We left Jodhpur bound for Delhi. Delhi is our Indian Bangkok and we have to go in and out a few times. I'm therefore going to make that my last blog of the trip and wrap it all up in one.
As with each stage of this trip we had listed the big sights we wanted to see. In India of course the Taj Mahal in Agra was on the list. It was to be the last big sight of the entire trip so expectations were high. We had seen the 'Mini Taj' at the start of the India leg in Aurangabad. We wondered how it would compare.
We had planned to go to Agra a few days earlier but realised we would arrive on Friday when the Taj is closed and the following day was Republic day so likely to be closed or over run. With this in mind we went a few days later. As it was there was an economic forum being hosted there so it was crawling with Army and Police.
We took a train to Agra and had a seat in AC2 tier. This is a compartment with four beds that fold up into seats during the day. One of our travelling companions was a young Sikh lad. He lived in Agra and had a business there. We had a chat about the Indian work ethic. He said Indians didn't mind working hard but they expected to get big results and rewards very quickly. As he said, life ain't like that. He asked us why we were going to Agra. 'To see the Taj' we said. 'Of course' he replied 'After all there's nothing else there'. That isn't strictly true as there are some other sights.
As usual nothing is at is seems in India. We arrived at Agra and went outside to find our promised 'free pick up'. Yeah right. So after a while we took a rickshaw to the hotel. It was one half of a pair of hotels on opposite sides of a road. We were in the new part. The walk to the front door was pretty awful. A dirt track with a rubbish filled ditch alongside. Don't judge the book by the cover we thought. Inside it was very clean. The room was large with a comfy bed and a good hot shower so all was well, or maybe not.
It soon became clear that the description of the hotel on the web site was a cut and paste of the other hotel. So, the roof top restaurant and the tea/coffee maker in the room did not exist here but were over the road. One of the many things that annoys me about Indians is there automatic denial reflex (that's lying to you and me). If you say their wifi isn't working they just say 'Yes it is'. As if I've made it up. Eventually they concede and fix it. The owner was a nice chap so Jill pointed out the errors on the description. He just denied it so we offered to show him. He declined but we knew he knew.
It was getting dark when we arrived so we had some dinner. It was republic day in India and it had been declared a 'dry day' so no alcohol. We sat down in the restaurant in the sister hotel. You know, the one that was meant to be in ours. 'What would you like to drink' asked the waiter. 'Beer' I said 'But it's a dry day'. 'I bring you special masala tea in a mug it tastes just like beer' he said with a smile and a wink. So we tucked into a curry and flouted the law drinking beer from a tea mug. Result.
Next morning we got up early to be at the Taj for the 6.45am opening. I always think back to Sandy the lady we met at Mumbai rail station in our first few days. Her words have come back again and again 'Of course it's chaotic. They are Indians they can't f****** organise anything'. And so it is with the Taj Mahal.
First you queue to buy your ticket. There's a separate queue for foreigners. It's not as a courtesy it's just that you are about to be charged 750 rupees and the locals pay 20. They don't want you getting bored in a long queue and changing your mind. Money, money, money. Having bought the ticket we then joined the 'high value ticket' queue to get in. As the gates opened they then started to build barriers to separate the ever growing lines of foreigners and locals. This took another ten minutes. At the head of the queue was an elderly guy. In his hand he had a paper punch and a date stamp. Yep, this one guy was going to individually check, punch and stamp everyone's tickets. Another ten minutes passed. Once past him it was into the security check queue. I know this is necessary but it is still comical. The first guy had to throw all his cigarettes away. It's not permitted to take them in. Are they worried you may burn down a marble building with a rogue Dunhill or more likely it keeps the guards in fags forever? The next guy had to hand over his sweets 'but I'm diabetic' he protested. They were having none of it. In the end he ate them all and said 'If I die from too much sugar I'll sue you'. Of course he wouldn't be able to, being dead and all that but I understood his point. Next it was me. Through the metal scanner then a body search. Pat me down by all means but do you really need to grope my arse. 'Have you got a tripod' he asked. 'Nah that's just my dick' I replied. Well, where the hell could I conceal a tripod? He had just sexually assaulted me everywhere he could. He didn't laugh but waved me through.
