Rumi Darwaza was built in the time of the first Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf ud Daulah. The monumental structure of lakhauri brick and surkhi mortar was the entrance to the Nawabi capital city, the gate to the fabled hospitality of Awadh. The arch is topped by an octagonal cupola which was originally meant to contain lights. Around the exterior of the arch one can still see the pipes which made up an immense fountain. If this ever worked, then the underlying hydraulics would have been wonderful indeed, so I’m surprised to find no references to it at all. One can see a gallery half way up the interior, and I read that there is a staircase to access it. I did not search for the stairs. I walked through the gate, which now is a conduit for a constant stream of extremely variable traffic.
On the outside of the gate is a busy road, in process of being widened. At the corner of every road which feeds into it is a taxi stand. The variety of taxis and rickshaws was incredibly large. If you ever need to count how many different kinds of vehicles can be made into taxis, just come to one of these cross roads. I’m sure it will be hard to exceed any count made here.
One of the most interesting things about the area is the food. Lucknow is reputed to be a place for refined food: kababs which melt before they pass your lips, slow-cooked biryani, figs and apricots in curries, multiply-layered roti. But around this gate I found carts which were full of simpler puri, kachori, and alu tikki, all doing good business at lunch time. Interspersed with them were the carts where you could get grilled corn: bhutta. In the middle of the day they did not seem to attract customers, but the fact that there were several carts meant that later in the day their popularity would rise.
There are no tourists outside the Rumi Darwaza, they stay on the Lucknow side of the gate, where the Bada Imambara lies. In spite of the fact that there are interesting buildings on the outside, like the Picture Gallery and the Chhota Imambara, this seems to be the domain of the locals.
In the few days that we stayed in Shanghai we grew to love the atmosphere of the city: it seemed like a lively place where people are getting on with their lives and having fun. The bones and arteries of the city, the transport system and the roads, are good, and the people are really friendly. It is the kind of city in which a foreigner can live for a few years and like it.
The next part of our trip is Beijing. We took a late evening flight. It was delayed by almost an hour. In India such a delay would have set people talking, many passengers would have gone to the gate and asked for the reason for the delay, and there would be several announcements giving more and more detailed reasons. In Shanghai people did not seem to bother. The quiet was nice. We took out our Kindles and read quietly.
We’d had a long day, so I fell asleep almost as soon as we took off. I woke up some time later to find the crew serving drinks. I had a tea and read about Beijing. The Family did not bother to wake up until we were about to land. The landing was beautiful: a feather-light landing which is so uncommon now. The night was a little chill, but we had our sweaters. There was another major delay at the baggage reclaim. It was past midnight, and we had to wait for nearly an hour for the baggage to arrive. Again I was surprised by the patience of my Chinese co-passengers. India is different.
It hadn’t been easy to flag taxis in either Shanghai or Hangzhou. Beijing airport turned out to be more organized. We were in a queue, and as taxis arrived, they would take the passengers at the head of the queue. We were in a taxi soon, luggage stowed away, and showed the driver the address of the hotel in Chinese. He spoke a few words of English. I remember reading in the newspapers that before the Beijing olympics taxi drivers had been given lessons in English. Were we reaping the benefits of that?
We are going to spend the next month in the Haidian district where there is a cluster of universities and high-tech companies. Late at night the taxi took about thirty minutes to get to our hotel from the airport. We found how impressive this was the very next morning, when I met a friend who took the shuttle bus at five in the morning and was stuck in traffic for two hours.
As we tried to check in late at night, the lady at the reception told us that we did not have reservations. I was nonplussed: I’d called up the hotel at four in the afternoon and told them we would arrive after midnight, and they had assured us that they would hold our reservation. It was sorted out minutes later, when the lady discovered that she had mistyped my name. It was three at night when we finally looked out at Beijing from our room 50 meters above ground.