A backpacker's guide to New Delhi

by ChrisBarraclough

In New Delhi, India, even the culture shock of stepping from the airport can be unbearable if you have never been to Asia. This guide will help budget travellers get to grips with the Indian capital

As you step out of New Delhi airport, it’s hard to figure out what is more overwhelming – the intense heat that immediately washes over you, or the swarms of taxi touts blocking your path. Pushing your way through the hordes may be a little intimidating, but don’t take up their offers of cheap fares. Instead, head just outside the main exit to the pre-pay taxi desk. From here, you can book up a ride to anywhere in New Delhi. You should be on your way in a matter of minutes, which is just enough time to prepare yourself for the heart-exploding chaos of Indian roads.

The cacophony of horns is your first warning as you pull out of the airport and merge into a thick blanket of traffic. Blanket is no exaggeration either – there is absolutely no space among the crush of cars, bikes and auto-rickshaws. If a gap does open up, someone will be straight in there with a sharp blast of their horn. It’s a vein-popping experience, even from the back seat.

To ease the stress of arrival, it is recommended that you book a hotel for your first night at least. It will work out more expensive than simply walking door-to-door in search of a room, but you will doubtless need some time to relax after the "excitement" of travel. Otherwise, there are plenty of safe and friendly areas packed with hotels, many of which do double/twin rooms for less than a fiver a night. Karol Bagh and Paharganj are just two examples.

Once you have a room, you will be all set to explore. Walking the streets of New Delhi is all part of the fun, as people will stop you for a conversation purely because you look different. The attention takes a while to get used to, and is sometimes unwelcome when you have crowds of touts chasing after you, desperate to sell their wares. However, the majority of people will simply want to talk, and it is fascinating to learn about Indian culture and life in general from the people themselves. You may even be asked to pose for a few photos – celebrity wannabes will lap it up.

New Delhi is one of those rare cities, a sprawling mass that bewilders all the senses at once. You will pass cows standing defiantly in the middle of a street as a tailback of rickshaws screech their horns. Every corner has a curry vendor or a spice merchant, filling the air with delicious aromas. You might be fortunate enough to join a wedding congregation, where the groom’s friends and family parade him down the street on a horse, dancing and singing the whole way.

If you don’t mind long queues and dodging the postcard touts, there are plenty of fantastic tourist traps to explore. The immense and perfectly symmetrical Humayun’s Tomb is an incredible sight, and the first garden-tomb of India. For anyone curious about Indian history, Humayun was the second Mughal emperor of India. He was a bit rubbish at first, losing vast amounts of territory to the Afghans, but made a spectacular comeback just 10 years later with the help of the Persians and reclaimed all his land.

Not far from the tomb, you will find India Gate. This sombre monument to those killed in the Afghan and First World Wars is covered in the names of fallen soldiers. Once you have paid your respects, be sure to check out the Dilli Haat – a famous outdoor market that sells everything from clothes and crockery to bizarre handmade instruments. There are lots of cheap and tasty food stalls where you can pick up a tandoori chicken or some curry and rice served up on a banana leaf. The Lotus Temple is also worth a visit, with its stunning architecture and good-will message. However, I’d leave out the Red Fort. This monstrous crimson beast is a little dishevelled and usually overrun by schoolchildren.

There is always a flip side to any city, of course, and with New Delhi it’s the poverty. It is common to see entire families living in tents by the side of the road, or in tiny shacks made of tin. The city has a large number of beggars too, many with missing limbs. It takes a tough stomach just to walk on by, but that is what you have to do. Even a tiny gesture like a smile will ensure a crowd of them following you for miles.

If you can handle the poverty and the excessive attention, New Delhi is well worth a visit. The city also acts as an excellent entry and exit point to the "golden triangle" that includes the cities of Agra and Jaipur. Be wary of visiting between the months of April and October. During these months, average temperatures soar well above the 30s and the air gradually becomes more humid. Not even a sombrero and a huge tub of Ben & Jerry’s will stop you from melting into a sticky puddle. For getting around, auto-rickshaws can be taken from one end of the city to the other for very little money – but be prepared to haggle with the driver. If you want to avoid the hassle, drivers can be hired quite cheaply. Most people speak English, so language shouldn’t be a barrier.

Go with an open mind, and New Delhi is an adventure in waiting.