Saturday, March 12, 2011

India (2010), part1: New Delhi


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Route: New Delhi - Agra - Gwalior - Orcha - Goa-Palolem - Mumbai - New Delhi
Time: October 17 - November 7, 2010


I don't remember which of my friends gave the idea of the expedition to India. But is it important? I read a few guides, a dozen books, about travel as well as religion and daily life in this country, I surfed the blogs and forums.
For some time I've learned Hindi (it's my hobby). Armed with this knowledge, I went with friends into the unknown.

On Saturday, October 16, we take off from Cracow to Warsaw. We prefer not to take a risk with an early train (you know: Polish State Railways). We stop at Wojtek's place, who invites to dinner... colleague who had just returned from India. Well, we discuss over and over again what we've read in guidebooks... The next day before noon our plane takes off from Warsaw to Moscow. Here we have a little over 5 hours of waiting for another plane to New Delhi. Sheremetievo Airport is great, but there's no much to do here. ATMs are not working, money exchange machines neither. Only in one place they accept credit cards. Are you sure it's an international airport? We order, willy-nilly, some noodles and drink a disgusting coffee, probably the most expensive in my life.
Perhaps something to read to pass the time?
Not at all! Newspapers and books in Russian only, moreover, how to buy it, they only accept cash. But alcohol and perfumes can be purchased at will, and they accept cards there. Apparently the flights are only an addition to duty-free shopping.
Finally on the plane, clean, comfortable, only flight attendants don't smile. On the monitor above our heads we can see the route. Oh, we are just turning. Warm blankets, good nosh. Bedtime. Tomorrow will be a a tough day because we have to get used to the time lag, which is 5.5 hours. Apparently not much, but our bodies will feel the difference for sure.
There are no direct flights to India from Poland, but some airlines offer more or less convenient connections. In the autumn the cheapest tickets were sold by Finnair (via Helsinki) and Aeroflot (Moscow).

NEW DELHI
We land in Delhi on October 18 (Monday) just before six in the morning. This city is a real behemoth, with over 15 million inhabitants. 20 times more than Krakow, where we live. This is most noticeable when you have to take the subway, or actually you force inside, or when you are doing the shopping at the market. Clamp is an understatement. I've never been so battered. 

Red Fort, one of the main attractions of New Delhi
Indira Gandhi International Airport lies some 20 km from downtown, it's very modern, with red carpets and such stuff. We go through several check-in counters. It goes fast.
(Yet in a plane flight attendants gave us all forms to fill in, thus saving us time. We obtained the visa (184 PLN) in the Indian Embassy in Warsaw. That has changed since last autumn. Here's a link to a page with info: www.blsindiavisa-poland.com/content.php? pid = MTQ) We are looking for the official pre-paid taxi point. What is pre-paid? You pay in advance in the booth/stand, and you give the slip to the driver after reaching the destination, never before. An exception is the Delhi airport, because the taxi can't leave it, unless the driver shows a slip at the gate.
At the public pre-paid counter they tell me half the price paid by our friend we met at Wojtek's. - The price went higher – a man shrugs his shoulders seeing my astonishment. I know the Commonwealth Games just ended, but no kidding! I suspect they want to cheat us. In a private stand, next to the public one, the price is even higher. We swear and show we're offended and we pass them out of the building. The touts gather around us, rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, and God only knows who else. Our heads are spinning around and with the speed of a machine gun we shoot out in all directions "thank you" or "dhanyavad" ("thank you" in Hindi). After a short deliberation we go to the pre-paid booth outside the airport and pay 320 INR (at night, ie between 23 and 6 it would be higher by 25%). Several Indians managed to do that unceremoniously before I did. But I, a man of culture, peace of mind, with a smile no. 5 on my face. (In a few days I'll learn how to push my way as well as they do, perhaps better.) We arrive to the center in half an hour, because at this time the traffic is not huge. We didn't decide to go by bus, because all the guides and forums frighten us: crowd, discomfort and long drive. If someone chooses this way, here's the info:
*EATS (Ex Servicemans Airlink Transport Service), stops at major hotels and shops in the city; ticket: 50 INR + 25 INR for luggage. Stops at: Cashmere Gate, Connaught Place, Delhi Train Station. Buses are adjusted to flight schedule, run every hour, day and night.
*DTC, departs from Terminal 2, goes to the center, every hour; tickets: 50/25 INR.

