Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Day in Delhi's Paharganj District


There’s a single Delhi-bound train that leaves the western Indian city of Jaisalmer every day. Train no. 14060 is called the Jaisalmer Delhi Express (JDE). Notorious for running late, one should expect an arrival time 1 to 2 hours later than scheduled for a distance that covers 914 kilometers (576 miles); 35 stops; and approximately 17 hours and 30 minutes of train travel. Since Jaisalmer was a terminal station, I chose to experience the Sleeper Class which was relatively cheaper than the AC seats (1AC, 2AC, 3AC). When in India, I am so frugal, I might as well glue my cash to my skin. This is because, while the cost of living is dirt cheap, this isn't so among foreign tourists who are always expected to pay (so much) more for everything. A 30 rupee rickshaw fare becomes 200 rupee for someone like me, and if I haggled at every step, I'd end up wasting enough energy and time. So I scrimp - because who knows if the air I breathe gets eventually charged after a nap.


My train pulled out of the station at 5:30 PM and I found myself amid uniformed soldiers, with their boots in mid-air as I slithered carefully up my upper bunk. I had to stoop not to hit my head on the ceiling. Beside me was a ceiling fan teeming with virulent grime, as though it hasn't been cleaned since its first use. The three tiers of seats-and-couches opposite mine were filled, not with people, but army sacks. I  then remembered that Jaisalmer is home to a military camp so soldiers were a common fixture in these train rides. The window right down below was blowing late afternoon winds, with sands wafting away. We were moving through desert terrain. The open window only had grills from the outside. For the next 17 hours or so, I only had my jacket protecting me from the elements. This was my choice; it wasn't very glamorous, but it’s gonna be an interesting anecdote when I am old and grey. Elsewhere, others weren't so lucky: 14 to 16 people were occupying a berth for 6. People stood by the aisle, and tea wallahs roamed the cars every couple of hours. I wasn't too amused with my seat up there as I had to jump off my bed every time I needed something, and there were bodies over bodies to hurdle. While most people find train travels convenient, I’d much rather travel by bus.

We were traveling at an average speed of 50 kilometers per hour which was slow, considering the distance we had to cover – 914 kilometers. Most of the 35 train stops lasted not longer than 2 minutes except at Jodhpur Station where a 40-minute wait for customers ensued. This was enough time to wander around, but what could you see at 10:40 PM? And who will look after my baggage?

Train route from Jaisalmer to Delhi.

A ceiling fan beside my upper bunk.

I must have dozed off sometime after midnight and drifted into a dreamless sleep. The noise of the tsai wallahs woke me up at 6:30 AM. I shivered as the morning breeze blew across the cabin. We still had a long way to go, despite having traveled 730 kilometers, stopping for a wink at Rajgarh. I've succeeded to numb the pain of impatience by flipping through my Lonely Planet, deciding where I should stay for the night in Delhi. I almost never book for accommodations in India because I find it difficult planning around trains and bus schedules, and as earlier mentioned, delays are a common thing. But this is where an Indian visit is special compared to other places. You have to allow the spirit of the place to take over somehow.


My train arrived in Delhi at half past 12, the sun beaming on a cloudless sky. Delhi Junction was teeming with frenetic energy. I walked out the station and crossed the street until I reached the chaotic row of bazaars and little shops; ambulant vendors selling freshly baked cookies and fried egg cakes; merchants peddling their colorful bags, pillowcases and shawls. The district is called Paharganj – “main bazaar” -  which is unmistakably India, with its ribald slices of local color, of organized chaos far from the grandiose veneer of Mughal tombs and royal gardens. It’s easy to lose yourself in the frenzy of Paharganj. But I always prefer to stay here due to its proximity to the train stations (long distance and city trains), as well as Connaught’s Place.


It took me more than an hour to find Hotel Namaskar which was highly recommended by LP. Unfortunately for me, they didn't have an available room. But the amorous owner recommended and personally took me to another hotel just around the corner – Hotel Raj’s Cozy Inn. With relatively new rooms equipped with modern, albeit clean bathrooms, I was quite happy with mine. I rested for an hour, took a refreshing shower, then navigated through the fascinating bowels of Paharganj. My destination: the train station's International Tourist Booking Center. I needed to purchase tickets for my onward trips: Mumbai, Hyderabad, etc. I desperately needed a professional's help - away from the local crowd known to push their way between queues. Otherwise, I would never understand the Indian train system of tatkals and reservations, etc. How can one sell tickets for seats that aren't available upon the time of purchase? This is India. Getting train tickets, finding your platforms, locating your train seats are not for the faint-hearted. They require a lot of patience – and understanding.

