Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Old Delhi

India. The name alone carries so many connotations, so many associations, such historic, cultural and religious overtones. In some ways, it feels like these past seven months have been, for us, a warm-up, a training session in preparation for this vast, triangular subcontinent that lurks over everything. As momentous and exciting as it was to travel through Southeast Asia, we've always had India on the back of our minds. Me, I've been pining to see this place for years, as it has always seemed the absolute pinnacle of the exotic, a country more far-flung, colourful and downright exciting than any country ought to be. As for Angela, was on her mind for different reasons. So many people have told us how "everyone there is after your money," and how "it's gross," and how "something as simple as buying a train ticket can become the biggest headache you'll ever experience." Yes, I suppose, in some ways, I can't blame Angela for dreading India.

The good news is that, so far, it hasn't been anywhere near as bad as some people make out to be. The way people talked about it, it seemed a case of "take the intensity of SE Asia and times it by 5," when really it's more like "take the intensity of SE Asia and add 30 percent." We've been here over a week now, and so far, yes, it's a crazy clusterfuck of a country at times, but most of the aforementioned problems are not omnipresent. You can find many quiet, relatively clean areas away from the dirty chaos; you can find areas where the locals are genuinely curious or friendly and not trying to scam you; and no, travelling around does not have to be a headache. We found a trustworthy tourist agency in Delhi who helped us book three weeks' worth of transport and accommodation for a great price and with virtually zero hassle (I really can't recommend these guys enough if you're planning to travel around India: their website is and their office is at 78 Janpath, Delhi).

We switched our sightseeing mode to "extreme" level while in Delhi, visiting around fifteen different historic sights, as well as exploring a bunch of streets and bazaars on foot, making for an exhausting first few days in India. Thankfully, while it's hot here the humidity is pretty low so we don't find ourselves sweating as much as we did in SE Asia. We also met a lone female traveller who decided to tag along with us for three days (can't blame her for feeling a little uncomfortable by herself; Angela is with me and even she gets creepy looks from some of the men).

Delhi is one of the most highly populated cities in the world, and it really shows. In Old Delhi, especially (which will be the focus of this blogpost), the streets can become a ramshackle mess of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and fruit carts, with so many pedestrians that it often becomes easier to walk amongst the traffic than to stay on the sidewalk (if there even is a sidewalk, which there often isn't). While you walk down these streets, you're confronted not only with shopkeepers, tuk-tuk drivers and touts trying to persuade you to buy something, but also with overpowering smells of saffron, motor oil, urine and street food, and with the loud honking of horns, calls to prayer and Bollywood music cranked up to full volume. As I said before, it's not this chaotic everywhere, but when it is, it can really take a lot out of you. But it's also fun and intoxicating, turning a simple afternoon stroll into a thrilling adventure.

So far, despite its flaws, we're enjoying this country a lot. It's just as rich, spiritual, vibrant and electrifying as I always dreamed it would be, and each place we've visited has been very different from the last. It's a country I already know I'll want to return to someday, since we can only scratch the surface of its vast offerings in the few weeks that we're here.

