A Travellerspoint blog

October 2016

Leh, Ladakh

Leh

Ladakh is venerated as the “Land of Monasteries”, a remote region of stunning Himalayan scenery, Tibetan Buddhist culture and uncharacteristic peacefulness and quietness for India. One disenchanted viewer of my Himalayan photographs summarised my travels in this region as “stereotypical backpacker experience “escaping the real world” scenery.” Perhaps she was just having a bad, or excruciatingly normal, day at the office while nobly “sustaining the metropolis of Melbourne with fresh, clean drinking water.” Sustaining water and eco-awareness are incidentally defining features of Ladakhi culture. The region is tremendously dry and infertile, with water sourced only from glacial melt and traditional crops limited to barley and vegetables. Unsurprisingly, few settlements of significant size exist in this isolated corner of India. Leh is the exception: the former royal capital of Ladakh and a relatively large city for the context at 30,000 residents. The preservation of water is especially noticeable in Leh, with an elaborate network of channels funnelling precious water through the properties and streets of the city. The visibility of the channels creates the false impression that the city is abundant in water, while certainly enhancing its immense tranquility. Like most other travellers, I based myself in Leh while exploring Ladakh for nine days.

After the previous day’s difficulties in travelling from Kaza to Keylong and aware of the touristic popularity of Ladakh, I feared the bus from Keylong to Leh would be full. Instead, on my epic 13 hour journey I was accompanied only by the bus driver and the ticket attendant; a very much unexpected and somewhat awkward situation. We departed Keylong at 5:00am, with the driver commencing the treacherous ascent to Baralacha La (4,950 metres) in pitch black darkness. The bus was poorly insulated, and the driver left his windows open anyway, exposing us to the sub-zero temperatures of the early morning, high altitude climate. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, which was eyed enviously by the ticket attendant (he later attempted to persuade me into leaving the sleeping bag instead of paying a $12 ticket – probably the most extreme rip-off ever proposed to me with seriousness)). The scenery throughout the journey was staggeringly impressive; utterly barren valleys and plains bordered by craggy mountains with snow-capped peak and Cappadocia-style eroded rock formations. Halfway through the day, we came to a stand still at a bridge that was being repaired. About half a dozen men were trying to secure sheets of metal down (the bridge’s deck), while in typical Indian fashion a hundred other men stood around pretending to be interested but were not actually doing anything. We finally departed and successfully crossed the bridge an hour later, which was apparently a short delay for the Leh – Manali Highway. Later in the day, we scaled the Taglang La, which at 5,328 metres was the highest point on Earth I had been to.

I arrived at Tsetan’s guesthouse just prior to dinner and felt like I had intruded on a funeral. Although Tsetan and his parents were very welcoming after my long journey (despite making it very clear I was receiving special treatment in being served dinner without prior ordering), the other guests in the communal dining room greeted me with scolds or disinterested glances. Aside from also newly arrived British Niall, who tried to stimulate discussion in the group by remarking on the pleasantness of the interior decor. I later discovered that the cold reception was not a personal rebuke, but rather characterised the awkward opening twenty minutes of our evening meals together. It became somewhat endearing. I shared a room with resident rebel Niall, who continuously broke household protocol by using the upstairs Western throne, flushing the toilet paper, always forgetting to order meals he rocked up for and smuggling alcohol into the dining room. Describing Niall as an interesting or troubled character would be putting it mildly. He’s certainly experienced an unusual life-story, which has perhaps contributed to his reverence for the religion/philosophy he adheres to and prattled on about constantly. After 10 days, I still could not figure out if Niall zealously believed in what he was preaching or whether it was an elaborate hoax he was pulling over me. I never wanted to express belief in either side, to avoid upsetting Niall of embarrassing me!

