My first taste of India was overwhelming.
Flying from Manchester, England into the nation’s capital city of Delhi, to say I felt like a small fish in a big pond is an understatement. I was like an amoeba in a shark tank.
My friends who had been to this colossal city before me had warned me to brace myself for a bombardment of sensory overload, but stepping off the train in thetwilightof a winters morning into the raw streets of Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker’s quarter, I felt shockingly underprepared.
I spent a meagre four days in the city, and saw only a tiny fraction of this vast and sprawling hub of life. And like life, Delhi encompasses wonder, sadness, beauty, exhilaration and pain. Without further ado, I’ll provide a break-down of my experience and share some advice for other first time visitors.
Where you lay your head matters
I’m all for roughing it and staying in a bit of a dive now and again, but a dive in Delhi is a new level of roughing it that I was totally unprepared for.
My partner and I had booked a ridiculously cheap hotel online before we arrived. At around 400 rupees per night, we knew not to expect much, but when your hotel room is littered with other people’s rubbish and the water in the sink comes out chocolate brown, suddenly it seems worth the extra money to upgrade.
And so it happened that my first morning in Delhi was spent lugging an oversized backpack around in search of somewhere else to stay. Pro tip: if you don’t have an Indian sim card with internet, download Google Maps onto your phone and pin your destination on there. It’ll save you a hell of a lot of time and stress if you at least know which direction to walk in.
We focused our search in the Paharganj area of town. As I mentioned earlier, Paharganj is known as Delhi’s backpacker’s quarter. It’s a concentrated hub of cheap hotels and hostels, served with a heavy helping of street beggars, fruit sellers, tiny shops and, of course, cows.
It’s streets are hectic and taking a walk down the main bazaar, dodging passing cars, bikes, rickshaws, people and animals while trying not to fall down the gaping holes in the pavements can feel like an assault course, but hey, this isDelhi. You didn’t come here for a serene experience.
Paharganj is located right next to New Delhi train station, so it’s a great place to base yourself if you only have a few days in the city and want to get around easily.
If you’re a solo traveller, I would advise staying in a hostel with good ratings, rather than just booking the cheapest hotel room you can find. Delhi can take it out of you, and as much fun as it can be to meander around this crazy city, it can also be exhausting. To have a safe sanctuary, the company of other travellers and a comfortable, clean bed to go back to each evening can mean to world.
I visited Delhi in January of 2019, so I can’t be sure this is always the case, but the air pollution at that time was overwhelming. You can actually taste it. After just one day of exploring on foot, I was suffering from mild headaches which didn’t subside until we left.
In the early mornings you can witness the thick blanket of smog that hovers above the buildings, waiting for the sun’s rays to burn it away.
Many people were wearing masks to protect their lungs. I didn’t, but if I went back again I would take one along; In 2018 doctors from Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospitalput out a statement claiming that breathing the air in Delhi can be compared to smoking 15-20 cigarettes per day, so it’s definitely worth protecting yourself.
Well, Old Delhi deserves an entire article dedicated to it, but as this is just a round up, I’ll try to summarise it briefly. The.Craziest.Place.You.Will.Ever.Go.
I, with my European sensibilities, imagined Old Delhi to be like a quainter, cobbled street version of New Delhi. Instead, it felt like a gathering of the entirety of India’s 1.4 billion population. I’ve never seen so many people in one place at one time. The crowds are like an ocean of chaos, surging and swelling in every direction, interspersed with cows, goats, and mammoth loads balanced atop of bobbing heads. The scenes I witnessed there are among the most memorable of my entire life.
My day in Old Delhi started with a visit to the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques.Capable of holding 25,000 devotees, this vast architectural wonder was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (who also built the Taj Mahal), between 1650 and 1656.
It’s an incredible building with an expansive courtyard. Muslims from the farthest corners of India, as well as the wider world, visit here to worship. We spent over an hour sitting under an ornate archway soaking in the collective energy that accompanies so many smiling faces gathering together in a beautiful setting, sharing a common faith.
Visitors come from far flung corners of India to make a pilgrimage here and we encountered people from remote villages who are not used to seeing our pasty white faces. And so began the first of many selfie requests, with couples, families and groups of teenagers approaching us for photos.
