Flight number 12 to Beijing ran a little late. We landed in smog. If you are transferring in Beijing you can get a visa stamp for 24 hours. Having 6:30hrs to kill with no likelihood of visiting China anytime soon (we don’t agree with the Chinese occupation of Tibet so don’t want to give them our tourist dollars) we decided we may as well stick our heads outside and get some ‘fresh’ air. It killed some time anyway as we got directed to one immigration queue, got to the front only to be sent to another, to do the same again before being put through the diplomatic channel. ‘You want to go outside?’ ‘uh-huh’ we replied. So we got to taste Beijing smog for ourselves. We also got a better choice of coffee shops and places to eat.
We allowed plenty of time to go back through immigration and security but need not have done as we got straight on the shuttle train to the international gates and whizzed through.
The 6 hour flight to Delhi got us in at 1:40am (domestic flights use Delhi airport in the day and internationals land at night) and that was after changing our watches 2:30hrs back. Our hotel pick up was there waiting for us, we made him wait while we used the ATM, the airport was quiet and we figured it would be safer than in the city. The humidity bit us the moment we stepped out of the airport. It was a bit of a shock after the dry heat of Mongolia. There’s not much temperature variation between night and day in Delhi at this time of year, it is constantly in the high 20’s early 30’s. We were going to be reminded of what it felt like to sweat. More so when we got to the hotel and were given a room with a fan not air con like we had reserved. It was a hot night.
The next morning we changed rooms. We thought about moving hotels as there were heaps in the area and at least 3 basically next door but it was clean, freshly painted, quiet and safe so rather than do the rounds we just moved down 2 floors to an a/c room.
India is renowned for touts, scams and hassle and Delhi is supposed to be one of the worst places for it. They lie to you if you ask directions (clearly they don’t understand the concept of karma). We had read plenty of negative reviews of Delhi but we were going with an open mind. One of the most common scams is ‘helpful’ young men approaching you and leading you to a travel agent or a fake ‘official’ tourist office where they sell you one of their buses or a tour or whatever and your helpful young man receives a commission for taking you there. We knew not to admit this was our first time in India or that we had just arrived.
Our hotel was down an alley off the Main Bazaar, which is the budget end of town near to New Delhi Train Station. We stepped out into the expected chaos – shops spilling out into the street either side, people everywhere, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and the odd car fighting to make their way up and down the street. It wasn’t quite as bad as we expected. We found it manageable. In less than a minute we had a guy walk down the street with us being ‘friendly’ and asking questions like ‘where are you from?’ ‘where are you going?’ We gave flat answers and made him work. They’re just trying to suss out if they can part you with your money. We seem to be ok at giving off the ‘no chance’ vibe and at the end of the street he left us alone. We were starved so we went into one of the restaurants that looked clean and busy. The food was good if not a little hotter than what we are used to.
We wanted to go to Connaught Place, the ‘city centre’ whilst it was quiet (a Sunday) and locate the government tourist office so we could go back the next day when it was open. There were heaps of tourist info offices claiming to be the official one but they’re not, they’re travel agents trying to sell you their own services for more than you would otherwise pay. It was within walking distance so we set off. Another young man attached himself to us and we had fun pretending we don’t understand English, he still walked all the way down the street with us for a good 10 minutes and helpfully showed us where the ‘official government office’ was. We knew it wasn’t the right one but did want a free map so went in anyway (and got one), we also asked about buses to Manali while we were there just to gauge the price. Funnily enough they had a bus for 1,500 rupees (we got ours through our hotel for 1,000). We left having gained a free map and losing nothing.
2 minutes down the road we gained another helpful young man. This one was legit, we was on his way home from work and was just being helpful without wanting anything in return. He told us to be careful of the ‘commission touts’ a warning we got many times in the course of 2 days. We knew getting our map out and showing what lost tourists we actually were was not a good idea and this guy did point us in the right direction without wanting money. We promptly got lost again down a backstreet which was fine and not dodgy at all, we just didn’t know where we were. Another guy approached us and told us to be careful of our bags. The street was really quiet and we just said thanks and neither of us moved to do anything about them, we felt safe and knew there was no risk there, and we weren’t going to react to his suggestion.
