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Friday, November 14, 2008


Where to stay in Delhi?

No one I spoke to had anything good to say about Delhi but somehow circumstances are such that I've just spent a week there.

I asked my friends with India experience where I should stay in Delhi. It seems they all say Pahar Ganj. No one could actually recommend a place they'd stayed. There was no enthusiasm but no one knew any other options. And online reviews aren't enthusiastic either.

I decided to check local knowledge. I asked Nazia what she thought about Pahar Ganj. 'Don't go there,' she said. 'It's full of touts. It's not a nice place.'

'So, where do I go?'

'I'll find somewhere for you.'

Nazia lives in suburban Delhi but the reality is that locals don't know where you should stay. They never have to look for accommodation in their own town.

Online I tracked down a guesthouse not far from her place. She checked it out and said it didn't look too bad but she had reservations.

I emailled and asked what was their full all-inclusive room rate. They wrote back and said 'refer to our website'. The website quoted 1,000 rupees for a single room and made no mention of seasonal rates. That's not cheap for India. We aren't talking about starred accommodation. Still, I emailled back and asked them to book me in for two nights.

The place wasn't all that bad. It was clean, had air-con, hot running water if you could figure out how it worked and most importantly - the bed was comfortable. They served breakfast and the food was OK. When I checked out two days later, I was presented with a bill for 3,000 rupees. When I questioned them, they said the rate in the website was the off-peak rate and this was the peak period (for one more week). Nazia came along to pick me up and joined in the conversation - in Hindi - which meant I was out of it. The clerk referred her to his boss by telephone. The boss said he couldn't do anything but quoted his boss. I stupidly paid up.

I am not mentioning the guesthouse name because I understand this type of practice is not uncommon in India. I present this anecdote here as a warning to all travellers to India. Don't do what I did. I recommend that you do not accept vague references to a website - ask for a firm price. Don't book unless you get it. If they try to change the price, refuse to pay.

So, where to next? I was prepared to try Pahar Ganj but I wasn't going there if Nazia could help it. I had jotted down a few notes off the internet. Top of my list, because of price, was the International Youth Hostel at Chanakyapuri. Nazia was quite enthusiastic about this because Chanakyapuri is a good area. We took a taxi there and yes, this area is very pleasant - lots of trees, little traffic and quiet. This is the area where you'll find all the foreign embassies.

And the hostel? Well, it's certainly not luxurious but it's clean with basic comforts. There are several options ranging from private rooms with air-con to dorms. But if you turn up on short notice, as I did, you might not get what you are looking for. (Check their website and book ahead.)

For my first three nights, I got a room to myself but had to share the bathroom.
For the rest of my stay, I was in a dorm.

I usually avoid dorms, mainly for security reasons but security here was good. You get a locker to which you can add your own lock. It was big enough to hold my main backpack. If you're fussy, check them out first as you're allocated a specific one. Some are in better condition than others. They also offer secure storage on another floor which looks pretty good. I put my computer bag in there as I wasn't going to be using the computer anyway. As an added precaution, I put a lock on the bag.

Weighing up the differences between a private room and a dorm, there are pluses and minuses to each. If you want quiet, the private room is definitely the way to go as people come and go in the dorms at all times of day and night. Some are considerate of others. Some definitely are not. I've also discovered that Indian men are even worse than Chinese men with the noises they make to clear the phlegm from their throats early in the morning.

What I liked most about the dorm was the opportunity to meet others. I shared my dorm with an interesting range of people, none of whom were Westerners. Among the Indians were a couple of guys who were part of a team working on a new political journal. There was also an (almost) retired professor of political science and an historian working on the period before and after independence from a Muslim perspective. Foreigners included two Afghan students. I also met a young accountant (really nice guy) from Argentina.

There were some superficial renovations taking place during my stay but some major work is also needed. The hostel is advertised as being 'eco-friendly'. The main feature of this is the solar hot water system which only operates in the winter months. At the moment it is stuffed so there's no hot water at all which, of course, is still eco-friendly : )

Both of the bathrooms I used were pretty bad in general. The plumbing challenged my understanding of the laws of physics.

The hostel has a kitchen which serves reasonable (mostly Indian) food. Breakfast is included in the room price. Sometimes the kitchen is open for lunch, sometimes not. You have to book and pay ahead for lunch and dinner. There is a deadline for this which may or may not be enforced depending on the staff member on duty. If you miss out, there is a local 'market' where food is available but the range is limited unless you are looking to dine in a fancy restaurant. (The one I tried is quite good.)

Chanakyapuri is not in the centre of Delhi but it's only ten minutes away from Connaught Place by auto rickshaw (similar to a Thai tuk-tuk). There's usually one or two waiting outside the hostel. They will ask you for a fare of 60 - 100 rupees for this. Offer them 40 and walk away if they mention a figure over 50. There is also a bus for much less than this. The nearest stop is a pleasant ten minute walk from the hostel. They can at times be way overcrowded but pick the right time (as I did) and you'll get a comfortable and maybe interesting ride.

If you want to check out Pahar Ganj (as I also did), it's a walkable distance from Connaught Place or take the metro. It certainly is an interesting place to visit. Vibrant is the word that comes to mind. I'm told there are good restaurants there but I didn't try them. Yes, the touts are there but after six years in Asia I know most of the tricks. Inexperienced travellers should be cautious with people they don't know. Don't be paranoid or you'll miss out on the fun. Just don't believe too much of what he says. (So far I haven't met a female tout in India but I'm open.)

Back to the New Delhi International Youth Hostel, if I haven't turned you off (not my intention), I suggest you check out their website and remember to book ahead.

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I would have recommended an ok hotel in the Pahar Ganj for about Rs 400, but you didn't ask!

In India, always - always confirm prices.

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