By Indian standards, Leh is a remarkably spacious and peaceful city, free of the insane traffic, stifling air pollution, harrowing poverty and constant hassling of other cities. Leh is surrounded on three sides by stark, craggy mountains that rise to above 6,000 metres. Leh Palace is the defining edifice of the city, a mud-brick structure similar to the Potola Palace in Lhasa that occupies a hillock directly above the centre of Leh. Half of the city is composed of traditional Ladakhi mud-bricked dwellings that are packed together and separated by winding streets. The other half of Leh is green and lush, with large, whitewashed households occupying properties with small plots of agriculture. The streets are full of cows and yaks with enormous horns, which stare ominiously at you as you walk past.

I visited the Nubra Valley in Ladakh’s north on a two day jeep trip from Leh with four Indian tourists. After just one hour into the tour though, two of my companions needed to disembark because of acute mountain sickness. They had failed to adequately acclimatise in Leh (3,520 metres) in preparation for our ascent of the world’s highest motorable pass, Khardung La at 5,359 metres. Once we were above 4,500 metres, the terrain was completely covered in snow, which caused havoc for the traffic. All the vehicles needed to chain their wheels, yet some were ill-equipped and continued to slip and cause blockages. We eventually reached Khardung La and squelched our way through thick snow for photographs under a big sign incorrectly announcing we were at 5,602 metres. We arrived in the Nubra Valley in the early evening, with the journey taking twice as long as intended due to the snow-induced delays. The Nubra Valley is framed by snowcapped mountains and features a expansive plain of streams, bush and, bizarrely, sand dunes. In the morning, we rode furry two-humped camels into the dunes.

On my final day in Ladakh, I felt compelled to visit two more gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) despite my ambivalence to these rather monotonous institutions. Hemis and Thikse are touted as two of the largest and most beautiful gompas in Ladakh and are easily accessible from Leh, so with a spare day I visited with Israeli Jude and British Niall. Jude was clearly enamoured by the architectural details at the gompas and the displayed artefacts in the museums, while Niall, despite his supposed spiritual fanaticism, unsurprisingly demonstrated contempt for cultural experiences by childishly powering through the monastery halls, sulking in the courtyards and bemoaning the absence of food and tea. Admittedly, the monasteries were rather impressive edifices; certainly the largest I visited in northern India. I'm always slightly confused by the preponderance for Buddhist temple interiors to be stock-piled with massive statues of the Buddha, opulent gold and silver ornamentations, intricately carved furniture, colourful flags and elaborate murals; is this not a philosophy that espouses immaterialism? The highlight of our gompathon was listening to an extraordinary musical performance in a temple at Thikse, with dozens of monks chanting and playing numerous Tibetan instruments, including horns several metres long.

While travelling in the Himalayas and visiting innumerable monasteries, my respect for Buddhist monks gradually deteriorated. Sure, they’re amicable people, but they’re not really contributing much to society by sitting around chanting and perhaps sweeping the courtyard floors occasionally. I noticed that manual labour conducted at the monasteries, such as carrying very heavy stones up steps for construction purposes, was often performed by poor local women. I think this is symptomatic of religions globally; they seem to be a mechanism for men to feast and sit around while heaping ever more work onto women. I also didn’t appreciate their penchant to loiter near me whenever I came within proximity of donation boxes. I had absolutely no intention of supplementing their hedonistic lifestyles in their palatial monastic complexes towering imperiously above the vernacular dwellings of the adoring locals. This rant has reminded me of departing Sri Lanka when a lady at the counter indicated I needed to move so a monk could queue jump. Needless to say, I was livid by this situation. I believe the burden of respecting local archaic customs can be dispensed of once inside an international airport. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely move out of the way for pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly – but an able-bodied young male? And to think he had the audacity to accept the invitation to saunter on past me!

Mutton momos. Vegetable momos, vegetable and cheese momos, cheese momos. Fried momos, steamed momos. Ladakhis certainly love their momos. Unfortunately The Emperor does not share this passion. Momos are basically shitty versions of Chinese dumplings. Which is essentially how Tibetan cuisine could be characterised in general. The best food I ate in Ladakh was definitely the lovingly home-cooked meals prepared at Tsetan’s Guesthouse. The mother and a 14 year old Nepali worker would spend the entire afternoon delicately preparing momos, the ribbon-like noodles for thukpa (noodle soup) and tigmo, a type of fermented and steamed bread rolled into scrolls.

