Warning: This post is over long, please continue only if you have lots and lots of time to spare, and a cup (or two) of coffee with you! It might make you feel sleepy too!
Connaught Place in Delhi...not a difficult place to go around (for its round!) but quite tough to find the places you want to find, especially when you are a visitor and have been there only once before. We took the wrong turn at first instance and just could not find the "Delhi Darshan" counter that we were after - to purchase tickets for the one-day city tour of Delhi. Asked a few "locals" and were pointed to certain directions, or "behind" certain buildings but to no avail. Finally we arrive in front of a tiny counter, the signboard reading "Delhi city tour, Agra and Jaipur tour", etc. Ask the person standing outside about "Delhi Darshan" and he responds we arrived at the right place. This was the "Delhi Darshan" counter (which we later found out wasn't really, but apparently they are all the same, difference only in their names!). Anyway, we were told the city-tour bus left just minutes ago, but he could call it back to pick us up if we want to go. We were charged 175 rupees each - 350 for two of us (50 rupees more per ticket than what someone we knew had paid the day before as we later found out - we didn't bargain on the price that was written clearly on the price information...we should have!!) and we wait outside for the bus that has just been hailed back minutes after it started the city tour!
The bus arrives...it is coloured all white with "Sahara" written on the side and at the back in black letters. There is no sign to say its the "Delhi Darshan" city-tour - of course it wasn't and we were just duped into thinking it was, and made to pay for it. We were not even fully inside the bus, it starts moving and we had to make our way to the back to find the only empty seats amid the bus's twists, turns and sudden brakes in the Delhi traffic. We look around to see fellow "tourists", all of whom were Indians except one poor guy with a Mongolian face, who turned out to be a Canadian (although rest of the Indians thought/believed he was a Chinese all the way)!
The tour started with the guide's assistant collecting our tickets (so we had nothing in our hand to say we've paid for the tour if they had kicked us out mid-way!), then the guide introduced himself in a mixture of Hindi and Hinglish (Indian English). I don't know how much the Canadian guy understood (later we found out very little!) but we could comprehend what we was saying. Our first stop was to be the Laxmi-Narayan Mandir, also known as Birla Mandir, after the person who funded the construction of the huge temple. I have never seen such intense security procedure to enter a temple! We had to deposit every sort of electronic equipments (camera, phone, mp3 players, even USB flash drives!) at a booth just outside the main entrance. After that we had to pass through an x-ray-gate installed just before the entrance to get into the temple. Of course like most Hindu temples, shoes are not allowed in the main premises. So there was a shoe khana on the right, where everybody went to deposit their shoes (deposited for free), and get an identity token for their shoes. We went in there, and honestly it was revolting as soon as we entered the room. I have no idea how the poor chap who was working behind the counter survived in that intense smell of thousands of peoples' smelly shoes all day!! We deposited our shoes as soon as we could and hurried to the main floor. We were told by the tour guide that we only had a total of 30 minutes at this temple, and we had already spent half that going through the elaborated security procedure and the shoes deposition.
The Laxmi-Narayan Mandir in Delhi- entrance to the main complex
We first paid visit to the main deities in the temple - Laxmi-Narayan, then made a quick-whirl tour of the four corners and other "smaller" complexes within the temple. Worried the tour bus might leave us behind, we headed back to the bus, only to find ourselves among the first to return from the temple! Seeing we could speak English, as well as understand Hindi and Hinglish, the Canadian guy joined us from then on!
The next stop, after a long ride and "sightseeing from the bus windows", was Indira Gandhi Museum - set in the bungalow that she used to live in. It was small, crowded with visitors and mostly showcasing newspaper cuttings than anything else. Her living room/study seemed well preserved (probably in its original state), but other than that I didn't find it particularly interesting. When I think about it now, probably because it was overcrowded with visitors and I couldn't go around there as I wished, taking my time. So I made a quick round of the house through the designated "corridors" and returned to the bus - again being among the first to do so!
Clever Delhi visitors - sight seeing from a three-wheeler. We later realised we should have gone for this option as well, and hired one of these for the day. For two person, it would have been not so expensive and excellent way to "see Delhi". For three, it would even have come cheaper than the tour bus!
