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Delhi – the smoggy capital of India

The flight from Dubai to Delhi went surprisingly well, taking Risto’s condition into account. The combination of painkillers and antibiotics must have done their job. We sat next to a young man from North India who had been working in Dubai for two years, and now got to go home and see his son. He was so excited that the joy got into us as well.

Somewhere over the Middle-East.

Our plane arrived during sunset and when we got through the arrival inspections, it was dark already. We tried to get a pre-paid sim-card from the airport, but the Airtel salesman insisted that it won’t work on our phones. We couldn’t change his mind, but he suggested we should try our luck in the city. We had reserved the hotel from Delhi Aerocity, quite near the airport. The airport express metro did cost us total of 40 rupees (0.5 EUR) and was quite new and clean. The first things we noticed after leaving the metro station was, how thick the air was and the burnt smell of it. This wasn’t a surprise to us, as we knew Delhi to have the world’s worst air quality.

Finding the hotel

As Risto was sick we wanted to get to the hotel as soon as possible and decided to walk straight to a place called Grand Lawson, with a price of 1546 rupees (19.5 EUR) for two nights stay. But the place was not where it was supposed to be according Google Maps, and we walked around the alleys with no luck and no internet. After harassing locals for maybe half an hour, we managed to find the place, finally. But the receptionist told us that the room is not available anymore, and that she had contacted me about it (no, she didn’t). She offered us another room for 2000 rupees per night. We don’t know whether there was a double booking, or were they just trying to scam us. As she gave us the wifi password to cancel our booking, we were able to book another hotel, OYO 12754 Hotel Royal Marina for 3030 rupees for two nights. Well, again the hotel wasn’t where it was marked on the Maps. We had locals guiding us to find the place for maybe 45 minutes, when we finally found a someone who knew where the hotel should be. But the place was called Hotel Best. The manager of the place told us that the place was Oyo Royal Marina before, but it’s not part of the chain anymore – New owners, new hotel. The price for a night would be 2500 rupees. As we had no internet, we had to start walking around asking hotels for their prices, 2500 a night, 3000 a night. One of the locals helped us find the Hotel Best told us that he is staying in a nice hotel nearby for 1500 rupees a night and maybe he could talk us in for the same price. Honestly, we were quite suspicious about the guy, but as Risto had fever, we decided to accept the deal. Well, we were quoted 3500 rupees for the night, so we thanked the guy and started walking again.

The Delhi Aerocity area, where we kept looking for a hotel. During day.

Next place was called Oyo 12675 Star Inn, and the receptionist offered us room for 1800 rupees. Still too high, but after haggling for a while we agreed to pay 1400 for the night. The price was almost double compared to original booking, but given the situation, we were quite happy to stay. The room was not clean, had some cockroaches, and the sheets were stained. At least the wifi was fast and had strong signal. But the room was noisy, there were some renovations going until around 1 A.M. and the banging continued at 5:30 A.M. Risto had noise-canceling headphones and Laura listened all night Youtube’s relaxing naturesounds 🙂

Happy to have a place to sleep in Delhi.

We booked a stay for the next two nights from a place called Backpackers Heaven@ New King. The place had over 600 reviews, and thus we felt quite safe that our booking would be respected.

Train station scammers at Delhi Railway station

Next morning, we took the airport express metro from Aerocity to New Delhi station for 100 rupees. From the metro station there should only be a bit more than a kilometer’s walk to our new hostel. We would only have to cross the railroad and we would be very near. But little did we know. When we arrived the station, there was this helpful guy telling us that we may not go to the platform entrance bridge without tickets. Then he asked where we are staying. As we are suspicious by nature, but didn’t want to be rude, we told him the area we are staying without the name of the place. He said that the neighborhood is nice but that there is a dengue fever and malaria outbreak going. He said we should visit this place called Ministry of Tourism and showed it on Google Maps (has a 4.3 rating and Central Government Office description attached). They supposedly would give us free maps and information about the hotels nearby. We insisted on passing the tracks and going to the hotel we had booked, and the guy told us that if we use the stairs right next to him, we might be able to pass the railroad.

New Delhi Railway Station

Well, everything went fine, until there was another guy standing by the platform entrance the stairs asking for our ticket. He told us that we are not allowed to go past him without a ticket. We didn’t know whether the guy was an official or not but did not dare to try our luck. He asked where we are staying, and after providing him with the area, he told us about the dengue outbreak there. He told us that as foreigners we would be able to buy tickets from place Governments office called Ministry of tourism, and that we could take a tuktuk there for maybe 30 rupees. We thought that what a coincidence that two people instruct us to go to the same place and thought that maybe they are working together. As we did not dare to try to cross the railroads, we decided to walk around the station. Just few minutes into walking a new guy approaches us and starts asking us innocent questions like where are from, where we are staying and so on, and surprise surprise, suggested that we should visit this place called ministry of tourism and that he is not selling us anything, but just trying to help. As we were approaching the place where we could turn towards our hotel, or visit the ministry of tourism, our helper insisted that we should visit the ministry. We noticed Airtel shop, and told the guy that maybe we would visit the place after we had visited the Airtel store. He insisted that getting activating sim card would take 6 hours within the shop, but in the ministry of tourism they could activate it right away. We thanked the guy and said that we will visit the shop.

Getting a pre-paid sim-card in India is pain. You will need to fill a form, and provide a copy of your passport and visa, as well as attach a passport picture to the form. We had prepared for this and got through the application. It would just take 24 hours for the sim to activate. We would have loved to get it working right away so we could check whether these helpful guys are just trying to scam us, pickpocket us or rob us.

A pre-paid sim card is a must have item in India, if you can get one.