Ladakh proved to be the perfect antidote to the freneticism and stress of travelling in other far more populous regions of India. I intended to stay longer in “Little Tibet”, but the weather started to deteriorate with falling temperatures and the imminent threat of snow. Before departing Ladakh though, I did attempt one trek, which will be discussed in the next entry...

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys

After just five days in the utter mayhem and stifling heat of modern Indian cities, I escaped to the cool and sparsely populated mountains and valleys of the Indian Himalayas. It was spine-tinglingly exciting to be travelling into the world’s greatest mountain range, far exceeding any altitude I had previously been to and entering the abode of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Geologically, the Himalayas are an infant mountain range formed by the Indian subcontinental tectonic plate colliding with the Asian tectonic plate. The resulting peaks are of astonishing and unprecedented heights and continue to grow each year (all 110 of the world’s peaks that are at least 7,000 metres above sea level are located in the Himalayas or mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau). The Himalayas and adjacent Tibetan Plateau, collectively referred to as “the roof of the world”, have historically formed a natural barrier between the two defining civilisations of Asia: China and India. The people that have traditionally inhabited this barrier zone spanning Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian states of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh share ethnic and cultural similarities, especially for their reverence of Tibetan Buddhism. The cynic within me stymied efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment in this auspicious region, though I certainly met several kooky Western chaps who believed they were more successful (more on that in subsequent entries). I travelled through Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys and Ladakh, which are some of the most desolate and least populated regions on Earth (yet are counterintuitively part of India).

I journeyed up to the foothills of the Himalayas on the Kalka – Shimla “toy-train”, a World Heritage-listed railway recognised as a marvellous feet of engineering. Construction of the railway was instigated because Shimla served as the capital of the British Raj when the colonialists found New Delhi a trifle too hot (so for half the year). The route is traversed in quaint matchbox-sized carriages, although the quaintness of the experience was lost on me due to my annoyance at the difficulties in finding my seat (Indians seem to have a knack of over-complicating the simplest of matters). The historic area of Shimla stretches for two kilometres along a ridge with two, thankfully pedestrianised, boulevards lined with colonial buildings. The ridge affords magnificent views of Shimla’s pine-clad suburbs that cascade down the mountainside. Ultimately though, Shimla is mostly a ho-hum destination and swarming with Indian vacationers. It mainly served as a transit point for me as I organised a five day jeep tour through the isolated Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys.

Shortly after departing Shimla, I was very grateful not to be relying upon buses to explore the region. The roads were extremely rough, with gradually increasing precipitous falls. Every few kilometres we were reminded of the treachery of the route by signs claiming, “You are driving on the world’s most dangerous road” (although I think there are a few claimants to that distinction). French Canadian Mathieu joined me on the tour and we were led by Ladakhi Hassan and driven by Kashmiri Kamal. I particularly marvelled at the skill and caution of our driver in navigating the ostensibly two lane road, which was barely wide enough for a single buggy. The scenery on the first day became more dramatic with every passing hour, as the mountain peaks continuously rose and the chaos of Indian civilisation dissipated. The residents of the Kinnaur Valley look more Chinese than Indian and wear cylindrical hats with green, gold and purple bands. In the late afternoon, we arrived at the tiny village of Kalpa; evocative of the quintessential Himalayan setting. From my balcony, I had a perfect view of the snow-capped 6,050 metre mountain of Kinner Kailesh rising above Kalpa on the opposite side of the valley. The village consists of stone and wood buildings, colourfully painted and connected by winding stone pathways. Two modest Tibetan Buddhist temples occupy the centre of the village and the ethereal sounds of chanting monks and horns emanate from them. The slopes surrounding Kalpa are thickly covered in pine trees and also feature terraced apple orchards, bean fields and grazing goats.