After IG Museum, we were taken to see the Rastrapati Bhawan (President's Residence), and then the India Gate (the War Memorial Gate). The commentary from the tour guide was in Hindi, so either my friend or I had to translate it to our Canadian friend. The commentary mainly included how big was the presidential palace, how many rooms were there and so on, and very little about who built it, how and in how much time! Before we got off to see the palace, there was an announcement from the guide - there was a in-house photographer who could take "great photographs" for cheap if we wanted him to take our pictures in the presidential palace area!! Each photograph would cost 30 rupees. Three of us opted not to and we went about our own way, taking pictures as we pleased. The guide soon caught up with us "foreigners", and thinking he could convince us to use the service of the in-house photographer, started to explain how great the photographer was and how good pictures he would take. Of course all his convincing went unheard as we didn't want to be "served". He left us in peace after a few minutes and we finished taking pictures and headed back to the bus.
A section of the presidential palace
We cleverly avoided our guide in the next stop - the India Gate (or War Memorial Gate) - and went our way taking pictures. Actually my friend and I had visited it the day before, so we were basically giving our Canadian friend the company here. I took a few (more) snaps around the gate, and took quite a few of that King George's memorial (from which they apparently removed the statue and took it to London - according to our tour guide, it was taken back after India gained independence!). Again, we "finished looking at the India Gate" pretty quick and got on the bus.
India Gate (formerly known as the All India War Memorial) from behind a wire fence
King George's Memorial (minus the statue) and India Gate...Two visitors walking in-sync on the foreground
The next stop was "Tamil Nadu House" - not any special museum or anything like that, we were taken there for lunch - of course we had to pay. I don't know what neighbourhood was it in, but all the buildings in there were named after one of the states of India. May be because south Indian dishes are very nice, Tamil Nadu House was the one that served food. We ordered "vegetarian thali" and from among the freshly squeezed fruit juice, we asked for pomegranate (only other was orange!). Richard, our Canadian friend turned out to be allergic to dairy products so we first ordered some Dosa for him, but then he said he would try "vegetarian thali" minus the yoghurt. So we ordered him that and shared yoghurt among ourselves! The food was good and hungry as we all were by that time, we all enjoyed it. When we got the bill, we were shocked - not because the food was expensive but because of this amazing price for food and drink...the price of "thali" was 50 rupees, but that of a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate was 74 rupees! So we paid 124 rupees each for us and Richard paid 50 rupees!
After lunch, we were again the first ones to get on the bus...we waited for nearly 15 minutes before everybody else came and we moved on. We were heading towards old Delhi now, first to Qutub Minar, then to Lotus Temple and Raj Ghat (memorial to Mahatma Gandhi) on the way before ending the tour at the Lal Qila (the Red Fort). Just as we could see the Qutub Minar at a distance, our tour bus took a wrong turn. At first we thought it was a mistake, but we soon realised it was intended turn as our guide started to explain how wonderful place he was taking us all to. I tell you it was one of the worst place I have ever been to - in the middle of a city tour, our guide was taking us to a shop which apparently sold cheap authentic goods, all made in Rajasthan. It had a signboard which said "Rajasthan Textile Development Corporation" (see photograph below), and we were given 30 minutes to get in there and "make the most of our time", which meant buy as much stuffs as we wanted. I didn't even want to get in there but since we were here and would be here a bit, I decided to have a quick look inside. That was exactly what Richard and I did and we were back in the bus in no time. Now it was a waiting game. 30 minutes passed, then 45 minutes when other people finally started getting on the bus, then 1 hour passed and still no sign of moving. When everybody was on the bus, our guide was still inside, it was clear that he was bargaining for his share in the shop for bringing these "tourists" to a shop which is located in the middle of nowhere! After another 15 minutes or so, the bus finally started moving. We were in front of the Qutub Minar within 5 minutes!
An unintended (for us) tour destination - showroom of everything Rajasthani!
We got off from the bus and are given another 30 minutes to view Qutub Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world! We rush towards the entrance. There was a huge queue, and an entrance fee to get in. Thinking the entrance fee was same for all, I volunteer to go get three tickets for 10 rupees each. We had to go through the x-ray-gate again and once on the other side, there were a couple of guards checking our tickets. After I passed through the gate, I hear the guard asking an Indian gentleman in front of me a number of questions. I didn't know why at that time but they sounded interesting so I listened. (Translated from Hindi that the conversation was in.)