After getting lost many more times we eventually stumbled on a landmark to work from. Then we found the street we needed to take blocked off by a lot of Police, riot gear to one side on standby, due to a protest in the adjacent street. We talked to them and told them the street we wanted and they let us through the blockade. We only got lost a couple more times before actually finding the official office. Now we knew where it was and what it looked like for the next day when it would be open. There really wasn’t anything exciting to see in the city centre so we caught an autorickshaw back to the end of our street. The driver offered us a fair price, though he did ask us if we wanted to go shopping, ‘no’ we said in chorus. This is the same scam you get in SE Asia where drivers take you to shops where they make a commission and you pay an inflated price for whatever it is you buy. He listened and did drop us in the right place.
Despite the hotel being down a small alley off a busy chaotic street it was easy to find. Our alley had 2 urinals at the end so when we found a strong stench of piss we knew it was the right alley. It’s not as bad as it sounds, you just hold your breath as you walk past. Half of Delhi seems to be a urinal anyway so there’s no point is being precious about it, although man pee does absolutely stink.
We had some respite back at the hotel before venturing out again. We’d decided to take the metro to the Red Fort. Walking the other way down the Main Bazaar to the station we got lots of shop owners touting for business, but they are easy to ignore as they can’t leave their shop. At the metro station you have to be scanned and walk through the usual airport style scanner and then get frisked. Because of the frisking there are separate lanes for men and women. Delhi (India?) is very male dominated, there are heaps of men around and you see far less women. This means that the womens queue is short and fast. After changing metro lines we also discovered the 2 women only carriages each metro has, they’re really quiet and not at all crowded, unlike the rest of the train.
The metro is easy to use, it’s just like any other and we got to the right stop no problems. Then we stepped out into utter chaos. Rather than get the map out we asked some other tourists, figuring they had just come from the Red Fort. They had and it was really easy to get to once you knew whether to turn left or right. Weekends are really busy at the fort because that’s when the locals go. After getting our tickets we walked past the very busy queue for the male security check to the very short female queue, grinning to ourselves as we rather enjoy the gender divide being to our advantage.
The fort was cool, we took our time and enjoyed it. Thunder was rumbling somewhere in the distance, it never made it to us but it did cool the humidity down. We sat down to take some photos and a family presented their little girl for a photo, we obliged. Next 2 young lads approached us and gestured to take our photos. We indicated back yes, that was fine and one of them jumped in between us and put his arms over each of us grinning his head off. They swapped and his mate did the same except he was so small he could barely reach his arms round
As we got to the private palaces and the Hall of Private Audiences we started getting our photos taken a lot. Usually by young men and sometimes covertly but if we pretended we hadn’t seen and started to move off they soon gestured for us to move back and would often jump into the photo too. Sometimes it was brazen with a guy walking up to us and standing next to us while his mate took a photo. Their top preference was to stand between us. We didn’t mind, we decided they were photo credits as often you have to pay people in India to take their photo, therefore we considered that we had some free tokens! We were very bemused though, other tourists were not having their photos taken although we know in Indian culture they like to photograph themselves at places. We wondered if they were just being brave because we didn’t have a guy with us and decided to take it as a compliment. We may feel old and knackered and certainly aren’t looking our best, but we figured we can’t be looking too bad. Emma then got asked to have her photo taken by a family when Marie wasn’t with her and after they said she had beautiful hair, so now we wonder if it is because we are women with short hair. The same happened the next morning as we sat outside our hotel. An Indian family on holiday from the south talked to us and asked to take our photo. Of course the sons took prime positions next to us. They all want to know where we are from. We keep getting asked about cricket too, though we are a complete disappointment on this front as we know nothing.
Emma got a haircut near to the hotel. We think the experience of getting a haircut sums up the local culture completely. She agreed what he was going to do and the price of 150 rupees. He duly did it but then proceeded to give her an Indian head massage. At this point we were thinking it was just part of the service of getting a haircut here, you get these kind of ‘extras’. He then proceeded to give her a neck and shoulder massage then a facial. At this point we knew it would cost more money but she didn’t really care. At no point did he ask if she wanted any of these or indicate that there was an additional cost involved. The bill was 450 rupees and he wanted a tip. That is India in a nutshell.
