Trip Start Aug 16, 2010
40Trip End Nov 20, 2010
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Where I stayed
The drive was beyond description. It was the biggest clusterf*ck you can possibly imagine. As we drove (or perhaps weaved is a better word) mass confusion reigned supreme
rickshaw drivers lazed in the seat waiting for business. I even saw a fellow taking a shower at a gas station.
Then there was the fabulous intersections we were forced to deal with at each village
However, somehow through the entire unbelievable, wacky drive, Prem kept his cool and managed to do the dance around it all and keep me safe. We only had one incident at an intersection where a car hit us from behind and even then it was only a tap. As I watched it all unfold from the backseat of the car, I could not believe what I was seeing. It was a surreal, other world experience.
As dusk set in, I realized we were faced with another problem. The tuk tuks. cyclists and many of the motorbikes on the road had no lights so it was impossible to see these vehicles until you were right on their tail. Fortunately, we reached the outskirts of Agra before it was completely dark and at this point the freeway was suddenly lit with street lights. However, Prem told me that the lights along the freeway were a recent addition and prior to that there was nothing but darkness and every man for himself.
As we drove into Agra, it became quite apparent that the streets of Agra were far different from New Delhi and actually more closely approximated the streets of Old Delhi
We finally escaped the madness when we reached the Taj Gateway Hotel. The security at the hotel was incredible. (The Taj in Mumbai was the scene of the horrific terrorist attacks in 2008 and the Taj chain takes no chances anymore.) First, two security officers screened me and Prem. Then the car was checked for explosives. Then a flashlight did the once over in the car. Finally, we were let in through the massive gates and past two men holding machine guns. When we reached the entrance we had to go through another security check, baggage screening like you would see at the airport and we had to walk through metal detectors. (I know I felt safe.)
Once in the hotel, I proceeded to check-in. As is customary overseas, foreigners must show their passport. I opened my carryall shoulder bag to present my passport … and no passport
Anyway, as I acknowledged my name, the woman advised me that Meera had called and had my passport. Now what to do about retrieving it. We got on the telephone to Meera who told me that two of her guests were headed to Agra on the early train, and they would carry my passport with them so I could retrieve it from them Sunday morning. Perfect!
I was still shook up about the utterly stupid mistake on my part as the wonderful folks at the Taj were checking me in. (Geez … I went 2 ½ months without anything going wrong and then in the span of four days I am robbed and leave my passport behind … no idea what is going on, but it is certainly time to pull my head out of my ass and get with it again) The woman at registration kept reassuring me that the passport would be back in my hands in the morning, and the manager even gave me his card and told me to call him if I needed anything
Next morning it was rise and shine before the crack of dawn to meet my guide and Prem who were taking me to the Taj Mahal to see the sunrise. By 5:50 a.m. we were in line with the other diehards waiting for the site to open at 6:20 right before sunrise. Now about my guide. His name was Ganesha (after the god Lord Ganesha, a human with an elephant head who is the god of good luck), and he claimed that he had a law degree but decided to be a tour guide instead. (As the day wore on I began to think he should have stuck to law because he was a pretty pathetic guide. In fact, I came up with a name for some of his more “brilliant” comments … Ganeshisms.) Ganesha also followed a very odd phenomenon that a number of Indian men with graying hair are prone to do … he had died his hair red with henna. It was a very, very odd sight (and one I just don't get because it was most unattractive on not just Ganesha, but every other Indian man I saw who had done the same thing)
Anyway, as we stood in line I could barely contain myself. The Taj Mahal was one of the “it” sites on my trip, and I couldn't wait to catch my first glimpse. (The Taj is not lit up at night so I could only catch a faint outline of the wonder from my room, and it was still dark when I left the room to meet Prem and my guide.) When the gates finally opened, we had to pass through massive security, including a pat down search before we were permitted to proceed through the entrance gate. We reached the main archway that frames the Taj and suddenly there it was in the faint morning light cast in a sort of pinky hue. I literally took a huge gulp as I caught my first glimpse. It was stunning. It was magnificent. It was a masterpiece. It was everything I had heard and so much more. I stood there not saying a word and not taking my eyes off the most famous monument to love. It was one of those rare moments when I was actually speechless. (And for those of you who know me well, you know what I mean when I say rare.)
The Taj looked absolutely perfect … like it had been built yesterday. In actuality, the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his second wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 after giving birth to their 14th (holy crap) child
As I approached the Taj from the center past the ponds and beautiful gardens, the light from the rising sun appeared to be changing the color of the Taj from a pinky hue to a golden color and finally a brilliant white. It was a memory I will carry with me forever.