Guard - "What nationality are you, sir?
Gentleman - "I am Indian of course"
Guard - "Indian? Which state are you from?"
Gentleman - "Gujarat"
Guard - "Really? Which city in Gujarat?"
Gentleman - "Surat"
Guard - "Okay. Who is the chief minister of Gujarat?"
Gentleman - "Narendra Modi of course. Does everybody needs to know their chief minister's name to get entry here?"
Guard - "Just making sure sir that you are really an Indian"
It was funny to listen to that conversation, but fortunately I was let through without even looking at the ticket that I was holding, and I wasn't even an Indian!
Richard wasn't lucky however, and he was pulled aside straight away - probably his "Chinese-looking" face betrayed him. Apparently the guard told him that being a foreigner, he had to purchase a $5 entrance ticket. He pointed to me and told a guard I had bought everybody the ticket and that he didn't know there was discriminatory pricing (unfortunately, I didn't know until that moment either!). The guard called me back as well.
Guard - "Kaha ke rahne wale hain aap?"
Me (surprised to be spoken to in Hindi) - "Sorry?"
Guard - "Which country do you belong?"
Me - "Oh, I'm from Nepal"
Guard - "OK, you can go sir"
Me - "Thank you"
And thus I continued towards the minaret. Richard wasn't let through but my friend joined me without much trouble. We decided to wait for Richard, thinking he would go back and purchase a $5 entrance ticket. There was no sign of him, either at the entrance or outside the crowded ticket counter, so two of us proceeded towards the minaret. The drama at the entrance probably cost us 15 minutes so we only had another 15 minutes or so to view the minaret and the remains of the old buildings/forts within the premise. Qutub Minar is really magnificent. This massive structure of red bricks built so many centuries ago, and still looking in great shape just takes your breath away. I tried to look at the top of the Minar but it was difficult from up close. There was no chance of capturing the whole minaret from anywhere near either. I needed an ultra wide-angle lens for that, surely. I tried my best to capture as much of the minaret as I could using my camera, and by trying from various points within the premise. Below is one of my favourite shot, taken from quite close to the minaret and looking almost vertically up!
Magnificent red-brick minaret - up close!
In among the ruins there are nice grassy lawns and some trees as well, and we saw lots of tiny squirrels, who didn't seem to get scared with the visitors at all. They were certainly very much used to seeing strangers with cameras around their neck or wrist. I couldn't help taking a few shots of those cute creatures!
Small furry mammals - wildlife at Qutub Minar!
We took quite a few pictures around Qutub Minar and probably didn't even notice how long we stayed in there. After we realised we have overstayed our 30 minutes by quite some time, we rushed back towards our bus. Just as we got out of the main entrance, we saw our bus leaving. We rushed towards it and had to get on the moving bus! We didn't miss...As we settled in our seats (again the back seats as our usual seat was already occupied - probably those who were occupying them thought we weren't coming back!), we asked Richard what happened. Seeing huge line at the ticket counter after he was returned from the gates, he decided not to bother and stayed on the bus all that time...poor guy...
Our next stop was to be another of Delhi's famous landmarks - the Lotus Temple. We knew we weren't going to get too much time at this place when our guide "ordered" us to take off our shoes in the bus itself and go to the temple bare-footed. Furthermore, we were given 15 minutes to "see the temple" and get back on the bus - if late he would leave our shoes at a store nearby the gates and the bus would leave! What a threat? Seeing the crowd outside, we decided not to go inside the temple, so got off the bus with our shoes on. I just wanted to capture a few images of the temple as the light from the sun that was about to set was making the temple look even more beautiful. That's exactly what I did - took a few snaps of the temple, of my friend and asked my friend to take a few shots of myself, then we got back on the bus. The day was already nearing its end, and we still had two places to visit - Raj Ghat and the Lal Quila.
Lotus Temple at sunset
By the time we arrived at the Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, it was getting dark. We deposited our shoes at the gate (2 rupees each or something - Richard paid!), and hurried to the memorial where there is a marble platform and an eternal flame. There was a shaman chanting "Hey Ram" (believed to be the last words of Mahatma Gandhi). We paid our respects to one of the great leaders of the last century and hurried back to the bus. We wanted to make sure we had time to see the Red Fort, which was now looking increasingly impossible.
