Where: Delhi, capital of India.
When: September and October 2011.
Why: I visited Delhi on my Himalaya adventure and Indian back packing trip. On this trip I visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Bir and the Himalaya, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and Hampi.
When I was in Ho Chi Minh city, getting annoyed by all the hassle and traffic, I thought ‘Oh well, at least I’m not in Jakarta’. When I was in Jakarta, getting annoyed with the hassle, the traffic and the dirt, I thought ‘Oh well, at least I’m not in Delhi’. Delhi is one of the worst cities I have ever visited and it is such a shame as it doesn’t have to be this way.
Delhi is one of the places that I like least in the world. It’s a dirty, disgusting, rat infested, nasty, unloved, aggressive hell hole and I hated it. It’s the only capital city in the world that I have been to that doesn’t even have street lights. They may try to sell India as up and coming and economically vibrant, but head into the centre of Delhi and that is pretty hard to believe.
To be fair to Delhi, I actually visited three times and saw three different sides to the city. It’s just that my main visit was so bad that it has completely clouded my view of the place, and now I would be reluctant to ever return. In my mind, I think, it can’t have been that bad – but re-reading my diary I’m reminded of the constant hassle, the noise, the dirt and the sewage that covers the centre of this city. Somehow, everything that is bad about India seems to be manifest in Delhi and ten times worse. The centre of the city is unloved, neglected, dirty and aggressive – which is such a shame as there are some wonderful things to see – they just need someone to take responsibility for them and to stop the neglect and the rot.
My first visit to Delhi was alongside the rest of my Himalaya tour group. We all met at the airport and then travelled down some dirt roads, which had just been washed away by the monsoon rains, to a lovely hotel where we washed and relaxed after our flight. We were then taken into the city to the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), and then on a rickshaw ride through the back streets of Old Delhi. We then went for dinner at a crazy restaurant before getting the night train from Old Delhi train station, up to Dharamsala.
My second visit was at the end of our Himalaya trek. I said goodbye to the group at 4.30 a.m., at New Delhi station, then caught a taxi to my hotel which was in the Pahar Ganj area. I was sick and lost, and couldn’t check in till noon – so I spent most of the morning reading and dozing in the hotel reception. I did venture out for a little while, but the constant hassle and the worry about sickness soon chased me back to my hotel. Later on, I headed to Connaught Place, as this sounded like the centre of the city – but again, the dirt, the roadworks, the traffic and the constant hassle soon drove me back to my hotel. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Finally, I stayed in a great hotel by Delhi airport for my last night in the country – but even here I had to cope with bad organisation, lecherous shuttle bus drivers and hassle.
Delhi has so much potential, but, like much of India, it needs someone to start taking care of it and someone to take a little bit of responsibility for the upkeep of the city. I’m sure there are great districts. From what I understand Pahar Ganj (where I stayed) is a little bit of a hell-hole, but I’m not in any rush to return and if I go back to India I would much prefer to fly into the more cosmopolitan Mumbai, and to avoid the capital all together.
There is a side of me that would like to return to Delhi to see the missed sights and to give it another chance. Maybe I just saw the worst and it’s not all bad. I have heard that the city has modernised a lot in the last six years and that computerisation is having a big impact on public facilities and transport. Maybe I should go back to find out.
Trip 1 we flew to Delhi, then we had a private transfer into and around the city. We then caught a train from Old Delhi Station to the Himalaya region.
Trip 2, I arrived at New Delhi station at 4.30 a.m.; I went from New Delhi Station to my hostel in Pahar Ganj in a pre-paid taxi; pottered around the city, then the next day caught an onward train to Agra.
Trip 3, I transferred through Delhi on my way from Goa to the UK.
London to Delhi
We flew to Delhi with Jet Airways. The flights were organised for us by Charity Challenge so I’m not sure about costs, but flights on this route tend to be around £300. The flight was okay, although the crew were very lax (they took an hour to get me a drink) and I was a bit worried when some of the luggage bins popped open on take off. However, they did have good movies and I loved that they left the water, wine and snacks on a bar area so that you could just go help yourself.
On arrival in Delhi we were met by Jane and Raoul, our Charity Challenge guides, and they took us in a minibus to our hotel and to the city and station.