The landscape became substantially more desolate as we continued further north-east into the Himalayas. The trees eventually disappeared completely, save only for irrigated apple orchards, as we increased in altitude and travelled further from the coast. Stripped bare of vegetation, the mountains in this region appear to be enormous and unstable piles of scree which threaten to collapse from epic landslides at any moment. The mountains are incised by the raging, milky waters of the Sutlej River flowing through the bottom of the Kinnaur Valley. Unsurprisingly, we passed through villages with much less regularity than in previous days. Due to the proximity of the Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys to the Tibetan border, military installations are instead the most visible form of civilisation (we required permits to travel in this region, no doubt to ensure we’re not Chinese spies, although I think my face gives that away) and therefore the roads were intermittently quite good. We stayed in the stunningly located village of Nako at an altitude of 3,600 metres, the highest point on Earth I had been to (which I repeatedly surpassed over the following week). The Kinnaur Valley’s width at Nako is expansive, which almost creates the impression that Nako is within a vast caldera rimmed by snow-capped peaks rather than a river valley. The village is essentially an oasis within the mountainous desert, with potato plantations and thick groves of willows shading an aqua lake designated as “sacred” by the Dalai Lama. Nako is a Tibetan Buddhist community composed of mud-brick dwellings and replete with a modern monastery. The incredibly atmospheric five-coloured flags and banners (red, green, yellow, blue and white) synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism flutter in the wind throughout Nako. I think these flags are my favourite religious decorative motif; simple but astoundingly beautiful in the Himalayan context and effective in conveying a spiritual “vibe”. They festoon bridges, temples and isolated stupas throughout the region.

Shortly after departing Nako, we entered the Spiti Valley, a region of foreboding mountains, stark lunar landscapes and utter dryness save only for the Spiti River. The extreme isolation of the valley (during winter, Spiti is permanently inaccessible from the western approach and can be completely inaccessible if snowfall and landslides block the other end) has helped preserve its distinctly Tibetan-influenced culture. The few inhabitants of Spiti reside in clusters of large, white-painted mud-brick houses, intermittently and surreally appearing on the lifeless slopes. It defies belief that many of these settlements have existed for centuries; how did people possibly live in such remote, empty and frigid (winter) environs without road access and electricity? We visited the small but broadly spaced town of Tabo, situated at the bottom of the valley (so only 3,000 metres in altitude) and hemmed in by scree mountains. The austerity of the buildings and dull atmosphere hide some of the finest examples of Tibetan art in the world. The Tabo Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) was founded more than one thousand years ago and its dark interiors feature intricately detailed and colourful Buddhist murals, remarkably well preserved for its age. We also visited Dhankar Gompa, which is probably the most spectacularly located building I have ever seen. The 1,200 year old monastery is perched on an eroding pinnacle a thousand feet above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. Unsurprisingly, the building is listed as one of the “100 Most Threatened Monuments” on Earth, so I even took the extraordinary step of donating money to a religious institution. The monastery buildings are partly hewn into the rock and feature small temples, winding stairwells and passageways and rooftop terraces with staggering views. The monastery is painted white with black and red trimmings on the outside and yellow and red on the inside. From the monastery, we hiked up to the aqua Dhankar Lake at 4,200 metres in altitude, which appears like a mirage amid the monotonous brownish-orange of the landscape.

Kaza is the only proper town in the entire Spiti Valley and was the termination point of my jeep tour, as I wanted to explore the area independently. Near Kaza, the Spiti River is more a vast floodplain with meandering streams than a conventional river, creating a juxtaposing landscape of interminable flatness bordered by Himalayan mountains (Shilla rises to 7,026 metres). I hired a taxi with a German guy to visit the high altitude villages close to Kaza. We stopped at Ki Gompa, an almost circular compound picturesquely situated on a hillock overlooking the Spiti River floodplain. It reminded me somewhat of the capital of Rohan, as depicted in Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. We then ascended to Kibber at 4,200 metres, a village of large mud-brick houses on a plateau overlooking the valley. Just near the village is the skeleton of a bridge crossing a 300 metre gorge, which has remained unfinished for over a decade. Alternatively, the locals cross the gorge by an open, wire cable-car with no harnesses or safety equipment whatsoever. We next visited Langzha, a tiny village perched below a quintessentially pointy Himalayan peak (6,300 metres) with a massive modern Buddha scanning the valley. We continued to the village of Komic, which was noteworthy only for its claim at being the highest motorable village in the world at 4,513 metres. To complete the tour, we sent postcards from the highest post office in the world in Hikkim at 4,440 metres. The lack of replies from home suggest perhaps there were issues with the delivery.

The Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys hardly constitute a trip through culinary wonderland. The region’s extreme remoteness and minimal agricultural output have precluded it from developing a cuisine matching the glorious repertoire of kitchens in India’s central and southerly regions. Omelettes, stuffed paranthas (similar to roti, stuffed with spiced potatoes or onions) and uninspiring renditions of lassis were my conventional breakfasts. For lunch and dinner, I usually ate dhal or a lacklustre chicken curry, or one of the ubiquitous triumvirate of Tibetan dishes that have seeped across the border: momos (similar to Chinese dumplings, just blander), thukpa (noodle soup) and chow mein (essentially just Chinese fried noodles). The only thing of intrigue I tried was tea made from sea-buckthorn berries; vivid orange berries (touted as a super food) that grow natively in the mountainous deserts of the Spiti Valley.

My journey out of the Spiti Valley took a long and somewhat eventful full day. In order to catch the only west-bound bus from Kaza, I was instructed to arrive at the bus station half an hour before scheduled departure at 6:30am. I punctually adhered to this advice and found several groups of locals loitering around the bus in the pre-dawn dimness. I discovered the early formations of a queue awaiting an attendant at the ticket counter and placed myself fourth in line. When the attendant eventually came (late), he was mobbed by the locals and the queue immediately disappeared. While the locals displayed barbaric manners in their efforts to secure a seat, I determinedly maintained decorum - to my loss. The attendant unapologetically ignored me in the mayhem and shrugged his shoulders at my sudden plight in being unable to secure a ticket on the only bus heading outta town that day. I may have directed him a couple deserving F-bombs in my bemusement (there are certain advantages to being three times taller than most Indians). Fortunately though, there were a few other tourists stranded, so we hired a jeep at relatively considerable expense and were on our way. The route was predictably awe-inspiring, highlighted by crossing the 4,551 metre Kunzum La mountain pass. Greenery reappeared in the landscape and the scenery seemed somewhat more familiar and earthly. The other tourists were travelling south to Manali, so mid-afternoon I disembarked at a junction called Gramphu, hoping to catch a passing bus north towards Ladakh. With a surprising absence of, well, just about anything, I wasn’t terribly confident in my prospects. A “real hippy”(so very very rare) Puerto Rican guy already waiting at the junction did not share my cynicism though and began waving down any passing vehicle heading in my direction; military not exempted. Within ten minutes I was tucked into a tiny white car driven by a kindly, though seldom speaking, long haired local man. After three hours, broken conversation and hitching another ride for the last five kilometres, I arrived in Keylong just before dusk; ready for the famed road trip north to Ladakh the next day.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 19:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi

India photos

I intended to forego the tiresome burden of writing this blog and simply enjoy the bliss of a stress-free, work-free trip in India. But when I revealed this proposition to Grandma, her distraught facial expression compelled me to reevaluate my plans. So begrudgingly, I will again sacrifice countless hours to deliver accounts of my travel exploits; hoping to write in a more succinct manner than previously, but knowing such efforts will be futile.

In total contrast to my characteristic and slightly abnormal custom of excessively researching travel destinations, I flew to India just one week after booking my flight with virtually no plans other than to visit Delhi. However, I rectified this somewhat unsettling situation after fifteen hours straight of intense Lonely Planet study, formulating a loose itinerary that restricted my travels to North India. This was despite the distractions of the requisite outrageous behaviour by nearby passengers onboard both of my flights en route to Delhi. For nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, I suffered through the maniacal cackling of a mother-daughter combination sitting behind me that successfully redefined my idea of what constitutes a total bogan. As they gasped for breath in hysterics over comments of an embarrassingly unhumorous nature, they blew $15 a pop on scotch and coke and subsequently spilled their beverages everywhere – including on my elbow. Needless to say, they failed to respect onboard etiquette by repeatedly grabbing and pushing my seat each time they needed to relieve themselves of their drinks. As a squished 6’3” passenger, I still manage to slither in-and-out of my seat without manhandling any others, so I therefore don’t accept the need for stumpier people to disrupt my comfort! On my flight to Delhi, the petite lady in front of me seemed shocked at the aggressive kneeing unleashed into her seat when she reclined it back – I’m rather territorial about precious leg space and always well prepared for such battles!

