Hair raising journeys

Nothing prepares you for traffic in India.

Not even if you watched the UK Christmas special of 'Top Gear' in which the crazed presenters drove three beaten up cars from Mumbai into the Himalayas. 

For a start, there is the sheer variety of traffic on the roads. There are the auto rickshaws --three-wheeled motorised taxis with yellow canvas tops and green open sides-- cycle rickshaws (same idea as autos but with more sweat required from your driver), cars, bikes, motorbikes, buses and the odd goat and donkey. All of which have their hands permanently on their horn. Especially the goats.

Then there is the fact that lanes are utterly ignored with significantly more parallel lines of traffic existing than the road markings would suggest was possible. More often than not, the boundary between traffic going in opposite directions is marked out with a solid barrier otherwise, quite frankly, everyone would be dead. Instead, this heaving mass of chaos somehow churns along and the railings between opposite sides of the road are used to hang clothes to dry. Add pedestrians retrieving their shirts to that list of road users above.

To complete the effect, every vehicle contains more people than it was designed to accommodate by at least a factor of three. During one particularly busy evening, I saw a family of four perched on a motorbike, six people crammed into a two-seater rickshaw with one sharing the driver's seat up front, and an entire extended family stuffed into car.

Nowhere is this mesmerizing carnage more apparent than in Old Delhi. While many parts of Delhi have tall modern brick buildings, Old Delhi is ... well... old. Buildings close almost to the point of touching over streets too narrow for cars, while the main thoroughfares run past mosques backed onto Sikh temples and houses than have been added to so many times magic seems to be involved in keeping them aloft. Driving through here --even as a passenger-- is both culturally exhilarating and a so-far-unlisted extreme sport.

Most bizarrely, all of this is in complete contrast to the Delhi Metro, which is a example of slick, sparkling efficiency as it glides under the car-rickshaw-bike-goat mayhem on the streets above. Admittedly, half of its calmness was due to the existence of female-only carriages which meant my friend and I were never over-crowded, but even aside from this, it was still one of the most modern and clean train systems I have ever travelled on, including Japan. It is also one of the most extensive in the world, before you suspect they just added it in for the Commonwealth Games, held in Delhi in 2010, although there was an extension during that time.

Apart from the obvious difference from the area which you have just tumbled down from, the strangest aspect of the metro system is the security. On the surface, it appears to be very tight; you have to walk through a metal detector and submit to a pat-down to board the trains, while any bags are passed through an x-ray scanner. What is peculiar is that it is not at all obvious what the security guards are looking for. Since I wore a travel wallet underneath the waistband of my trousers, I set the metal detector off without fail each and every time I passed through.

And this was just fine.

No one asked me what I was carrying or requested to inspect it. I was just waved right through with my potentially life-threatening weaponry stuffed into my panties[*]. The same was true at almost every tourist site we visited where similar security measures were in operation. The two exceptions were at the Taj Mahal and the Akshardham Hindu Temple, the former of which only wanted verbal confirmation I wasn't about to light up a smoke on the marble plinth. (Admittedly, the latter didn't allow so much as a camera into their premises and required you to empty your bag on video camera and then hand it over for storage. THEN they scanned you. Possibly, this was over-compensation for the rest of the city).

As for the metro, maybe the line of thought was that it was doubtful anyone could conceal anything more dangerous than the walk to the underground station.

[*] I hasten to add, the travel wallet DOES NOT stuff into my knickers, but it would require inspection to confirm this.

Photos taken while precariously balanced on a cycle rickshaw travelling through Old Delhi.