A few words about transport
In New Delhi there are several railway stations. The most important is New Delhi where most trains stop, 10 minutes walk from the main shopping center Connaught Place, just opposite Paharganj (more about it later). Main Delhi station is in the old town, near the Red Fort. There is also Nizamuddin, where some trains to Agra depart. We took all the trains from New Delhi, so we had no problems with the humping backpacks. Yes, yes, backpacks. It's better not to take a suitcase on wheels, because apart from Delhi and Mumbai they won't have anything to roll on. In addition, the streets are full of garbage and I won't say what else.
Coaches depart from the Inter-State Bus Terminus at the Cashmere Gate, north of Delhi Main, from the station at Sarai Kale Khan near Nizamuddin Railway Station and from Anand Vihar in East Delhi. I don't know how it looks in practice, because we traveled only by trains.
You can move around the city by taxi, tuk-tuk (motorcycle rickshaw) or bicycle rickshaw. Alternatively, by subway, which was completed recently. Everything about it can be read in the Internet: www.delhimetrorail.com, and you can print a map with lines. You travel with a token or a re-chargeable card. Just remember that the subway is not a place to visit or to spend free time there. The time between entering and leaving one station may not exceed 20 minutes, and for different stations: 80 minutes. Remember: during peak hours there are merciless crowds here. To get off you have to start you way to the door at least two stops in advance, otherwise – no chance. Be careful, don't let the crowd push you back inside.

It's good to know
Tourist Information Office is located at 88 Janpath, near Connaught Place (opening hours: Mon-Fri 9-18, Sat 9-14). Staff is nice, but of not much help. Attention! There are many private bureaus in the city that you'd rather avoid them, because they're tourist agencies trying to sell expensive trips. In the Internet there are plenty of sites, blogs and forums that are worth reading before you go.

Accommodation and food
Delhi has a wide range of places to sleep and eat to suit every budget. “Budget” t
ourists choose the most Paharganj Baazar, opposite the railway station. While some guides advise that it's better not to stop here, we didn't have bad experiences here. We slept in the hotel's in the main street, we didn't enter the side alleys. You better avoid them, they look very meanly. Thus we don't have in store stories about hordes of rats and cockroaches running around the walls. Once we had a little cockroach on the bed, big thing! 

Paharganj Baazar, the place where most tourists stay
We slept in Hari Piorko, in the middle of the main street of Paharganj. Its distinguishing feature is the large aquarium in the doorway. There are also small aquariums in most rooms. A bit expensive for India, but close to anywhere, friendly service, a restaurant on the roof (a large selection of dishes), next to a big supermarket with cosmetics, souvenirs and various trinkets. In the fall they were preparing a rooftop swimming pool, so the prices probably will rise.
I won't elaborate much on food. I liked it, but it contains a lot of spices and is fairly spicy (but the guides are exaggerating, you can eat it). You must be aware that standards of hygiene in the premises are radically different than in Poland. But who is very fussy, he'll have to live on cookies from the store. Indians eat with hands, or rather with the right hand (the left is impure, because it serves some activities in the toilet). No wonder. I also ate with my hand. The looked at me strangely, that I overact or pretend to be like them, but since you can't be sure if eating utensils are clean, it's probably better to expose yourself to ridicule... Especially when I had no doubt about the cleanness of my hands after using a special liquid disinfectant or washing them (even the basest soup-kitchen has a knob to wash hands).
Guides advice not to drink tap water. Don't do it under any circumstances. Beware drinks with ice - it's better to avoid it, unfortunately, because it's made with tap water and may contain a lot of bizarre organisms, including the amoeba. It's better to avoid raw fruits and vegetables, which could be rinsed in tap water or weren't washed at all and are full of bacteria and various creatures. The problem is that the Indian so-called bacterial flora is different than ours, and our stomachs can seriously suffer. We, fortunately, didn't experience nothing of the king (even the so-called travelers diarrhea), but one of our friends, who traveled previously to India, had to visit a doctor and he was sick for two weeks because ate up some raw fruit. The most important rule: common sense above all.