India is characterised as a “subcontinent” not only because of continental drift theory, but also because of the country’s extreme cultural and environmental diversity. Indeed, describing India as a singular country is somewhat misleading, because each of its 28 states are remarkably distinct with their own languages, ethnicities, traditional clothing, cuisines and customs. India is therefore comparable to the entire continent of Europe, although its population is more than double the size. As the federal capital and fifth largest megalopolis on the planet, Delhi serves as the melting pot of this vast nation, with its myriad of regional identities and religions present in the city. Delhi was the logical starting point for my trip in India – not least because of the astonishingly cheap airfare I was able to book!

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Contrary to popular belief, New Delhi and Old Delhi are not independent cities, but rather staggeringly different neighbouring districts within one humungous megacity. Old Delhi is among the most densely crowded areas in the world, a labyrinth of bazaars stockpiled with every imaginable product (except bottled water!) and congested by flotillas of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and trucks. Conversely, New Delhi evokes space and order with wide boulevards, monumental government buildings, manicured lawns and sterile stores for Western brands. Delhi’s boundless suburbs sprawl in all directions surrounding these two central districts.

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Backpackers typically stay in the derelict hotels in the neighbourhood of Paharganj, which is notorious for scams, crime and the occasional tourist murder. However, contemporary hostels have recently popped up in the suburbs of South Delhi; considered to be the “posh” area of the megalopolis (though still a far-cry from our leafy Eastern suburbs). I stayed in a hostel around 30 minutes by metro (outstanding system) from the centre of the city, but enjoyed the relative peace of the area free from the incessant hassling and chaos rampant in Old Delhi. I discovered an expansive forested park near my hostel where local Indians and expats exercised; some strenuously, some not so much. I went for a run each morning through the park and became utterly saturated within seconds due to the 30+ degrees heat and 85-90% humidity.

Exiting the metro into the utter mayhem of Old Delhi was my first proper experience of India – and what an overwhelming experience it provided! Never before have I witnessed such extraordinary traffic; it becomes so incredibly jammed that the wheels of rickshaws and bicycles literally touch that of neighbouring vehicles. Crossing the road is actually rather safe because of the seemingly perpetual standstill. Old Delhi consists of winding streets lined with decaying though architecturally unremarkable buildings. Many of the streets and alleys specialise in particular types of merchandise (such as gift cards) and are overly crammed with products. Old Delhi is ground zero for some of the worst hassling on the planet and I was woefully out of form with dealing with them on day one. Fortunately though, I quickly returned to my impenetrable best the next day, employing my usual tactics of either playful sarcasm or totally ignoring them (I have an excellent face for poker, just not the game).

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Delhi was originally founded by Hindu rulers, but a succession of Muslim dynasties stretching for 600 years bestowed upon the city its most impressive architectural wonders. The Qutb Minar Complex, located in the far south of Delhi, is the archaeological ruins of the first Muslim settlement. The site is dominated by a slender 73 metre high Afghan-style tower, which was constructed to proclaim Islam’s victory in North India. The structure and its intricately carved sandstone bands are remarkably well preserved after more than eight centuries. The ruins of mosques, tombs and a madrasa (Islamic university) also dot the site, but the other astonishing feature of the Qutb Minar Complex is a humble iron pillar. The pillar is a metallurgical mystery, because it has not rusted after 1600 years. It has yet to be discovered how the pillar was cast with such purity using the contemporary technology (such technology was not developed in Europe until the nineteenth century).