It’s a strange feeling to have people waiting to take a photo with you. I usually just feel a little awkward and forget how to smile properly without my face looking weird.
Every encounter we had with these curious, snap happy visitors at Jama Masjid was warm and friendly. People are simply curious; we look different to anyone they’ve met before. So, be prepared to oblige to a few selfies if you have a foreign face.
Sightseeing tip: The Red Fort is visible and within walking distance from Jama Masjid, so consider visiting both of these attractions in the same day.
Chandi Chowk, meaning Moonlight Square, is the epitome of Old Delhi. Teeming and overflowing with activity, this major thoroughfare is home to some incredible street food, markets and traditional bazaars.
I’ll be honest and admit that we got completely lost in the winding lanes and the brimming crowds, and didn’t actually manage to find the hub of the world famous street food markets that we were looking for.
If you are like me and lack a great sense of direction, it’s probably a good idea to book yourself onto a walking tour. There’s so many to choose from, so it all depends on what you’re looking for. Delhi Magicput on tours around the central Chandi Chowk Bazaar and will give you an insightful view of not only the incredible market stalls, but also the cultural history of the area. If you’re a foodie at heart, then a tour with Delhi Food Walks will be a great way to get right into the heart of the street food scene.
This wouldn’t be an honest article about Delhi without a shout out to the professional scammers that you may be unlucky enough to encounter during your trip. It’s an unfortunate reality that this city is famous for. These opportunistic con men and women prey on unwitting tourists and newcomers.
In the four days that my partner and I spent in Delhi, we witnessed a variety of impressive and some less than impressive ways these fraudsters tried to make us part with our cash. Again, this warrants its own article as I could go into long winded detail about each event. Instead, I’ll just give you a breakdown of three of the most common scams you might come across as a tourist in Delhi.
- The sim card scam.
Many small shops and kiosks sell sim cards from the major networks. These last for 3 months and come with unlimited calls, texts and an obscene amount of data for a ludicrously low price. All you need is your passport and two passport photos.
The problem is that you have to trust the vendor to actually process your details and upload the credit onto your account. Many people find (us included) that the vendor just pockets the cash and destroys your paperwork as soon as you leave the shop.
To avoid this, always go to an official network store when purchasing a sim.
- The Tourist Office Scam
This one is a classic. There is one and only one official tourist office in Delhi, however there are dozens of fake ones. These places will try to rip you off, sell you tours at ridiculously inflated prices or even tour packages that don’t exist.
If a stranger is offering to take you to the government tourist office, you can be 99% sure they are trying to scam you. The guy that brings you in gets a cut of the money that they con out of you. Countless tourists have fallen victim to this. I was almost one of them, but luckily I’d be warned about this popular trick ahead of time so I knew what to look out for. This blog postby Karl Rock details the exact location of the REAL tourist office and even has a photograph of the outside so you know you’re at the right place.
- The Taxi and Rickshaw Scam.
This one is especially prevalent when taking a taxi or tuktuk from the airport, but similar scams happen all over the city. You get in the car and tell your driver the location of your hotel. He then responds with something along the lines of “that hotel is closed renovations” or “they’ve had a power cut, they aren’t accepting guests right now” or anything creative to get you to believe that your hotel is a no-go. Then they’ll swoop in with a little local expertise and take you to an alternative hotel where they will land a big chunk of commission for bringing you in. These guys drive around all day doing this on repeat. It’s a good little earner with so many naive tourists around.
My advice is to avoid taking local taxis altogether and instead download Uber onto your phone. It’s a much safer and often cheaper way to get around because the price is the same for everyone, i.e. no tourist tax.
Please don’t let these tales of scammery put you off visiting Delhi. I met some incredibly friendly and honest people in my few days there, and have met many wonderful Delhiitessince traveling through the rest of India. Scammers are prevalent in big cities all over the world. Just exercise caution, don’t automatically trust people who approach you on the street and always keep your belongings safe.
My trip to India’s chaotic capital left a greater impression on me than I thought possible in such a short time. As an entry point to the rest of India, it certainly throws you in at the deep end. But if you can navigate these unforgiving streets while soaking in the rich and vibrant culture that embodies this city, then you’re ready for any adventure that comes your way.