Published: April 14th 2008February 4th 2008
a quiet corner
everyone needs somewhere quiet to do their knitting
India is a vast country, and if visiting for a month, you can barely scratch the surface. But the size of India is not immediately apparent. It' s only when you come to travel across it that you realise how massive it is. We had to get from Varanasi to Agra, and looking on a map it seems like a small distance. But was a twelve-hour train ride. So far in India, any form of transport seemed to be chaotic and somewhat dangerous. Bus drivers are the worst. Apparently some companies give schedules and deadlines, and if the drivers fall behind schedule, they can be fined. This leads to manic driving, risky overtaking and high blood pressure for the passengers. So I was interested to see what the trains of India compared. Especially an overnight train!
They sold food on the train, but we were advised to avoid it like the plague. The last thing you want is a dodgy stomach on a twelve-hour train ride. Our hotel had arranged to make us a packed lunch of our choice. (I say it a "packed lunch", but technically that's incorrect since we'd be eating it at night. But somehow "packed dinner"
cattle on the track
trains are often late in India
doesn't sound right). Hmmmm, what to have?.... The choice was obvious. Curry! I reached that decision quicker than you can say "Chicken Tikka Masala". So I was given a several polystyrene containers containing a chicken dhansak, rice and nan bread.
We arrived at the train station to see a cow on the tracks. It was calmly walking along, minding it's own business, blissfully unaware that it could become mincemeat at any moment. Although realistically, the train would probably screetch to a halt, throwing passengers around, so as not to kill their sacred animal. Our train actually arrived on time, which was a big surprise, and gave me hope for the coming journey. As the train came into the platform, some people were running alongside and jumping onto the side, then climbing through the open doors. Presumably to get the best seats in the unreserved section. We weren't in the unreserved. In fact, we were in the equivalent of First Class. This didn't mean much though, it just meant we actually got a seat!
Inside the train, our carriage was split into open sections which each had two benches to sit on. Above each bench were two more benches
train of thought
Our overnight train was the human equivalent of battery hens.
strapped to the wall. Later in the evening, these would fold down, making a bed system which is three levels high. But it was still early evening, so we were all sitting on the lower benches playing cards. A short while later it was time for food. We all ate our dinner huddled together on our benches. I got out my various containers of curry, rice and nan and thought "how the heck and I going to eat this?" No table, no convenient places to put any of the containers, no chance. I somehow balanced all the containers on my knee, and delved into each in turn with my plastic fork. Needless to say, I spilt curry all down my T-shirt, all over my jeans, over the seats, over the floor and all down my chin. A disgraceful display of curry etiquette. It was at times like this that I really needed England's greatest invention, the Sandwich. A truly versatile food, which pervades every part of English society. Convenient, highly portable and delicious. Whilst the crumbs can be a minor issue, it's an ideal and clean solution to mobile eating.
For those of you who REALLY love your sandwiches,
looks a bit like Battersea Powerstation. But much more stunning
did you know that there is a "British Sandwich Association"? They have a number of aims, including "safeguarding the integrity of the sandwich industry" and "promoting excellence and innovation in sandwich making". I thought this organisation was a joke at first, but it's real. I might actually join when I get home, so that I can get my free copy of their magazine, entitled "Sandwich and Snack News". Who knows what new innovations in sandwich technology have emerged while I've been away? Sadly, I won't be home in time for the International Sandwich Convention 2008, but there's always next year (While on the topic of sandwiches, one of my all-time favourite sandwiches is from Marks & Spencer. Crumbly Wensleydale Cheese with Spicy Carrot Chutney. Simple divine!)
At bedtime, we lowered the other benches from the wall and all climbed into our bunks. We'd been provided with sheets and blankets, so it was fairly civilised. The bunks were quite narrow, but there was a chain in place to stop you falling off. On the whole, I slept rather well, despite a shock in the middle of the night. The lights had been dimmed, and I awoke to find a man
There are no lines on the roads. There are no markings on the roads. There are no traffic lights. All we have is a ****load of traffic on the street
with a machine-gun looking down at me. He was one of the train guards, but it was still a shock to be looking down the barrel of a gun at 3am.
We arrived into Agra late, at 11am instead of 8am. I had nan bread and cold curry for breakfast, and it was delicious. After checking into our hotel, myself, Jessie and Natasha headed off for some serious sightseeing. We bargained hard with a Tuk-Tuk driver, and hired him for the day. We'd been telling all the Tuk-Tuk drivers that Jessie and Tash were my two wives, and none of them even batted an eyelid.