Indira Ghandi International Airport to the City Centre
If you are travelling independently, you can travel from the airport into the city centre by either bus or metro.
The metro goes from terminal 3, every twenty minutes, takes 20 minutes to get to the city centre and costs 60 rupees (about 70p). The airport is on the orange line. I have heard that there are luggage restrictions on the metro for security reasons, though not if you are travelling from the airport. There is a route and fare finder on the Delhi Metro website and they have a page specifically for the Airport Express.
I personally would just get the metro, as traffic and the roads in Delhi are not fun. However, if there is an issue with the metro, you can also get buses to the city centre. Delhi Transport Corporation and EATS run buses to the city centre, they go about once an hour and take about an hour to get to the centre. You can download a timetable from the Delhi Transport Corporation website. Also included on this timetable is information about the paid shuttle bus which goes between T1 and T3.
If you do have to get a taxi, then go to the yellow pre-paid taxi stand and pay in advance. This is a great way to ensure the driver takes you straight to your destination and charges you the correct price. Prices are detailed on the To and From the Airport website.
On my first trip we caught the train up to the Himalaya region, from Old Delhi Station to Pathankot. We then arrived back at Delhi at New Delhi Station, then a few days later I caught a train from New Delhi Station to Agra.
Delhi has two main stations: Old Delhi Station and New Delhi Station. Both are crowded, crazy places – but they do have all the shops and facilities you could need.
On my second trip to Delhi, we arrived back in Delhi at 4.30 a.m., at New Delhi station. I decided to catch a pre-paid taxi to my hotel, but I was constantly hassled by men from the moment we walked out of the station. Even Raoul, who is a native Delhite, didn’t seem to know how to deal with this constant hassle. In the end, I was very insistent in only talking to the man in the pre-paid taxi booth and he got me a taxi. The journey to my hotel took about 15 minutes and cost 109 rubies (£1.30). We passed a very strange 5 a.m. Hindu procession as we were driving to my hotel.
The next day I travelled by train from New Delhi station to Agra. New Delhi station is a bit of a dump (I know as I spent four hours waiting for my delayed train there) but every platform has small shops on it for refreshments so it is okay, and I didn’t get too much hassle on the platform.
Trains are an amazing way to get around India and I highly recommend making some journeys in this way, if you have the time. I travelled first, second, third class and unallocated class and all the carriages were fine, clean and comfortable. There’s now a strict booking system so every seat has to be reserved and you can book in advance, online at Cleartrip.
Shuttle bus and pre-paid taxi from the airport
My final trip to Delhi was actually just an overnight transfer in between Goa and the UK.
I’d booked my hotel online through Booking.com. As I was arriving during the festival of Diwali and the hotel offered a pre-paid collection service, I booked this. It was 300 rupees (about £5), but I thought the cost worth it as it would take away the hassle of trying to organise transport and explain where my hotel was. Because it was Diwali and I was getting used to Indian mis-service, I emailed the hotel directly again, asked them to confirm my booking and the shuttle-bus booking – and they replied that everything was okay and the shuttle-bus would meet me at entrance A of my terminal.
When I arrived – no signs, no shuttle-bus. I wondered if this was the right entrance and so went searching for another entrance A but couldn’t find one, so in the end, after an hours wait, I decided to get a pre-paid taxi to my hotel. When I got to the hotel they told me that the bus wasn’t running that day as it was Diwali! So why did they confirm my booking then? Anyway, the pre-paid taxi was actually cheaper than the bus so it all worked out okay.
The next day I did get the shuttle bus back to the airport. The driver was very dangerous and a bit lechy, but not too bad, so I decided to give him a 50 rupee tip. When I handed him the money (as I got my own huge bag out of the car) he said ‘Is that all?’ It was a bad end to a mixed trip and left a really bad taste in my mouth. I wish I hadn’t given him anything.
Indira Ghandi International Airport
Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport is huge and has lots of facilities. It’s a good modern airport with lots of shops and restaurants. It’s also the only place that I saw escalators in India. There is high security at the airport, so you have to show your tickets to enter the terminal building. This can make check-in slightly longer, so it’s best to check in three hours in advance for international flights. I was there during the hajj, so the airport was pretty busy, though I don’t remember it being any worse than Heathrow at a busy time.
