Delhi: Trunk call

Eyebrows shot up when Hamish Mykura said he was taking his young twins to Delhi, but thanks to an elephant, it was a holiday they'll never forget

The elephant man arrived just as it was getting light. A little crowd gathered and watched as the elephant snapped branches off the suburban blossom trees with its orange-and-white chalk-decorated trunk. Mr Zulfiqqar rents out elephants and camels, generally for weddings, but we'd hired this elephant as a birthday treat for the twins. Scrambling aboard, we swayed off through the dusty Delhi street.

Managing to book the elephant was the most satisfying moment of our trip to the Indian capital. For a while, it didn't look good. Whoever answered the phone in Mr Zulfiqqar's office simply bellowed down the receiver. Even with a helpful driver translating for me at my end, they seemed unable to make out a word we were saying. After two or three attempts, I began to wonder whether the elephant itself was answering the phone. But, finally, Mr Z answered. We could book the elephant, we were told, but we had to give at least a day's notice. I asked if he was busy. No, it wasn't that. It was simply that an elephant walks as fast as an elephant walks, and to get from its home on the edge of the city to the house where we were staying might take a day or so, depending on its mood.

We'd arranged a two-week holiday to Delhi because a friend had moved there. But everyone who heard that we were going to India with our about-to-be-five-year-old twins seemed to have the same response: "Oh, that's brave!", said in a faintly pejorative tone that hinted at negligence on our part. We were starting to feel apprehensive. My memories of India were from backpacking a decade ago: blissful, remote countryside, but cities of endless smog and hassle, where every taxi ride seemed to end in an unwanted detour to the cabbie's cousin's shop selling rugs and inlaid tables. How relaxing could a trip with small children to the capital of one of the world's most crowded and fast-growing nations really be?

Hiring a car was the first breakthrough. For less than the price of a self-drive car in Europe, we got a minivan with lush curtains and a full-time driver, complete with peaked cap. He would wait wherever we needed to stop and could be summoned from nowhere with the speed of a genie by a call on the mobile. Behind the wheel, he could weave nimbly between the cows that chew the cud between the lanes of the city's dual carriageways.

Delhi's centre divides neatly into two halves. There's the maze of markets and lanes around the Red Fort in the old town, best navigated by rickshaw. Just to the south is the vast grandeur of the British colonial capital, New Delhi, with its two-mile long Kingsway - now the Rajpath - that rivals the Champs-Elysées with its immense buildings and ceremonial arch. It's surprising how recent the complex is - finished in the 1930s, a monument to the last days of an over-extended empire. But out beyond these tourist sites there are other spectacular treasures sitting quietly in the suburbs. They proved perfect for picnics and mornings out.

The tomb of the second Mughal emperor Humayun is a half-scale Taj Mahal, minus the jostling crowds. It was said to have been the inspiration for the Taj, and it squats in the suburbs surrounded by a network of well-kept walled gardens with springs and fountains. Much stranger is the Qtab Minar: an enormous, lavishly carved pillar that dominates the low hills further out towards Delhi's southern fringe. This was site of the original Islamic town of Delhi, which grew up nine centuries ago. Bright green parakeets emerged from the ornate stonework. A teeming party of schoolgirls lined up to shake the hands of our children and giggle at their fair hair.

The city's parks were an unexpected success: Nehru Park and Lodhi Gardens, the "kissing garden" where couples snuggle between the rocks, are colourful and immaculately kept. Park-keepers outnumber visitors, sweepers brush leaves to and fro, and cows pull lawnmowers from one patch of shade to the next, then stop to eat the clippings.

The biggest hit of all with the twins, though, was the Delhi Railway Museum. The hulks of India's greatest steam locomotives can all be clambered over, and a toy train gives rides around the perimeter. Inside are elaborate model train sets - some seem more ancient than the engines on display outside. Most can still be operated by pushing buttons and pulling levers. Presiding over it all is the skull of the elephant that tried and failed to stop the Golkara mail train in 1894.

We had arrived in India with a nagging feeling that unless you backpacked far and wide, you couldn't really experience the country. But we were quickly and happily getting over that. When the heat and dust overwhelmed the children, we could retreat into international territory, the air-conditioned foyer world of hotel chains. The prices in the posh hotels seem comparable to mid-range hotels in Europe; and the international menus of hamburgers and spaghetti and fish-and-chips are ideal for children in danger of having one curry too many.

We visited in April, before the furnace heat of May and June, but even then, Delhi could be tough. There were things that we had worried might be too much for the children - the crowds, the beggars. But with a bit of warning, children take it all in their stride, focusing on details - a sadhu's painted nails, a monkey slinking down the track - and then asking the kinds of questions grown-ups avoid: "Dad, why are we rich and not poor?"

The street markets of the swankier suburbs of Hauz Khas and Sarojini were addictive - trinkets for the children, knock-off brand-name fashions for us. But a finer shopping experience was to come. Looking for a new suit, we were introduced to a Delhi phenomenon. His name is Mr Savile-Roy, and his family have been tailors since the early years of the last century. He proudly displays his work folder, pointing out photos of satisfied customers. Isn't that General Sir Mike Jackson in a new two-piece? And there, in the pink suit, Cherie Blair? Mr Roy says that he can make anything. A suit is ordered. Two days later, it arrives, a perfect fit, with the feel of having arrived from an earlier age.

For our five-year-olds, though, the highlight of the trip was the elephant. It waited all morning, swaying happily from side to side in the street. The driver touched up the chalk decorations on its trunk. Every 20 minutes or so, the twins could dash out again and be hoisted up its unexpectedly unleathery side for another little stroll along the street and back again. To them, Delhi isn't a hot and intimidating mega-city, it's "The Elephant Place".

As for us parents, it has changed our view of what might be possible with small children. We're now thinking about some other cities where a hotel with a pool and a car with a driver are within our budget. Shanghai's meant to be interesting...

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Hamish Mykura flew from Heathrow to Delhi on Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com).

Other non-stop options include Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

GETTING AROUND

Renting an elephant costs around 2,350 Rupees (£30) for a morning. Contact Mr Zulfiqqar on 00 91 9810 524252, Shop no. 247, Parwana Road, Khureji, Delhi. A Hindi translator will be needed.

STAYING THERE

Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi (00 91 1126 11 0202; www.tajhotels.com). Doubles from $186 (£103).

Hans Plaza Hotel, New Delhi (00 91 11 331 6868; www.hanshotels.com). B&B from $85 (£47).

VISITING THERE

National Rail Museum, New Delhi (00 91 11 2688 1816; www.railmuseum.org).

MORE DETAILS

India Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect