Delhi, India: Strong nerves are a pre-requisite for this bicycle tour of Old Delhi

"As you can see, the streets here are extremely crowded and you will find many obstacles," says tour guide Anchit Doegar. "So please stay close to me at all times and I can assure you that everything will be fine."

Crowded is a delicate term for the scene of total pandemonium that greets our SpinMonkey cycling party as we wrestle with bikes, helmets and high-visibility vests on a stretch of broken pavement next to one of the busiest roads in Old Delhi, a crumbling labyrinth of temples, mosques, bakeries, spice and flower markets, and once-elegant townhouses known as havelis.

At 5.15am the roar of belching TATA trucks, dishevelled taxis and Royal Enfield motorbikes is already deafening. A cloud of diesel fumes, charcoal smoke and incense hangs in the air. The nearby buildings are broken and festooned with giant tangles of cables that could only be the work of insane electricians. Sweepers crouch in the shadows, perplexed by our antics.

"OK, let's cross now," says Doegar, seeing a momentary pause in the traffic, and we troop after him like naive children following the Pied Piper of Delhi.

Thankfully, it's not too long before we leave the menacing trucks and commuter buses behind. Emerging from a narrow laneway we find ourselves in a web of alleyways, tenements, workshops and trading houses as tangled as the overhead wiring. This part of Delhi is known as Shahjahanabad and dates from the 17th century – apart from the proliferation of mobile phones and air conditioning units, life here remains close-knit, communal, vociferous and energetic. We cycle past open-air butchers' shops where skinny men in ragged dhotis are hacking up bloody carcasses, engineering workshops, street barbers and frenetic open-air markets where men lug huge sacks of dried chillies or guard marigold flowers piled high along the pavement.

Even the smallest child has a job to do; I spot a boy of seven or eight cutting ice from a hessian-covered slab, while his friends play street cricket nearby. Launched by Doegar and a couple of his cycling buddies, SpinMonkey is an audacious attempt to take foreigners out of their air-conditioned comfort and plunge them into the teeming streets of Old and New Delhi. Although the tours do not require a superior level of fitness, strong nerves are a pre-requisite; cycle rickshaws are available for those who don't  feel up to the challenge.

"This is my home city and I'm also a mad keen cyclist," explains Doegar. "So I thought to myself why not combine these two passions?"

With its narrow streets, donkey carts, potholed roads and myriad people, Old Delhi is definitely the more challenging of the two SpinMonkey tours, but also delivers some of the most unexpected delights, such as the chance to visit a local bakery that still makes flat bread in stone ovens – we watch as freshly baked bread is stacked, counted and bagged on the pavement.

"This is one of the last of the traditional roti wallahs still operating in the city," says Doegar. "It dates from the time of the Moghul emperors and remains popular, especially with people who don't have time to bake at home."

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The visitor will find the noise, heat and pungent smells of Old Delhi confronting, especially if you are lucky enough to be staying at the Imperial, one of India's grandest hotels. Opened in the 1930s this oasis of peace and European refinement offers a stark contrast to the heat, chaos and dust of Old Delhi. The gulf between the two cities is immense – New Delhi is a showpiece of early 20th-century urban planning with wide boulevards, grand civic buildings and neat bungalows, while the old quarter is like a vast, jumble of tenements, fortresses, Moghul tombs and bazaars little changed in 400 years.

Apart from bumper-to-bumper traffic, street urchins and alleyways so narrow they hardly accommodate your handle bars, anyone joining a SpinMonkey tour must also ingest some of the world's most fetid air – the Indian capital regularly records air pollution levels 30 times above the limits deemed safe by the World Health Organisation, the winter months are particularly bad.

If, however, you are lucky enough to strike clear skies, there is much to recommend a gentle cycling tour through the streets of Old Delhi, home to some of the city's greatest monuments including the Red Fort, Digambara Jain Temple, Raj Ghat and the astonishing Jami Masjid, the largest mosque in India; its vast courtyard is said to be big enough for 25,000 worshippers.

A cycling tour of Old Delhi is not just about ancient buildings and imperial ghosts, it brings the visitor face-to-face with the resilience, grit and unexpected beauty of life in these crumbling streets. For morning tea, we climb the darkened stairs of a tenement to watch a display of pigeon racing from the roof top. It is a magical sight amid such hardship and struggle.

TRIP NOTES

Mark Chipperfield travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent.

MORE

traveller.com.au/india

FLY

Singapore Airlines flies frequently from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to Singapore, with onward connections to Delhi. See singaporeair.com

CYCLE

SpinMonkey's small group tours of Old Delhi cost $32 per person and take about 90 minutes. Private tours and special itineraries are also available. See spinmonkey.in

STAY

Double rooms at the  Imperial Hotel start from $208 per night. See theimperialindia.com

TOUR

Abercrombie & Kent's nine-day escorted journey to Ladakh for individual travellers includes a stay in Delhi. The 2019 season will run from mid-May to September 30. Prices will be released this year. For more information phone 1300 590 317 or see abercrombiekent.com.au

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