Six months in Asia travel blog

All aboard the Charminar Express

The Charminar

Inside the Charminar

Street food

Golconda Fort

Golconda Fort

Qutb Shahi tombs

I've spent the past three days in Hyderabad and have discovered the two always contrasting sides of India. The traffic and pollution are hellish, but there are some wonderful places in amongst the madness; there are the usual auto rickshaw drivers who try and rip you off for every journey, but then you also come across the kindest, most hospitable people in the world. Hyderabad is the setting for William Dalrymple's excellent book, "White Mughals" and is also famous for being the place where the Koh-i-noor was found. Nowadays it sits in the crown of Queen Elizabeth II.

Leaving Mamallapuram was hard especially after a fabulous prawn curry on my last night there. I soon realised that I had been sheltered somewhat from the stress that India can sometimes induce. It started as I left the hotel. The manager came up to me and said that the village had just been closed to traffic due to all the wedding festivities taking place so I had to walk to the main road with all my luggage. It sometimes seems that every five minutes there is a rickshaw driver trying to get you to take a ride, but could I find one that morning when I really needed one? Of course not!

The bus journey to Chennai was fine and took a little under two hours. I stayed at the City Home Hotel which was handy for the Central Railway station. Chennai was not a pleasant place to walk around. I took a rickshaw to the Fort, but it was closed on Fridays. I decided to walk back to the train station, but it was an horrendous experience. There are very few pavements in India and you are forced to walk at the side of the road with traffic whizzing past you constantly. It also seems the law to sound your horn every minute. To make matters worse, someone somewhere has obviously decided that having street signs would just make things too easy.

I then caught a local train (at a cost of 5 pence) to the church of San Thome, the doubting saint. It is one of only three churches built (allegedly) on the burial sites of apostles. St Peter's in Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain are the other two. The shrine itself was modern and lacking in atmosphere.

On Saturday I killed some hours at the dusty and uninspiring Government Museum and then boarded the Charminar Express for the overnight trip to Hyderabad. I had some concerns about safety of baggage and general cleanliness, but the journey was great fun, the bedding was immaculate and I even slept for several hours. On Sunday disaster struck when my iPad failed to charge and was completely dead. This is the first trip I have made with all my guidebooks as PDF files and without it I was at a loss.

Monday was a fascinating day. I went from centuries old monuments and markets to the glitzy shopping malls of 21st century India. I was up early and one of the first to enter the Charminar built by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 to commemorate the founding of the city when the reigning Shahis were forced to abandon Golconda Fort due to water shortages. It's a great monument that sits in the middle of the road with traffic sweeping past it on all sides, a bit like the Arc de Triomphe. Hyderabad is a predominantly Muslim city and has a a very different feel to other cities of the south. Security is tight at all the major places of interest as there have been bomb blasts in the past, most notably in 2007 and 2013. Around the Charminar are markets, on one side the jewellery bazaar and on the other a very atmospheric fruit and veg market. Goats feed on scraps at the side and chickens squawk and flap as rickshaws push their way through the narrow streets.

The highlight was the Salar Jung museum. It contains the most astonishing collection of objets d'art, furniture and paintings and is one of the best museums I have ever visited. There is a treasure in the very first gallery - a commemorative vase made for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, one of only fifty ever made. Salar Jung III bought and collected items over many years and in the following galleries you can find Wedgwood pottery, Mughal miniatures, Japanese and Chinese wooden carvings and ceramics, European paintings including a Constable and some Canalettos, a vast collection of toy soldiers and even an entire room devoted to canes and walking sticks.

I then headed to Banjara Hills, a swanky area that stands in complete contrast to the area around the Charminar. The Apple store is in a shopping mall, but I was told that the Apple Service centre was in a different place. I tried to get there on foot but was again defeated by the lack of road signs. However, a guy who ran a little drinks stall, came to my rescue. He said he was heading near there and so he shut up shop and I hopped on the back of his motorbike for a brief but hair-raising journey.

With the iPad now fixed I spent today at Golconda Fort, the previous home of the Qutb Shahis before they founded the city of Hyderabad. The views from the crumbling Durbar Palace at the top are magnificent and afford a 360 degree panorama. Close by are the royal tombs, which are enormous mausoleums set in a beautiful tranquil garden.

I could quite easily stay here a few more days. There is so much history, culture and atmosphere to devour, not to mention some pretty fiery curries and an excellent biryani. The people are very friendly and genuinely curious. There are few other Western tourists here. At all the monuments you run into local tourists from the surrounding towns who seem totally excited to see a foreigner. They all want to say hello and shake hands and have their photo taken. However, I have a flight to Bhubaneswar in Odisha state early tomorrow morning and so the journey north to the Himalayas continues.

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