink into the marble, that the whole building would sway gently and gracefully with the wind. Walking around it and inside we both marvelled and then took pictures.
It is such a conflict when appreciating this grandeur statements of royalty. Apparently the story is that Shah Jahan's bird Nur Jahan on her death bed begged for him to build her a beautiful monument. So 20,000 labourers and 17 years later…..yet to think how much of the local capital was diverted and how many of the labourers died to build this non-functional flamboyant grave stone. The taj mahal is many things but it is not a building of the people, for the people however at least it is by the people (except of course for the Persian architect). Agra itself is well known for being a bit of a shit hole. No doubt cos everyone was building the taj! As a result we did not plan to stay long so almost straightaway after seeing the Taj we were on out way to Jaipur.
In Jaipur Taija booked us into a beautiful Heritage hotel called Mandava Haveli that was by the best hotel we stayed in, in India (wait for Kabul!). Jaipur was everything I thought India would be. A great mix of fantastic food, monuments, friendly people, wacky tourists, locals and environment. The most interesting of the historical was Jantar Mantar. Apart from having a great name this astronomy park built by Jai Singh II in 1726 was full of these solar instruments that were beautiful pieces of sculpture, to me. Also apparently they had a functional astronomical purpose as well. No idea, ask a guide apparently. There were none.
Had the best Lassi I have ever had in my life at Lassiwalla (you just want to sing the name like the Harry Krishna people Lassi Wallllla Lassi Lassi Lassi Lassi Walla p.s. feel free to try the same with Jantar Mantar). Following the Lassi we ventured up to Monkey Temple (Galwar Bagh) a pilgrimage site for Hindu's. Unsurprisingly there were lots of monkeys accompanied by cows, pigs, cats and birds. The actual temple was up a big hill and we were sold peanuts to give to the monkeys. Unfortunately (or not so, many angles to view the predicament from) I ended up giving the peanuts to a mother begging with her kids. I was unsure if this was for the kids themselves or for the kids to feed the monkeys. The animal like poverty that so many Indians have to live in is a well known tragedy of India and far worse than what I saw in Afghanistan (although the poverty is hidden much more than in India (I was told of course as it was hidden….)). It is amazing how out teeth are such a noticeable sign of poverty. Considering how robust teeth are and how when many of the street kids opened their mouths I had flash backs of the mummies in the Cairo Museum. To add to the pre-historic poverty a huge tractor that was bringing water up the hill on a not so huge road was trying to run us over or soak us poss both. Amongst this mêlée however there was the most amazing view of Jaipur. The monkey's dutifully posed while I took pictures and then other monkey took the camera from me and started to take pictures of the other monkeys! To top that off the monkey then insisted that my pictures were hers! Looking across Jaipur we could see the sprawling city and hundreds of kites that were bring flown for the annual kite festival. Aaaahhh I am such a romantic.
Next day my monkey and I went to Amer Fort and Palace set on the side of a hill. The palace of mirrors was a hallway decorated with intricate patterns made up of….which created an almost crystal effect. The arches of some of the entrances are painted with such intricate patterns that your head swirls trying to take it all in. I guess that is why Hippies loved India so much. Then Taija got us lost in the harem (prob looking to long at the patterns!) and then refused my offer to stay and become the head of my harem that I wanted to set up. I know I was outraged as well! I said she would get equal pay but to no avail.
After Jaipur we went to Ajmer for the day where Dargah Sharif a Sufi shrine lays. A bizarre mix of Hinduism and Islam meet you at the Shrine. In which you are told to throw flowers on the tomb of the sufi saint and give the guy whacking you on the head with feathers….. money. Then a guy outside says prayers and asks you to write your name and the amount you wish to donate. Alongside the 200,300 rupees I proudly wrote 25 and left. From the Shrine we walked to the 19th Century Nasiyan Temple sacred to the Jains. On the way to the temple some of the locals at a wedding got far too over excited at the site of me taking pictures. Some came over and wanted me to take a picture of Taija with them. Next thing I know we are in the middle of a massive crowd all trying to get into this picture and Taija is holding a baby! Too soon for that shit. So I drag Taija out of the crowd and go to the next temple to pray. The Jain temple was surreal. Again, the outside could never prepare you for the in. Once you entered the typical temple you were confronted by this enormous fantasy model of what I assume is heaven. Heaven does as I though consists of people flying on boats with elephant heads and everything made out of brass.
After all the spirituality and urban India it was time to get back to nature. After Cairo as well it was a nice rest bite to visit a bird sanctuary. Sounds boring and I agree it would be better if the bird sanctuary consisted of the armed type but Taija was still resistant to my harem idea.
After leaving the birds we flew to Kabul (see what I did there?). After arriving in Kabul Taija took me to her office and we had a quick look around. It was a surprisingly unsurprising office. Like every other office building with a wall around it. From the surprisingly unsurprising office we went to the Serena Hotel the only 5 star hotel in Afghanistan. Well if you are going to do Afghanistan you may as well do it in Western decadence! From the hotel we went to dinner at L'Atmosphere and drank lots of wine and eat lots of haram food. It was a night that would suitably pissed of the Taliban but unfortunately also the locals. Kabul is a faceless city. All the buildings are walled off (for good reason), the streets are bland, the city polluted. All the historic man-made beauty desecrated.
