ARRIVAL & DELHI STAY ( Days 2- 4)
Rajasthan here we come and we are looking forward to our personal tour of this fascination area of India. We have asked Tribal Tracks to design us an extended tour, which as well as taking in the main highlights of the 'Golden Triangle', also takes us a little more off the beaten track. Hopefully it will live up to its reputation, but first let's see if the cases have arrived, the Tribal Tracks guide is waiting for us and, importantly, we like him! After all, we are going to be spending some considerable time in his company.
I don't know what I expected, but Delhi's Indira Gandhi airport is modern, clean and if you can forget the slightly hazy air drifting inside, just like any other international airport. Security does seem a bit tighter than in the UK, and the sight of the Deportee Room gives us some pause for thought. After collecting our cases, we make our way into the arrivals zone looking for our name amongst the myriad of boards.
And there it is, a Tribal Tracks sign and the person holding it has a beaming smile. Somehow we know that all will be well. Rigzin, our fluent English-speaking guide takes charge of us, fending off porters and the odd beggar with calm efficiency.
On the way to our hotel, Rigzin tells us the plan for the rest of the day, pointing out buildings of interest and answering our questions, which if we are honest mostly concern horrendous traffic! Second thoughts, forget the word "traffic" - it's chaos and genuinely NO rules apply !
Next morning and after numerous "namastes" we are off to see the Red Fort (so - called because of its red sandstone) and symbolising the Mughal era of India. Forget it being a World Heritage site, its 33 metre walls, its history and imposing presence and it being the place where the President gives his speech on Independence day, we can't take our eyes off the excited families in holiday dress, the watchful soldiers and the frequent requests for "photo please?"
Next we are slowly inching our way in a tuk-tuk through the various traditional bazaars in Chandni Chowk- once the grand processional thoroughfare from the Red Fort to India's largest mosque. Now there are bustling souks and shops spiralling off in all directions. Each area has its own speciality whether it be shoes, spices, cooking pots, bracelets or wedding stationery. Whatever you need can be found here - just start to haggle !
An even slower pace now as we take off our shoes and walk into the enormous courtyard fronting the Jami Masjid mosque. In preparation for prayers, long swathes of green carpet are being rolled out. Twenty thousand worshippers can be accommodated here! This amazing site can be seen from the top of the Southern minaret but take note that women require a male escort to enter.
As we walk through beautiful gardens dissected by water channels and narrow paths, we see Humayun's Tomb, commissioned by his senior wife in 1565, and famous for becoming the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. We can hardly believe that busy and bustling Delhi is just a stone's throw away and were reluctant to leave this calm oasis. But leave we must for our last visit of the day and we were not disappointed to be entering yet another haven of calm - the Raj Ghat garden complex where a black stone platform marks where Mahatama Gandhj, father of the Indian nation was cremated. Some of his most famous sayings, chiseled into markers, line the paths leading to the eternal flame. The serenity, the flower gardens, the devotion and respect on the face of the devotees - all of this we find very moving. Unlike many other monuments in Delhi there is no entry fee here.
Today is our last full day here and we are ready to make the most of it. We start by driving around India Gate, the Parliament and Defence buildings before arriving at the Mehrauli Archaeological park with its 12th century World Heritage minaret, the Qutb Minar. At 73 metres and once the highest in India, this striking tower glorifying the advent of Muslim sultans is one of the most amazing sights that we have seen so far. Can you believe our disappointment when we heard that its 379 steps could no longer be climbed by the public? Who are we kidding?! No doubt the hordes of school children were devastated too, but there again, they were too busy asking ME to join them in selfies! This is the most amazing place and we could easily spend a day here. You can feel the history oozing out of the chiseled stones and carved panels, marvel at the coloured tiles and verses inscribed on the tomb and mosque of Jamal-Kamali, a court poet of the early Mughal age, and wonder at the ancients' knowledge of metallurgy with the 4th century iron pillar.
Hordes of these friendly school children somehow beat us to the Bahai or Lotus Temple, our next stop, so we decided not to wait in the lengthy queues to go inside. Such a pity as this stunning white building, its "petals "representing 4 religions, would have been a wonderful experience but there's always next time and onward we go to Swaminarayan Akshatdham.
This is the world's largest Hindu temple and within its 12 acres, you become aware of the traditions, customs and religion of the millions of its world-wide followers. While marvelling at the tons of gleaming marble, its recent construction, all done in 5 years, its gardens and waterways, my thoughts kept returning to the ancient history and serenity of Qutb Minar.
Tomorrow we leave for Agra, and the Taj Mahal...