We walked hurriedly towards the Taj. Dawn was still breaking and when we got our first view no one else was there. We were able to get some good people free shots. I have to say it's one of those places that you have seen so many times in photos you have a feeling of Déjà Vu. Having said that it is an impressive building. Made of marble it looks very clean and reflects the light. It also has near perfect symmetry which I like. Because the river sits behind, it has an obstruction free backdrop. So it sits with only the changing sky behind it. We did the tourist shots before walking up the path to look around the outside. I had a chat with a guard and he let us through a gate to get to the far side for some shots as the sun rose.
I guess most of you know it was built in 1631 by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. I expect she was glad of the rest. The main building took eight years but the whole complex was not finished until 1653. Shortly after that Shah Jehan was overthrown by his son and locked in Agra fort. They are big on family in India. At least he could see the Taj from his room and when he died in 1666 he was buried there.
Inside the building it is quite small compared to the outside. It's beauty is definately from the outside. We spent an hour or so wandering around. As the morning moved on the crowds increased. Tour groups start to arrive.
The longest lasting memory of India will always be the ever present rubbish. I don't know why they do it. Is it education or just a couldn't care attitude? This is one of their biggest draws. An iconic symbol of India. There are rubbish bins everywhere and alongside them rubbish. We stood incredulous as three girls walked across to an empty rubbish bin, removed their paper shoe covers and threw them onto the grass with all the other litter. She looked at me saw the look on my face then threw her empty plastic bottle there too. No one seems to care.
We left the Taj and searched out some breakfast. Tea and toast in a dirty little cafe. It did what it was intended to. We made our way through the back streets to our hotel to fire off an email to our managing agents to tell them to get their arse in gear.
Next stop was Agra fort. This is actually quite an interesting place. It's very big and you also get some good views across the river to the Taj. It was a lovely day and not too hot. We decided to walk back to our hotel on a route from Lonely Planet. This takes you through a park, then past a temple and a cremation ghatt. Or it would any other day. Today was Sunday and clearly something big was going on in the park. The narrow road soon snarled up with tuk tuks and motor bikes and jeeps. It was gridlock squared, total chaos. We slowly picked our way through the stationary vehicles. At one point I had to climb on a wall then step across the roof of a tuk tuk to make progress. We eventually found a hole in a fence and escaped back to the main road.
One of the annoyances of Agra are the rickshaw drivers and shop keepers constantly badgering you. I've now got to the stage where I just blank them. Some are unbelievably persistent. We had walked about 3 kms to another area of the city to find the main post office to send postcards. Once again the streets snarled with horn honking traffic and we did another assault course to get out. As walked back along the main road an old boy pedalling a cycle rickshaw touted us. We said 'No thanks' and kept walking. He cycled alongside us for about 20 minutes shouting 'Very cheap 20 rupees' constantly, interspersed with a maniacal laugh. Soon he was joined by a second one. They eventually got the message and gave up.
We had covered our bases for the return to Delhi by booking seats on two trains. One was a first class sleeper at 7.30am and the other an AC 2 tier at 10.30am. Both were 'waitlisted' so not guaranteed. Eventually they were both confirmed the evening before. Decision time. Do we get up early and have a posh carriage to ourselves or stay in bed, have breakfast and share a carriage? We went for the early start. The day before it had struck us that when we go to Goa there will be no kettle in the beach hut. So we went in search of one. Not an easy task and after trying many shops we bumped into a nice young chap who spoke good English. He took us to a store and asked about a kettle. Twenty minutes later and much searching in dusty cupboards we were the proud owners of a small electric kettle. It performed its task well at 6am and we set off with a hot drink inside us.
The train station was quite quiet. A last minute platform change didn't please us but we were soon in our private compartment where I am writing this blog. Now I've finished I'm going to plug in our kettle and attempt to make a cuppa. See you later.