Thursday, January 27th 1994
We left Tokyo on an Air India 747 heading for Bangkok.
We spent 4 enjoyable days in the Thai Capital with my friend. He played an excellent job of hosting us in his own city. It was my third visit to Bangkok but having someone to show us around made it by far the most enjoyable one.
During the trip to India I kept a little diary. It starts 35,000ft above Burma on board a Thai Airways 747 heading for Delhi.
I was about to finish off my in-flight meal….
Monday, January 31st 1994
Just as I was about to bite into one of the strawberries I heard a petrifying scream from the Japanese woman sitting to the left of me. I looked across to her meal tray and immediately realised the source of her problem. A large cockroach had jumped from the meal tray onto her lap and was now crawling up over the top of her seat near her head.
A beautiful Thai stewardess ran towards her and crushed the offending insect almost immediately. It was too late. The Japanese lady left the rest of the meal and no amount of apologies from the cabin crew would calm her. Eventually they gave her a bottle of champagne from first class but she just sat there holding it tight to her chest and mumbling for the rest of flight.
It was a rare miss by Thai, but perhaps a useful introduction to what we would experience in India.
At 23:00 local time the plane landed at New Delhi International Airport.
I think I must have been preparing for so long to counter against the culture shock of arriving in India that I overlooked preparing for the temperature change. It was cold. It was very cold. Everyone was wearing sweaters and scarves. We were in T shirts and shorts.
The terminal building was very tatty but the immigration process passed without any incident. We collected our baggage and proceeded through the green channel. The man behind the counter at the little cubicle marked “State Bank of India” sniffled and blew his nose constantly as he counted out what looked like an extraordinary amount of 100 Rupee notes. I signed where I was told to sign and we headed out. I then made the first mistake of the trip.
From the right hand side of the narrow passageway we headed past a sign that said “Pre Pay Taxi New Delhi”. The two men near the sign were shouting at us “Taxi, Taxi” but I figured that his couldn’t be the prepaid taxi stand mentioned in the guidebook as it looked unofficial and the men were being too forceful. This must be a scam I thought. The real booth must be on the other side of the side of the exit we were about to walk through. Wrong.
We exited past a security guard into the arrivals area and into the cold night air. We were immediately surrounded by a mass of people waiting for their loved ones and by lots of taxi drivers who began to offer us massively inflated prices into town.
I decided to leave my wife in a safe looking place and head back into the secure area. At first the security guard wasn’t having it, but finally he took pity on me and allowed me back to the desk I had originally ignored.
The men at the prepaid desk greeted me with a “we-told-you-so” look and offered me their log book to sign. I paid the fee. I was led outside, we collected my wife and then we were led out to a taxi. We were put into an ancient Ambassador car and then greeted with our first request for baksheesh. 10 rupees went into the hand of the man who had led us out to the car.
The taxi driver tried to engage us in polite conversation but we were too tired and we were too interested at looking out of the window. We stared out for the whole 30 minute 20km journey. The lack of street lighting anywhere and the little smoky fires on the streets everywhere were the two strongest initial impressions.
After quite a bumpy and noisy ride interrupted by “How do you like India?” every two minutes, we finally pulled into the gates of the Art-Deco-style Imperial Hotel. The driver got 10 rupees and the turban-wearing bearer who proceeded to struggle with our bags got 10 more.
The lobby was a welcome sight; it was brilliantly lit and furnished well. We checked in and were allocated room 277. Room 277 had obviously just been repainted as it stank of gloss. Nevertheless it was a big room with a large TV set in the corner. The BBC was listed on the list of channels and I switched it on immediately. It was the first I been able to watch the BBC for a long time. We settled into bed and quickly fell asleep.
Tuesday, February 1st 1994
The next morning began at 10am with a bit of BBC TV. Then we went downstairs for breakfast in the Imperial Hotel Garden Party Coffee Lounge. The “Imperial Breakfast” sounded great on the menu but it was actually little more than two small pieces of bacon, some lukewarm scrambled egg and a piece of mouldy looking toast. The garden, however, was beautiful and we recognised it from some of the scenes from the film Ghandi which were both set and filmed there.
After we changed money at Thomas Cook we ventured out into New Delhi. As soon as we left the hotel gates we were surrounded by a cacophony of beggars and hawkers. The beggars, many of them women holding babies, followed us all the way down the Jan Path as we walked towards the commercial centre of New Delhi; Connaught Place. The women with the babies thrust them into our faces and, for my wife especially, it was quite upsetting.
Connaught Place was organised in a big circle with the addresses denoted by letters from A to K. We were looking for Gupta Travels in order to buy our ticket home. Gupta was located in the H block. Although it sounded simple it actually took some finding. Once inside we were treated to tea, coffee and iced water whilst the manager phoned around for tickets for us. In the end we settled on a British Airways flight departing New Delhi 17 days later and heading via London up to Manchester.
We had tandoori kebabs and butter chicken at Nerulas, a western style Indian fast food restaurant, for lunch. We then continued our walk around Connaught Place and ended up in a rather dingy bazaar under the park in the centre. We followed this with a walk to the equally dingy “super bazaar” and then queued for 20 minutes to buy some snacks.
The streetscape was extremely colourful though, and by the time we made our way up Chelmsford Road we had begun to settle down and get used to the place.
We finally arrived at New Delhi station and wandered about a bit. I asked a few questions in the enquiry office, bought a timetable from the bookstall and spent time watching the trains at the station.
It was already 5pm and there were quite a lot of people around the station. We were amazed at the different shapes and sizes of the people, the mixture of the colourful and the drab and the mixture of rich and poor.
We finally grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back towards the Imperial. The journey was fascinating but we ended up breathing in the exhaust and pipe fumes of the buses and trucks of Delhi’s rush hour.
As we approached the hotel the tuk tuk slowed down to turn in across the traffic and we were again surrounded by a swarm of beggars with their hands out. This again included women pushing their children into the tuk tuk and asking for money. This again upset my wife and as the days went on it began to upset her more and more.
We dined that night at the Tavern restaurant in the hotel and enjoyed lamb and spinach curry. After a gin and tonic in the hotel bar, we retired for an early night.
We knew that the next day would be a long one. We were making a day trip using India’s fastest train; the Shatabdi Express. The destination was Agra; the site of the famed Taj Mahal.