Agra and the Taj, August 29
The 12-hour overnight train from Varanasi seemed to fly by, largely because of the interesting conversations that we had with three Indian men from Agra. One of the men approached Cameron shortly after departure to say hello and ask where we are from (A question commonly asked by Indians to foreigners before even saying Hello). He was obviously keen to chat with us as he came back three times before relocating his belongings to our cabin and making it his new spot.
His colleagues followed shortly after, they were returning from a short business trip to Varanasi. We swapped stories and curiously asked each other questions about our countries and backgrounds. The conversations spanned from local politics, our relationships with our national neighbours (Pakistan and the US), Indian history and geography, the global economic crisis, language pronunciations, "what not to do in India" and why Cameron has so many freckles?
Although our traveler's skepticism had us originally questioning their intent, the discussion turned out to be quite an enjoyable and informative experience (although they did tell us not to trust everyone that approaches us to chat because they could have a hidden agenda - how ironic?). We began to understand why so many travelers speak highly of Indians and their friendliness towards foreigners.
What can we say about Agra? Obviously it is home to the world famous Taj Mahal, a tourism icon that is arguably the most magnificent mausoleum ever built. Other than that, Agra is pretty much a dilapidated, overcrowded, dirty industrial city with very little to offer the common traveler. We stayed in the Taj Ganj district, a touristy section of the city with many guesthouses and fantastic rooftop restaurants that cater to all palates. We actually really enjoyed Taj Ganj and chose to spend an extra night because we couldn't get enough of the awesome views of the Taj and the enormous red sandstone South Gate.
Aside from the Taj and Agra Fort, the rooftop restaurants were a highlight of our stay in Agra. We spent our breakfasts and dinners gazing at the World Heritage Site as the daylight and sunsets changed its color and backdrop continually. It never got tiring. Though our stomachs have been very sensitive to the food in India, so our food intake was limited (we can't seem to shake the 'Delhi-belly'!).
It was a truly brilliant moment the first time we saw the picturesque monument. We reached the top of the stairs at our hotel, turned the corner and there it was in all its glory… we had to rub our eyes to see if it was real! The setting was magical… we actually felt like we were in an Aladdin cartoon, the only thing missing was the magic carpet! Clusters of black birds flew around the giant white bulb, while echoing Muslim prayer calls were blasting from mosques and vibrating throughout the city… it all seemed like a fairytale.
Like the boat trip down the Ganges, there was debate over a sunrise or sunset viewing of the Taj. Both had their pros and cons. We decided to get up early and do the sunrise option, learning from our experience on the Ganges (photo opportunities get worse as the sun sets, but better as the sun rises). It was a wise decision. The views were spectacular and the crowds were limited. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru, the Taj Mahal lived up to its hype! Its reputation as one of mankind's greatest achievements is warranted, it truly is an architectural masterpiece.
Interesting story - the Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his deceased wife. She had died giving birth to their 14th child. He was so grief stricken and heartbroken that he built the Taj as a lavish tomb for her. It is described as 'the most extravagant monument ever built for love' and many people in the empire were not happy about the Emperor's excessive development. Construction started in 1631 and it took over 20,000 people over twenty years to complete the exquisite work of art. Not long after completion, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son who imprisoned him in Agra Fort until his death. Ironically Shah Jahan was only able to view the decadent mausoleum from a distance. He was later buried in the Taj beside his late wife Mumtaz Mahal.
By noon we had finished touring both the Taj Mahal and its impressive neighbour, Agra Fort. We spent the remainder of our time in Agra on the rooftops of several hotels, watching the hundreds of monkeys get into trouble and gracefully jump from building to building narrowly avoiding the slingshots of annoyed residents. As I sit here in Udaipur on yet another captivating rooftop reflecting on our travels through India, I think it is these rooftop moments that will be the most memorable. The views are highly addictive!
What more can we say about Agra? Camels roam the streets and are a common mode of commercial transportation. The city is polluted and garbage is piled anywhere it will fit. Cows rule the road and love a good piece of plastic to munch on. Beer is expensive (relatively speaking) and hard to find… drinking is not as popular in these parts of the world. There are a lot of rickshaw and tour guide peddlers because it is a major tourist destination (although not nearly as many as we had expected). Similar to Kathmandu, power outages are very common and very annoying. One evening, a power box actually exploded in a giant ball of sparks about one hundred meters away from us. The explosion lit up the night sky and the bang was so loud that it sounded like a bomb went off… Cameron literally fell off his chair!
Although we seriously considered the city of Fatehpur Sikri, our next destination was Jaipur, the third member of the tourist triangle along with Delhi and Agra. However, when we passed Fatehpur Sikri on the bus we kicked ourselves because it looked absolutely incredible (there should be a picture in one of the photo albums). We had two good train experiences under our belt and figured we should continue the trend, but the train schedules were ridiculous.
That would probably be our biggest disappointment with the Indian train system. Most trains leave very late at night or early in the morning (some even departing at 3:00am?!) and arrive early in the morning (typically 4:00-6:00am). The schedules are quite annoying and leave a weary tourist at the mercy of ambitious auto-rickshaw drivers… what else is one supposed to do at 5:00am in a new foreign city?
The trip to Jaipur is only about six hours so we decided on a tourist bus instead, hoping they would be in a better state than the Nepal tourist buses… they were. So with that, we said goodbye to the marvelous Taj and boarded our bus to the 'pink city' of Jaipur.
August 29, 2009