Nothing can prepare you for Delhi’s traffic – and, having seen it, I can’t imagine the culture shock of arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport, renting a Maruti or Tata and actually mixing it with the dusty, noisy, honking mass of traffic outside.
Thankfully, I didn’t actually have to do that. Such is the enterprising spirit of this place that you can pay a local to drive you around for about a fiver a day and I spent my whole time there in the back of a minibus, observing the pandemonium outside my window.
This is a city of 15 million people, twice as many vehicles (if you count everything with wheels), and where I’m told that you can ‘buy’ a driver’s licence from the right local government bloke for a couple of hundred rupees and a passport photo.
As for the roads: imagine a badly potholed city street, raise the temperature to a steady 35 degrees (in late October), fill the air with dust and smog so thick that buildings disappear beyond about 150 yards. They tell me the air’s got much cleaner since they converted the city’s taxis to run on compressed natural gas; it couldn’t have got much worse.
Now populate the road in your mind’s eye with small cars, small motorbikes, tractors, three-wheeled pushbike-driven rickshaws and motorbike-driven ‘tuk-tuks’, mule carts, tiny one-box vans, and plenty of larger commercials too. Almost everything seems to be about 25-years old, and there’s so much traffic that everything grinds to a halt every few hundred yards like bad rush hour conditions for 12 hours a day.
Which brings us neatly onto the driving itself. Typically people take their turn to drive down the middle of the road, passing motorbikes, pushbikes and rickshaws on either side, before they meet someone doing exactly the same thing in the opposite direction.
And then a completely matter-of-fact kind of chaos ensues. Nobody’s going anywhere fast. And yet nobody’s stressed or aggressive. Indicators aren’t used; instead, you have to honk your horn if you’re overtaking, turning or generally moving in any direction other than straight ahead.
So as you can imagine, crashes are routinely avoided by inches. The only traffic policeman we saw anywhere was sitting in his Jeep, having a smoke. But apart from the horn thing, there appear to be no other rules other than the golden one: run into one of the wandering cows and you’re in deep trouble.