If I’m honest, the first few hours in Delhi were a bit of a shock.
I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the city (the estimates vary, but the population without including the urban surroundings is close to 20 million), the intense heat, the chaotic traffic, the hoards of beggars and the fact that every single person you meet on the street seemed to be an unofficial tourist guide. Curiously they all had a brother/cousin/other relative who owned the best shop in Delhi too, and it was just round the corner – you must visit!
Delhi was an assault on all senses, but mostly in a good way. And pretty soon I got over my culture shock, and did as the locals did – just shrugged and got on with it.
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The traffic seemed lethal at first. A road that would have two lanes of traffic running in one direction back home could easily have two cars, three tuktuks, and a bus trying to squeeze through at once – not all of them necessarily travelling in the same direction. But among the mayhem there was logic, and somehow it worked. Traffic flowed, even if the pace was rather glacial.
I didn’t witness any collisions in spite of the fact that you could measure the gaps between vehicles in millimetres rather than metres, and that the rules of the road were being systematically ignored (do they even have anything like the Highway Code?). Whether the lack of constant crashes was due to skilful driving, offerings given to the right gods or pure luck, I don’t know – but somehow it all worked.
Something you soon learned to let go of in Delhi was guarding your privacy and personal space. The place was teeming with life. There were people everywhere. From the tuktuk and taxi drivers who wanted to take you for a tour of the city or to the nearest bazaar, to the people just going about their own business, the streets were always alive – any time, any day. You soon get used to being accosted all the time if you’re on foot, and it’s easier just to take a tuktuk anywhere you want to go as they cost just pennies and handle the congested traffic quicker than taxis. With the heat, humidity and the attention that being a big fat white man brings, walking is not the best fun.
One aspect of Delhi life was more difficult to get used to – the ever-present absolute poverty. There are people living on the streets, begging at every junction, living on leftovers and charity. The sight of them remains in your thoughts when you’re in the solace of your air-conditioned hotel room with all the mod-cons you could need. I know that’s much the same in many places around the world, but the scale of the problem in India, the second most populated country in the world after China, is monumental.
Moving on up
After meeting up with the expedition team in Delhi, we caught a train to Chandigarh. Getting to the station was an experience. We crammed into three taxis, with our luggage on the roofs, secured with no more than a piece of string. Miraculously, no bags were lost en route. It probably helped that we travelled no faster than 10mph at any point, given the hellish traffic around the station.
The railway station in Delhi was another experience. As soon as the taxi stopped a group of semi-official porters grabbed our bags, carried them to our platform and wished us a good journey – all for a pound per bag.
On the platform it was the usual Indian scenery – huge crowds of people, beggars asking for money, officials trying to look like they had things to do, and our group standing there wide-eyed taking it all in.
I spotted a newsagent at the platform and went to see what kind of magazines the Indian travellers were after. Most of them seemed to deal with spiritual matters: one was titled ‘The art of thinking big’; another one was about yoga; the third had some religious angle but it was in a language I didn’t understand. Not a single bike mag in sight – I would definitely be unemployed here.
The train itself was not much different from those back home. It had just done a few more miles than most of the UK trains put together, which meant that it was a bit worn around the edges. But our first class carriage was very comfortable with air-conditioning, and we were served a dinner and drinks to keep us going. I doubt that I would have been quite as happy in the cheaper carriages that only had bars where you’d expect windows to be, and possibly twice the amount of passengers than would have been comfortable.
Arriving in Chandigarh felt very much like we had come to the provinces. It’s still a manic and chaotic city, but much less so than Delhi. Mainly because it’s a ‘new’ city, developed since India’s independence, with nice wide roads, and divided into perfectly square ‘sectors’. An Indian take on Milton Keynes, if you like.
We had no time or real interest in town development though, as we were here for one thing only: to get our hands on some bikes and head out to the hills! But first we needed a bit of kip.
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