When flying into Kabul the scenery was anything but bland. Flying over the beautiful mountains made you think how any one could rule this terrain. Then you remember they can't. Afghanistan is as divided as the Premier League. Only this is not football and Taija tells me there are things more serious and with greater implications. From Kabul we drove up north to the province of Baghlan where Taija is mostly based. The drive up would have felt like an incredible exploration was it not for the very new and smooth road up. Going into the heart of Afghanistan should have felt like going to the ends of the earth instead it felt like we were going to the next town. The road up allowed me to see the mountains the other way up. They were equally as impressive as from the air. It took 4-5 hours to reach Taija's quaint house in the north and there I met Taija's odd bunch of house mates. Sanjeev the Indian and then the Pakistanis always an odd bunch! As I know too well! After a great Indian meal served by the Afghan cook, Sanjeev to top it off took me into the TV room and to my utter ecstasy Arsenal Vs Man U was on LIVE! To top that off we had whisky. And to top that off we (not me and Taija - Arsenal) won 2-1 with Henry scoring in the last min!! I could get used to Afghanistan and all the tops I had collected!!
The town where Taija is based is small and there is nothing much to do apart from to look at the mountains and the people who are looking at you as much you are them. So Taija took me up to Mazar-i-Sharif which is 2 hours further north to see the Blue Mosque. You cannot go in as a non-Muslim and as I was about to go in the security guard stopped me. I told him I was Muslim so he took me to the Sheikh. Naturally I was shitting myself as lying to traditionalist Muslims in this part of the world is not on the recommended list of things to do and see in Afghanistan. Anyhow I told him that my Dad was Syrian and mum was English and in I went! Like I was a member of Blockbusters and could rent the DVD. I was a bit Muslim (although I made the bit up, as the other bit was not quite the right bit) so I could see this historically important artwork. Taija was getting quite nervous about lying to the manager of the mosque and thus so was I. Inside it was quite uncomfortable. Dark and musky people swirling around muttering verses from the Quran and imams sitting at tables beckoning you over to bless you as they rocked back and forward and back further. It was all quite intimidating so we soon left. The mosque however was striking. Decorated with such intimate detail it was breathtaking. A smash hit.
From the mosque after walking around it a few times we went to the local bazaar and bought some things. The man I gave lots of US$ to then very kindly gave us lunch. He spoke good English and told how things were getting so expensive with all the international forces and that there was no electricity. How frustrated people were getting with the government and that the Taliban were becoming resurgent again. Great! The drive back down to Kabul again was. Before we left Mazar however a big German military convoy passed through the town. It seemed totally ridiculous that they went through the town in these huge military vehicles with their big machine guns. Making themselves a huge target and the rest of the town. Pissing off not only the Taliban, locals but also me (most importantly) while we had to wait in our now little 4x4 while they passed! Winding through the mountains, watching Afghanistan unravel itself from the safety of the 4x4 seemed not so safe with these guys. They just seemed to cause resentment. Why they did not just get out and walk around the town like everyone else bewildered me. Hearts and minds, peace and love blah blah blah I know but it seems better than pissing people off for no reason the very people your trying to stop fighting.
On the way down back to Kabul life seemed to carry on oblivious to all the military and fighting. People tilled the fields, sat around, held funerals, sat by their shops….all wearing their great beards that frothed from their chin to the bottom of their neck. There were no women to be seen, although I saw I did not see. It makes me wonder how much the Taliban actually saw and if they did see. Afghanistan seems such an impossible place to implement the biggest of things let alone the minute details that the Taliban wished to infuse in peoples lives.
Taija took me to see old Kabul. There we looked around the market. Getting some strange, fierce, friendly, surprised and curious looks. It all got very confusing. The market was a mixture of vibrant colours from the goods being sold in the dull sometimes destroyed buildings they were being sold in. Some Indian Sikhs were selling their clothes which was a great surprise. From Old Kabul to Chicken St. A Street not full of chickens but tourist shops for the many foreign workers and... Tourists handing over their golden eggs.
My brief introduction to Afghanistan was not to go beyond that and I was soon off. Or so I thought.
I got up early, and so did Taija, all ready to get on the flight. Jump through and doge and jumped through more of the various security hurdles that were put there mostly to get the $1 out of you than actually check your bags. Finally on the plane. All ready for take off. The pilot suddenly announces we would not take off. Due to bad visibility on a semi-clear day. So we all get off the plane.
Had to call Taija and wait in the "car park" of Kabul International Airport until she came. I made friends with the local policeman while I waited and it got darker. I had to explain to the policeman while I waited for Taija that he could not have my phone and it got darker and darker. Taija protests that it did not get darker. I tried to tell her this is what happens in the evenings but to no avail! Finally I was picked up!
The next day the routine was repeated and finally a day later I was off to India again!!
My final day in India took me accidentally to Qutub Minar. Where the first Mosque in India lies and the tallest tower in India stands. Following on from this the last taste of India would be the sumptuous 16th Century pre-curser to the Taj Mahal. Humanyun's tomb. A more robust and emphatic version of the taj mahal. Humanyun is a proud and bold man of a building. With chin out and chest upright the building saluted me farewell.