Agra is the home of the famous Taj Mahal and numerous other architectural acheivements. Our first stop was Akbar's Mausoleum, the final resting place of India's greatest ruler. Emperor Akbar ruled India in the 16th century, and came to power at the young age of 13. By the time he was 26, he had 3,000 wives and 5,000 concubines. How on earth did he keep up with them all? I don't even KNOW 5000 women, never mind having them as concubines. His tomb which we visited was actually designed and built by himself.
the local butcher
best meat in Agra
That is forward planning, but surely not a normal thing to do. Should I be picking out my own coffin? (I cant quite decide between mahogany and teak). The gateway to his tomb is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The workmanship and intricate design is amazing. Look at the photos and judge for yourself.
Our next stop was the Agra Fort, but we were extremely late. We also had to reach the Taj Mahal today before sunset and were running out of time. We told our Tuk-Tuk driver that we were late, and he took us on a very interesting shortcut through the city. On our initial journey he had taken all the major roads. But now he drove at breakneck speeds through back lanes, tiny roads and obscure suburbs. We were weaving in and out of other Tuk-Tuks, missing pedestrians by mere inches and scattering a multitude of livestock such as chickens and pigs. And of course there were the usual holy cows milling around in the road, grazing on rubbish and getting in the way. At several points we mounted the pavement and went down small alleys into another backroad. We even
me and my two wives
Introducing Natasha and Jessie. Some might say that two wives is greedy. I say it's just the right number. I will never be without a clean shirt again
went through a dodgy industrial estate with rusting trucks everywhere and people welding halves of cars back together. It was a scary ride, but we saw another side of the city that tourists wouldn't normally see. The residential suburbs were epsecially interesting. The local butchers was simply a wooden platform on the street, covered in bloody chunks of meats. The barbers was on the street also, and consisted of a crude desk with a mirror on, and a wooden chair for the customer. I saw one of them wielding shaving foam and a cut-throat razor. Not sure if I would trust them for a haircut or shave.
I have had some interesting hairdressing experiences so far. There was the hairdresser in Ecuador who locked the door, pounced on me and started kissing me. There was another hairdresser in Peru who gave me her business card and asked me to call her (I didn't. I was fairly sure "she" was a transsexual). And recently in Nepal, a male hairdresser gave me the best hairdressing experience of my life. It was down a dark alley in Kathmandu, and I went in for a basic haircut. While I was waiting, and noticed
Mum's the word
A school trip to Akbar's Mausoleum
him giving another guy a wet shave. I have never had one of these, so I thought I'd give it a try. When it was my turn, the guy lathered up my face and then got out the cut-throat razor! As the blade moved towards my neck, I was gripping the seat with white-knuckles. But the guy was a professional, and shaved me confidently but carefully, with the elegance of an artist. And the experience didn't stop there. He put a pillow on the sink in front, which I put my head on. He then proceeded to give me a full head and shoulder massage, kneading and pummelling me quite hard, But it felt fantastic! Haircut, shave and massage, all for the price of a beer. Now that's what I call service!
Anyway, back to India.... Our industrious Tuk-Tuk driver got us to Agra Fort in one piece. We wandered around its impressive grounds, and then headed to the main event. The TAJ MAHAL. Everyone has heard of the Taj Mahal, and everyone has seen photos of it. But when you actually see it with your own eyes, it takes your breath away. The magnificence of it. The sheer
this man picked up a bag of rice instead of his suitcase
beauty. The craftsmanship. I have never been so blown away by a man-made object in my life. This was truly one of the highlights of India so far.
The tale of the Taj is a tragic love story. The Taj is a symbol of one man's devotion and love to a woman. Emperor Shaj Jahan built it as a memorial to his second wife, who died in childbirth in 1631. He was so heartbroken that apparently his hair turned grey overnight. Made entirely from marble, the Taj Mahal took twenty-two years to build and used a workforce of 20,000 men. The estimated cost of construction was £140 million pounds! This was a prime example of the opulence of India during what I would call it's "Golden Age". Agra is full of majestic buildings, temples and tombs which were built in the 16th century. This was a time when emperors paraded their wealth through the streets, using elephants carrying vast amounts of jewellery and gold. This was an age of decadence and luxury, where even suicide was carried out in an opulent manner (someone captured by the emperor committed suicide by swallowing ground diamonds. But as you know, India is
Some people say "it's not big and it's not clever". This is very big and VERY clever
well known for its poverty as well as it's wealth of years gone by. But more on that subject in my next entry
There are more photos below