Discover Delhi on bikes; steer clear of the main road. ‘the alternative route is always far more inspiring.
Dutch Delhiphile Jack Leenaars, 36, has always looked out for a more thrilling back alley and that’s pretty much how he has charted his own life. After spending the first two years of his professional life at the foreign desk of the Dutch De Telegraaf in Amsterdam, Leenaars decided it was time to move.
“My wife and I wanted to live in a different country—not another European country—but an entirely different culture,” he says. In 2003, Leenaars swapped the order of his homeland for the chaos of India and moved to Delhi as De Telegraaf’s South Asia correspondent.
After spending six years travelling and reporting from across South Asia—India, Nepal, Bangladesh— Leenaars felt he needed a “new challenge”. “I’d seen India from the perspective of a journalist, which is an observer’s perspective, from a distance. Now I wanted to see India as an insider,” he says. Those thoughts, coupled with a biking tour in Thailand (also run by a Dutchman), pretty much sealed it for Leenaars.
Accessing alleyways: Jack Leenaars says he had explored much of Delhi on cycle before he started the business. Divya Babu/Mint
“I had explored much of Delhi on cycle (I’m Dutch, so I’m always cycling), which is particularly useful in the old city: It allows you to get into alleyways, it allows you to get lost,” he says. What it also did was allow Leenaars to truly discover the city, and to establish a relationship with it different from the one he’d had earlier.
“I’ve had so many relationships with Delhi. When I first came here, I hated it,” he says. “Over time, I’ve found Delhi to be like a hidden treasure: You have to go out and find it. Despite the climate, the aggression, once you’ve discovered it, instead of pulling energy out of you, it feeds you,” he says.
So, in January last year, he gave up a secure job at De Telegraaf for the unpredictable role of an entrepreneur. “I had to give up on that journalist visa for a business visa, which meant I could never write an article as long as I was here, but then, I hadn’t come to India for a secure life. I decided to jump into the deep,” he says.
The adventure officially took off in January 2010, as soon as he got his business visa. All the preparations had been made—the website, www.delhibycycle.com, was up and running and he had three gleaming bikes, all the capital he needed.
A year on, Leenaars has gone from three to 50 bikes (all the profits just go into buying more bikes) and runs four tours through the city. “In terms of the concept, there hasn’t been much to change—people simply love it,” he says. What he needs to work on constantly is the route.
The routes aren’t randomly put-together medleys of Delhi’s hot spots, they’re painstakingly crafted narratives that tell the story of Delhi. Or at least portions of its story.
The first is the Shah Jahan Tour, from the languid old city of Shahjahanabad to imperious Civil Lines. “It starts with the time of Shahjahan and goes through the different periods of history like the British period and then ends up at Karim’s for breakfast, which is Delhi in 2011,” he says. The second is the Yamuna Tour from Old Delhi along the Yamuna bank and Nigambodh Ghat. Part of the journey is on the river; the bikers, and bikes, travel on boats.
The next is the Raj Tour—which traces the Imperial heart of the city, from Paharganj through Connaught Place and Rashtrapati Bhavan. Incidentally, this tour is most popular among Indian tourists. The Nizamuddin Tour goes from the medieval world of Humayun’s Tomb to Lodhi Garden and then towards the urban village of Kotla Mubarakpur. “We finish off with a meal. The Old Delhi tours end up at Karim’s for breakfast; the Raj Tour at Bengali Market, and the Nizamuddin one at a park for a picnic,” he says. Tours start at Rs 1,350 per person.
“I really haven’t thought about it. Perhaps I’ll go back to writing, not as a journalist, but poetry, novels, etc.”
“I’m an explorer in 2011 Delhi. I’m exploring a megacity still unknown to people,” he says. “The combination of a foreigner and journalist doing this shows my commitment and adds a fresh perspective. I am constantly searching—and wanting to tell—a new story,” he says. “I never take the main road. The alternative route is always far more inspiring.”