I caught a pre-paid taxi from New Delhi Station to my hotel in Pahar Ganj. Pre-paid taxis are a great way to travel as you can find out how much journeys should be costing you, and there is no benefit for the driver taking you a longer route. You also have a record of the driver number in case anything goes wrong. I would often use pre-paid taxis or rickshaws when arriving in a new town in India. The taxi from the station to my hotel cost 109 rupees (about £1.30).
For most of my trips in Delhi I either walked or caught a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw). I tended to only use tuk-tuks that I had flagged down, rather than tuk-tuks which were canvassing for my business. These are a great way of getting about the city and most of my journeys around New Delhi cost between 50 – 100 rupees (80p – £1.40).
Delhi does have a Metro system which runs out to the airport. This was very new when I was there and still being built in a number of places. I didn’t use the Metro, but from what I understand, this is a really good, clean transport system and a great way to get from the airport to New Delhi Station. Most of the system has restrictions on large bags, but I think you can take large luggage on the stretch from the station to the airport. See the Getting There section for more information on this.
Transport in Delhi is being vastly modernised and from what I understand electronic ticketing systems and GPS are being installed on the buses. The buses are run by the Delhi Transport Corporation and they have a website with bus timetables and ticket prices. Today there’s even an app that you can download to help navigate the buses and metro.
Traffic in Delhi is crazy though, so you might be quicker walking or taking the metro, if that is an option.
What we did on our holidays
Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque)
With the Charity Challenge tour group, we first went to Jama Masjid (the Friday Mosque), which is the largest mosque in India.
The Jama Masid was commissioned by Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) and finished in 1658. The Jama Masjid is located in Old Delhi, just across the road from the Red Fort. The Jama Masjid is built from the same lovely red sandstone as the Red Fort. It’s a beautiful colour.
We entered the mosque from the north entrance, walking up a huge red staircase up to the main courtyard. At the top of the stairs we had to take off our shoes. Then the ladies, had to put on strange 70s bathrobes before we were allowed into the central courtyard. Apparently, this is because some Russian tourists once decided to strip naked and bathe in the central pool and so now western women have to have extra cover up.
The central courtyard is huge: it can hold up to 25,000 people. Here we met our guide. He was a lovely Indian man, but I couldn’t understand a word he said – so I can’t tell you a huge amount of information about the mosque – but he seemed very nice and he walked us around the courtyard, the prayer arches and to see the holy relics.
We walked around a bit, took some photos – surrounded by a gaggle of interested boys and men, who wanted to see what we were doing; then we went to a small chapel to see holy relics, some belonging to the Prophet Mohammad.
In a small side chapel, in a very badly locked cupboard, they keep the holy relics and we were so privileged to be allowed to see these. All of the people in the chapel were asked to turn around so that they didn’t have their backs to the relics, and then the man who looks after the keys, and whose family have looked after the keys for the last 600 years, came to open the cupboard and show us the relics. We saw the Prophet Mohammad’s sandal, a footprint he had left in a rock, a hair from his beard and a copy of the Koran written on deerskin.
The mosque is very beautiful and a good place to visit for half an hour. It would be great to combine a visit to the mosque with a visit to the Red Fort.
You can read more about Jama Masjid and its history on Wikipedia.
Rickshaw ride through Old Delhi
India Rickshaws are bikes with seats on the back, up behind the cyclist. They are a fun way to travel and quite a cheap and slow way of getting around. However, I felt so sorry for our tiny rickshaw driver – pedalling away with two large western women on the back – he must have weighed half what I do and I felt so guilty having him pull us about. I wanted to swap and cycle for him!
Anyway – we caught a convoy of rickshaws from the north gate of Jama Masjid, around the tiny shopping alleys of Delhi Old Town. It was so crowded it was hilarious and we spent most of our time stuck in tiny alleys surrounded by people. It was such a giggle though and a lot of fun. You could look down on all of the bright, colourful products in the shops and we could have almost shopped from the rickshaw.
It was a nice way to be introduced to this crazy city. We saw some amazing, very Indian things: a man carrying five boxes of paper on his head, electricity wires with hundreds of extra wires attached to siphon off power, children, beggars, touts, strange doctors, wedding shops, sari shops.
