Down on Delhi
Unfortunately, Delhi--which is the capital of India and is one of its biggest cities, with around 13 million people--isn't exactly the most welcoming place to start your Indian adventure. Our taxi driver from the airport dropped us in the wrong neighborhood, nowhere near the hotel we wanted, on purpose to try to get a commission from a travel agency there that would then "help" poor us find a room in this area we didn't want to be in. Ugh.
One overpriced autorickshaw ride later, we finally did get to the right area, and were so tired we just took the first hotel room we were shown, which was kind of a dump. After a few hours of sleep, we ventured out onto the streets, where 1,000 cars, bikes, motorcycles, autorickshaws, and cycle rickshaws coming from all directions immediately attempted to jump three lanes* to run us over.
(*In India, lanes exist in theory only.)
Yes, the traffic in Delhi is horrific. It's crazier than Cairo. It's louder than Lagos. It's something-bad-that-starts-with-a-k-er than Kampala. Delhi also challenges Kampala for the title of filthiest city ever, with more trash in the streets than anyplace I've ever been. I also found it amazing that such a huge city could manage to smell so uniformly like pee. Welcome to India!
Nevertheless, we managed to amuse ourselves for the couple of days we spent in Delhi. In between shopping for essentials (India guidebook, new shoes for Andy, train tickets to our next couple of destinations), we did a lot of eating and a bit of sightseeing.
On our first night in town, we went to "Dances of India," which, you may have guessed, is a show of various Indian dances. Some were better than others, but the costumes were always fun.One of the best dances told a long story about a Hindu god disguised as a beautiful woman who tricked the devil into self-destructing. It was hard to pick a favorite part of the devil's costume, but his fangs probably win out in the end.
We also visited the India gate, which I believe is is a memorial to fallen Indian soldiers. It was pretty at dusk, and crawling with Indian tourists.
These guys were soldiers (or maybe police?) guarding the area. Who knew that a pink turban and matching pinstriped pants could look so manly? I keep trying to get Andy to try a similar outfit, but so far, he won't bite.
Rockin' stache? Check. Penis-shaped hat? Check. This guy is now officially qualified to dispense sex advice.
The next day, we visited the Red Fort, which is in the older section of Delhi (appropriately known as Old Delhi). It's really more of a complex of palaces built by Shah Jahan (the Mughal ruler who was also responsible for the Taj Mahal) than a fort. The inner buildings were mostly white marble, but the outside was red, I promise.
Much of the marble was inlaid with semiprecious stones in gorgeous designs. Andy and I have agreed to inlay our future palace in a similar way.
Here are the outer walls of the fort. See, I told you it was red! Red sandstone, to be exact. The Red Fort dates from the 1600s, in case you were curious.
Delhi (and northern India in general) has a lot of green parakeets. They contrasted nicely with the redness of the fort.
This was our favorite sign on the Red Fort grounds. You only have to be in India one day to realize that spitting is just as much of a public nuisance as smoking and littering. Andy was especially impressed with how far this cartoon man projected his saliva...
Old Delhi's "other" big attraction is the Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India. Since it's a house of worship, they can't charge admission, but they do try to hit tourists with a $4 charge for bringing in a camera, and they tried to make me put on a robe even though my hair was covered and I was wearing long pants. These two policies both annoyed me, so I stayed outside with the banned camera while Andy went inside to check things out. He tells me the inside wasn't so interesting, anyway. Here is the outside of the main entrance.
Across the street from the Red Fort is this funky structure that we later learned is a Jain temple. If you don't know anything about Jainism, you should look it up sometime. (The basic tenet is respecting all life, so many Jains sweep the road before them and cover their mouths to avoid stepping on or inhaling insects.) Anyway, cool building.
The main part of the Jain temple was closed when we went inside, but we were still allowed to visit the bird hospital, where those life-respectin' Jains take injured birds they find to be healed. The hospital contained about five interesting birds mixed in with a few hundred pigeons.
In the newer section of Delhi (yes, you guessed it: New Delhi!) we squeezed in a visit to Humayun's tomb before catching our night train (that's why we've got all of our bags in this picture). It predates the Taj Mahal (it's from the mid-1500s) and is made mostly from red sandstone. There are other fancy tombs in the same complex. It's definitely worth checking out if you're ever in Delhi, and is probably even nicer if 1) it's not getting dark out and 2) you're not lugging all your earthly possessions around on your back while visiting.
On to our first (of many) night trains in India--this one's heading to Amritsar. We were only able to get berths in Sleeper class, which we'd been warned can be sort of unsavory. Unlike many of the better classes, it's not air-conditioned, so I imagine it could be miserable in summer, but it was actually just fine in winter, and our compartment-mates were a friendly group of young Indian guys with whom we chatted about America (one guy was appalled at the "rumor" he'd heard that Americans aren't allowed to beat their children--we had to confirm that one for him). Here I am on my bunk.As it turns out, Sleeper can vary widely--since that first trip, we've been in a crowded, roach-infested sleeper car (Varanasi-Umaria) and a new, sparkling clean ones (Khajuraho-Agra)--lucky since in that one, we were sleeping on the floor. But that's a story for another post...
