Whilst I was down for the count Bill tuktukked out to the Red Fort. He reported a certain austere grandiosity, emanating from a deceptively simple but incredibly powerful collection of buildings that have seen the birth and death of Empires and the creation of India.
Refreshed by a kip we decided to follow the rings of Connaught Place and admire Luytens grand design. Dusty old department stores, myriad bookstores and bookstalls, lots of flashy bars, pakora stands with mile long queues, the inevitable band of small children beggars and gnattily-persistant shoe-shiners who hound you for blocks. We were in search of a good cup of coffee or chai and eventually found both.
Stepping into a pink and petunia palette of past-times, the United Coffee Shop is rococo splendour. Earnest business men chatter and charm, Foreign accents float in the air, a sad-eyed beauty looks longingly at the door, waiters in smart waistcoats bustle and hustle about. You have a good selection of coffee here with the added bonus of crisply-starched white linen tablecloths and silver coffee pots that the Mountbattens would have been proud of. Add to that a colonial elegance, with a touch of show off kitsch excess. The coffee and cakes are good – at last…
Apart from Starbucky monstrosities it’s been hard to find a decent cup of coffee in Delhi.
Dante-esque we descend through more of Luytens’ rings still persistently pursued by the shoeshinewallahs and the beggars. It becomes too much and we duck into the Oxford Bookstore (big bookstores and cathedrals always offer sanctuary from the pellmell of the populace).
Here we find glorious picture books (see our blog on the Maharajahs and their families) to peruse and a Cha Bar with nibbles and 120 types of chai. Their masala is gingery, peppery, fennely and cardomoney. It is a fragrant caress of the tastebuds, and it’s served in cute little monkey holders. Their small bites plate has onion bhajis, pakoras and chili bhajis. Crispy deliciousness.
Thus refreshed we grab a taxi and try to make our way to the railway station. It’s touch and go since our car is exhausting a thick black cloud of smoke that almost suffocates us inside and certainly disgruntles every tuktuk we’re alongside. It’s slow, smelly and nerve wracking and perhaps we should have presaged a feeling of doom. This family of five on a scooter sailed by gaily. What ? No one on the handlebars ?
Delhi Sarai Rohilla is, we guess, a former caravan serai converted into a train station in the middle to late decades of the 19th century.
The control panel in the Station Master’s Office is a sight to behold.
Fortunately we’ve got plenty of time and Bill plonks me in the 1st class waiting room guarding the luggage whilst he talks to the station master and finds where our carriage will be so we can be ready to leap aboard during the two minute halt.
Except that it’s not our carriage. Our carriage is nowhere in sight as Bill runs down the platform trying to find it. We know time is pressing so we leap into the nearest carriage as the train takes off.
We come across a very helpful solar panel guy who finds out that our berth is ten carriages along, but that since the train is dividing in the night we can’t walk through the train. At the next station we have to alight and run luggage-laden the ten carriages.
Whilst the train is stopped we run as fast as we can (they’re damn long carriages) heart-attacks at the ready.
The train starts movíng and we have to run to keep up with it and attempt to jump on board. (Bill is winning the running stakes so he’s somewhere ahead). We feel like the worlds oldest circus performers winning a prize in the throwing luggage whilst leaping onto a moving train category.
The Indian people, God bless them, are kindness personified and as always come up trumps hauling me and my luggage, and Bill and his much heavier luggage on board before maximum speed is reached.
We still have about 5 carriages replete with winding aisles and tangled legs and sandals to wander through, heavily panting.
A train seat has never seemed so welcome. We slept well.