“Don’t bother,” said one tourist glibly.
“I got hassled so much,” said another, “I wanted to kill someone.”
“It’s just one big, ugly pile of garbage,” said a third.
Word of mouth on Delhi is remarkably consistent.
And two thirds of it is, based on my experiences at least, true.
For the most part, Delhi’s not pretty. It’s crowded, it’s polluted, it’s about as hygienic as a mediaeval cesspit and pretty much no heed at all has been paid to the many historic ruins that have been sacrificed to squalid, structurally-dubious blocks of flats.
It really is one big pile of garbage, too. Walking up the road from my hotel (squalid, structurally-dubious, but with a marble lobby), I followed a rubbish truck on its way, I assumed, to the nearest landfill site. Except it wasn’t. Five minutes later, it stopped, and offloaded its contents right onto the roadside there in the middle of town, upsetting a pedestrian doing his business there.
And tourists really, really get hassled. Take a tiptoe step out of customs at the airport and drivers are screaming “taxi” at you and trying to grab you by the arm, which, in fairness, is pretty standard anywhere in the developing world. But walk down a road and you’ll be followed by five rickshaw drivers promising the finest ride on the streets; walk past certain windows and five pairs of overly-red lips will pout at you and promise you a different kind of ride for five times as much (just under 7 pounds if you’re interested, always ask whether tax is included and obtain a receipt); walk past a stall and the stallkeeper, a foodseller and an amateur yogi all spring out of nowhere and walk at your shoulder running a high-pitched, high-speed sales-speak that would give them passable careers in radio were they in Europe.
But not to bother with Delhi? Two days there showed me enough to know that that would be a mistake, though by the end of even that my smile had fallen a few times and I’d lost my temper (loudly) once.
Because Delhi is unlike anywhere else I’ve yet seen. The ugliness is unique, the crowdedness, the stench, those roadside rubbish dumps, all of them are unique.
The whole place is a bulging, chaotic, mess of humanity in all its forms on an enormous scale, and all presented in a dazzling array of colours, from the lilac shades of the houses in Old Delhi’s tiny, festering streets to the oranges of women’s saris, the speckled yellows and greys of the oxen driven through the streets and the flashes of white marble that adorn the city’s great works.
To pick any highlights from a two-day stop is difficult, but for contrast, the following aren’t bad choices.
Start with the New Delhi train station and hop a fence (it’s not hard – there are truck-size holes in most of them) and you’re faced with the city at its most raw: hundreds of people a minute dodging trains to cross the tracks and, between them, a beggar sat right between the railways waiting for her reward.
Then head to the Red Fort, the giant citadel original built by the Mughals and used to house the royals. It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s very, very quiet and it’s about as far from the Delhi norm as you can get.
Finally, find a coffee shop, sit down, and realise that what Delhi – quite unexpectedly – does best is a cappuccino.