Even from the very beginning, there was red tape. At the Air Asia X check-in at KLIA, the counter staff asked us for a visa. It seems that not a lot of people use India’s visa-on-arrival facilities so the staff was still thinking twice whether to board us on the flight. But we eventually argued our way through.
We landed at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport after a flight time of approximately 5 hours. Their terminal seriously reminds me of Changi – the carpeting and signage look like they’re copied down to a tee. But I do have to hand it to them – DEL is really pleasing to the eyes. The visa-on-arrival desk is hidden in one of the obscure corners of the terminal and took us a while to find. With only 1 guy manning the booth, it took us nearly an hour to get our visas.
delhi’s red fort
I had booked a hotel close to the Red Fort which came with free airport pick-up. This free pick-up turned out to be a rickety old van with a driver who spoke no English and had a tendency to snap back at us. It took us about an hour to reach the hotel, after making several turns here and there and several attempts to show him the way (I had Google Maps) with him not listening. Despite this, he still had the nerve to ask for a tip.
intricately-decorated columns in the red fort
Our hotel was advertised to be close to some of the main sights of Delhi including the Red Fort and Jameh Masjid – which is true. But this also means that the hotel is located in Chandni Chowk – which is the most chaotic place I have seen. It is like 5 times the chaos of Manila’s Divisoria. Constant honking, pedestrians competing for space with sacred cows, bikes, rickshaws and construction workers. It was urban madness on a level that I have not seen before! Despite this, the hotel gets pretty good reviews – one reviewer calls it “a gem in the midst of chaos” which is an apt description for the place. As I said, the good thing about the hotel is its proximity to the Red Fort, so despite arriving in the city in mid-afternoon, we still had some time to go to this nearby sight.
still inside the red fort… images of maharajas come to mind
The Red Fort or Lal Qila is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating back from the 1600’s. It was built during the Mughal era by Shah Jahan (the same emperor who had the Taj Mahal built). We entered through the main entrance – the Lahore gate – so called because the road from there used to lead all the way to Lahore, another important city during the Mughal Empire and now part of Pakistan. This was to be the first of three forts during our India trip, and looking back, I wasn’t too impressed with the Red Fort as compared to the others.
delhi’s metro trains are clean, efficient and cheap
We wanted to check out the Baha’i Lotus Temple that night and tried using Delhi’s metro system. Well, that was another shock. There was a snaking queue in the turnstiles. We were to discover later that Delhi’s metro stations all come with metal detectors / bag scanners and each and every passenger had to undergo several (relatively lax) inspections (think: airport inspections) before they could board the trains. That was the first thing. The second thing was that there was actually a ladies-only cart in each train. We didn’t realize that the first time we boarded as we were in a hurry and ended up boarding the ladies carriage. A couple of police officers then rounded us up and were about to penalize us before we pleaded that we were just clueless tourists. They eventually let us go. Whew!
the impressive jama masjid… it has a twin that looks almost exactly like it in lahore, pakistan
The next morning was our only full day in Delhi so we crafted an ambitious plan covering some 5 sights for that day, all to be done by public transport. We first went to Jama Masjid, which was only a short walk from our hotel. As this was a Sunday, the city seemed a lot more relax, with less honking and relatively less chaos in general. Like the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid is an impressive structure which is surrounded by this urban madness. Similarly dating back from the Mughal era, it is one of the most imposing mosques I have seen, a fine example of the mix between Indian and Persian architecture. It is easily one of my favorite sights during this India trip.
arabic writing on the minaret
We then went to Qutb Minar, situated in the city outskirts. Being almost a thousand years old, much of the surrounding monuments are in ruins but the original 72.5m minaret still stands. Today, it is recognized as one of the earliest examples of Muslim-influenced Indian architecture. It was built by Delhi’s first Islamic ruler after he was inspired by the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan which at the time, was built a few years earlier. The entire site can easily take 2 hours or more of one’s time but I honestly did not really like it, as much of it already lay in ruins.
the baha’i lotus temple in delhi which has won several architectural awards
It was already noon by the time we left the minaret, but we decided to check out one more place before delving for some chow. After our failed attempt last night in visiting the Lotus Temple, we went there again during the day just to have a quick snapshot. It’s a bit underrated, and not a lot of tourists come here despite being one of the most recognizable buildings in Delhi. One of my companions commented that the marble-clad “petals” resemble the concrete “shells” of the Sydney Opera House.
One of the unmissable sights in Delhi is Humayun’s Tomb, again another fine example of Mughal-era architecture. The building precedes Taj Mahal and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Taj was actually based from it. Entering it, I was reminded of the gardens I saw in Iran, complete with symmetrical designs, fountains in the middle, lots of trees and irrigation systems to source for water. Humayun’s Tomb is actually on the UNESCO World Heritage list on 2 counts, first for the monument itself and second as a Persian garden, along with Taj Mahal and several other gardens in Iran and Pakistan. The Islamic influence was very evident, from the bulbous domes to the arched doorways and windows. For a time, it felt like I was in some Muslim country rather than in India.
visiting india gate on a sunday
We ended the day relatively early by capping our Delhi tour with the India Gate, situated in the city’s civic district. For the longest time, I have wondered whether New Delhi is a separate city from Delhi. In reality, Delhi is one big sprawling city. Both names are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. But oftentimes, New Delhi is used when pertaining to the seat of India’s government. Most of the major government buildings are situated in the Civic District, near where India Gate is located. There is also a similar monument called Gateway of India which is located in Mumbai, but that’s another story.
After Delhi, our next stop was Agra and we were going by train. After the chaos we witnessed in Delhi, we really didn’t know what to expect next. But after my first 2 days in India, I realized what they say is true — any traveler, even a seasoned one, is in for a surprise once they visit India. There’s no country like it, and no other country (maybe except for other South Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh) can prepare you for a journey there!
How to get around: Delhi’s metro system is relatively clean and efficient. It is also very cheap. Prepaid cards are available from any station’s customer care office for Rs50 (refundable) plus minimum stored value of Rs50. I would strongly suggest getting one as queues to buy metro tickets can be unbearably long.