Published: August 25th 2011July 13th 2011
Jaipur to Agra
After a couple of days of exploring Jaipur, the time has come to catch the train to Agra and the Taj Mahal! Everyone says the Taj is the most beautiful of all Indian monuments, our guide book says 'nobody comes away disspointed from the Taj Mahal'. So I'm pretty pumped! Our train again is pretty uneventful, running in the daytime from Jaipur to Agra. This is our first time in a seated cabin on an Indian train and again its extremely comfortable. Its a huge train car, seating 7 people across in comfortable leather chairs in an A/C car (the class is 2nd class seated, if you're interested).
I've decided to use the guidebook for our next hotel stay because I've heard horror stories about the city of Agra and its lack of good hotels around one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. Some recommend taking a day trip from Delhi, some recommend staying in Agra because the day trips have too short of a stop in Agra, and too long of a drive from Delhi.
Either way, we're in Agra for at least two days, so I call ahead while we're on
The Jaipur>Agra Train
Very large, very comfortable
the train to be picked up by the hotel of my choosing in the book. Its a great perk of being in India that a hotel will send transportation to any point in the city to pick you up. People really want your business! The hotel is an 'affordable' place that gets top marks in our book, as well as Lonely Planet, and according to the maps, its only a few hundred yards from the main gate to the Taj.
The benefit of calling ahead is that a Tuk Tuk driver is waiting for us at the Train station with my name on a sign. No haggling, no hotel viewings, no cousins offering good deals. The scrum is still outside the station (and a couple sneaky guys inside the station trying to make friends). We're whisked to the hotel by our man and checked in to our tiny room in no time flat! The hotel is ok, it truly is only a stone's throw from the main gate, and you can see the Taj from the rooftop restaurant.
Its another one of those out of body experiences standing on the rooftop after sunset with the murkey
looming outline of the Taj Mahal appearing through the humid fog off in the distance. I can't believe I'm actually standing here, looking at this magnificent building, gleaming white, even at night.
The Taj Mahal!
The following morning we're up and on the way to the Taj Mahal! I can't believe it! Agra is a strange place for tourism. The streets surrounding the three main gates are winding and tightly packed. There is only one main road leading away from the Taj, off to the side and on the way to the Red Fort, about 2km away. Otherwise, the city is very congested and there are tons of kitchy tourist junk shops just outside the gate. Once at the gate I expected a large ticket counter and line ups, but there's really just an old man off to one side (it looks like he's got is own store) and Trung and I actually think its a scam at first, two kids lead us to the ticket window and tell us this was where we buy tickets. But where are the people? After a couple minutes of looking around, I figure it must be it? Its a whopping 750
rupees to enter, fully 3 times more than any other tourist attraction we've been to. India has a standard fee structure, 100 rupees for secondary monuments, 250 for world heritage sights and 750 for the Taj Mahal (still, 17CAD to see the Taj Mahal is fine with me!)
The outer courtyard explains why there aren't any people. We entered through the North gate, and the East gate points towards the Red Fort. This is the main gate where the tour groups go from one attraction to the other, and there's a long line to get in. I guess we're lucky to go through the sketchy ticket window gate!
There are TONS of people everywhere, mostly Indian tourists again, but about 20% are foreign tourists. The outer gate, with its red sandstone and white marble inlays is very beautiful. Upon walking through the small archway the full view of the Taj Mahal is breathtaking. Such symmetrial architecture on a grand scale perfectly framed by the gate door is spectacular. The enitre site is completely symmetrical, all of the doors line up on one single axis. You can literally look through the window at the back of the Taj Mahal,
over the sarcophagus of Mrs. Taj Mahal (sorry, can't remember her name) and look down almost a kilometer away through the main gate, out to the courtyard and through the gate we came in and into the twisted city market area.
The only issue is that the photo from the central axis of the perfectly symmetrical Taj is a coveted photo by every one of the thousands of tourists who visit daily. Trung and I join the crowd of people on the small landing just inside the gate to get our photo opportunity. Once there's a small opening we wedge our way in and take a few photos of eachother. Luckily, unlike other places in India where people have no respect for others trying to take photos, people here make a gap so you can take a photo (in other places, people walk in front, which I think is a by-product of nobody owning cameras).
The central aisle has been closed to tourists, so all of our photos turn out just perfect. The walk up the long water channel is stunning. On the marble pedistal that the main mausoleum sits on everyone is either barefoot or wearing shoe
covers. Trung and I don our shoe covers and walk up the stairs to the tall entrance door. The windows into the main tomb are very intricately carved marble screens and cast beautiful shadows on the interior.