We walked around the building and I snapped picture after picture. Finally we walked up the stairs and into the burial chamber. The actual tombs are below the floor so all that is visible to the public are the external tombs dedicated to the the Emperor and his beloved wife. The two tombs are surrounded by marble lace screens and the intricate design is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed in the tomb. As we walked around the tomb, the security guards were trying to push people through the tomb as quickly as possible, but I was having none of it. I was going to take it all in for as long as I damn well wanted. I stared at the dome. I stared at the external tombs
I finally walked back out into the sunlight and told Ganesha that I wanted to go sit down and just spend some time staring at the building so he could take five. As I stared at the building I felt a lump in my throat and tears come to my eyes. It was a very emotional experience staring at the Taj. (The only other masterpiece that I can recall ever touching me the way the Taj did was Michelangelo’s David in Florence Italy. And as my niece, Callie, will attest, I sat for about a ½ hour staring at the David while tears rolled down my checks. - Although, I will note that Rembrandt's Decent from the Cross in the Hermitage was also pretty moving.)
Anyway, after spending about two hours at the Taj, I figured it was time to leave
We got back to my hotel to the fabulous news that the couple who were ferrying my passport to Agra had arrived and we could head over to their hotel to pick up my passport. We jumped back in the car, drove a short distance through the ever present traffic madness and wandering cows and 15 minutes after we left the hotel, I had my passport in hand. Hallelujah.
We drove back again to the Taj Hotel where I cleaned up, stared at the Taj Mahal from my window, packed and grabbed some breakfast. The Taj Hotel was going to store my luggage for the day while I toured two other sites and then we would come back to pick it up before my 9:30 p.m. overnight train trip to Varanasi.
At 11:30 a.m., Ganesha and Prem arrived to pick me up for the drive to Agra Fort. Unfortunately, this is where Ganesha's pathetic guiding skills became evident
As we walked into the Fort, I asked Ganesha another question. “So Ganesha how old is Agra Fort?” “Really old Madame.” (Good grief!) “Uh Ganesha, I actually wanted to know when construction began on the Fort.” “A long time ago Madame.” Great this was going to be a “wonderful” guided tour. Fortunately, I had my trusty Lonely Planet so I pulled it out and proceeded to pretty much ignore Mr. Useless. In addition, there were a lot of very good markers at each building so I spent some time reading the markers as well.
Construction on Agra Fort actually began in 1565 by Emperor Akbar. Red sandstone was used to build the Fort, which was to be used primarily as a military structure, However, in the 1600s, Emperor Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan converted the Fort into a Palace and built a fabulous white marble addition known as the Khas Mahal Palace. I was really looking forward to seeing the Palace.
After we walked through the main gate we had to follow a dog leg pathway (apparently designed by Akbar to confuse attackers) before we reached the first building: Jehangir's Palace
As we entered the red sandstone building, Ganesha offered up his first effort to impart any real
information to me about Agra Fort. Apparently, Jehangir's Palace was built for the son of Emperor Akbar, who was named Jehangir. However, Ganesha could not explain to me why Jehangir was singled out by his father for the honor of having his own palace at Agra Fort (how surprising). The only area of the Palace that Ganesha had any interest in was the bedroom, which was a mammoth, elevated room facing a courtyard. As we walked in, I quickly discovered why Ganesha was interested in the room. There were bats hanging from the crevices of the room. Yuck. These little creatures are really quite ugly up close and quite frankly, I still remember the old wives tale about bats getting stuck in your hair so I was not keen to get to close. (Although the bats reminded me of “The Office” episode where Dwight tried to chase a bat out of the building and ended up capturing it by throwing a bag over both the bat and Meredith as the bat flew over Meredith's head
Anyway, we moved on from Jehangir's Palace to the Khas Mahal Palace, which was really the highlight of the Fort. The Khas Mahal was made out of marble and featured intricate carvings in the ceilings, walls and archways. It was absolutely magnificent. Although Shah Jahan built the Palace as a place for he and his wives, harem and family to reside, the Palace eventually became his prison when his son, Aurangzeb, seized power and put him under arrest in 1658. Shah Jahan lived in his prison for 8 years until his death.
We wandered through the elaborate Palace and reached the Mina Masjid, which was Shah Jahan's private mosque. The carvings and marble work in this building were absolutely amazing. We then passed through to the large harem quarters where a beautiful garden has been restored to life. Apparently, in the days of Shah Jahan, the area also served as a vegetable garden (at least that is what Ganesha told me, and God knows if anything he said was accurate).
