2 Indias. A land of contrast
Text and photos by Luc Jones
Every country has the bits that make its people proud, and also the parts that they’d rather you didn’t see. The French consider the Champs-Elysees to be the most beautiful avenue in the world, but try to pretend that the immigrant-populated banlieues didn’t exist, and likewise a fair chunk of the British economy depends on the millions of tourists who flock to visit the famous tourist sights dotted across the land but will warn you stay away from the many sink estates lest you emerge with stab wounds. If you have the pleasure of a trip to North Korea (which I did in 2009), you’ll be strictly shepherded around the places which the state wants you to admire, but prying eyes will be kept well away from what’s not on the agenda. Just don’t ask your guides to take you to a gulag or you may end up in one.
Former Soviet Union countries are harder ones to nail down. Nowadays there are fewer restrictions on where foreigners can venture although expensive visas, lack of English signage and a general apathy keep tourists away from all but the most famous attractions; probably Chernobyl was the weirdest destination I’ve have the “pleasure” of seeing, and for obvious reasons it’s well sealed off and not a place that you can just rock up to and wander around in. But India is a different kettle of fish entirely since the good, the bad and the ugly are all mixed in together and there’s nowhere for anything to hide.
Unless you’re on a charter flight to Goa or Kerala, the most logical way to reach India is on Aeroflot’s scheduled service to Delhi as it leaves Moscow early evening and conveniently arrives in the very early hours of the next morning. No, I’m not being sarcastic; you might resent being woken up in the middle of your sleep but your taxi will whisk you into downtown Delhi with little fuss and you can hit the sack again, this time in a bed. It’s only when you rise (again) the following morning and look out of your window that you’ll thank your lucky stars you chose this method. And you haven’t even been outside yet!
India is nuts. It’s completely chaotic, absolutely heaving with people, all of whom seem to be on the move everywhere you look, and every one of them going in different directions, carrying treble their bodyweight in hoards of junk of some description. Forget Kievsky vokzal at rush hour; that is baby school, you might as well be in Chukotka. I thought I’d seen it all when experiencing the hustle of Tokyo, the bustle of Manila and traffic in Jakarta, but Delhi tops the lot, being all three in one and on an even grander scale. Nevertheless somehow, and I’ve yet to work out this particular mystery, the place seems to function. To put things in perspective, when India became independent from Britain in 1947, the population stood at under 300 million; just a little over two generations later and they’re about to overtake the Chinese, at 1.2 billion. Sure, China’s controversial one-child policy has kept the population more or less static for the past three decades but across the border there’s no stopping the Indians.
Ease yourself in by beginning in New Delhi, built by the British a century ago and unashamedly full of colonial pomp, but a sign of the mark that the colonialists left on the country. If you’re pushed for time you can cram the key sights into a couple of days as most are relatively central, and leave yourself enough room for dinner and drinks in the evenings, which is equally worthwhile. One spot definitely not to be missed is the Qutb Minar which stands 72.5m tall and dates back to 1198 (OK, it’s been patched up a bit since then, but you get the picture: it’s an impressive monument) and Humanyun’s tomb, built in 1570 and excellently preserved, is also worth a glance as it’s on the way back into the centre of town. Definitely set aside a few hours for the massive Red Fort, and when you finally thought that this was the quiet, peaceful country which attracted the Beatles, delve into the nearby market which will give a new meaning to the concept of the “tolkuchka”. You’ll walk out with armfuls of goods you didn’t know you needed, but they all make fantastic gifts. Silk scarves are always a winner (bargain hard, these guys would give the Egyptians a run for their money) as well as sweets and spices.
Agra is the obvious first port of call outside of Delhi, and although it’s only 200 kilometers away, count on the car journey taking around 5 hours. Strap yourself in; it could be a bumpy ride! The road itself isn’t too bad, your main worry is people crossing it anywhere and everywhere; trucks stopping where they feel like it (hey, they’re bigger so they can do what they like). Break the journey with a decent meal. You’ll notice that many restaurants serve vegetarian food only, but given the combination of the heat and poor hygiene, your stomach might just thank you for this. Carnivores should hang on until they reach the swankier places.
India has many jewels but certainly the best known, and definitely the most photographed is the Taj Mahal, where you will find superlatives abounding. Construction began in 1631 and famously was a present from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to his favourite wife—yes, favourite. In such haste to photograph it in all its splendour, it seems to escape many people’s attention that the Taj is in fact a Muslim mausoleum for when his beloved Mumtaz Mahal passed away (although she had to hang around for another 17 years before it was finally completed). I guess it was worth the wait. Ironically it cannot be used for prayer as it faces away from Mecca, but don’t let that worry you. In fact your main concern will be getting up while it’s still dark to watch the sun rise over this beautiful structure, and braving the crowds of fellow tourists to catch a snap in prime position, that is with its perfect reflection in the water at the front.
A short drive from the Taj Mahal is Agra, which is two millennia older and equally worth the entrance money now that you’ve come all this way. If you’re not convinced, the panoramic views of the Taj from the top of the fort should do the trick. Apparently plans were made to build a similar, but black Taj Mahal on the other side of the river but it never materialised, although you can picture the glory in your mind from here.
You can either travel around India as a college backpacker or you have a bit more cash you can do it five star. Either way you’ll see both Indias as they intersect everywhere you go. But do be sure to go and you’ll see that there just a little bit more to India than your local curry house on the High Street—which is probably run by Bangladeshis anyway!
Getting there: Aeroflot fly daily from Moscow to Delhi starting from as little as roubles 16,000 return including taxes, although be warned that these fares shoot up during holidays periods. Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways all run regular services with a change of planes at their respective Middle Eastern hubs
Getting in: Everyone (unless you are an Indian national or have a Nepalese passport) needs a visa and they must be obtained in advance. Yet by CIS standards they’re relatively easy to obtain. The Indian visa outsource centre by Metro Sukharevskaya will sort you one out within a few days; find out more at: www.ttsvisas.ru
Staying there: Night-time India caters for everyone, from migrant workers who get by on a dollar a day to those who have money to burn. Accommodation ranged from doss-houses to top of the range palaces fit for a king.
Spending there: The currency is the Indian Rupee and ubiquitous ATMs will usually dispense local banknotes from foreign debit and credit cards. Failing that, there are plenty of mini “obmen valyuty” points, especially in touristy areas. $1 = INR50 which makes life easy. Euros and British pounds are also easy to change but leave your roubles in your bag.
Getting around: Get a car with a driver. You’ll still travel at the same speed as just about everyone else (except that pushbike whizzing past you) but for sanity’s sake just trust me on this one. And it’s not expensive.
Eating there: Don’t fear you’ll be restricted to curry, you will, but there are an almost infinite variety, and that’s a large part of the reason for coming here, dummy! Pick the right places and you’ll understand why the it’s become the favourite dish of the United Kingdom.
Speaking there: India might boast 845 languages but Hindi is mostly what you’ll hear in and around Delhi. Fortunately, several centuries of British rule mean that it’s English which unites the subcontinent. Educated Indians speak it exceptionally well, as do those who work with, or try to tout from, foreign tourists, although those from lower castes may not.