Shopping
The main shopping area is Connaught Place, although prices are higher here than elsewhere. There are many banks here with ATMs, but it doesn't mean that you'll withdraw money on the spot. We succeeded only with the third machine.
In the middle of the square there's also a big market, part of which is located underground. You can find mountains of interesting clothes here, but you need to lower prices at the start, several times. If someone would want 500 rupees, offer 100 (it's less than 7 PLN). It happens that for the piece of clothing worth 200 rupees, they want 2000. The best strategy is to laugh loudly and leave unceremoniously. They'll come running after you and beg you to get back. Sorry, but that's what they taught us. At the beginning it's a bit annoying, but you get used to. Let's call a spade a spade, it's not a bargain, it's a spoof. Shopkeepers think that foreigners have banks in their pockets.
Janpath Street, near Connaught Place, there is lane with stalls and the Tibetan market, and across the street there's a huge state Central Cottage Industries Emporium with a wide selection of masterpieces. It looks like an older sister of our “Cepelia”. Clothes are expensive there and probably sewn in the 60s, but they have plenty of souvenirs and trinkets. But it didn't impress us much. We bought two nice ties and a biography of Gandhi there. The positive side: rates are constant, and you don't have to think about how much something is really worth and how much you need to haggle
Yet, each district has its own marketplace, where you can buy everything you could imagine.

Trains in India

Tickets can be booked for all trains, except the Second Class. The system of classes is at first glance a bit complicated but not impossible to comprehend. Current schedules are printed in the booklet "Trains at a glance." You can print it from the Internet. The schedules and prices in the website of the Indian railways are accurate.

The best places to sleep are those at the top. I advice to take ordinary sleeping class
Before buying a ticket at the station you need to learn which train you want to take and fill out a form (under "Travel Concession Authority Number" write the passport number). With this form, go to the cashier and buy a ticket. And as one billion people in India travel constantly, you have to stand first in line for information (to know what to write in the form) and then to the cashier. It's not a rare scene, when the cashier rejects form one after another, because there no tickets left. Therefore, if possible, book your tickets at home. This will save you time and frustration.
In the Internet: select a ticket from "general quota". "Taktal quota" is a small pool of tickets, which can be bought up at the earliest 48 hours before departure (don't count on them, they are very little and disappear faster than the meat from our shops in the early 80s). After finalizing payment, you should receive an e-mail with the details of your reservation and a ticket to print. Unfortunately, in Poland you can't book directly on the Indian railways site, but you can do that though another site, run by a private agency.
Timetable and booking status can be checked here: www.indianrail.gov.in; to buy tickets log here: www.irctc.co.in
I
f someone doesn't book tickets while at home, Foreign Tourist Bureaus are a good invention. In addition to regular tickets, they have a pool of tickets for foreigners, so you can sometimes buy them even at the last minute. In New Delhi such office is located on the first floor of the New Delhi station (open Mon-Sat 7.30-17). The staff is very competent and helpful. Attention! Don't listen to people who tell you to go elsewhere, they're grifters! Remember: in the Foreign Tourist Bureau you have to pay in cash, in U.S. dollars or British pounds. Besides Delhi, such offices are to be found only in the biggest cities (including Mumbai and Agra), but usually they have a very few places and only on selected routes.
Another remark: India is 10 times larger than Poland. The trains generally run faster than ours, but the distances are enormous. If someone doesn't want to spend half of the stay on the train, it's better to reduce the number of destinations. You can optionally make use of domestic air travel, but they're not so cheap as it seems.
While in the train you don't need to worry about hunger and thirst.
At every station crowds of sellers get in. Even if you switch off for a moment, the next one will come in a while. Also the train stuff goes back and forth, offering this and that.

The sights of Delhi I will describe later, because at the beginning of our trip we spend one day here and moved on. We'll have much time for sightseeing (and shopping) at the end of the journey, when we do a circle and come back to the capital.


Read also:
India (2010): part2: Agra
India (2010), part3: Gwalior
India (2010), part4: Orcha
India (2010), part5: Goa
India (2010), part6: Mumbai
India (2010), part7: New Delhi - again

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