As I mentioned, our next destination was Amritsar. It is north of Delhi, in the state of Punjab; it's the Sikh capital of India, and is famous for its beautiful Golden Temple. The day we got there, there seemed to be some kind of festival going on, with many brightly-dressed kids singing and dancing in groups in the street! Maybe it was the 'Welcome Tara and Andy to Amritsar' Fest?
Thanks to the Sikhs' commitment to inclusiveness and encouragement of pilgrimage to their holiest site, the Golden Temple, everything about your visit there is free. Not only do you get to visit the temple and surrounding buildings for free, but you eat free (delicious, vegetarian) meals (including dessert!) in the giant communal cafeteria, there's a free shuttle taking you to and from the railway station, and you can even sleep for free in their on-site hostel complex. Basically, if you can get yourself to Amritsar, you don't need to spend another penny for your entire visit. (No wonder the pilgrims come in droves!)
As if all of that weren't reason enough to visit, the temple itself is breathtakingly beautiful.
Walking into the Golden Temple complex was the perfect antidote to all of that Delhi craziness. You need to be barefoot and have your head covered, so we left our shoes and socks at the enormous shoe-check, walked through some ritual cleansing water, and picked up our complimentary saffron-colored doo-rags. Ready for the temple!
The temple itself (which is plated with a reported 750 kilograms of pure gold!) is fairly small and is found out in the center of a man-made water tank called the pool of nectar. It's got some pretty koi in it, and a lot of pilgrims take a dunk. We didn't, but it certainly looked cleaner than the Ganges. Law and order around the pool of nectar was kept by some fierce-looking Sikh guards with big spears.
The temple itself is reached by a bridge, which can get very crowded during the day. The vast majority of visitors were Indians, so Andy and I were a bit of a curiosity, and many people wanted to meet us and shake our hands. Pictures aren't allowed inside the temple, but trust me, it totally lives up to the promise of the exterior, and is filled with chanting pilgrims--a very peaceful place.
In Delhi and in Amritsar (and pretty much everywhere else we've been in India since), Indians have asked us to pose in pictures with them. We were warned by our friends Megan and Ben that this would happen all the time, so we were kind of prepared, but it still amuses us that so many people would like a souvenir cell-phone photo of themselves with a couple of random white people.
Even better, though, is the occasional person who doesn't even have a camera, but wants us to take a photo with him on our camera--not for money, which would be the case in such a situation in Africa or the Middle East most of the time, but just to be in a picture! Our absolute favorite was this guy at the Golden Temple, who spoke no English, but still communicated quite clearly that he wanted to be in a picture. And Andy didn't matter, he only wanted to be with me. Maybe because our headgear matched so nicely?
The other fun thing to do in Amritsar, if you can tear yourself away from the Golden Temple, is to visit the nearby border with Pakistan for the daily border-closing ceremony. At most international borders, they don't let you take photos, but at this one, it's not only allowed, but encouraged! There are actually grandstands on either side of the border so hundreds of citizens and tourists can come cheer on their border guards as they perform a ridiculous show of goose-stepping, flag-lowering, and gate-slamming every afternoon.
As if that weren't fun enough, the Indian border guards wear ridiculous fan hats!
Not to be outdone, the Pakistani guards also wear fans on their heads. Honestly, considering the political relationship between these two countries, we kind of can't believe that this competition between gun-wielding soldiers backed by patriotic screaming crowds happens every single day without incident, but, impressively, it does!
Here we are back in Amritsar (no, moms, we didn't cross into Pakistan) with the Indian friends we made in the shared taxi to the border. They were on their honeymoon, too!
The Golden Temple is open late, so we went back to check it out at nighttime. (Not too hard, as our hotel was less than a block away.) It is lovely all lit up, and the line to get in is much shorter, too!
Not to be outdone by the Sikhs in Amritsar (except, truth be told, they still totally are), the Hindus have a temple in a water tank, too. It's sometimes known as the Silver Temple because of its ornately carved silver doors. We paid it a visit on our second day in town. The doors were pretty nice!
Hello, Ganesh! This carving over the doorway of the Hindu temple was our first encounter with that religion's elephant-headed god of good fortune.
Here's the Silver Temple from across its moat. Not bad, but no Golden Temple.
Andy and I were really popular for group photos at the Silver Temple, too.
The guy on the right stopped me from taking the picture until he'd pulled his hoodie off to reveal his excellent saffron-colored turban.
That evening, we got back on the train for the journey to Varanasi. We were lucky enough to get 3rd class AC tickets for that journey, which made things a little quieter and more comfortable than Sleeper would have been, which was nice, since that journey was 25 hours long. Not our longest haul ever (those honors go to two different 32-hour bus rides we took in South America), but it's up there!
Andy will pick up the tale of our Indian adventures in Varanasi. I'll finish up here by highly recommending that, if you go to India, you minimize your time in Delhi and make sure you visit Amritsar. And take warm clothes to bundle up against that Indian winter!