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The Mughals established India’s greatest Islamic empire, conquering most of the Subcontinent and constructing some of its finest edifices. Humayun’s Tomb is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical imperial mausoleum. The structure is both monumental and serenely beautiful; a red sandstone prototype for the Taj Mahal. Clustered behind the vast ornamental gardens of Humayun’s Tomb are a tangle of crowded Muslim bazaars selling flowers, religious offerings and… kebabs. Hidden within the bazaar tunnels is a marble shrine dedicated to a Muslim Sufi saint. When I visited the compact shrine precinct at sunset, it was heaving with devotees garbed in pristine white Islamic clothing. My entrance was met with warm welcomes and questioning scolds; I certainly noticed I was the only non-believer there! Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor famed for commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal, was also responsible for the foundations of Old Delhi. He ordered the construction of the Red Fort to serve as the new capital of the empire, with the bazaars and religious buildings of Old Delhi subsequently growing organically to the west of the Fort’s walls. While the imperious red sandstone walls were impressive, I found the interior buildings and gardens somewhat underwhelming.

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British presence in India commenced from 1600 with the East India Company establishing trading posts at ports along the Subcontinent’s coastline. Using private armies, the company grew to dominate almost the entire Subcontinent, before the British Parliament transferred the rule of India directly to the Crown in 1857. The British Raj’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 because of increasing rebelliousness in the Bengali metropolis. The British constructed their administrative centre south of the rambling and derelict Old Delhi, an overwhelmingly spacious area demonstrative of imperial might somewhat comparable to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Neoclassical government buildings crown a hill overlooking a monumental two kilometre avenue (the Rajpath) leading to India Gate, which commemorates the deceased Indian soldiers who fought in World War One. Fanning out from the Rajpath are well planned districts of wide tree-lined boulevards, colonial buildings, ornate gardens and expensive shops.

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I can proudly boast of departing Delhi after four days without acquiring its eponymous “belly”. It was certainly not for lack of eating. As the capital and multicultural melting pot of arguably the world’s most diverse country, Delhi is predictably a foodie’s paradise. Old Delhi is studded with famed centuries-old snack stalls and Mughlai kebab dens, which I hopped between on multiple delicious food safaris. Lassis from a hole-in-the-wall shop were easily my highlight – to think we’re only exposed to mango lassis (the world’s best drink) and salted lassis in Australia! I sampled almond and saffron lassi that was so mindbogglingly luxurious I was compelled to return an hour later for the rosewater lassi – equally extraordinary! While rice is often considered to be synonymous with Indian cuisine, bread is actually the dominate staple of the North Indian diet. The typical breakfast meal is parantha, which is essentially roti bread stuffed with potatoes, vegetables or paneer cheese. I visited a tiny alley in Old Delhi famed for deep-fried paranthas and sampled pea parantha, potato parantha and lemon parantha served with pumpkin curry, potato curry and banana chutney – superb. Dahi vada is a delicious snack food, consisting of fried chickpea-flour balls soaked in yoghurt and topped with sweet chutney. The culinary legacy of the Mughals in Delhi is the obsession with kebabs in the Muslim areas of the city. I feasted on seekh kebabs (spiced mutton kebabs similar to kofta), Mughlai chicken (a rich, fatty chicken curry) and naan bread at legendary Karim’s. Unlike the rest of Asia, India boasts a phenomenal repertoire of desserts and sweets. Probably the most indulgent of their sickly sweet treats are jalebis, which are deep fried flour batter shaped into pretzels and soaked in sugar syrup. Rabri faluda is a traditional ice-cream dish consisting of cold vermicelli noodles covered in a sweet milk mixture spiced with cardamon – a superb flavour addition to desserts.

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Delhi has a rather poor reputation on the traveller circuit, as most people attempt to leave the city quickly or avoid it altogether. But I buck the trend because I actually quite like Delhi. Staying in a relatively wealthy residential district probably contributed to my enjoyment of the city, because it allowed me to escape the hassling and crowds of Old Delhi. Or perhaps it was simply because I felt like a celebrity in Delhi, with legions of Indian tourists desiring a coveted photograph beside The Emperor with his much admired hat.

That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 19:39 Archived in India Comments (1)

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