Hello from the Rajasthani hill fort city of Jaisalmer, which is over towards the border with Pakistan. We have just arrived here after a 19 hour overnight train ride from Delhi, and I've decided to take advantage of some free time we have before our orientation walk to update my blog on my 2 other days in Delhi.
I met my tour group on Friday evening, but prior to that I had the entire day to myself to do a bit more sightseeing. That was once the ultra friendly hotel owners had let me pay! They seemingly didn't want to take my money and were happy to stay for a chat with me over cup of chai (tea), which is by far the most popular drink here in India. I'm not usually a big tea drinker but I actually think the brew they made tasted considerably better than what I've had in England. One of the owners then drove me the 3 blocks to my new hotel, which was where I started my Intrepid tour. The hotel porter there was so on the ball that he had taken my bag out of the backseat of the car before we'd even stopped moving! I actually thought it had been stolen for a few seconds!
After having lunch in my room I then caught the metro back out to Connaught Place, and from there caught an autorickshaw to the Gandhi Smriti. Situated at Birla House, which was the place Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and was ultimately murdered at, the premesis has now been transformed into a permenant Gandhi memorial and museum. Annoyingly half of it seemed to be out of bounds for building work when I was there, including Gandhi's room as he left it, but they did have a really good section of models depicting the key moments in Gandhi's life. What he went through at the hands of the British Raj made pretty embarrassing viewing for me. Outside in the garden is the spot where Gandhi was killed by a Hindu zealot, who disagreed with Gandhi's stance that an independant India should be united and not partitioned - as it eventually was. It was marked by a a small memorial, which had Gandi's last footsteps leading up to it, which I think makes it especially poignant. It was a very peaceful place away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi's streets, and it was definitely a moving sight to see. There were lots of other Indians there paying there respects to the man seen as the father of the nation.
Following this I then caught another autorickshaw bound for India Gate, which is Delhi's version of the Arc du Triomph. I was then intending to walk up the Rajpath, which is a British constructed mall linking all the parliamentary institutions in Delhi, but on the way my driver offered to drive me the route, and a bit further, for a very reasonable price. What he neglected to tell me was that vehicles couldn't stop on the Rajpath, and couldn't go anywhere near the Indian parliament! As we drove past the prime minister's house for instance I had to jump out and quickly grab a photo whilst he went round in circles much to the annoyance of the heavily armed guards there! It was annoying I couldn't spend more time amongst the grand British buildings, but he was at least able to stop in the car park at India Gate, so I wasn't as rushed there. Despite angry looks from the police we were never pulled over, unlike my previous taxi driver. I neglected to mention in my last blog that my day driver was pulled over, along with just about every 3rd car, and given a 400 rupee fine for something! I had to pay it as he had no cash, which wasn't a problem as I hadn't yet paid for the tour. Every driver that was stopped was getting some sort of fine, and they simply referred to it as "road tax". The final stop on my rickshaw ride was Jantar Mantar, which is a park near Connaught Place containing the 17th Century ruins of an observatory. Quite how it was an observatory I don't know, but there were some interestingly shaped buildings to see. Two Indian girls followed me round at this point giggling to themselves. This was something that was pretty common in South East Asia, but it was very much a first for me here! The pair didn't speak English.
At 6pm I had to be back at the hotel for our opening group meeting with our leader Jitu, who seems like a very proper Indian gentlemen. He is only an Intrepid leader for 4 months of the year as the rest of the time he is away with the Indian territorial army, but he is from Rajasthan and knows all the places well. I was amazed to arrive at the meeting to find that our group was only 7 people out of a possible 12, and I was the only bloke! There are 3 English girls, an American, a Kiwi and an Irish woman. Not what I was expecting, but they're all of a similar age to me so it shouldn't be too bad.