As we left the shop, there was another helper asking similar questions. As politely as we could, we kept answering him. When he suggested that we should visit the Ministry of tourism, we told him that maybe we would after we had eaten (Risto had seen KFC on first guys cell phone map). This guy just happened to have a friend with great veggie restaurant, but Risto asked whether he knew whether there was a KFC around. Yep, there would be, and he was happy to escort us there. When we were just entering KFC, we noticed McDonalds on the other side of the road and told him that on second thought we would like to eat at McDonalds. Again, he escorted us to McDonalds, where we thanked him.

According to this scammer we should visit “The Ministry of Tourism”.

We tried to ask McDonalds’ employees whether they knew what was going on as these people are trying to get us to visit this place called ministry of tourism. No one knew but were willing to suggest some good and cheap hotels nearby. We ordered one McVeggie meal and went upstairs eating. Soon another person came sitting next to us and started making conversation. So, the same questions again, this time in perfect English, and a tip to visit this Ministry of tourism. Maybe we weren’t that polite anymore and started lying to him and told that we are just shopping here and that we have a hotel back in Aerocity. He didn’t buy this lie and asked that why do we have full packings with us if we are just shopping and left the place. Outside McDonalds another guy approached us and started conversation. This time we decided that we can’t get rid of these guys by walking and decided to take a metro a bit further and just walk to the hostel from there. As we were looking for metro station, we were surrounded by people shouting at us that we should go to this ministry of tourism. As they kept insisting that they are not trying to sell us anything, Laura got so angry that she basically yelled at them that “Yes, we know what you are trying to sell us at this Ministry of tourism, and we are not buying!”. So much for the politeness.

Peace – at last

When we got in the metro station, the scammers left us alone. We took a ride to the Ramakrishna station which should be just 600 meters from our hostel. We found the corner where the place should be, but finding the hostel was not that simple.

Main Bazar Road near our hostel.
Dark alley, where Backbackers Heaven@ New King was.

There were no signs on the street, and we had to enter this dark alley to find the place. The staff at Backpackers Heaven@ New King were very friendly and we learned that the people we encountered were Railway Station “mafia” and they would have brought us to an overpriced travel agency, where they would have tried to have sold us tours, tickets and hotel bookings for way too high a price.

The room was better than the last one we had. Nothing special, but no cockroaches this time. The RS 2688 we paid was more than we originally planned on spending in India, but we were happy to get a place to rest. A short walk, then bananas and crackers for the dinner. Our neighbors were having a party and around 1 A.M. Risto asked if they could turn the music down. They were happy to, and we got the long-wanted sleep.

Backpackers Heaven@ New King

The goal for the next day was threefold, eat, buy new pants for Risto, the grey ones were broken already when we got them from Amazon, and get a return train ticket to Agra. Just as we got out of metro, we got greeted by one of these train station scammers. We were planning to record the act, but this guy was of different breed than the ones from yesterday. He didn’t speak good English, didn’t have expensive looking clothes, and wasn’t at all as aggressive on getting us to his favorite tourist office. He might be part of different gang. So honestly, the most prominent feeling on our side was pity and decided not to publish his face. We asked him the location of McDonalds, and he was happy to help us.

Getting new pants and train tickets to Agra

After eating McDonalds (again) we met the same guy. This time we asked him where Hennes & Mauritz was, but he didn’t know, even though we knew the location, as it was right next to us. H&M Didn’t disappoint us, we found a new set of cargo pants that in Risto’s surprise were large enough and were of superior quality compared to the ones from Amazon. The price was as high as it would have been in Europe, 2699 rupees (34 EUR), but we were glad to accept as we wouldn’t have to sew them every night. Surprisingly most of the customers were looking like locals, and there were many of them. This makes us feel great, as it’s a small cue of existing and growing middle class here.

A man with new pants poses happily for the camera.

One of the important reasons for our travels is to see how the world is developing. As we know, noticing small incremental change is difficult. When we stay in the same place, we don’t notice it evolving. Thus, it might feel that the world is somehow static. But in reality, our quality of life is getting better and better. And the pace of change is unbelievably rapid in less developed countries. As this is the first time we are visiting India, we have no real reference point for comparison. But 10 years from now we do. Hopefully the development is at least as noticeable than it has been in Vietnam between 2008 and 2017.

With new pants in a bag, we took a metro to the train station planning to buy the next day train tickets to Agra. We went in through the same gates than we did yesterday but were not contacted by anyone. Now the problem was, how to get the tickets to train. The place was filled with different counters: “plat form ticket”, “current reservation”, “enquiry”, “unreserved ticket counter”, “platform ticket”, “ticket counter”, “second class booking office” and so on. In addition, there were ticket machines, so we honestly had no idea where we should buy the tickets. An optimal place for scammers to operate. Laura had checked that there should be a different office for foreigners to buy the tickets. After googling a while, we found that there are two sides on this station, Ajmeri gate and Paharganj gate side, and t on the Paharganj side on the second floor (called first floor), there is an international tourist bureau selling tickets to foreigners. As we were on the Ajmeri gate side, we had to go through the security check to get to the platform stairs and cross the rails. On the Paharganj side of the station we took the stairs on the left and got to the place called “International Tourist Bureau”. We took a token with a number and filled the reservations. Our turn was maybe 15 minutes from entering and we got two tickets for AC3 class. The total cost for two return tickets was 2710 rupees (34 EUR), which probably was more than the price online would have been.

Bridge to platforms and other side of the station.
International Tourist Bureau.

As we left the place, we tried to find the scammers again, but nobody approached us. Maybe they had recognized us from yesterday, or maybe we were just out of luck. We walked back to hotel, and were quite pleased.

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