Beginning Anew in New Delhi

After going solo for a few days in Agra (and a solid 24 hours in Delhi), I hit a hard reset and joined a tour group (with Intrepid Travel, which came highly recommended by Nomadic Matt, one of the writers/bloggers who made this round-the-world journey seem infinitely more possible than I initially imagined).

I must say, I had (and still have) mixed feelings about tour groups. For one, I feel it sets a traveler off from the rest of a country and its people in a little, protected bubble. You get tons of stuff taken care of for you, which can be nice, but it comes at the expense of one’s independence—for example, not being able to stay an extra day or two here or taking a side trip there. At the same time, I feel like a traveler can get so much more information about a place or city than when they’re going it alone, when one might only guess what those sculptures above the door mean or why the shopkeepers hang red pepper and lime outside their doors (a thing I actually wouldn’t have noticed without this tour). When I’m solo, I’m so fixated on staying safe, getting from point A to point B, and making all the decisions, I don’t always get the chance to notice things. So, in that regard, a tour can make all the difference.

Anyway, the list goes on—both pros and cons—but I’d have to say, I had a wonderful experience with Intrepid. I joined largely because before I left, I’d read so many travel warnings for solo female travelers I was concerned about going it alone in India. I think I’d be more confident now, but part of that is because I had this great intro to the northern part of India thanks to this tour (and our wonderful tour leader).

So with that in mind, let’s delve into Delhi.

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The tour met up at our hotel and began with a walk through Old Delhi, where we took in the culture of the marketplace, tried some street food, got lost a couple times, walked down an alley of stores that sold detailing for saris, and marveled at the mishmash of Old Delhi architecture.

Eventually, we wound up at one of the oldest mosques in India, Jama Masjid. The mosque was quite grand, but peaceful, too, with a wide-angle view of the city below.

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We then took autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws to a few other sights that Delhi had to offer. First, we went to the Gurudwara Sheeshganj/Sis Ganj (a Sikh temple), the first I’d ever been to, where words from their holy book were piped over speakers and worshippers could come and sit, heads covered, for a while. We washed our hands and feet with cool water before stepping in, and later, we took a tour of the kitchen and dining hall, which provide meals after each service (to all people—worshippers, the hungry, local folks—it’s a pretty amazing operation, all staffed by volunteers). In fact, all Sikh temples do this, and it made me think how different our world would be if all faiths fed everyone. For Sikhs, this is a great equalizer—breaking bread with others, no matter status or caste or class. And I imagine it would be that and more, if everyone shared what they had.

After that, we took cycle rickshaws to Khari Baoli, Asia’s biggest wholesale spice market, where the smells of pepper and cardamom swam through the air, where at each turn a new scent came my way. Barrels full of the stuff, and colors and sound everywhere. The honking of motorbikes and autorickshaws. The crowds gathered at certain vendors’ storefronts. The dried red peppers that reminded me of Korea, where gochu (a Korean red pepper) flavors so many dishes.

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Finally, my senses filled, we headed back to the hotel via the metro, still taking in the sights of the overflowing marketplaces and Hindu temples along the way.

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Travel Tips

  • Tours
    • Intrepid Travel : I really enjoyed my 13-day Mountains and Mystics tour with Intrepid (which I’ll detail in several of the coming posts). The group was small (only 11 people), the tour leader was knowledgeable, kind, and extremely helpful, and I ended up seeing and learning a lot more than I would’ve had I tried to go it alone. There were also a few other solo travelers in our group, so I definitely didn’t feel like an extra wheel, and the company doesn’t charge extra for solo travelers (unlike some other companies), unless you opt for the “single supplement” and get your own room (I had an awesome roomie!). Intrepid has a lot of options for tours in India and beyond, so check them out. For a 10% discount on your booking, use the discount code given by Nomadic Matt on his website. For more tips on choosing a tour company, check out Nomadic Matt’s excellent article here.
    • Urban Adventures: Run by the parent company of Intrepid Travel, Urban Adventures offers day trips and local tours for a range of locations, including Delhi. While I didn’t join an Urban Adventure tour here, I hear that their Delhi Food Walk is amazing.
  • Food
    • Looking for something special to eat while in Delhi? While most of the places I went to were pretty standard, there were a couple places I visited (outside of the tour) that were amazing. I fell in love with Indian thalis while traveling there (delicious meals usually replete with rice, a few small dishes of various curries/paneer/etc., bread, and occasionally a dessert or curd–often with free refills on rice and the main dishes), and there were two restaurants that I visited that were simply outstanding.
      • Rajdhani is a vegetarian thali restaurant near Connaught Place that specializes in dishes from Gujarat and Rajasthan. Since I didn’t get the chance to make it over to Rajasthan, this restaurant gave me a taste of India that I hadn’t experienced before–either in the South or North. Meals are a little on the pricey side (around $10), but all-you-can-eat and totally worth it. (Get directions on Google here.)
      • Om Saravana Bhavan is a vegetarian thali place near the Karol Bagh metro station that specializes in South Indian food. Thalis are around 150-200 rupees (around $3-4USD) and include unlimited refills on rice and the main dishes. While I got spoiled by having amazing South Indian food actually in South India, this place is the next best thing (and a great experience for travelers who are only going to the North and want to try something different).
  • Transportation
    • Train and Taxi
      • I arrived in New Delhi from Agra via train (my favorite sites for booking are Cleartrip and MakeMyTrip). From the train station, I took a prepaid taxi that I booked via the taxi stand at the northern end of the station (it was a little hard to find, but I just avoided everyone else trying to sell me things until I found the little booth). There is also a stand for prepaid autorickshaws. I think it was just a couple hundred rupees to Karol Bagh (if I recall correctly–around $3-4). From all that I read/heard, I’d advise against taking any of the taxi/autorickshaw drivers that approach you upon leaving the station–Delhi taxi drivers are well-known for taking part in all sorts of scams and schemes, including telling you your hotel is closed and that they’ll take you to another, giving you a “tour” that ends up at a rug shop or jewelry store where you’ll be pressured to buy (so that they can take a commission), etc. Best to stick to prepaid services and Uber (which is ubiquitous in Delhi and I used to get to the airport when I left).
    • Metro
      • Delhi Metro
        • The Delhi Metro is extensive, busy, inexpensive, and probably the safest/easiest/least overwhelming mode of transportation in the the city (from what I read and saw). Solo female travelers will find the women’s car that they have on each train extra safe, quiet, and usually less crowded (though our tour guide recommended that we still watch for pickpockets, since the sense of security folks have in the women’s car often leaves them less likely to keep a good eye on their stuff). A word of warning for my non-binary and trans friends, though: Single-gender anything is problematic for gender non-conforming and trans travelers, but though I got told I was in the wrong car a couple times when I took the women’s car, once I told them I was a woman, folks were fine (though I still had some stares). But I did sometimes feel more comfortable riding the mixed-gender cars, even though they were more crowded (just to avoid getting stared at/asked to leave).
        • You should be able to buy tokens just outside of the security lines at each station (they have back scanning and metal detectors). Just look for the token booths and tell the attendant where you’d like to go. Rides were cheap (maybe 10-15 rupees or $0.25 USD one-way to a place 6-7 stops away). You’ll get a little plastic token that looks like a coin, and then you scan the coin as you enter the metro and then deposit it in a small slot when you leave at your final destination. Find out more about the Delhi metro here.
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