Some 4,000 rupees later, I wasn't left with enough time to roam. Quite frankly, I was pooped! I needed to feed myself, but was tired of rotis, dahls, parathas (unleavened flat bread) and chapatis (Indian flat breads). And most times, these are the only available food non-Indians could find when you're traveling across the country. But this is Delhi where my gastronomic luck could change. I saw Hotel Sheltron, climbed to their rooftop restaurant – called Kitchen Café – then ordered Chicken Butter Masala (100 rupees), chicken fried rice (70 rupees) and a lime-flavored soda drink that one can almost exclusively find in India – Limca Cola (15 rupees). I was the sole customer so I was treated like royalty in their dimly lit rooftop cafe. Only then did I realize how hungry I was, I almost ignored the gorgeous bowls serving my food. Before midnight, I received a call from my Kashmiri friend Junaid. We spoke for 12 minutes. It struck me how concerned he was of my well being, giving me tips as though I was in Scam City. I was grateful, but I almost had to remind him I was of age to take care of myself.

I didn't quite make 12 midnight. On the road, I usually study my next-day prospects before bedtime. But it was time for a good night’s rest – right in the heart of Delhi.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Sleeper Class. This photo only courtesy of Bradwell.

Grills on windows of Sleeper Class train seats. This photo only Ralph Velasco of Digital Photography.

Delhi train station

A messy mixed-media of sculptures at a roundabout leading towards Paharganj.

Paharganj before the onslaught of activity.

Students riding a rickshaw in Paharganj.

Narrow alleys in Paharganj. It's easy to get lost in one of these narrow streets.

The popular Hotel Namaskar.

Hotel Raj's Cozy Inn

My room at the 2nd floor.

I got a room at Hotel Raj's Cozy Inn. This photo only courtesy of Indiamike.com.

The Delhi Train Station is just a few blocks from Paharganj.

International Tourists Booking Center for foreign visitors, located at the 2nd floor of the Delhi Train Station. 

Delicious cookies (biscuits). I always get myself a few pieces whenever I am in Delhi.

Chicken Butter Masala (a paste comprising of  a mixture of spices) with chicken fried rice

Food at Hotel Sheltron - with Limca Cola, a lemon/lime-flavored carbonated soft drink mostly found in India and some parts of the U.S. Coca Cola company manufactures Limca in India.

A colorful shop at Paharganj.
Paharganj is a disrict in central Delhi somewhere between Old and New Delhi, near the New Delhi train station and Connaught's Place.

Delhi days continued herehttp://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-rickshaw-ride-in-delhi-one-lazy.html

Views from a High Rise Restaurant http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-day-in-delhis-paharganj.html


NRIGirl said...

You are brave - traveling in sleeper class in India. But then sleeper class is more fun as you can surely truly enjoy the ride.AC or First Class feels like a jail at most times.

You didn't write about the heat; may be the climate was moderate when you traveled.

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Taking the sleeper class was an experiment more than being thrifty. I wanted to experience what it was like the way I see in documentaries that I get to watch. It wasn't the most pleasant of experiences but to be honest, it wasn't all that bad - and I will never regret that decision.

I probably will never take another sleeper class seat in my life, but I was glad I did. I have, since, experienced all classes - and you're right, the AC couches are stuffy. The upper tier Indian class isn't always as warm too. :) But I loved my 2AC rides and the people I got to meet.

It was a rather chilly December, and the snows of Kashmir had blown their cool air southwards. Thus sweltering heat wasn't a problem. :)

Mom with a Dot said...

Population Explosion! I dread the prospect of having to visit India - the sheer enormity of crowds everywhere puts me off. You are indeed brave. I can understand your friends concern for you. If I were him, I'd be like that too :) Wish you all the very best for the rest of your journey.

If you have time in Mumbai, do plan a visit to the Elephanta caves - I'm sure you'll enjoy them. In Hyderabad, Paradise Biriyani is highly recommended - Have fun!

eye in the sky said...

@ Mom with a Dot:

India's population is indeed gargantuan, but then so is its land mass. Part of its charm is its seeming "congestion", I guess. By the way, I am having trouble visiting your site, I was reading your latest post and I couldn't finish it because I couldn't find the cursor of the main article that leads right down to the end of the piece, including the comment button. The right-most cursor clicks back to the main page (with all the other posts). I am still figuring it out - I never had this problem before from your site. Maybe I am missing something. :(

Freedom said...

Love it, Love it, Love it! Makes me want to take off this very second. I felt for you when I was reading your epxerience on the train and food search, ohhhh how I miss it.

Can't wait to read more and hopefully soon about your Australia Experience!

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Nat. I think we share our "amusement" with stuff that aren't always pleasant but very "local color" about places. I am crazy that way and I feel like they add spice to my travels. I'm sure you know this.

As for Australia, it's what's coming after these series of posts about India. I myself can't wait to write about it before I forget some of the details. Haha. :)