As we walked, Ganesha tried to tell me that we were moving into different palaces that Shah Jahan built for his daughters, but this was entirely inaccurate
We then moved on to what I found to be the most interesting of the rooms at the palace: the Musamman Burj, which was an octagonal tower that was used by Shah Jahan during his imprisonment to look out to the Taj Mahal. It was intricately carved and really stunning.
Two other buildings were also quite interesting. The first was the Diwan-i-Khas, which was the Hall of Private Audiences where Shah Jahan received important guests and foreign dignitaries. The famous jewel encrusted Peacock Throne was once located in this room until it was moved to Delhi and then seized by the Persians and moved to Iran in the 1700s. The other building that was of interest was the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audiences. This room faced an open courtyard and was where Shah Jahan conducted government business and listened to concerns of the people. (And wouldn't you know it, Ganesha couldn't get it right. He told me that the Hall of Private Audiences was where government business was conducted.)
As we left the Palace, we wandered past a square courtyard featuring a series of arches
We left the relative peace of the Agra Fort and wandered down the street to where Prem had parked the car. Chaos reigned supreme as usual on the streets of Agra as we headed out of town to Fatehpur Sikri, which, besides the Taj, was the other site that I was really excited to see. Fatehpur Sikri had been built by the Mughals (the Muslims) and once stood as their capital of their empire. The city has been long abandoned, but the palaces and pavilions are said to be magnificent and the mosque is still in use. As we drove, I realized that I was going to relive my trip to Agra as the roads were filled with the now familiar sight of overstuffed tuk tuks, people sitting on the top of moving buses, wacky intersections, outdoor markets every other mile, motorbikes holding way to many helmetless people, and animals wandering at will.
The drive to Fatehpur Sikri was supposed to take about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes and as we drove, Ganesha decided to impart some more of his incredible knowledge. “Madame. Do you see the marker on the right side of the road.” “Yes.” “Those were placed here by the Mughals so that their armies knew the distance to each location.” “Really
We drove on and on and the smoke and dust were really starting to get to me. Although the windows of the car were not open, I could still smell the smoke from the myriad of garbage fires that littered the sides of the road. It was acrid and burned my eyes and throat. I figured it was only a matter of time before I developed a cough, which seemed to be a chronic problem for ever Indian. Anyway, I endured and continued to watch the fascinating sights out the window of the car.
We were within 5 km of Fatehpur Sikri when we came to a complete stop and saw cars and trucks turning around and heading back in our direction (despite the fact it was the wrong way, there was no place to turn around because of the median between the roads going in either direction). Uh oh. This did not look good.
Prem and Ganesha got out of the car to investigate. Prem came back fairly quickly with bad news.
Apparently, there were elections the next day in the area surrounding Fatehpur Sikri and the locals were in an uproar because the polling booths were sitting open on the side of the road (obviously opening the door to vote tampering)
Ganesha finally returned and imparted what Prem and I had long ago found out. “There are people on the road and we cannot pass. We must return to Agra.” Well done Sherlock! So we turned around with the masses and proceeded to drive the wrong way down the road until we reached a cross over point. I was beyond disappointed, but there was nothing I could do. As we drove back, we passed a convoy of police vehicles and vans with men carrying huge machine guns hanging out of the vehicles. This was not looking good. (I later found out that there were clashes between the police and the protesters, but no one could tell me if there were any
As we neared Agra, Prem suggested that I visit Itimad-Ud-Daulah, also known as the Baby Taj
Anyway, after managing to drive through the chaos, Prem parked the car, and Ganesha and I got out and waded through the never ending raucous mess. As we passed through the gates, paid the entry fee and walked through another gate, the outside noise melted away
The final stop of the day was to visit the Mehtab Bagh, a garden area on the banks of the Yamuna River that faces the Taj Mahal. I had wanted to see the Taj Mahal at sunset, but because we were going to Fatehpur Sikri, this had not been possible. Now, it was possible so we drove a short distance to the gardens and parked the car. I paid the entrance fee and Ganesha accompanied me through the gardens (which were actually just plants since nothing was in bloom) and fruit trees. We reached the banks of the Yamuna River and there once again was the magnificent Taj Mahal. The setting sun was turning the amazing structure a pinky hue. I wandered along the banks of the Yamuna, which was a smelly, filthy mess, to a spot where I could take a photo of both the setting sun and the Taj. The light was perfect and after a couple tries, I managed to capture a beautiful photo of the setting sun, the Taj and the reflection of the Taj in the Yamuna River
I stood and watched as the sun fell below the horizon and the Taj turned to a deep pink, almost purple color. I did not want to leave as I knew it was my last opportunity to see the Taj. Finally Ganesha said we needed to go as the park was not safe at night. I agreed so I walked backwards from the riverbank keeping the Taj in my sights and finally turned and headed back towards the car. Just before we turned the corner through the garden, I looked back and took one last look at the beautiful building in the faint light and silently said goodbye. There really is nothing like the Taj Mahal.