The next morning Jitu took us on a walk around Old Delhi. We caught a rickety local bus there from our hotel, which is something I would never have done alone. It wasn't too crammed, but it was very bumpy and loud, and we all got stared at by the locals. I thought the men staring at me was bad, but compared to what the white girls get, its nothing. When we got off the bus a local man blatantly followed us until Jitu told him to go away, and one of the girls had a man put his head into her bum as she got up from her seat! They all reported previous cases of stalking on their pre tour days in Delhi.
Jitu took us first to Jama Masjid, which is the main mosque in Delhi, built by the same Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal. The Muslim Mughals from Mongolia were largely so successful in India because they were generally very tolerant of Hindu's. It wasn't until the last leader that any trouble flared up, and the legacy of their 250 year rule is evident everywhere in North India. Jama Masjid was a spectacular sight, and you could climb one of the towers for a great view all across Delhi. The girls were lucky that I was there though, as without a male escort they wouldn't have been allowed to ascend the tower! They also had to don hilarious and bright saris that covered their whole body before they were permitted entry.
After the mosque Jitu then escorted us on a walk through the very narrow and dark alleys of Old Delhi. They reminded me a lot of the alleys in the Rio favelas, with wiring everywhere, and without a guide I would never have thought to go down them. The sights we saw though were quintessential India. Jitu showed us a chai stall and a samosa maker, and we passed all kinds of different shops. The streets were so busy that I was repeatedly frustrated in my attempts to photograph the eccentric local transport, and in particular a person carrying a large load on their head. I still have 3 weeks to acheive this, but India is so busy somebody always seems to be in the way of my shot! Lastly we visited Delhi's main Sikh gurdwara, which was again something I would never have thought to go in had I not been on a tour. We sat in on the worshipers paying their respects to the holy book, and then were taken to the second key element of any gurdwara, which is the communal kitchen. All Sikhs, rich or poor, are required to do a service for their community, and most of them choose to work in the gurdwara kitchens where they make free meals for anyone that wants to eat them. We assisted in them baking naan bread, and I got some great photos of the turban wearing Sikh men helping out with the cooking.
Lastly we caught the metro back to Connaught Place, which is a corner of Delhi I really didn't like, and from there back to the hotel. Delhi's metro system is pretty new and the locals really haven't mastered how it works. When the doors open they react like they'll only stay open for 2 seconds, barging on and obstructing people trying to get off. Its a bit like a rugby scrum at the busiest station at the centre! One of the announcements on the metro also made me laugh. When you exit the station you have to deposit your token into a slot to open the barrier, and the voiceover advised "please deposit your token into the slot using your right hand". Everything aside from wiping your arse and blowing your nose is done with the right hand in India, and I suppose they'd be appalled if you dared to you your dirty left hand! Tough luck on any left handed people!
Our train left at 5.40pm from Old Delhi's busy railway station, which was awash with spitting men, as well as old men with dyed ginger hair (something remarkably common in India!). The carriages were much more primitive than those I had in Vietnam, but on the plus side the train made barely any noise. There were 3 bunks on each side, so you didn't have much head room, and all the carriage was open with no doors. We had to chain our luggage to the seats to make sure it wasn't stolen in the night. You could hear everything down the whole carriage, and I was woken up numerous times in the night, so didn't get a very good sleep.
We arrived into Jaisalmer on time (a rarity in India) at 11.30am. Jaisalmer is situated in the desert, and is a big miltary outpost being so close to Pakistan. The scenes we passed on the way in made me think I was in Afghanistan! Jaisalmer city though looks really nice, even if there are as many cows wandering the streets as people. We are staying within the old fort, and our hotel rooftop restaurant has great views across the surrounding flat desert. The fort itself is the sort of place you imagine Aladdin was set and I'm looking forward to exploring it in further detail over the next 2-3 days. On the third day we are taking an overnight camel safari into the Thar Desert, which should be an experience. I'll likely update after that. So far so good from India! I've not gotten ill, and despite the fact there is a lot of petty crime about, the place doesn't feel as threatening or intense as I'd previously imagined.