I arrived in Delhi late last night, with less drama than I had feared. In the inevitable scramble to say goodbye to everyone before leaving Dubai, I had not adequately planned the beginning of my trip, but did at least manage to make a hotel booking and arrange for an airport pickup. After a hassle-free trip through immigration. I went through to the pickup area, and found a man holding a sign bearing my hotel’s name, my flight details and ‘Mr Shamsi’, which I presumed to be me. If there is a Mr Shamsi reading this who was stranded at Delhi Airport last night, I apologise unreservedly.
I’m staying in Karol Bagh, to the west of Old Delhi. It is a glum district, its gridded streets crammed with run-down buildings a uniform four storeys tall. Men stand proudly in tiny shops selling clothes and phone accessories – though not SIM cards, which are sold at special outlets requiring reams of paperwork (a job for tomorrow).
It is not without its charm. There are a couple of small green spaces which offer a respite from the press of people and traffic. For every five touts trying to sell me a watch or sunglasses (even though I was already wearing both), there was a man who complimented me on my moustache, which I have begun to cultivate. Ducking down a narrow alley to escape the heat and the hawkers, I found men spinning cloth on traditional looms, in striking counterpoint to the fetishisation of mobile phone accessories and fake Western-branded clothes.
But the reason I have come here is a man called Lalli Singh who, judging by the stream of foreigners passing through his shop, seems to be Karol Bagh’s only tourist attraction. Lalli is in the business of long-term motorcycle rental, and is something of a celebrity in biker circles. As I approached his shop in mid-morning, he arrived on a gleaming Bullet 500, took some lunch out of a pannier and led me down to his workshop. He cleaned and arranged a small tray of Sikh idols, lit a stick of incense and then sat down to discuss business.
Lalli refused to sell me a bike: non-residents cannot register them, and he is not the sort to do an under-the-table deal. However, he offered a typically Indian workaround, whereby I can rent a bike from him for eight weeks and, on reaching my destination, have it couriered back to him in Delhi. It is as elegant a solution as I could have hoped for, and I hope to finalise a deal with him in the next couple of days. Then the trip can begin in earnest.