We hate the tipping culture, the hotel pick up driver demanded a tip the moment we got to the hotel. We’re like, ‘why? for picking us up like you have been paid to do?’ We tried the ‘we have no change’ thing being fresh off the plane but that didn’t work as the hotel had change and conveniently only big change which pissed us off but we were too tired to really argue about it.
Day 2 in Delhi and we bought tickets through the hotel for a night bus to Manali (in the foothills of the Himalayas. Looking at the map it is a short distance to the right of Dharamasala and we did briefly contemplate going there first as we have the time but then discovered its a 10 hour bus journey from there to Manali and we saw less point in going to Dharamasala (it’s just the home of the Tibetan government in exile). We were to leave at 4:30pm to get the 5pm Manali bus. Delhi being humid as hell and very polluted we paid for a late check out so we had a refuge and could shower before we left the hotel.
Basically the time we had left of the day was spent organising our return to Delhi as we have 6 days when we fly back from Leh and we want to do the Golden Triangle in that time (Delhi- Agra- Jaipur). Dodgy travel agents and disappointing tours are abundant in Delhi, some travel agents are even ‘pop up’, they will set up and office, sell you a tour, take your money and disappear. Mainly though people find there are a bunch of extras they need to pay or they don’t get what they paid for.
We could do the trip of the sights ourselves on public transport but it’s hot, humid and would invite a lot of hassle and in 6 days we would probably spend as much time sorting out logistics as we would sightseeing meaning we couldn’t see that much. So we decided to look into doing it through a travel agent. We did the sensible thing (though it feels a bit like a cop out) and got an autorickshaw to the official tourist information office that we had scoped the day before (which was just as well as the driver didn’t actually know where it was and we had to direct him). Being the official office they gave us a lot of information without trying to sell us a thing.
A women there gave us a list of government approved tour agents and was kind enough to highlight the one that deals with the more budget end. Their office was just around the corner so she gave us directions and told us if there were any problems we should come straight back to her. She also told us to be careful of young men in the street that approach us and not to listen when we are told another tourist information office is the ‘official’ one etc etc. We graciously accepted her advice while thinking ‘yeah, we know’.
We spent a long time in the travel agents, they listened to what we wanted to do and made some good suggestions of other things we had time to add in that were on the way to the main sights. They were honest in saying we didn’t need a guide, what would be included and not included and what we would need to pay for when we are on the trip.
Basically we would be getting a government approved tourist driver and our hotels sorted out for us but we have the flexibility to change what we want to do each day. They worked out a 5 day plan for us then we went off for lunch to think about it and we decided to drop it to 4 days due to cost and the fact we still have some things to see in Delhi that are only a metro stop or two away. They were cool with this and even said on day 4 if we got up early since we had the driver for the day anyway we could have time to see some sights in Delhi that were further afield.
The guy there also warned us about the guys that approach you on the street, he had a very amusing way of saying it – he said basically no-one is your friend in Delhi, they are all trying to get your money. He said don’t say you have been to India once, twice, three or four times before – say you have been here nine times and you haven’t just arrived you are just leaving. He also said never get your guidebook or map out on the street (which we already knew but that makes navigating very hard!)
We got a contract and paid a deposit. The driver should pick us up from the airport when we arrive back from Leh and he will take us to the office to get our hotel vouchers etc. We’ll have to wait and see if it does pan out as it should (but if not since we went through an approved agent if it all falls over our travel insurance should cover it). By the time we had done that it was time to get back to the hotel by autorickshaw, pack and shower.
- Left hand driving in right hand vehicles in back. It feels a little weird.
- Indian English is a bit different in its pronunciation and this is very useful to know when talking to autorickshaw drivers. If you want to go to Janpath- pronounce it Janpat. The smart drivers will however accept your business then pull over a few hundred yards down the road to work out exactly where you want to go so knowing where on a map is useful.
- Despite the very crowded streets there is very little pushing which is a pleasant surprise.
- Every bottle of water we have bought so far has been refilled from the bottom. We are running all our water through our filters even if it looks ok. Giardia is a very good diet but we had it in South America and do not want to repeat the experience.
Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through