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New Delhi

In a quirk of modern air-travel, it is usually cheaper to travel from Bhopal to Bangalore via New Delhi, which is about 750 kilometres in the opposite direction, than via Mumbai which would appear to be a much shorter route. This time Anusha and I decided to use the opportunity thus afforded to stay over in New Delhi for a little over a day and see some of the main tourist attractions.

As I have noted before, to someone coming from a place like Bangalore where traffic is always slowed down by congestion and potholes, the fast traffic on the smooth and wide roads of New Delhi comes as a bit of a shock. Taxi drivers drive even faster than the other folks, not bothering to slow down for junctions or turns. Everyone snakes in and out of traffic lanes with abandon and freely exchanges expletives at the slightest provocation.

Despite the presence of so much traffic, the air-pollution seems to be manageable, no doubt helped by the mandatory installation of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) systems in public vehicles. New Delhi also has a lot of green trees, quite unlike that jungle of concrete, Mumbai. One of the more surprising sights for me in New Delhi was the row of toll booths at the entry to the DND Flyway, something that you rarely see in a developing country like India.

Among the standard tourist attractions, some of the places were either only mildly interesting or particularly underwhelming. However, I was particularly fascinated by Humayun's Tomb, the Qutub Minar complex and the Red Fort.

I had not expected Humayun's Tomb to be such a big, peaceful and beautiful complex. It was restored and beautified only as recently as 2003. The main mausoleum is particularly remarkable since it looks so similar to the Taj Mahal, although it was constructed almost 100 years before the latter. Some of the other buildings in the complex are also nice, although many of the places reek very strongly of bat droppings.

Even the Qutub Minar surprised me with its height and beauty. It has beautiful carvings on its walls and a nice pattern to the first three storeys. Sadly however, the last two storeys, which were later additions, are quite discordant with the rest of the tower. While the Qutub Minar is quite impressive by itself, one can only imagine the magnificence of the entire complex in its prime by looking at its sad remains. Some of the walls still retain bits of intricate carvings.

The Red Fort was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a palace for his eponymous new capital Shahjahanabad. It is a splendid structure and seems fairly well-preserved. Of particular note are the royal residence, the "deewan-e-aam" (where the emperor met the common people), the "deewan-e-khaas" (where the emperor met his ministers and important guests) and the museum housing some interesting artefacts of that era. The "deewan-e-khaas", the emperor's seat in the "deewan-e-aam" and the royal residence are lavishly decorated and are a must-see.

I have created a Picasa web-album that has some more pictures from New Delhi.



On a recent trip to Bhopal, Anusha and I visited Pachmarhi. Pachmarhi is a little-known, but very beautiful, hill-station in Madhya Pradesh that deserves to be more popular. It is the highest town on the Satpura range of hills, situated about 900 metres (3,000 feet) above the sea-level. It is surrounded by the Satpura National Park.

Pachmarhi gets its name from a set of five caves carved into a big rock. These caves are called Pandava Caves because it was believed that the Pandavas stayed here for some time during their exile from their kingdom. However, it turns out that these caves were really carved out by Buddhist monks who used them as shelters.

Most of the rocks in Pachmarhi are made of soft sandstone. These rocks soak up water during the rains and then slowly release it throughout the rest of the year. This water feeds the many streams that flow through Pachmarhi and provide its beautiful waterfalls. A remarkable thing about these rocks is that some of them clearly show layers of embedded round pebbles. Though it is at a high altitude now, Pachmarhi must have been under water a long time ago.

We decided to stay in Glen View, a hotel developed by Madhya Pradesh Tourism. We also took their bus from Bhopal to reach Pachmarhi. The bus usually takes around five hours for the journey. As luck would have it, we ran into a chakka jam (road blockade) organised by the BJP that day to protest against the Sethusamudram project. This delayed us by three hours.

Pachmarhi is a very small town, most of which is occupied by the Indian army. It has a very unhurried and quiet feel to it. The local people are very friendly and helpful. It is surrounded by stunningly beautiful forests, valleys, waterfalls and caves. There are several trekking trails for enthusiasts. Some of the caves have pre-historic rock paintings. It also has several Shiva temples, each one associated with a myth relating to his fight against Bhashmasura. There are so many places to see that it can easily take about five days to explore everything properly.

It is not easy reaching these beautiful spots though. You have to have a car with a four-wheel drive and an expert driver to drive it. You should also have a bit of stamina because the car would not be able to take you all the way everywhere and you would have to go about 200 to 400 metres up and down a hill to reach many a spot.

I had an especially tough time reaching these spots because I found it hard to breathe. That was because I had a very bad cold. That in turn was because the air-conditioner in our room could only be run at its full strength. The ceiling fan was not enough for the hot and humid weather at the time. This was one of the worst colds I have ever suffered. It took a full two weeks for me to recover completely from it.

This was not the only problem with our room though. The water from the taps was always reddish-brown from the rust in the pipes for a while in the beginning and you had to leave it on for some time for it to approach something close to transparency. Even then it had an unpleasant iron flavour to it. The hotel staff was extremely nonchalant about it, informing us that it was quite normal for all the rooms in the hotel.

Pachmarhi does not have good options for accommodation at this time. None of the well-known hotel chains have their presence here, so you tend to err on the side of caution by opting for what is touted as a luxury hotel. Glen View is promoted as a luxury hotel by MP Tourism. Judging by our experience, they seem to have a rather peculiar definition of "luxury". To add insult to injury, they insist on collecting 100% of the hotel tariff for all the days you plan to stay there, in advance at the time of booking, with no scope for refunds. The hotel also does not accept credit cards, so you better carry some good cash to pay for the ridiculous amount it charges for its unremarkable food.

We were so disappointed by our hotel and the lack of other options that we cut our visit short by a day, losing some money in the process. We took some solace in the fact that we had saved almost 30% by booking it during the off-season. We would love to go back and see Pachmarhi again and explore the sites we could not visit, but not until there are better options for accommodation there.

I have created a Picasa web-album that has some more pictures from Pachmarhi.