Delhi is an enormous city - probably why it is in its own state. The size of it is mind-boggling, with 16.3 million inhabitants (London has 8.1 according to versus.com). It’s smoky, rammed with cars and people and extremely noisy, 24/7.
Both Sarah and I were advised to get to India, adjust and then return to Delhi having experienced a bit of the country, acclimatising a little, as it can be quite a culture-shock. So, other than one night on arrival, that is what we did. In fact, we visited Varanasi before returning to Delhi so by then, Delhi was a walk in the park!
On return to Delhi, we were keen to get into Old Delhi. We had been to Hanoi in Vietnam a few years earlier and I had a similar image in my mind. This was reasonably accurate but Hanoi has more motorbikes. Old Delhi is, well… old, hot, smelly and dirty. But we really loved it. The shops, stalls and vendors, while eager, weren’t pushy or aggressive and we actually felt safe in the hustle and bustle. Many were happy to speak to us without more than a quick “you like my shop? Looking is free”, diffused with a polite “no thank you” and our conversation would continue, normally based on where we’re from and what we’d seen in India so far. Trying to vary it up a bit, when asked if we were from the UK, England or Great Britain, I rather foolishly had to explain that Bristol is in England, Great Britain and The UK. We then established that the man we were speaking to thought London was also separate from all three and without the necessary Hindi on our part and basic geographical English on his, we all, simultaneously decided we’d better move on.
Safety is something that I do worry about when travelling for two reasons. Firstly, as I’m carrying my camera(s) about (I don’t always carry everything) and for Sarah as she carries our passports and money - something the Indians really don’t understand. How could a woman be in charge of their husband’s money. I on the other hand think it is a perfect arrangement! In Old Delhi, nothing we saw or experienced suggested we were at any risk - other than the constant ankle-threat from many passing cycle rickshaws that have some unnecessarily long bolts sticking out of their frames as they pass.
Old and New Delhi
Old Delhi and New Delhi are extremely different, with the narrow, pot-holed and filthy streets of Old Delhi, compared to the wide, boulevard-like roads and water features of New Delhi, which frankly, could be any new city in the world.
New Delhi does have some great things to see though. India Gate is a memorial to the Indians who fought for the British in the World Wars - something we felt we really should see.
Another thing New Delhi has to offer is the nightlife and extensive shopping, from huge uber-value brands to illegal markets where you can get rip-off DVDs or dubiously sourced mobile phones and cameras - all within about 100 metres of one another. We met some friends on one evening in ‘Lord of the Drinks’ - Branded as if Frodo had consulted - in their rooftop bar for cocktails and some food. The comfy chairs, speedy service and trendy music was a welcome change (with the exception of the higher prices - but still less than the UK) to the previous few weeks where we had deliberately been looking for older, authentic and characterful places to eat in the evenings where large meals for two, including a couple of beers would often be less than £10!
The Lodi Gardens are beautiful and house some ancient Muslim-built Mosques. It’s also a popular place for canoodling couples and at times, it was hard to look at anything without feeling like we were invading on some couple’s privacy. We were also duped into a guided tour around the mosques by a man who just approached us and started talking, and being ‘Brits on tour’, we were too polite and uncomfortable to escape, leading to an uncomfortable moment as he told us that a ‘real guide’ would charge the equivalent of £5 and we should give him some money. We did give him some and apologised. I am not sure what for though.
The Lodi Gardens and Humayun’s Tomb (the inspiration for the Taj Mahal) were the more ancient landmarks and have simply been consumed by the city’s growth. While not particularly taken with New Delhi as a whole, these were well worth seeing as a huge part of India’s varied history. While a lot of Indian people we met were rather hostile towards Muslims, these landmarks are well maintained and set in beautiful surroundings.
More Old Delhi
Many streets in Old Delhi would be rammed with traffic, traders and animals (some of whom would be dressed in polo shirts or cardigans) but it was possible to find quieter streets where some people would be willing for me to make a few portraits of them, as before, really enjoying seeing them in the back of the camera afterwards.
A recommended restaurant from The Rough Guide was Karim’s. Hidden down a side street, near one of Delih’s largest Mosques, this was the place to go for a true Delhi curry. They are very oily and served in plastic dishes but tasted fantastic. The meat is all served on the bone - not something that happens much in the Indian restaurants in the UK and you really have to get stuck into it and cutlery is largely pointless. We visited this place twice. Once on our own and once with Sarah’s Mum before she left to fly home just before Christmas.
In an attempt to avoid the famed ‘Delhi Belly’, another piece of advice we were given was to avoid pre-prepared fruit and stick to a mainly vegetarian diet, with the exception of raw vegetables. They were to avoided at all costs - mainly because the water in which they were typically washed was the real risk.
Now, I am not a huge fan of fruit and way prefer vegetables, given the choice but, as an omnivore, the concept of a fully vegetarian diet concerned me. Mainly because I am never attracted to the limited options available in the UK when we eat out and in my ignorance I had assumed the choice would be equally limited in India. However, as a predominantly Hindu country, it is entirely possible to manage as the vegetarian food is simply so varied and delicious.
Given my fantastic lack of skill in the kitchen, I have certainly been inspired by many of the dishes we have had out here to both cook more and change our meat:veg ratio! How very edgy of me… I know.
In Delhi’s polluted and crammed streets however, there were many shops with their attractively brightly painted carts where fruit and vegetables were readily available and looked absolutely delicious.
Delhi was not as frightening as we’d anticipated. Admittedly, we’d been in India for a while before really spending time there and had more or less adjusted to the roads, crowds and heat but the pollution and constant smoggy cityscape was pretty oppressive. It does have some very redeeming features in the diversity of activities, from very developed and cosmopolitan bars and restaurants to ancient monuments and tourist attractions.
The people who live there out of choice, absolutely love it - must be the same as London but we really felt that a few days of breathing in the fumes was enough. It is definitely worth a visit and should be seen if you’re visiting india but personally, as a person who finds Bristol (with its measly 500K population) a little big, this would not be somewhere I could be for any extended period of time. And what’s the point in having given up smoking in 2005 to then live in a cloud of it! We did make some friends there and had a great time but the fresh air of both the north and south suited us far better.