Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Taj Mahal and all that

Horror story after horror story pours from the mouths of stricken travellers fresh from the clutches of the 'Golden Triangle' of Agra - Delhi - Jaipur. It was with much trepidation and worry that we said goodbye to lovely Jaisalmer and headed to Agra.

Jaisalmer was refreshing. Fewer creeps, and lovely people going about their everyday business. There was Bobbi, the henna lady with one of the most wonderful smiles I've seen on anyone, and the cut old man who we met at the wedding who took us up to his house perched on the edge of the fort to admire the views onto the town below at sunset. Everything seemed golden. The fort's golden sandstone continued into the deserts that stretched beyond it, as far as the Pakistan border and beyond. I didn't really get chance to write much about our Camel trip, but I have to again mention how unbelievable those stars were. We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, somebody once said.

Everyone you meet travelling is at a transitional point in their life, either about to start a job, just finished university or school, taking a career break and rethinking their lives, or just taking time out to enjoy it all. It's at times like these when you get perspective. I may be the poorest I've ever been (and hopefully will never get any poorer than my current, terrifying nearness to the Natwest Graduate Overdraft Limit) and at a similar what-to-do-next point in my life, but you can't really put a price on these kind of things, and I wouldn't swap with anyone for the world right now. I'm not sure the path has become any clearer but I am certainly getting  much better idea about the kind of life I want to lead.

Pseudo-philosophical rambling over.

On returning from the Camel Safari our bathroom was flooded with sewage (actual shit). Eventually they cleaned it all up but it didn't improve our relations with the dodgy hotel manager. We went out for a meal with Nikki and then hit the sack. The next day we tried (and failed) to book our train tickets from Agra to Delhi at the train station and went back to the lovely German lady at Adventure Travels (highly recommended) who sorted all my train tickets for the rest of my time in India.

We thought our 2 part train ride (12 hours to Jaipur, change at 5am, 5 hours onwards to Agra) would be hell but we slept well, had breakfast, and got back into bed on leg 2. We met Max on the train, a lovely English guy who we 'did' Agra with. Having taken heed from the horror stories we'd heard, we arranged someone to pick us up from Agra Cantt station (Loliviase Rrai, the sign read) and booked into a recommended hotel. Showered and refreshed, we had some great Mughlai curry and headed over to the Taj Mahal, which you could see from the rooftop of our hotel.

I'm not sure it's worth bothering to describe it. It was very busy, you got a free bottle of water and it cost R750 (R20 for Indians) to get in, which is a tenner, a whole day's budget for me.

Everybody has seen countless images and models and all that. Despite the crowds and the endless requests for photos with randoms, it effortlessly transcended all the hype, commercial crap, annoyances and touting which surrounded it. If there are words to describe its beauty, then my English simply isn't good enough. All I can say is we stayed for 3-4 hours and it's the only thing in India I think my Mum would like (which says a lot).

The next day we got up at 5.30am and caught a rickshaw to th opposite bank of the river Yamuna to watch the sunrise over the Taj. It was freezing, and shrouded in mist, but a warm cup of chai and a surprising lack of any other tourists made it worth the while. Agra Fort was a little disappointing (what wouldn't be after that) and we even managed to post the parcels we'd been lugging around from Jaisalmer - Republic Day meant the post office had been closed - and get to the train station with plenty of time.

Only to find our train 3 hours late.  We panicked and bought general tickets for the next train, hoping to upgrade, but on seeing how over full that was, quickly changed our minds and got a refund. We went to a lovely South Indian restaurant and then Cafe Coffee Day (Indian Starbucks) for chocolate cake and went back to the station. 5 hours after the time it should have left, our train arrived.

Our train was, thankfully, empty and quiet (unlike last night) and we chatted to a lovely geeky man who looked like he may be a computer nerd. He kindly found a decent rickshaw driver for us and got us a decent price from Nizamuddin to New Delhi.

'Avoid Delhi like the plague' is a commonly heard phrase amongst backpckers, especially freshly arrived ones. I ddn't think it was that bad, but it was pretty shit. Hassle, hassle, hassle, constant rickshaw bullshit, and even though I'm very used to India's mounds of rubbish and crap Delhi topped the lot (I have an incredible photo of actual mountains of litter). We had a huge breakfast (stayed in a fairly nice, cheapish place in Pahraganj) and spent the day with another 2 English guys, visited the Jama Masjid (Red Mosque) where they made us girls wear ridiculous dressing gown type things and then decided the traffic was too much and retreated to the nicest restaurant we've been in India (since Jen's birthday at the Metropole in Mysore, way back in December....) and Liv and I broke our vegeterianism with an incredible butter chicken curry. Even better, we had our first beer since Mumbai. It was genuinely exciting to see  proper Dettol soap in the toilets and hear non-Hindi music in the background. Opulent luxury for us, at a total cost of about 4 or 5 English Pounds.

Time to say goodbye to Aimee who is homeward bound, and Liv and I are now in Varanasi. I haven't yet ventured out of my hotel, as I've been changing my train tickets so now I can go direct from a station nearby to NJP, near Darjeeling. The lovely hotel man helped me sort it all out, and I am so grateful! Liv is ill in bed and I've just realised I haven't eaten yet today, and it's 2.30pm.

Eat when you can!

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