My Beautiful Mausoleum
Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
63Trip End Apr 14, 2006
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Where I stayed
Hotel Sheela, Agra
Hotel Ajay Palace, Fatephur Sikri
Safely installed in my home for the next 22 hours I watched with interest as I realised I would be sleeping in the same carraige as 5 other men
I didn't travel first class (44 pounds for a 22 hour journey) but chose the next ticket down which was a bargain at half the price. However, for comparison, a standard sleeper ticket is a mere 5 quid.
The train journey actually went surprisingly fast, although I couldn't look out of the window as I had hoped because of condensation. However I did get chatting with an indian man who read my palm and gave me an interesting insight into his hopes for and thoughts about his country.
I finally arrived in Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) where I met my friend Mandy, who has already been travelling in India for 2 months. It was great to see her and after 2 minutes it felt like we'd never been apart. It was also great to be with someone who is India savvy and I spent the first few days following meekly behind, letting her do all the talking and asking her if I was getting overcharged.
Agra is very touristy, as you would expect the home to India's most famous landmark to be, but the city that surrounds the Taj is about as far removed from the beautiful building as you can imagine. The place is sprawling and industrial, apart from the tiny old streets that surround the Taj itself. There are much fewer cars here than in Mumbai but this is more than compensated for by hand pulled carts, horse drawn carriages, auto-rickshaws, cycle rikshaws, motocycles, bikes, ox and water buffalo carts and even lofty camels pulling huge loads, all missing each other by inches in the narrow lanes.
Agra's budget guest houses have a nasty reputation for deliberately adding bacteria to food so guests are ill and have to stay longer. The touts and rickshaw-wallahs (taxi tricycle drivers) are known for not taking no for an answer. However, like many things with a poor reputation the reality is not as bad. The hotel didn't try to poison us as far as we know, and the rickshaw drivers we just ignored. One driver/rider we spent most of the day with was an great old character. He went on and on about how the tourist he had taken the day before paid twice as much as we did. He then made us get out and walk up any inclines! At the end of the day he explained he wanted to stop at a souvenir shop where he got commission just for taking us (this is a common scam and the prices are raised at the shop accordingly)
Agra was the old capital of India, before the British arrived, so has lots of historic buildings to visit. Our hotel was right outside the Taj, but we didn't see the famous domes until we went to Agra Fort and looked back down the river at them. Here we hired a guide which was a mistake. We couldn't understand most of what he was saying and were reduced to nodding enthusiastically so that he would finish and let us explore on our own. We then visited a tomb known as the 'baby taj' which is meant to be more exquisite than the Taj Mahal in some respects. There were lots of cute squirrels running around the grounds.
Our last stop of the day was the river bank opposite the Taj Mahal at sunset - or the 'backside' as they call it. It's not quite as romantic as you would think. The area is sand which changes into oozing mud and finally brown water with rubbish floating along. The children are pretty insistent with repeated chants of 'hello biscuit' and 'hello photo'. They finally got bored of us though and we were able to watch the Taj's domes reflected in the river and glowing slightly pink as the sun dropped behind the haze hanging over the city
We travelled 40km to Fatehpur Sikri - a ruined fortified city that was built by a Mughal Emporer. The present day village is the most rural place I've been so far in India and had loads of animals milling around - pigs, piglets, dogs, puppies, goats, horses, cows, monkeys and squirrels. We even saw a dog drinking from a cow's udder!
The old city itself is full of intricately carved red sandstone palaces, temples, courtyards, wells and houses, and is far more impressive than the more visited Agra Fort. On another sunset viewing mission we walked outside of the walls and past other ruined buildings. I got my first glimpse of Indian countryside which looked very soft, green and even English in the evening light. The area is meant to be atmospheric at sunset, but not if you have a gang of excitable kids following you. Mandy was a star and distracted them with her wit and funny faces so I could take some photos that didn't look like I was in a primary school.
The following day, Mandy was ill so I stayed in our hotel room with her and we did lots of catching up and looking out of the window at the bustling street scene. Our hotel was in a really noisy spot - next to the bus station and above the village bazaar, on a crossroads. It was a predominantly muslim village and the amplified prayer calling stopped at 10.30pm and started at 4.30am!
I complained to mandy about the incessant use of horns, and she explained that it is actually a communication system between the drivers
Walking through the bazaar there were lots of tiny stalls selling fruit, paan (a substance containing beetlenuts that is chewed), piles of brightly coloured powder, spices, rose petals, freshly baked biscuits, food sizzling in huge pans, ceramic pots and other exotic looking things. What wasn't quite so exotic was the open sewer flanking the street which we also had to step over to get into our hotel! Walking through the market, every stall holder shouts out 'yes madam', 'look here madam', 'looking is free', 'just look', 'do you like oranges madam', 'which country are you from', or 'how are you'. It gets quite exhausting and I feel rude ignoring them, but it becomes necessary to make any progress along the street.
We took a local bus back to Agra and it was full apart from a couple of seats in the back row. It seemed like all the seats in the bus had been moved up slightly to fit in another row
Back in Agra, we had our last chance to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise (the weather hadn't been good enough previously). Arriving just after the sun rose a red glowing ball, it was a misty morning and the Taj looked quite eerie in a white shroud. The advantage of going so early is that you get there before the crowds and when the classic reflection of the building in the ornamental water channel is perfectly unrippled. The Taj Mahal was built by a Moghul emporer as a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth (it was her 14th child!). Some of the craftsmen who laboured for years to make the exquisite designs of inlaid semi-precious stones in the marble, had their thumbs removed as a thank you once it was complete. This was to ensure the perfection of the Taj could never be repeated. nice.
We made our way towards the central domed building and filed around the cenotaphs of Mumtaz (and the emporer, who was added later by her side and is the ironically the object that spoils the symmetry of the entire building) with mainly Indian tourists. It was hard to believe I was actually in the place that epitomises India to so many people. When we got outside it started to rain and we sheltered in one of the huge archways that are built into the sides of the building. It was cold and our toes were particularly chilly as we'd had to leave our shoes at the entrance. Mandy commented it was a bit like Skegness.
The rain stopped after a while and although the sun never came out properly it warmed up and we spent 4 hours in the grounds wandering around, sketching, looking at the museum and reading the information plaques (well, I read them and told mandy the interesting bits)
At indian tourist attractions there are 2 different prices charged - one for Indians and one for foreigners. The foreigners price is 10 or 15 times the local fee, more at the Taj Mahal. I completely support this difference in charges, but the problem is that shops and market stalls also adopt the same system unofficially. You never know what the price of something should be and it leaves you very much at their mercy.
I've been pleasantly surprised that India on the whole is not as edgy as South America. I don't feel like I'm going to be muggged or pickpocketed all the time. They just stare a lot and can be very persistent and in your face - that's better than in your bag though!
Emerging from the Taj Mahal, we saw that all the rickshaw wallahs had splashes of bright colours on their clothes - the Holi festival was coming and we had to try to get to our next destination unscathed!