Arriving back into Delhi, two months after our first encounter with the city, let’s just say it had some making up to do. The memories of an attempted 3am taxi scam, long hours at the train station ticket office, the grabby touts, and the madness and dirt of Arakashan Road in Paharganj had faded but not completely disappeared. After two months of travelling around India, this time we knew what we were getting in to. Or specifically, what we weren’t (yup, that’s you, scam taxis).
Second time around, we stayed in Connaught Place (CP). While still a little rough around the edges, it was far nicer than Paharganj and not much further from the train station. It was a good base for going between Old Delhi to the north for sightseeing and street markets, and New Delhi to the south for parks, eating and drinking. We mostly got around in auto-rickshaws, using our new trick of getting the Uber fare estimate and using that as a benchmark for bargaining with auto drivers.
Delhi’s beautiful, historic monuments did help restore our faith in the city. Top of the list was the Red Fort in Old Delhi, which we combined with a wander round Chandni Chowk’s street bazaars and Jama Masjid Mosque.
The Red Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Once inside the towering red sandstone walls and through the Lahore Gate, where the first flag of independent India was raised in 1947, visitors would dismount and park their elephants at the Elephant Gate before approaching the Emperor in his grand Audience Hall.
Behind the Audience Hall is the Emperor’s quarters, connected by a small stream to his wife’s quarters, then the quarters for his concubines, and a small mosque. There was seemingly a bonus exhibition of ‘Two British Tourists’ as we were constantly asked to be in selfies or used as background props in family pictures.
Just across the road from the Red Fort is Chandni Chowk, the main street running through Old Delhi. It’s utter chaos. In a good way. We arrived just at school-finishing time so did as much people-watching as stall-hopping. The school kids were either piling into cycle rickshaws to get home, getting free cups of water at the gurudwara, or joining outdoor prayers at the next door mosque. The narrow lanes of the bazaars are crammed with street food stalls, tiny shops piled to the ceiling with fabric, glimmering gold pockets of jewellery stalls, punctuated with shops selling shoes, electronics, traditional Indian clothes, chai, art supplies and everything in between.
Once we were well and truly Chowk’d out, we went in search of Jama Masjid. Whilst we did end up at the imposing mosque, we’re still not sure if we took the ‘right’ way. Our way took us through an open air market that was almost the ‘back-stage’ equivalent to Chandni Chowk; some vendors stood alongside row upon row of car engines, others crouched down by three or four unlabelled ‘medicine’ bottles, whilst others arranged their stall of misc. metal parts.
Once up at the mosque, our plan was to climb to the top of a tower which supposedly gives you views all over Delhi. We were now used to there being an Indian entry price and Foreigner entry price, but this time it wasn’t different fees, just completely different rules. Apparently we were going to have to leave our phones with a man stood at the door before we could enter. To ensure we didn’t take any photos. Yeah, sure. Some men going into the mosque for prayers (phones still in hand) did try to help us and two French guys who’d been told the same thing, but he wasn’t budging, so we had to skip the tower view.
South of CP, Humayan’s Tomb and Lodhi Gardens, via India Gate, were next on our hit list. We’d seen India Gate a few times already, in the distance as we zipped past in an auto, but this time decided to stop and take a closer look. Honestly, it’s not worth it. It’s an impressively big archway, but has a very plain design so there isn’t a lot of detail to admire up close. Just a lot of hawkers, tourist tat and people bumping into each other as they each try and find a photo angle with nobody else in it.
Humayun’s Tomb and Lodhi Gardens, however, are definitely worth it. Humayun’s Tomb was much less crowded than the Red Fort but, with its symmetrical design and peaceful fountains, no less photogenic. It’s known as the ‘mini Taj’, and inspired its more famous counterpart in Agra; being built on a raised platform, surrounded by gardens with reflection pools, and inset arches in each facade.
Our eating and drinking exploration of Delhi took us further and further south through the city. On the doorstep of our hotel in CP we caught up on some blogging at Cha Bar; a cosy cafe with a huge tea menu, inside a book shop. Further south was Khan Market – a walk through Lodhi Gardens from Humayun’s Tomb – where we found lots of boutique shops and cafes; Cafe Turtle for juices, Opera or Big Chill for desserts and ice cream, and our favourite, SodaBottleOpenerWala for Parsi biscuits and funny decor.
Further south again was our favourite area for bars; Hauz Khas. After a few confused looks from rickshaw drivers, we stopped pronouncing it the German way and had better luck starting to say ‘horse castle’ but stopping before the ‘tle.’ The bars are stacked tightly on top of each other round a short curve of pedestrianised road. There are reggae bars, Mexican bars, Bollywood DJ bars, bars with outdoor terraces, a bar disguised as decorated caves, and a bar where the DJ happily mixed Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl into a reggae version of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep. We retreated to the cave bar again after a few of his mixes.
Gurgaon Cyber Hub hadn’t been on our list when we first planned Delhi, but after it being recommended by two Delhite friends we decided to check it out. After an hour’s drive south from the city centre, we were a little skeptical when we arrived at what first looked like a huge complex of office buildings. Cyber Hub is the base for a lot of international companies but amongst them are some really good restaurants and bars. Everything was very glossy and new. There were a few places (Nandos, Starbucks) that gave it a bit of a ‘this could be anywhere’ feeling, but Farzi, where we ate dinner, could only be in India. The menu took ‘fusion’ to another level with traditional Indian street dishes given a restaurant makeover and combined with some unexpected European ingredients. And some unexpected accessories; palette cleansers delivered in a ceramic tree, bread delivered in a toy tin truck, and the bill delivered in a vintage typewriter.
Coming back to Delhi gave us the chance to see the extremes of Old Delhi in Chandni Chowk, the extremes of new, modern Delhi at Gurgaon Cyber Hub, and lots more in between. Whilst it’s not our favourite place in India, it was definitely worth going back to get to know it better.