We probably only travelled half a mile, but it took us nearly an hour and cost 100 rupees (although I think we gave our guy another 100 rupees in guilt money).
There are bicycle rickshaws across Delhi. These particular rickshaws wait at the base of the North Gate of Jama Masjid for clients.
Chor Bizarre (restaurant)
After visiting the Jama Masjid and Old Delhi, we were taken to a great restaurant called Chor Bizarre – and it is … very bizarre. It’s almost more of a museum than a restaurant: they have fabulous relics in the restaurant that you eat around, including a maharaja’s bed and an old car.
I seem to remember that there were even trinkets embedded into our table. I love strange places like this…
It was a cool and kooky place to eat and the food and the drinks were really good too.
The Chor Bizarre is located in New Delhi, in Hotel Broadway. They also have a London branch, which I hope to visit some day. Chor Bazarre actually means thieves market, and the restaurants are full of strange wares.
Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk or CP)
I had one day in Delhi at the end of the trek and the start of my backpacking trip around India. I was ill and tired when I got there, so I knew I wasn’t going to see a lot. Also, it was a Monday when a lot of the sights are closed (I really wanted to see the Red Fort but couldn’t for this reason). So, after a sleep, I decided that I would visit Connaught Place, the centre of New Delhi, and also India Gate (which looks like a large Marble Arch).
Connaught Place is a series of ring roads, in the heart of the new city, with a circle of white marble buildings on each ring road. It sounds like the centre of the city and a regency dream, like something from the city of Bath. There is a park in the central circle. Once it probably was an ornate lovely, gentrified centre of the city – but when I was there it was dirty, unloved and not a nice place.
For a start, these wide, stately roads were covered in crazy traffic: rickshaws, tuk tuks, taxis, buses, crazy drivers, pedestrians: a cacophony of noise and pollution which contrasted sharply with the white marble and peace of the park. When I was there, there were roadworks everywhere, no signs and it was very, very dirty and unloved. I think they may have been installing the metro system, so this made everything worse – but it was a chaos of mud, roadworks, blocks and barriers.
Inside the arched, marble walkways, the buildings had been covered in posters and hoardings. People had been to the toilet in every corner, so the walls were literally covered in sewage. This is where many of the modern stores have their flagship stores – so it should have been nice – but it wasn’t.
I was hassled again and again and again. I went into Pizza Hut to get some air conditioning and some quiet and even here I had men approaching my table wanting to speak to me. So in the end I ran away back to my hotel and didn’t see any more of the city. I just wanted out of there.
What bothers me about Connaught Place is that it could be so lovely – if someone would just look after it and take some responsibility for it. If they cleaned it, put some maps and directional signs up and took the hoardings down it could be lovely. It has such potential and, like many historical buildings in India, it deserves to be looked after.
I’ve just read on Wikipedia that it’s currently being refurbished and it should have been finished by December 2012. It should originally have been finished in time for the Commonwealth 2010 games, but was delayed by corruption and ineptitude. The place was a mess when I was there, and from what I understand the refurbishments are still not complete – six years later. There are now plans to apparently pedestrianise the inner circles, which would be amazing – however, again, according to wiki this is currently just a pipe dream and no actual plans have been drawn up on how to do this.
What I didn’t do on my holiday
I became so frustrated with Delhi and the constant hassle from men, that in the end I went and hid in my hotel for the rest of my visit and didn’t come out again until it was time to go get my train to Agra.
There are quite a few sights I would have loved to have seen, but as it was a Monday many of them were closed and so I didn’t make it. I’d like to go back though, if just to see these places:
The Red Fort (UNESCO)
The Red Fort was also built by Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame. It is red and a fort and is located across the road from the Jama Masjid Mosque. I visited Agra Fort, which I think is very like the Red Fort, and this is a beautiful complex of courtyards, gardens and empty rooms. Key sites to see in the Red Fort are the covered bazaar (Chatta Chowk), the Hall of Public Audiences (Diwan-i-Am), the gardens, the private palace, jewel palace, harem palace and the tea-house, which still operates as a tea-house.
Apparently the ticket price for foreigners is 250 rupees (£3) and it’s 25 (30p) rupees to use a camera.
