Why I love travelling India – but not Delhi

They say cities like Delhi are where the magic of India begins. More people than almost anywhere else on Earth bustle along streets designed for a fraction of the population. You can barter for and buy almost anything your heart desires (or a cheap imitation, at least), marvel at wonders of ancient and colonial architecture and stop for a different roadside snack at every corner. Everything is full of…life.

Market in Delhi, India

A night market in the Muslim quarter right after evening prayers. Best lamb kebabs I’ve ever had? Probably…

And yet, I’ve found megacities such as Mumbai and Delhi a little…underwhelming. Being drawn to nature more than cities is probably just a matter of taste, but then I loved other megacities such as Tokyo! So, since Delhi and Mumbai are the places where most people will form their first impressions of India, I thought I’d put to paper what to expect there. India is intense, especially at first, and I hope that an advance dose of realism will allow everyone to enjoy visiting this remarkable country as much as I did.

Before I go on, let me just say that I loved both my visits to India, and hope to visit again soon. But for me, the magic began out in the country, or in smaller, more manageable cities. I remember waking up on a night train that took me out of Delhi towards Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills…and feeling like a weight had lifted off my shoulders; a weight of smog, stress and the concentration of 15 million people in a very small space.

Night train from Delhi to Pathankot

Bleary-eyed, but with fresh air in my lungs…happy days!

Delhi has an enormous amount to offer, of course, and most visitors do love it. The availability of things to do wasn’t an issue, I struggled with…just being there. Allow me to explain…

Delhi is daunting.

For first-time arrivals into India in particular, Delhi is full-on. There’s no grace period here, no slowly immersing yourself in a new country’s ways.

The challenge of airport taxis has fortunately been alleviated by the opening of the snazzy new airport train, which whisks you effortlessly to the central train station for just 100 rupees (£1). However, Indian train stations are even more of an assault of the senses than airports, and they’re a lot easier to get lost in. In the press of overly pushy drivers, porters and guides, it can be intense just finding and making your way to the prepaid taxi stand for your first taxi (or better yet, tuk-tuk!) ride in India.

On the plus side there’s no better way to get to know a country than to throw yourself into the thick of it. And if you get ripped off, you’ll never lose more than a few pounds…

A rickshaw driver takes a rest in the midday heat.

Even rickshaw drivers aren’t always full of energy…

Delhi is polluted.

I don’t think anyone travels to India expecting sparkling clean streets. Delhi isn’t necessarily dirtier than other parts of India – but it is certainly more polluted.  Breathing here felt like drawing a dusty soup into my lungs, and my nostrils were caked with dirt at the end of a long day’s walking. The first breaths of wonderful country air after I left the city were refreshing beyond words. They may have smelled like cow dung, but my goodness, they felt good!

Delhi is sprawling.

Like many megacities, Delhi is enormous – it’s almost the same size as London (but with twice the population). It’s one of those cities that just seem to go on and on, which I’ve always found oppressive. While most of this area is of little interest to the passing visitor, Delhi’s size means that getting anywhere tends to take a long time.

That is to say, it used to take a long time – Delhi has a shiny new metro system that alleviates this problem to a large extent.

I must confess that part of the reason I didn’t enjoy Delhi as much as I could have is my own fault. Even if you’re normally a fervent walker and would never dream of getting a taxi, do consider taking tuk-tuks even between locations in the city centre. The distances between the main areas of central Delhi look walkable on tourist maps – what’s a kilometre or two among friends, after all?

A squirrel in the Red Fort, Delhi, India.

Time flies when you get distracted by these hungry little guys at the Red Fort…

But I didn’t factor in the absence of pavements, the oppressive heat of the Indian sun on black concrete, or the choking fumes from millions of old engines. Thanks to my stubborn refusal to get in a tuk-tuk for pennies and whiz between destinations in style, I got dehydrated and grumpy. Don’t make the same mistake!

 Delhi is impersonal.

Venture onto a hiking trail almost anywhere in the world, and most people you come across will greet you; if not with words then with a casual nod of the head. Not so in Delhi – although, of course, this is an affliction of most large cities. I find the urban sprawl of megacities like Delhi uninviting. Maybe this is because I live in London, which is famous for the way its denizens ignore each other, but I think that the way people ignore each other in crowds is a little disheartening.

Evening prayer at Hazrat Nizamuddin mosque in Delhi, India

Community spirit still runs strong in some places. These men shared some lovely bread with me after finishing their prayers.

 What can you do?

If all these worries sound at all familiar, fear not – Delhi is not a lost cause to you! Just make sure you leave the best-trodden paths. Don’t ignore the back alleys beyond the main tourist strip leading up to the Red Fort: it is full of life, and full of the wonders of Indian small businesses that are surprisingly easily missed. If I had to give you one piece of advice, it would be to keep your eyes peeled for the little things that make life so intriguing. As much as a metropolis like Delhi can seem oppressive, it can also be a treasure trove of opportunity. So make sure your mind is ready before entering the maelstrom that is an Indian city, and enjoy every mad(dening) minute of it!

By the Indira Gandhi memorial in Delhi, India

This fierce lady was resting in front of the most inspiring backdrop.

A barber in Delhi, India

If you enjoy peoplewatching, you’ll feel right at home in Delhi!

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