“I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life.” – Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (poet)
I’ll be honest, I was dreading Delhi. It was my first destination on my adventure around Northern India and I had visions of stepping off the plane into a dirty, lecherous city where I would be relentlessly hassled, probably mugged and would probably be flattened by a tuk-tuk.
The internet is not kind to Delhi. My research had told me to get out of there as quickly as possible. Even the locals I spoke to tutted when I told them I was planning on lingering for 3 days. ‘It’s too long,’ they would sigh. ‘Delhi is not nice.’ And certainly, Delhi was no paradise. It was rough round the edges, as all capital cities are. It would be impossible for these huge, sprawling cities to completely well-maintained and the sheer amount of people meant that noise, pollution and a certain amount of hassle was inevitable.
What a capital city needs to counteract this is charm. And, like London, like Bangkok and like Amsterdam, Delhi did have a certain amount of charm. I think it was because I was expecting to hate it from start to finish, that I actually learnt to appreciate it. I love an underdog and Delhi pleasantly surprised me. When my three days were up, I was ready to leave and explore new things, but I was glad I had used Delhi for more than a pit-stop as there are some real gems here.
Shattered after an epic journey which had already spanned four different countries, I opted for my hotel to pick me up at the airport, especially since my flight got in in the early hours of the morning. By the time I emerged from the airport, the first tinges of sunlight were starting to hit the city and I got an unexpectedly mellow introduction to the captial. I remember stepping out in Chennai a couple of years ago well after midnight and the city was still alive and bustling. This time, however, I got the impression Delhi was starting a new day. It was a fascinating transition – by the time the hour long journey to my hotel had concluded, the gradual trickle of early risers had opened up into a monsoon of noises and colour. By 6.30am, Delhi was very much alive.
After a lengthy nap following my journey, I woke up in the afternoon and decided to dedicate today to just having a bit of a wander. My hotel (Smyle Inn) was located just off the Main Bazaar, a stone’s throw away from New Delhi Railway Station and very close to Connaught Place. I decided to meander up to Connaught Place and see what it was like.
And, despite the Main Bazaar being almost stereotypically ‘Delhi’ with its noise, dirt and bustle, I was so glad I had chosen to stay so close to Connaught Place as it was a real revelation. I loved it. It wasn’t your typical Indian hub. I found the market to be quite half-hearted and I wasn’t hassled nearly as much as was expecting. Instead, it could easily pass off as the centre of any major city. The quirkly circular roads which wrap themselves around Central Park are filled with character, a wealth of upmarket shops and restaurants (along with the obligatory McDonalds) and it’s a perfect spot to people watch.
In the centre, the Indian flagpole, only recently erected in March 2014, towers above all else and ia a fantastic focal point. Getting into the park is a bit of a faff (there was only one entrance that I could see and, true to form, I ended up walking the entire circumference of the park before finding it) and involves going through security, but once inside, you can position yourself underneath the flag and chill. Well, unless you’re me and you get surrounded by locals wanting to get photos with you and creepily telling you ‘you have beautiful blue eyes’ and ‘you look like Spiderman’. Ahhhh, India…
There are plenty of tasty restaurants located around Connaught Place, though they seem to be on the pricier side for budget travellers. I had a small splurge when I first arrived and ate at Embassy Restaurant which was pretty tasty and with good service, though it set me back around 1300 rupees (though this included a cold beer). When I returned to Connaught Place before getting my flight back home, I was disappointed to be unable to find much in the way of street food. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places, but the market was disappointingly lacklustre and I couldn’t find much else.
Away from Connaught Place, Delhi still manages to maintain its charm, albeit a more bustling, noisy one. Crossing the road is an art form, so make use of the very few pedestrian crossings dotted round the city. I actually found crossing the road in India to be much harder than in South-East Asia. In Vietnam or Thailand, you got the impression you could walk into the middle of the road and the hordes of scooters would know what to do. You didn’t get that feeling at all in India!
If you get bored of hanging round Connaught Place, another free hang-out place which is breathtaking (and not too far from CP) is Rajpath and India Gate. I was blown away by India Gate, a memorial built in 1921 for fallen Indian soldiers. It’s a huge, imposing structure (one of many in Delhi) which fascinates and intrigues. The only thing which lets it down are the hordes of touts and souvenir-sellers which surround it. However, it’s fairly well policed with guards not allowing touts to step off the road onto the grass. Therefore your best bet (as I did) is to find a shady spot on the grass and admire the incredible gate.
The whole area is fairly well-kept with gorgeous fountains and greenery. I approached the monument from the side, but I imagine it’d be pretty cool to walk all the way up Rajpath and approach it from the front. You can do this by getting the metro from Rajiv Chowk (the Connaught Place metro station in Central Park) down to Central Secretariat, just outside Parliament House (which is a pretty impressive place in itself). If you can find that secluded spot which is nigh-impossible to find in India, Rajpath is a brilliant place to catch your breath. I think that’s what made me warm to Delhi. No matter how many crazy roads and streets there were, equally there were also spaces where you could stop and relax for a while. It was just a matter of finding them, and then putting on your best ‘I just want half an hour to myself, please don’t talk to me’ face which almost never worked.
If chilling isn’t your thing, a walk down the Main Bazaar, even if you’re not staying there, provides some memorable sights and is a good place to do a bit of shopping. I actually wasn’t hassled too much down there so it was fairly easy to wander down and window shop. A much quieter experience was at Dilli Haat market, which was much further out. I popped in here at the end of my HOHO tour to grab a bite to eat and it was almost deserted, meaning browsing was a lot more relaxed, though you didn’t get the atmosphere and buzz of the market that I love so much. I picked up some tasty food though so if you’re nearby, it’s worth going in. I think there’s an entrance fee (though if you’re on HOHO it’s free) so there are probably better choices if you just want to experience an Indian market.
Overall, Delhi was probably one of my biggest surprises. It wasn’t as much of an electric shock as I thought (though perhaps this is because I’ve already experienced India before) and was actually filled with friendly people and good vibes. I ended up sharing a couple of beers with some locals (after spending about half an hour deciding whether or not they were trying to scam me), relaxing amongst some beautiful scenery and getting stuck into the bustle of a city which truly does not sleep. It’s got an efficient (and cheap!) Metro service, some delicious food and it will intrigue, infuriate and delight you in equal measure.
I went there fully expecting to keep my guard up and head down for the entire time but actually found that most people aren’t out to scam you and just want to chat. Just be wary about the usual tourist office scams (one I did fall for) where you’re bundled into an office and then have to sit there whilst a man at a desk plans out a 4 week itinerary for you that you have no intention of ever taking and keep an eye out for pickpockets (especially small children) but I didn’t find Delhi any worse than any other capital city I’ve visited.
Chances are, some of you will go there and hate it, others will love it. But then I’d expect nothing less from the capital city of a country as divisive and polarising as India…