Raj Ghat - a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi
Again, we waited and waited on the bus but it showed no sign of moving...there were swarms of mosquitoes flying outside every windows of the bus. I made sure the windows next to my seat were tightly shut. By the time the bus left Raj Ghat for Lal Quila, it was completely dark. As the bus started moving, our guide gave us two options - drop off at the Lal Quila, look around, and may be go to a sight and sound show inside (for a fee), and make our own way back to wherever we were staying. Or stay on the bus and it would take us back to Connaught Place! The Fort was already closed for the day, so there wasn't a chance to get inside to look around, except for the sight and sound show for an entrance fee...we were basically duped here as well, for one of the landmarks I really wanted to see and spend some time at was this fort! Anyway, we decided to get off the bus at the fort and make our own way back later on. Richard came along. We were dropped off the bus a mile away from the main gate, as we found out later after we had to walk that mile through the dark, smelly street - but full of street vendors with lanterns on their vending carts! It was wonderful seeing that magnificent fort at night nonetheless, but we were left imagining how it would have looked during the day's sun. I took some snaps, although without a tripod, it was very difficult to get any focussed long exposure shots. Tried my best and a couple of shots came okay!
Lal Quila (The Red Fort) at night - this is all we could see of it!!
At the fort entrance, we asked this guard (a policeman) whether we could get in just for a peek. He first said it was closed but then suggested he could get us in if we really wanted to. Basically he was asking for some "baksheesh", especially seeing Richard with us two. We thought about his proposal but decided against it, for there could be others like him inside who might ask for more baksheesh once we're inside the fort after it was officially closed. And regretfully, our day ended without being able to see one of the most famous landmarks of Delhi, properly!!
View from the auto - on the way back to Connaught Place
Outside, we hailed an auto to take us three to the Connaught Place - Richard's hotel was right there as it turned out! We agreed on a price of 60 rupees (or was it 50!?!). Anyway, we got on and the driver hurried us towards the centre of Delhi, little did we know that we were in for a long drive! For when Richard told our driver the name of his hotel, he had no idea where it was. Even when he gave exact address of the hotel showed the driver the map, he just couldn't figure out where it was! When we were at a traffic (see picture above), there was another auto in front of us, and our driver got out to ask the driver of that auto for the direction.
We thought he gave our driver the direction, but after we were through the traffic light, we saw that another auto following us. Within few seconds, that auto came to one side and the two drivers started chatting. We could just make out what that other driver was asking in Hindi. He was asking how much were we paying for the fare, and if he could help get us to where we wanted (for a cut in the fare it must have been!). Anyway, our driver seemed to be getting annoyed with this other driver's antics, and tried to evade him. In doing so, he seemed to make a wrong turn, unfortunately.
We were now in a dark back street, and worried, we asked our driver if he knew where he was heading. Luckily, we arrived in front of a big (probably 4-star) hotel, and there were quite a few people - mostly auto drivers - standing at the front gate. Just as our auto pulled up, that other driver came out of nowhere and asked us for our address (i.e., where we wanted to go in Connaught Place). Richard pulled out a sheet with his hotel address and a map, which, that other driver snatched from his hand and rushed towards the gate (apparently to find the light to read!). We told our driver to go and get that sheet, and Richard told the driver that if he cannot find the exact location of the hotel, he could take us all to Rajiv Chowk (at the centre of Connaught Palace) and we would walk from there.
Our driver went and got the sheet back, and also said with a smiling face that he now knew exactly where Richard's hotel was - next to the Tourist Information Centre. Richard told him that was what he had been telling him all along (and he was!). Anyway, within a couple of minutes, we arrived at Richard's hotel and dropped him off there. Now we had to go to our hotel - the YMCA Tourist Hostel. We asked the driver how much extra would he charge. He said another 30 rupees - that for a 3-minute ride! We decided to get off instead at Rajib Chowk and walk to our hotel...30 rupees saved! But also an end to an extraordinary day...fortunately without any more mishaps. We both learnt our lesson - never to take a city tour bus in Delhi again. Just hire an auto for the day and go where you please, when you please!!
PS. I took this Delhi city tour bus on 17 December 2006. I had started to write this a while ago but just managed to complete it with all the photographs etc. I'll be posting some selected photographs from my Delhi trip in my photoblog here.