Entrance to the fort is through the Lahore Gate.
India Gate looks like a red/golden Arc de Triomphe. It was built as a memorial to the soldiers who died in WW1.
Humayun’s Tomb (UNESCO)
Humayun was the second mughal emperor. You can go visit his tomb which is in south Delhi. It was built in 1562 and was apparently the predecessor to the Taj Mahal, so very pretty. Although this tomb is built out of red stone rather than white marble.
Qutb Complex (UNESCO)
The Qutb/Qutub complex is a complex of slave houses, built in the 13th century (1206 – 1290). It’s most famous for its minaret (Qutub Minar), which used to be the tallest structure in the world and which is a copy of the Minaret of Jam. The Qutb Minaret is 5 stories, 73 meters tall.
Also on the complex are the ruins of the oldest mosque in Delhi.
You can find out more about the complex and why it has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site on the UNESCO page.
Museum of India
India has a lot of history and a lot of treasure. You can see lots of this in the Museum of India.
Jantar Mantar (observatory)
The Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur is an amazing, interesting site of huge astronomical observation structures. This version in Delhi was built a little later and is not as big, but if you’re not going to Jaipur then I suggest going to have a look at this Jantar Mantar.
There’s loads more palaces, temples, museums and gardens to see. Find out more on Wikitravel.
Where I stayed
The Estate B&B
When we arrived in Delhi, we were taken to a lovely hotel called The Estate where we could freshen up and eat lunch. It was a lovely safe haven away from the crazy city, with a gorgeous garden and great food.
To be honest, we were just off a ten hour, sleepless flight so I can’t really remember too much about the place – but it seemed nice, although a long way from the city centre. If I had my own transport I might stay here, but it didn’t seem a feasible place to get to without a car.
Anyway, it was a nice, gentle introduction to India and a nice place to go to to chill out for a few hours, and I’m sure it would also be a lovely place to stay.
Hotel Amax Inn
I decided to stay in the Pahar Ganj area of the city as this is right by New Delhi Station, which I was arriving at at 4.30am – and because I heard this was the main backpacker area, so I imagined it to be somewhere like the Koh San Road in Bangkok.
The Pahar Ganj area is based along the road Main Bazaar. This road has many traveller shops and hotels on it and one or two cafes and bars. However, it’s a dump of an area. The hassle here was constant and aggressive and I wish I’d stayed in a different part of town.
My hotel was actually quite a way from Pahar Ganj (a fifteen minute walk through heavy traffic) – so I only ventured there for internet and breakfast.
My hotel was up a dark, dirty alley off a dump of a street. At 5 am, the hotel was virtually impossible to find.
My room was okay: I had three beds, a TV and a large en-suite bathroom – but the room didn’t feel very secure and I had to go up and down a lot of rickety ladders and staircases to get there. It was clean (by India standards) and a good place to hide from the crazyness of Delhi.
However, if I go back I will definitely stay in a different area and if I have to return to the Pahar Ganj area I’ll stay in a much busier hotel/hostel in the centre of Pahar Ganj. Hotel Amax was a little too far out and too isolated.
The room cost me £13.50 for a single, en-suite room with air conditioning. I feel so spoilt being rude about a hotel which cost me so little, but with hindsight I would have preferred to have paid more to stay somewhere a little nicer.
Hotel Airport City
As I said in the Getting There section, I had a bit of a hoo-ha getting to Hotel Airport City when my pre-booked shuttle bus didn’t turn up even after they had confirmed it in an email. However, this was probably the nicest hotel I stayed at in India.
I decided to go way over budget for my last night, as I knew I’d be tired and in transit – and the extra expense was worth it. The hotel is located in a busy hotel area by the airport, so there’s not a huge amount of infrastructure around it, but the room was fantastic. I had good wi-fi, wide screen TV, huge comfy bed, a great shower. There were a few little niggles (like no towels and a shower which wouldn’t run hot (I had to sit on the floor under the hot tap to wash my hair) – but apart form that it was great.
I barely saw anything of Delhi, and I suspect that if I could find the patience and the ability to deal with the hassle of the city I would find that there is a lot more to discover in this metropolis.
So, for more information, visit the following useful links:
Please note, some of this information may not be correct or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to sites which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.