Landing in Lucknow was the culmination of an epic journey via Manchester, Munich and Mumbai with no shut-eye and the drudgery of airport formalities. My very first taste of the sublime subcontinent was a 7 hour stint at Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai, but this was the sterile, standardised, sanitised version. Airports are universally uniform in appearance with only hints of national character creeping through, like the squat toilets, the ladies with bindis on their foreheads and the Indian phenomenon of having far too many men to do one job (15 of them pushing 5 airport luggage trolleys for example – a clear symptom of overpopulation). Accordingly, the assault on the senses and that first real culture shock had to wait until I was spat out of the airport and into the humidity of the Northern State of Uttar Pradesh and its capital city, Lucknow.
Little visited Lucknow is off the traditional tourist trail which gifts it with two appealing features: (1) It hasn’t fallen prey to the touts, scams and touristisation of other Indian cities and (2) it means you’re treated as a minor celebrity! We obviously stuck out like sore thumbs here, not meeting another westerner and attracting lingering glances everywhere we went. As an important historical centre, Lucknow is frequented by plenty of Indian tourists who were as keen to photograph the sites as they were to photograph us! I happily obliged the approaches of those who wanted to practice a bit of English or get a mobile phone snap of me with them! Having read up on the plethora of scams which unfortunately plague India’s visitors, I was initially apprehensive. So I’m pleased to report that everyone in Lucknow was genuinely interested in nothing more than a chat and a snap. I’d be petrified at home if a gang of 8 young lads surrounded me, but here they all wanted to shake my hand, stare at my pale skin for a minute then sheepishly skulk away smiling.
This relative lack of nuisance makes Lucknow the perfect place to ease a first timer into India. It struck me as a big bustling city but when I was later able to compare it to other places, I realised how calm and clean it actually is!
Lucknow is mostly known for its history under the British Raj and the Nawabs, giving it a rich colonial past with plenty of ostentatious architecture. It was infamously home to the “Siege of Lucknow” in 1857 when those old colonising Brits were held up within the walls of the Residency complex for several months, fending off rebelling citizens outside. This marked the beginning of the end for British rule in India.
Since then Lucknow has continued to be an established seat of state power and a centre for the military as well as several prestigious medical and education faculties.
We lodged at Lucknow Homestay with lovely Naheed, her family and Pepper the pooch. Their house is near to the noisy train station and down a dusty pockmarked road, fringed with palm trees and frequented by ubiquitous wandering cows. The homestay is lovely, clean and basic with stone floors throughout and airy rooms with high ceilings and dark shutters. There’s a central lounge area with kitchen plus tea, coffee and UV filtered water provided.
We booked an Auto Rickshaw rider to zip us round the key sites for the day, costing 350 rupees (about £5). We saw the Matiniere first which is a grandiose former mansion of a French dignitary and subsequently a prestigious private school with past alumni including Sirs Rudyard Kipling and Cliff Richard!
Next stop was the Residency, home to that infamous Siege. It was outside here that we sampled our first street food of Aloo Chaat which was prepared by a man with no running water who scooped potato mixture with his bare hands, then wiped his palm on the frying pan to clean it. Welcome to India!
Further stops on the tour were Bara Imambara – an 18th century pastel-hued edifice built by a former Nawab (King) – followed by the similarly symmetrical Hussainabad Imambara buildings. There’s plenty more to see in Lucknow, such as the largest clock in India, elaborately carved gateways and the vast Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar Memorial which covers 107 acres of the city centre with numerous statues and botanical gardens. But feeling exhausted by this point, a quick drive past these sites was sufficient and we headed to the place we were most excited about: Tunday Kebabi.
Lucknow is also famous for its kebabs. We ventured into the heart of the old town to this 100-year-old cafe serving up the reputedly ‘best mutton kebabs in the world’. Having sampled some, I agree this is entirely feasible. We took our rickshaw driver, Guagam, into the rabble of the cafe with us and found it was reassuringly heaving with hungry locals. We scoffed the softly spiced minced mutton which is served with thin chappati breads to wrap yourself. A round of kebabs and colas came to less than £4, including tip.
Food, culture and hassle free exploring made this a truly enjoyable introduction to India for me. I thoroughly recommend a visit to this remarkable city.