When I first touched down in New Delhi I have to say I was a tad deceived. Having skimmed my trusty Lonely Planet, I was expecting the Paharganj area to be a bustling Th Khao San à la Bangkok, but was greeted with something else entirely. I suppose I have my own ignorance to thank; I’d been told about what to expect, but brushed it off under the pretence that I am some sort of travel wizard.
Day one was largely about acclimatisation; opting for Old Delhi as our quarters we headed out to live and breathe the fresh stenches of cow pat and spices. Now don’t get me wrong, Old Delhi is fantastic, if a little daunting for your first India destination. It’s got some fantastic eateries serving vast amounts of sweet and savoury fare, and is the cheapest option when it comes to racking up gifts. As always, just beware the commission touts!
The food is fantastic and the sights are simply spectacular
While still getting used to malaria pills and the thick monsoon air we headed for Old Delhi’s Red Fort area, to get our first taste of incredible India. This was the first of many forts we’d encounter on our adventure: they make great landmarks for tuk-tuk drivers and offer a glimpse into the shimmering past with their dusty construction and plethora of artefacts. We ticked off the Old Delhi to-do list, rounding off in Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. If you visit, be sure to climb the tower for spectacular views of the city: the contrast of Old to New Delhi is quite a sight.
At this point in the day the torrential downpour began: a Hindu festival was underway, so rather than cowering forever we waded through flooded streets, up to our knees in the water. Sounds like fun, right? It would be so were it not for the unidentified floating objects swishing by our ankles. Cars chugged by, barely missing our feet, and the street was lit up and excitable. We finally escaped the madness and decided to kick back with a thali.
But enough about ambling through Old Delhi: having been confined to that small hub we eventually ventured into sprawling New Delhi to see what was on offer. New Delhi and Old Delhi are worlds apart, but each has their charm according to your needs. New Delhi makes for fantastic shopping, both the franchise and market varieties, in and around the Connaught Place area. One place I highly recommend is Palika Bazaar, a conveniently air-conditioned market selling endless Indian garments, where it’s easy to push for a good bargain.
I could ramble endlessly about the temples on offer, but every guidebook will already give you the low down. All I’ll say is be sure to check out at least a few before you get ‘all templed out’ – the Lotus Temple, Humayun’s Tomb and Akshardham just out of town were all personal favourites and shouldn’t be missed. And after temple apathy takes its toll, a peaceful stroll through Lodi Gardens will refresh the body and soul. And no trip would be complete without a visit to the Gandhi Smriti: Gandhi is still an invaluable inspiration to modern Indian activists such as Anna Hazare, and this interactive remembrance centre does his ideologies great justice.
Delhi is a metaphor for all of India, really: initially the madness is frightening, but let the initial uncertainties and doubts subside and you’ll soon find that you’re in the middle of one of the most interesting and diverse countries on the planet. Expect a culture shock, but don’t let it get the better of you. Because the food is fantastic, the people are perfect, and the sights are simply spectacular – I don’t need to sell it any more than that.