We got back in the car and headed back to the Taj Hotel. When I got out of the car, I thanked Ganesha for his services for the day and tipped him 350 rupees, which is the standard tip for a guide in India for a day of services (about 8 USD). Ganesha had the audacity to count the money as I was standing there discussing with Prem the time he would pick me up to take me to the train later in the evening. I heard Ganesha mutter something, and I turned and said “Is there something wrong?” “This is not enough money Madame.” “Excuse me?!” (BTW tips are discretionary in India unlike Egypt.) “This is not enough
me 3 sites today. The Taj Mahal. Agra Fort. The Baby Taj and quite frankly, the Baby Taj wasn't even your idea.” “What about Fatehpur Sikri and the gardens Madame.” “I didn't see Fatehpur Sikri and the only reason you came with me through the gardens is because Prem said it wasn't safe for me to walk alone. You showed me nothing. I am not going to argue about this. You are lucky you got 350 rupees because quite frankly you are a lousy guide. The worst guide I have had in 2 ½ months of travel. You did not answer any of my questions and you knew nothing about Agra Fort. You can return the money if you want to argue. Prem I will see you at 8:00 p.m.” And with that, I turned and walked into the hotel. I could not believe the nerve of this insipid little man.
Two hours later Prem picked me up and was apologetic about the guide. In fact, Prem was so upset, he had called his boss in Delhi about the incident who wanted to speak to me. So I got on the telephone with Jawahar of Namaste India (who had arranged for my drivers and guides) and he could not apologize enough. He wanted to refund me the 350 rupees. I refused and told him that Ganesha was a lousy guide, but mistakes happen. The only thing I wanted from Jawahar was assurances that he would never hire Ganesha again for any Namaste other client
So with that, Prem and I set off for the Agra Fort train station for my overnight train trip to Varanasi.
I don't know what I expected of this train station, but it so much less than anything I could have imagined. As we entered the gates, our car was surrounded by porters looking for work. (Porters have an approved number on their sleeve and must give it to me and the check in desk if they are hired to assist with bags.) The area was dimly lit, dirty and looked VERY unsafe. I asked Prem if I was going to be ok and he assured me that the area is patrolled by police, and that he would make sure a porter looked after me.
I put my faith in Prem as he did the once over for me and selected a porter whom he thought would do a good job and stay with me and my luggage until the train arrived. Prem took his number, I took his number and we provided the number to the check in folks
We weaved our way around sleeping bodies, dogs, and a lot of garbage to reach the platform from where my train was leaving. The porter finally selected a spot in which he indicated in broken English would be closest to my compartment (which was at the front of the train in AC-2 class – the best sleeper class they have on the overnight train to Varanasi). Fortunately, there was group of English tourists standing beside me, which made me feel a little better in the very creepy, dingy station.
As we waited, baggage carts were dragged past me along with food carts as the shopkeepers closed their carts for the night. Finally, I heard the announcement I had been waiting for. The Mughal Serai Express was pulling into the station. The porter hauled my two large suitcases onto the train and into my compartment. We then proceeded to wander through the compartment trying to find berth number 29. The AC sleeper compartment is very difficult to move about as you have a very narrow walkway between berths, which are on both sides of the aisle
We finally located my berth, which was in one of the four berth sections. I would be sharing the section with a father, daughter and grandfather. I managed, after some effort, to stow my smaller suitcase and my carry-on under my berth (which was a lower berth), but my larger suitcase is difficult to stow (as my mother will attest) and would not fit so it remained wedged between my berth and grandpa's berth. I chained the suitcases together and around the loop under my berth, pulled out my own blanket that I had brought, covered the pillow with my hoody, put my earplugs in and my eyemask on, ensured my shoulder back was securely locked to my belt, pulled my blanket over my head and tried to go to sleep. It was going to be a long 13 hour trip.