From Hollywood to Bollywood, our LA reporter, Vince Robbins, arrives in India’s capital, New Delhi, checking into a hotel in the dubious sounding “Backpackers’ Ghetto”. He’s got a mix of Forts and films on his agenda.
You know that feeling when, after a 10-year prison sentence, your day of pardon finally arrives, and you step outside of those all-too-familiar walls, into the cool, fresh outside air? Okay, me neither, but I think that’s sort of like how I felt when I got off the plane from Kochi to New Delhi. After three weeks of excessive heat and humidity, capped off by a fun, but sweaty week in the state of Kerala in Southern India (see post script!), the dry, temperate breeze of the north felt heaven sent. My first impression of New Delhi was purely meteorological, but nonetheless about as positive it could have been.
We hopped on the airport metro express line of the New Delhi Metro, a beautifully modern rail system as impressive as I’ve seen in any country! I’m a big fan of public transportation; I think that it’s one of the biggest components in making a city livable for residents and accessible to visitors (Los Angeles’ public transport is underrated!). It was refreshing to be on a clean, air conditioned, modern mode of transport for the first time in almost a month; I liked New Delhi already. Not that I had not fully enjoyed/appreciated my time prior to this, it’s just that comfort is a luxury that I no longer took for granted.
We had a hotel recommendation from a friend we had met in Kochi, so we got off at the New Delhi metro stop and made our way on foot across the New Delhi Railroad station to the Paharganj Main Bazaar, also known (we later learned) as the “Backpacker Ghetto.” Sometimes a little prior research into exactly where you’re staying is a good idea, but “we’ll just ask someone for directions” usually ends up working out… Until you’re at the New Delhi Train Station, also known as the World Scammer Summit 2013. We figured out pretty quickly that anyone willing to help was actually more willing to take us to some shop or tourist office that they would earn a commission from. Of course we’d been warned of all this before, so we weren’t duped, but it made finding our hotel a bit of a challenge amidst this wild, bustling bazaar of shopkeepers and hustlers.
As unappealing as it sounds, I actually didn’t mind staying in the “Backpacker Ghetto.” First of all, it’s by no means overrun with Westerners. On the contrary, actually. Like most places in India (even the touristy ones), you don’t feel like you’re in some sort of hermetically sealed tourist bubble at all. You can certainly dig around for a more authentic Delhi experience, but as a visitor with no bearings to go on, it’s pretty centrally located and has lots of restaurants and hotels. Just beware of overly friendly people near the train station! (For the record, this is one of the only places that Indian people have not been genuinely friendly and extremely helpful).
As I mentioned, the metro system is one to be reckoned with, so the majority of our exploration of the city was hopping on and off the subway. It’s really cheap to ride and you can navigate most of the city; you’ll have to pack in pretty tight with local commuters, but that’s part of the experience (ladies, you have your own carriage). We exited at Central Secretariat and walked along the Rajpath towards the India Gate. The Rajpath is a beautiful, long park that runs for a couple kilometers between the India Gate and Rashtrapathi Bhavan (Presedential Estate). It’s a perfect stretch of pedestrian friendly space to kill some time and get a feel for Delhi at leisurely pace; a much welcomed bit of relaxation in a crazy city. The India Gate isn’t quite as majestic as the Gateway of India in Mumbai, as it’s a bit smaller and not in a harbour, but nonetheless it’s a pleasant finish line for the Rajpath.
Another good Metro stop to get off and walk around is Chandni Chowk, which will put you on a crazy busy street right in the heart of Old Delhi (make sure you exit the station the right way onto Chandni Chowk). At one end of this thoroughfare is the Red Fort, and although it’s easy to get fort-ed and temple-ed out in India, this one is a pretty cool site to see. There were also a bunch of Indian tourists who asked to take pictures with us. At the other end of Chandni Chowk is Khari Baoli spice market if you’re looking to stock up on some curry-making ingredients for back home.
We definitely didn’t complete the sightseeing circuit in New Delhi; there are loads of places that tourists flock to in this city. As our last few days in India drew near, we were a little more inclined to just slow down and enjoy ourselves. In this spirit we decided to hit up a Bollywood movie – in Hindi of course. We definitely got a few, “what the hell are you doing here?” looks as we entered the theater to see “Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns,” which was just bad enough for us to understand exactly what was going on the whole time.
Ps. Kerala Great Too…
Quick flashback: Despite the swampy weather, our week in Kochi, Kerala was quite enjoyable. Although Kochi is pretty deep in South India, I’d definitely recommend heading down there if you’ve got any decent amount of time to spend in this country. It’s well known for its extensive waterways, including vast connecting rivers, as well as small backwater canals no bigger than 5-10 meters across. It’s possible to take overnight houseboat trips, but we opted to just take a day trip during which we cruised around the bigger rivers on a small motor boat for a few hours, then after lunch explored the smaller backwaters on a little gondola-like canoe. I convinced the guide to let me push the gondola for a few minutes and definitely came close to falling into the water… But didn’t! It would have been great for the post – and any passing crocodiles, but not so much for me, my camera and my fellow shipmates, so probably for the best that I handed back the pole when I did.
Inspired by Vince’s journey? Adventure tourism company Tucan Travel offer tours of India, including Delhi and the Ganges, as well as specialist trips like their “Tiger Safari”, for close encounters with one of the the world’s most magnificent predators, and guided expeditions in Kerala – where you’ll explore the aforementioned waterways on a converted rice barge. At the time of publication Tucan are even offering 25-35% off all their budget Asian expeditions (up until 10th April 2013).