The issues I have with the interior of the Taj are again the people. Decades of people touching the marble has left a dirty black smudge at chest height on the inside of the tomb. The interior has been designed to reflect the sounds of priests praying inside, so when we enter, it is extremely loud. Poeple are insisting on yelling and shouting to make echoes, and there is a very annoying security guard at the entrance. Instead of asking people to keep walking to clear the crowd (its a single-file lane through the heart of the tomb past the sarcophagus), he blasts his extremely loud whistle every 10 seconds. If I were to chose a final resting place, as beautiful as the Taj is, if I knew it would turn out this way, I would NEVER choose the inside of this place.
On either side of the Taj are beautiful red standstone buildings. On the West is the Mosque and
the East is the 'answer', a structure simply built to maintain symmetry. Each is as tall as the Taj and very beautifully carved. Its rains a bit while we're there, so I take a chance to just sit inside the Mosque and stare at the Taj. There are so many colours from the inlaid stone carving that it takes a long time just to take it all in. Intricately carved flowers and verses from the Quar'an cover the facade of the Taj. The cursive Islamic scripture is amazingly detailed. I can't believe someone was able to carve this out of marble! The inlaid stones came from all over the middle east and asia and are again, unbelieveable. Not only did the flowers and vines have to be carved out of the marble, but exactly matching peices of stone had to be carved and inserted in the voids in the marble, and each is perfectly flush with the marble and still in place after hundreds of years.
The Red Fort
After we've gotten our 750 rupees worth of Taj Mahal (about 3 hours of sitting and watching)we're on our way to the Red Fort. Its a very large fort
just upstream of the Taj Mahal (they're both located on the banks of a very large river). Its a typical Indian fort, with intricate palaces on the interior and a vast network of buildings and hallways. Parts of the fort are still used by the Indian Army, a testament to the lasting durability of the fort.
The Train Debacle
Our hotel and a tuk tuk driver both told us that our train to Varanasi is at 11:30pm the following day. Our tickets and the SMS confirmation I get the following morning don't have a time, so Trung and I just assume its at 11:30. We booked the tickets back in Jaipur, so neither of us can remember the time. At about 7pm we decide to head to an internet cafe to pass the time and check our emails. After a few minutes I decide to check the train website and find out that our train was actually at 5pm. Crap. The 11:30pm train has already had its 'list' created, so we can't book a ticket online.
We decide to head to the train station to see what we can do. There's a semi-helpful 'tourist manager' at the
station who tells that if we have to leave tonight, we should book a General ticket (Unreserved Seating!!!?) and then go to the 2nd class cabin after the train leaves the station to speak with a conductor to find an empty seat. Worst case scenario, we have to sit in General all night. I'm not sure if I told you guys about General Class before. Basically it has hard benches throughout, no windows, and is abosolutely JAM PACKED with people, in the aisles, in the seats, in the space between train cars, sitting on boxes, standing between benches, kids on laps, etc. etc. A sea of humanity jammed on the train. And Trung and I, with our huge bags, sitting on the bags, or standing over them (probably in between train cars) for 16 hours.
After about 1/2 hour of struggling and pushing at the ticket window crowd, where nobody lines up and there are multiple hands reaching through the small plexiglass hole to buy tickets, we've got our general tickets. Its quite an ordeal with nobody even pretending to line up at the ticket window. Its a game of who's arm is longest to stick your money through
the window farthest and recieve the ticket. Trung is off to the side for awhile, but I need him to run blocker so I can get my hand in the window, so he and his bags stand beside me to block out half of the people.
When the train arrives there's a conductor standing outside with the master list. Trung's already in the train so I'm left talking to the guy to try and get a ticket. I explain the situation but he just stares past me and says 'no, no seats'. After I find Trung in the 2nd class cabin and tell him we don't have seats, he goes to try the conductor. At this point, I'm considering just booking a ticket online for the following day. What's one day out of 180 of travelling? After doing a bit more of a show, displaying the tickets for the previous train and explaining the situation again, he puts us on the train, sharing a bunk (for now) in 2nd class. There's an older woman and her husband that start yelling about how its their seat, but the conductor has spoken! And apparently that's where we are going to sit!
(I think they just wanted the empty bunk for storage anyways, no more bags of cabbage with mice!!)
Finally on our way!
After 10 minutes from leaving the station and trying to figure out how to sleep in a single bunk, the conductor arrives to collect the additional money to upgrade our seats to 2nd class. Trung makes a fuss about how we're paying for two seats and only getting one bunk, so the guy agrees that we're going to get two bunks. After 10 more minutes another guy comes and gestures for us to follow him. Once in the next car, there's two fresh bunks just waiting for us! Its amazing and the stressful situation is finally over. I was NOT looking forward to standing up in General class the entire night, which looked like it was going to happen.
Our next stop is Varanasi, a 5000+ year old city (one of the first cities on Earth) where millions of pilgrimages happen each year to bathe in the sacred Ganges river. It was quite the experience and one I'll never forget!
There are more photos below