Our route by plane from Kathmandu to Delhi. 
At Kathmandu Airport, we said our goodbyes to wonderful Nepal.
We saw this decrepit out-of-use plane just sitting by the runway.
The staff on our plane sprayed the cabin with disinfectant. Never seen this happen before.
After an hour or so, we were landing on the dark-green plains surrounding Delhi.
At Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport.
We'd heard that the airport taxis could be a little sketchy, so we opted for the metro. When we tried to go into the metro station, a guy at the front door told us "the metro is not working; you must take a taxi" and tried to usher us over to a taxi stand. Only just left the airport, we thought, and already the lies have begun! We ignored him, entered the metro station and found it in full working order. It was pretty modern and clean for the most part, and made it easy to get around the city, even if it got pretty crowded at times.
Rajiv Chowk station is one of the metro's busiest stations. We had to change here pretty frequently during our time in Delhi, as it serves as an intersection between the Blue and Yellow Lines, the lines we used the most.
We initially went to our hotel in Karol Bagh to rest for a moment, then returned to Rajiv Chowk station and emerged at Connaught Place. This ring-shaped district is full of shops, restaurants, cinemas and other establishments, and it was the location of the travel agency we wanted to find, named Destination India. As soon as we came out of the station, we tried to get our bearings and figure out where it was. We made the mistake of looking very much like disorientated tourists, which made us a target for passing touts, many of them indistinguishable from everyday trustworthy individuals. "Go that way," an old bearded man said, walking alongside us, "there's a government-approved travel agency." Once we got rid of - in as polite a way as we could - this man, a smartly dressed younger man approached and whispered, "You can't trust people round here. Let me show you a safe travel agency." Several more of these touts directed us towards a nearby "government-approved" travel agency, but we'd read online that these are actually scam agencies that rip oblivious tourists off. We were determined to find Destination India, since it had been well-reviewed on the web, but it was difficult to ask for directions as we just didn't know who we could trust. So we ignored the people constantly pestering us and looked carefully for the address on Janpath. It took us a while - walking down the wrong street, going down the right street but looking on the wrong side - but eventually we found it. Words can't describe what a relief it was when the friendly staff members inside served us tea and helped us arrange an itinerary. They weren't remotely pushy. Instead they listened carefully to us as we explained what we wanted, and helped make it happen. They organised a driver to take us through Rajasthan, booked train tickets to Varanasi and Haridwar, and arranged affordable but comfortable accommodation along the way. So far, they've lived up to all their promises, and we really can't find fault with them at all. If you missed it above, here's their website.
Once our business with Destination India was finished, we returned to our area in Karol Bagh, feeling elated that we didn't have to stress about any further travel arrangements. During the evening we walked around the nearby market for an hour.
Karol Bagh is busy, but there are few tourists, and it caters much more to local Indians, which means you don't get hassled by touts too much, and it feels authentic. We were really happy to be staying in this area for the next few days.
Eating dinner at our hotel's rooftop restaurant. I had butter chicken simmered in tomato gravy, while Angela had Aloo Mutter (potatoes and peas cooked with spices in onion gravy). Combined with some roti (a type of flat pancake-like bread), it was a delicious culinary introduction to India.
The next morning, we went to Chandni Chowk, a busy market area in Old Delhi.
Our first Indian cow sighting! We thought we'd see these everywhere, but actually they're not so common in Delhi. In the other cities we've since visited, however, they're everywhere, sometimes whole herds of them wandering in the middle of the road.
This area was extremely busy and noisy, with thousands of people, rickshaws and cars rattling past us. 
An electronics bazaar just off the main road.

We made our way towards the Red Fort, which you can see in the distance. Note how some of the pedestrians walk freely amongst the traffic. Sometimes it's simply easier than walking on the crowded sidewalk!

At the Red Fort, the residence of the Mughal Emperors of India during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

We met an American named Sylvia who had just herself recently arrived in Delhi. She tagged along with us, and the three of us became sightseeing buddies for the next few days.
Going deeper into the fort.

The Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Audiences. This is where the Mughal Emperor would receive members of the public and listen to their grievances.
The Imperial Enclosure.

In the museum.
The three of us took a rickshaw to nearby Jama Masjid.
Jama Masjid is India's largest mosque. There are several gates by which to enter the mosque, and the first one we tried was guarded by some men who insisted we each pay a camera fee despite the fact that I was the only one taking pictures.

So, we walked around to a different gate, accompanied by goat-herders.

Some crazy traffic near the mosque.
We entered by this gate, where the staff members were a little less hostile, allowing us to pay just one camera fee.
It was a very hot day, and you could just about boil an egg on the stone floor of the mosque. Since you have to take your shoes off before entering, most people navigated the floor via this cool white ribbon.
Me, standing before the impressive mosque, trying to smile for the picture while my bare feet begin to sting.
Sylvia and Angela in front of one of the gates.

After leaving the mosque, we headed down the main road of Chawri Bazaar. This was by far the craziest, nosiest part of Delhi we visited. Along the main road was a permanent traffic jam of rickshaws and tuk-tuks, not to mention loud cars that honked their horns over and over again, as though that might somehow speed things along.

Some very pungent street food. Some of this stuff smells really good, but we've been avoiding it for fear of getting Delhi belly. It's a pity, as I'm sure most street food is delicious and generally safe to eat, but we're determined not to get sick in this country.

Doing road maintenance, Indian style.

This was only just the beginning of our explorations of Delhi, but most of the other places we visited were in New Delhi, which felt pretty different to the dirty, rickety landscape of Old Delhi. So, we'll be looking at those in the next blog post.

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