Published: April 20th 2009February 15th 2009
Leaving Bandhavgar showed us how remote the park was. We opted to drive to Kati Junction and take the train to Delhi. After changing our tickets using Indian Railways electronic ticketing system, we embarked on what we were told would be a one and a half hour ride. This turned out to be a two and half hour drive over some very bouncy, badly maintained roads. Having budgeted two hours for the journey, we had to harangue our poor driver into making the train time. With only a few minutes to spare, we arrived at a filth pit of a level crossing to find our way blocked. We waited helplessly for twenty minutes until a colossal freight train had chugged by. We were still in the game it would seem. We sped up to the station and went through the police security to check. Humping my backpack and our goodies bag, I breathlessly found the “deputy assistant chief station master in charge at that moment” (my term) and asked what the eta of the Mahakaushal Express was.
“One and a half hours late” He said authoritatively.
“But it’s only one and a half hours to Jabalpur, where it originated?” I asked
incredulously. The deputy assistant station master looked at me sideways, smiled and said:
“some such problem is there” And then looked at the ceiling the platform.
In Indian Transport Speak this can mean anything from the driver having indigestion to a major derailment. I took the hint and changed tack.
“Ok. No problem, is there a canteen here?”
“Canteen is there” He nodded his head from side to side”
“Might I ask where there is?”
“Yes, meals are available after the red sign. It is very good canteen”
I looked at where he was pointing and identified the red sign. Hauling our bags we dropped them at a table and ordered two vegetarian thalis. They came in at Rs 22 each. About 48 US cents. After ten years, this was still a bargain. The delay gave us the chance to explore Katni Railway station and to observe the great Indian travelling public. This would be our last long haul Indian railways journey and by now, we had got most of the act off pat. We knew where to go, when to go, what to carry and more importantly what not to take. The lower middle class poor sat on the
platform floor waiting patiently. A train would pull in, and some would get on, the train would leave and the rest would sit on the platform. When some people got on, more would appear and take their place. At no time did the platform come close to being cleared. Every now and then the upper middle class would descend from a train. Short fat bellied men in check shirts, followed by a plethora of elegant youngish ladies in shalvar khameez would step down from the A/C carriages; shout at an elderly porter to carry all of their bags and then march off down the platform with their prestigious bellies preceding the parade. It was all a bit comical.
The Mahakaushal was even later than we thought, but it did arrive and we boarded and fell asleep. I woke up, clickety clacking over the brown earth of India. I now realised what the conservationists meant when they talked of Indian’s barren nature. All of this used to be forest and was now earth. The Hindu Madrasi conservationist travelling with us explained:
“This is all due to cows”
While it was pretty it was a little depressing, and so I
returned to reading my Nelson De Mille Novel. I had seen enough of North India in my life to not have to hang out of the door to take photos. At 1000hrs, the Mahakausahal pulled into Agra Cantonment, and we broke our plans and journey to disembark. A phone call had booked the travellers rest house and they in turn had sent a rickshaw wallah to collect us, but perhaps more importantly to keep us away from the touts waiting to wilfully misdirect us to another less salubrious establishment.
Agra was a funny place for me. When I last came here ten years ago, it had been with an Israeli Yoga Instructor, who had insisted on seeing the Taj Mahal. It had been closed and that was that. I trained it up to Delhi and flew off to Africa to start a diving centre. This time, we had done our research and, after a wash up, used our inbound rickshaw wallah to take us to the Taj. Agra was a distinct change to the rural farms of Madhya Pradesh. Everything was written in Urdu and Hindi and English. Tourists abounded, with signs advertising CD burning, Israeli food and internet.
Our driver told us that at least forty percent of Agra was muslim. He parked up and told us where to enter the Taj complex. Strangely enough, this meant walking down a filthy narrow alley and past a well defended CRPF outpost. Five constables sat behind a mountain of sandbags on a narrow bench with FN rifles between their legs. It was an effective deterrent; the old 7.62 NATO bullets would surely cut a swathe of death in that small alley. Being a tourist, they smiled at me and I went down for the final security and ticket check at the gate.
We entered through an arch into a pretty courtyard full of tourists, then we walked further on to another more impressive arch, and then popped out to see the classic view of the Taj Mahal that every picture book in the world sports. In spite of the pressing masses of Indians, Arabs, Turks and Australians, the sight was somewhat awe inspiring. I pushed some Pole off me and managed to take a good photograph, before some Indian did the same to me. We moved right and advanced up one of the long quiet green lawns. As we
came closer the Taj became more beautiful. Shah Jahan’s architect had known what he was doing. From every angle, from every side, from every elevation, the Taj was something else. To the right and left were two red stone mosque buildings that were fit to be monuments in their own right. The Taj was one of the few Islamic monuments in India where there was no state sponsored intrusion of the hindu faith. There were no ashrams, no adverts for hindu temples, and the entire complex was run by a troop of whistle toting muslim guards.
Midday came along, and the Imam called upon the faithful to pray. We all wandered in and I found myself sandwiched between a bunch of Turks and Indians. Just as I cleaned my mind up for prayer, it occurred to me that this was the story of my life, sandwiched between Turks and Indians.
At last, we had seen enough, we now had to find an Indian Airlines office to get a print out of our e tickets. This involved taking our auto to some hotel, not finding the office, taking the auto to the airport, and being refused entry by an
idiot of an Indian Air force Corporal. He was so lacking in self confidence that he would not tell us, we could not enter the airport to buy a ticket, he told the driver and walked away in an embarrassed fashion. At this stage, we had a booking, but no piece of paper. And India like china require passengers to have printed off a paper copy of the electronic ticket/ The whole process is ludicrous and has the passenger holding more pieces of a4 paper than he ever did with a normal ticket. I suppose that this merely passes on the cost of printing to the passenger.
The frustration of not being able to find anyone who could answer our questions was complete, and so we went to Agra fort at sunset to see the Taj in the sunset. The next morning, we had our final train journey at 0500 and so slept early.
The intercity express was a standard Indian train. Filthy in second class, reasonable in air conditioned class. Thankfully Agra station was quiet at 0445 hrs. A railway officer had my berth so I sat and drank sweet tea and waited for the express to
pull out. It did so almost on time, and only took four and a half hours to reach Delhi. A mere half hour late, which in North India was positively early. The approach to Delhi reminded me of the approach to Peking. Flat plains, with concrete settlements and thousands of high tension wires. The smog of the big city seemed to reach down south into the country side. Farmers were fewer and the concrete built slowly and steadily up. Finally, we pulled into the South Delhi Railway Station called Hazrat Nizamuddin. This station served the predominantly muslim area that shared the name. We stayed on board and the train continued through Delhi, to New Delhi railway station. Here we disembarked, wandered past the crowds and stood in line for the pre paid rickshaws. All of the taxis were only interested in airport runs. The word “pre paid” had been scratched out, and the Delhi traffic police constables were clearly complicit in the scams that were going on at the station. Again, we squeezed into an auto and made our way to Karol Bagh and the hotel Rahul palace. (Rs2300 very pleasant).
Our next day involved finding photographers and Indian Airlines offices. The electronic revolution meant that Indian Airlines was now air India and had closed all of their offices. You had to buy a ticket from a travel agent or on the web. And if you had bought a ticket on the web, you could not print it in an office, you had to get a copy of the ticket online and print it. This procedure was not laborious, but rather secret.
We slept early that night in anticipation of our early start the next day.