India’s capital has two faces: the modern, up-and-coming sexy side of malls, fancy buildings and new roads and the compact streets and cramped quarters of the old city. Temples dot the cityscape. My travel friend, Brian, and I had set aside two days to explore the city before heading off into the rest of India.
Since both of us live in Beijing, we get enough of the hyper-modern city scene we spent most of the time walking around the overcrowded, underdeveloped old city. Our first stop was Old Delhi’s Red Fort, the former residence of whatever Mughal emperor was in power. The red sandstone walls, a hallmark of Mughal architecture, basked under the warming afternoon sun as I too began to bake (India was a lot hotter than I’d imagined, but I was prepared: SPF 80 sunblock).
After the fort we took a rickshaw tour of the old city. Our guide would slow down and point to buildings along the way while attempting to pedal through a heavy traffic of other rickshaws, tuk tuks and cows. Packs of half-dead dogs chilled in whatever shade they could find, or sat wherever they felt.
In the old city our guide took us through a spice market, the zesty herbs irritating my nose in growing intensity as we walked several floors up.
Then it was off to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India with a seating/kneeling/bowing capacity of 20,000. Before entering the holy site we had to remove our shoes.
A number of things stood out after the first day of real touristing.
First off, New Delhi wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’d been warned. There was no people mountain, people sea, the kind of hordes I’ve gotten used to after living in Beijing for three years. On the subway, I was crammed into each car like a pale sardine. There was room to breathe, to move my arms.
Indian society is still largely conservative. Even in the newer parts of the city, women still wear saris and other traditional garb. Adverts still used sex to spur consumer interest, but it wasn’t as in your face as it is in America, or even in Beijing where its starting to take off.
Cows wandered the streets, sometimes in large groups, freely and without being led around. This wasn’t surprising — we’ve all heard about Hinduism’s high reverence for the beasts. But I what I wasn’t expecting was the number of stray dogs roaming the streets. The strays were everywhere, literally everywhere. In alleys, in hotels, in train stations, in shady little street food restaurants, in the middle of the street, in the shade, in the sun, in temples and shrines, in parks, everywhere.
New Delhi was a perfect microcosm of the country and a great trial run to see if I’d be able to make it through the rest of the trip. After New Delhi, it was three weeks of trains, tuk tuks and cabs around the northern part of the country. Three weeks of adventure.