These days when you fly into New Delhi, it’s likely on a spanking 21st century airliner and you are ushered into a modern terminal on arrival. With only mild disorientation you get your eVisa okayed and it’s identikit duty-free all the way to the baggage carousel. All very international and none the better for it.
You have the option of the metro – 21st century airport express – but we opted for a complimentary airport pickup because a) duh, complimentary and b) I’m too lazy to walk the last 400m from the Metro station to our digs.
Annnnd let the games begin. Gently at first.
When we eventually RV with our chap – of course there are 2 meetings points with the same id number about 200m apart – he ushers us to a careworn (aka beaten-to-shit) Maruti-Suzuki micro-van. We fill it, crank up the A/C and head towards town. It’s my 4th visit and I note that, if anything, the traffic has got worse. A growing (westernising?) economy and booming middle class = more cars. So very many. Luckily everyone ignores all road markings and traffic rules, not to mention laws of physics. We ooze into non existent spaces, swerve onrushing trucks/cars/buses/tuk-tuks/motorcycles/yak-carts, cheerfully straddle white lines, give way to no one and all the while beep the horn like a frustrated morse’ radio operator.
I have written about this at length some years ago, still feels current: click here.
On this trip we have a twist: 2 India virgins. So naturally we ditch the bags at the hotel, grab two auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks) and head for Old Delhi proper. The simple act of crossing the bridge from DB Gupta Rd over the New Delhi Rail Station tracks into Chawri Bazaar is like pressing the crazy button on a time machine.
Away team, adjust phaser craziness settings to “batshit”.
It’s so difficult to make the fully paid-up bonkers appear in words don’t you think? Photos aren’t terribly helpful either, because the circus-like, festival intensity requires all senses to be engaged. (I am also a mediocre photographer at best.) Intellectually, y’know that there are 1.2 billion souls in India today. But somehow y’don’t expect them to all be on the same street as you. On a Tuesday lunchtime.
After some time – “jack knifed cow, mahousive snarl up on Chandi Chwok guvnah” – we de-tuk, er, tuk-tuk, tuk at the Jama Masjid. The biggest mosque in India is impressive and offers a great vantage point. We head up the steps to take it in, take a break and reset. At which point our blonder travelling companions are transformed: instant rock star status. Every dude with a smartphone – IE: that’ll be pretty much every bloke then – wants a selfie. Some ask, some just do, many gawp.
Personal space? India? Ha! Forget it. (But not in a bad way.)
It’s just gone noon, it’s post monsoon and it’s a humid thir-tee-five. Here come the bloke only half afl… (Oops, sorry, but it is Madness here.) The stone floor of the mosque courtyard area is difficult to walk on barefoot. Had we a frying pan it’d fry an egg on it. September now and each massive block has spent months soaking up the summer heat. The European brain is easily addled in these conditions. (Jet-lag is no help.) We need to get a perspective and opt to climb the Minaret. Rapidly, our newbies are noticing the (expected) lack of safety measures. It is always surprising even though you know it to be the case. The appropriate response is to simultaneously laugh manically and pay careful attention to every step as you attempt not to fall to your death.
The reward for such great bravery (!) and sweaty climbing is a clinging to the flimsy railing panorama of the jumbled, disordered, architectural dogs-dinner that is Old Delhi. With a stiff, warm wind blowing visibility is pretty good (for here) and the notorious haze is lifted. The Red Fort main gate has a proud Indian flag filled with the breeze. (In winter the fug is thick and you can hardly make out the imposing ramparts a scant few hundred metres away.)
From up here you soak it all in spying comically haphazard electricity cables, gridlocked traffic, crumbling rooftops, soaring Black Kites, litter strewn alleyways, bazaars with countless shops, stalls and – of course – people. Add to that the soundtrack: the cacaphony of engines and horns is like a toothache that never quite goes away in this town.
It can’t possibly all function can it? Yep, here it is happening all day every day. I return – now, 3 years later – and the buzz is still turned up to 11 on the dial. I find myself imagining if it’s real at all: it’s akin to a hyper-realistic immersive theme park ride. Surely nowhere on earth is this intense?
Old Delhi just is.
As if to prove this to ourselves we then get stuck in a bicycle rickshaw traffic jam. We edge along and – yes – it would’ve been quicker to walk. But the raised seat of these torturous, inefficient contraptions is a perfect vantage point to take it all in. These jalopies are not used purely by tourists. It’s part of the regular transport… System is not the right word. Let’s say ecosystem, okay? (As I only partly understand how they work too.)
Presently we reach the spice market and it takes our breath away. IE: involuntary spluttering and coughing as the aroma a thousand of chilli catch your throat. Piled displays of nuts, masala, ground spices, sack upon sacks of chillis. We climb up and around the building, boggling at its dilapidation and shocking condition. The locals flow around us making spicy business, porters trolleys stacked high with colourful and spicy ingredients, others with sacks on their heads barrelling down slippery dark stairwells in flip-flops.
Suitably bamboozled we throw in the towel and head for the metro for a supposed easier ride back to base.
Delhi Metro 2018 : Cheap, fast, air-conditioned and – it turns out – with highly efficient pickpockets.