This time of the year, India’s capital Delhi is engulfed by a mantle of mist and fog. The days are pleasantly warm and the cool nights smell of sulphur and burning wood. My local friend tells me that it’s wedding season so the fireworks and crackers add their distinctive flavour to the air. I’m also told it is the ‘party and going out season’ and the best time to visit if you want to go wedding-spotting or hang out with Delhi’s bright, beautiful and rich.
Delhi is a crazy and chaotic city – one of the most congested, biggest, busiest places I have ever been to. Even the labyrinth of hutongs - the narrow alleyways around the Forbidden City in Beijing – seem clean and organised after a trip to the Old Delhi.
The medieval bazaars sell everything you might wish to buy from clothes and jewellery to hairy and bloody goats’ heads and sticky sweets. The endless traffic of rickshaws, motorbikes, and wheelbarrows piled up with goods to unimaginable heights make it hard for a foreign visitor to navigate around.
But try to look past Old Delhi’s dirt and chaos and it will charm you with its madness, very unique character and such hidden gems as Karim’s eatery or the perfume and incense shop, Gulab Singh Johrimal.
Some of Delhi’s biggest tourist attractions and the legacy to its Islamic past are also here. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan moved the capital from Agra to Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad as it was known in the 17th century. He commissioned the building of the magnificent Red Fort as his home, and the biggest mosque in the country – Jama Masjid – to worship.
Built as the imperial capital of India by the British, the spacious New Delhi could not be more different. It serves as the centre of the government of India and hosts 134 foreign embassies and high commissions. In the middle of New Delhi looms the national monument of the country, the India Gate, inspired by Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Originally known as the War Memorial, it commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the Indian army who died fighting for the Indian Empire, or the British Raj to be correct.
New Delhi’s streets are wide, paved and much cleaner. Its glamorous cafes and restaurants, shopping malls, five-star hotels and chic sports clubs attract the well-off and the famous.
Rich and poor contrasts aside, India is also a very curious place… It felt like I was photographed by every single school boy and young man on my visit to the Red Fort. Some of them unashamedly stick their mobile phones right in front of your face, while others politely ask for a picture.
The metal detector gates by the fort’s entrance are actually made of wood and every visitor has to come up on makeshift steps and is carefully searched. We have to get our bags scanned on every return to the hotel and our purses are put through similar equipment at bigger shopping malls.
Many Indian women, especially older ones, wear saris, but most men enjoy western clothes. Some of them dress in tight colourful shirts and flared pink trousers and look like they have been transported straight from the 1970s.
The best thing about India is not yoga, spiritual gurus, textile shopping or even the Taj Mahal. It is a food lover’s paradise and Delhi is at the centre of this enormous country’s culinary map. Hungry tourists can munch on Mughal curries, South Indian pancakes, dosas, and one of Punjab’s signature dishes dal makhani, and many thousands, if not millions, of other dishes.
I came on this trip to learn about food as the Indian government is trying to increase the exports of its praised type of rice called Basmati. It only grows in India and Pakistan and is known for its nutty flavour and fragrance (Basmati means “full of aroma” in Hindi). Its long grains are not sticky, but most importantly for me, the Basmati rice has a lower GI (Glycemic index) and is supposedly better for our diet.
But if you are not only eating your way through India, Delhi has many other attractions. Don’t forget to check out India’s most visited monument Qutub Minar and the famous white marble mausoleum, Taj Mahal, is about 5 hours’ drive away in Agra.
The brave ones can take a bicycle tour and cycle around India’s capital; the not so brave should get around like locals in bicycle or auto rickshaws.
You can also just hang out with Delhi’s artists and cool kids in Hauz Khas Village and shop in the boutiques of local designers. I had the best spring rolls in the world in the South East Asian café there, but unfortunately I can’t remember its name… You’ll have to get there and find it for yourself - it’s more or less on the right hand side, at the beginning of the main street, just by the ATMs…go find it!
How to get there: Air India
Where to stay: The Grand Hotel
What to see: Red Fort, Jama Masjid, India Gate, Qutub Minar, Old Delhi markets
What to have in your bag: Wet wipes, tissues, bottle of water, sun-cream and mosquito repellent and a fair bit of patience!