Delhi is the quintessential mix of “old and new” (yes, travel cliche #1, yawn…)
While most people who haven’t been to India often think about poverty and slums (or maybe call centres), in fact there are spacious wide boulevardes that greet you from the airport. The airport itself sets the tone with soaring glass and chrome architecture, and gleaming metallic art installations on the walls.
As we drove from the airport into town, we first saw middle-class peeps walking their well-groomed dogs, others doing their morning calisthenics, still others waiting for the bus to work, with nary a whiff of poverty for some 20 minutes or more.
Only after some time does this impression of orderliness and wealth give way to the dusty streets with little markets and chai stalls, the hordes going about their daily business, lean-to shanty houses, people sleeping on footpaths, temples, masjids, auto and cycle-rickshaws, the smell of smog and wood-fire mingled, the ubiquitous cows and even more numerous street dogs. I remember my first trip here, having been been to Mumbai previously, wondering “where’s all the character?”
I kept looking slyly at my husband to see when he would get his first shock - but it was a long time coming, much to my disappointment. I’d made him watch doco’s about slums, the railways, even Bollywood movies to get him acclimatised, but secretly thought he’d find it confronting his first time around. After a few days he declared that, in terms of smell and grubbiness, he thought Thailand was worse!
In truth, it was ME who in the first few days wondered what the heck I thought I was doing back here, when we could’ve been sunning ourselves on a beach in south east Asia (see pics of dusty hot littered roads near our hotel, below). But more on that later.
Every other time I’ve stayed in Delhi, it was in Main Bazaar – the Khao San Road of Delhi – in the appropriately named district of Pahar Ganj, right near New Delhi railway station. As you can see, the road is fairly narrow, and utterly congested with tourists, shops/market stalls, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and the odd cow and dog. With the constant honking of traffic over here, it’s NOT a peaceful place to bed down for the night.
But being older, wiser and a little less noise-tolerant, I decided to book us into the other main accommodation area in Pahar Ganj, Arakashan Road. It’s just a little more upmarket, although still dusty and noisy by day, and festooned in neon by night.
This is the road from Delhi Station to Arakashan Road; note temples, autos, cows and dogs:
Arakashan Road alive at night – admittedly the road is not much wider than Main Bazaar, but it is mostly hotels and restaurants, and more local Indian foot traffic.
We stayed at Hotel Raj which was relatively clean, and fairly quiet, being back off the main road. But every morning this pigeon fancier who lived on the roof (we surmise) would make his cooing noises to atract the birds and he would feed them. So for some half hour from around 7am, there would be this “craw!craw!” and we’d screw our earplugs in just a little bit tighter. But by Pahar Ganj standards, this was no big deal
The hotel had a nice little restaurant attached, at which we ate breakfast a few times. But we weren’t going to restrict ourselves to a hotel restaurant, and planned a little exploratory walk after a well-deserved nap – with no stopover on the way to India, it had been a LOOONG flight!
Anxious to try out the local nosh, we happened upon a great little Bengali restaurant around the corner – Gagan Restaurant. No, I’m pretty sure it’s not in the Lonely Planet, but it does the BEST thali plates, with refills of all but the meat curries. OK, it’s a bit grungy on the inside, as you can see below, but it’ s the food that counts, right? And queues of locals waiting to get a seat is always a good thing:
Thali plates, for those who don’t know, are these tin plates with an assortment of different curries in them so you get a variety (a bit like the bento box concept in Japan). You will also get rice and sometimes pickle or raita, and roti or naan bread upon request. Sometimes you even get a dessert, like a gulab jamen.
Dom ordered the mutton curry thali plate and I had the chicken, along with the usual dahl, 2 veg curries, rice and pappadum – oh, and the rice was topped with teeny tiny french fries – aww! I tried Dom’s and…I shoulda had the mutton. Delish. We went back there 3 or 4 times after that, and the little boy who did the refills always had a big smile for us.
We were about 10 minutes walk to New Delhi Railway Station, and a short walk further on to the Delhi Metro Rail, which is a great way to get around Delhi. We used this a lot to get to various parts of town; much quicker than a taxi or auto rickshaw. To access the Metro station, you can either walk through New Delhi Railway Station (there’s an overpass with views over the railway lines like the one below), or take the bridge to the left of the main station and walk over. The pic below right is the view from the bridge at sunset – see how the smog makes for a lovely diffused colour glow?
If you choose to stay in the ritzier Connaught Place area, where there are 4 and 5 star hotels, there is a Metro station there also to get you about town. Mind you, the Inner Ring Road is getting torn up now and looks like a bomb hit it. It looked like they were replacing plumbing, as pipes were exposed. But India being India, the shops and businesses remained open; people just resign themselves to walking over the rubble (which also provided comfy beds for the street dogs). And even Connaught Place has pockets of grunge – check out the filthy auto below! I don’t think it’s been used in some time, heh.
In the next few posts I will share some of the sights, such as Chowry Bazaar in Old Delhi, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid etc (with beautiful rather than grungy pics), but I just wanted to give a bit of local flavour here and show what the daily streets are like. There was a lot of beauty in architecture, scenery and fashion later in the trip, but Delhi is like the mean streets, with a grit that gets under your skin even as it gets up yer nose!