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Tickets to Agra - $35. Hotel Room - $0.29 a Minute.

View of the Taj? Priceless.

sunny 25 °C

After only one night in India, it’s clear (and I confess that I am very surprised to find) that Lloyd shares my passion for the country and I’m already regretting not allowing more time here to explore beyond the Golden Triangle and Rajastan. More than any other place I’ve been to, India isn’t a country to be understood through a list of attractions ‘to do’: I’d take driving around in a tuk-tuk over ticking off the Taj Mahal anyday. We unanimously agree that India is somewhere we need to devote more time to than we have this trip, although that doesn’t really make us feel much better about the accelerated schedule that sees us travelling from Varanasi to Delhi in just nine days.

On Tuesday, we catch a mid-afternoon train from Varanasi to Agra. As we booked the tickets online (an experience by the way – I had to giggle at the quota allocations broken down into tens of categories: there’s probably a special category for divorced, one-legged leprosy sufferers in there somewhere), we stopped by the Foreigners’ ticket office in Varanasi to confirm our seats. It was quite a revelation, and not in the way you think. Now, we recognize that as thirty-something kind-of-backpackers we’re probably in the minority when it comes to global travel, but we hadn’t – in our three months on the road – yet come across the stereo-typical young ‘traveller’. And now, here in Varanasi, we see not one, but a pair of ‘them’.

Unshaven (both male, happily), matted long hair worn in dreadlocks and tied back with a rag, wearing t-shirts that had clearly been deliberately mutilated so they covered not quite enough skin and hung off pathetically scrawny shoulders. Covering their legs, I’m not sure if the clothing would be described as a skirt or trousers, but the ‘uniform’ is required to be brightly coloured, and of course the more dirt the better. The more battered and ripped the backpack the better, but the mistake Lloyd and I are making is restricting ourselves to the one pack. No one told us the uniform requires more individual pieces than you can possibly carry, and that one of the pieces must be in the shape of a guitar. The final requirement is a facial expression that at a minimum shows a lack of interest in anything, but even better suggests several months of substance abuse. One of our two “models” sat for the hour we were in the office with his mouth gaping open, staring with great interest at a mouldy patch on the wall.

Aside from the two ‘authentic’ young travellers and the two oldies (that would be us), the office was filled with maybe half a dozen smartly dressed, young Japanese. I guess there’s a growing trend for Japanese backpackers out there? Anyway, comfortable in our relatively clean clothes and streamlined baggage, we speculate on his boss's reaction if Lloyd were to report back to work in January having been transformed into a ‘real’ traveller…..

But I digress. When the train pulls into Varanasi at 1550, we find our carriage – the highest class of service on this train – marked as 2AC, which means two tier, air-conditioned. It’s unnervingly quiet, and we ask whoever we can find whether we’re in the right carriage. Hell, we don’t even know if we’re on the right train when it pulls out at 1602. Nonetheless, we set about securing our packs so we can try and get some sleep tonight. We later find out from the ticket inspector that the train is expected to fill up when it reaches Lucknow which is roughly halfway between Varanasi and Agra.

After our sleep-starved night fighting incoming rainwater in Varanasi, we are drowsy as soon as dusk falls, and Lloyd is quickly asleep in the bottom bunk. I take the top bunk, with the two backpacks secured to the train’s alarm above my head. If someone tries to move the bags tonight, the entire train will come to a complete halt, which indeed proves to be an effective deterrent.

Our luxurious accommodations for the night. You can just about see how Lloyd secured our bags around the train's alarm!

We do wake as the train fills with chatty Indians in Lucknow around midnight, and then sporadically as the overzealous air-conditioning threatens to freeze us solid (hey, we paid for it, we got it in buckets!). Just as we settle into a nice snooze in the early hours, it’s time to get up and prepare for our arrival into Agra at 6am. The train around us continues to sleep, but there we are – two faux travelers (the real, uniformed guys must be in the three-tiered carriage) – waiting for a station that simply refuses to materialize.

Someone could have told us that the train was running three hours late ;o)

This is very bad news for me because it means that the probability of me avoiding using the train’s toilet has just reduced dramatically. The fact that half of India seems to be taking care of their own morning business right outside my window – on the railway embankment or in fields – isn’t helping. I’ve got so good at avoiding going that I’m probably causing long term damage (just kidding, Mum!). To be fair, I’ve yet to see anything in India that even comes close to China, but I was expecting to be in my clean hotel bathroom several hours ago! I sit, cross-legged, praying for AGRA CANT to be the next station we pull into.

Finally, we do arrive in Agra, stinking of urine which pervaded the blankets that had been essential to our air-conditioning survival overnight. Now, we mentioned before that this trip would include some pockets of decadence, and Agra was one of them. With reservations at the Agra Amarvilas Hotel, we are greeted by a red-turban clad driver who had waited three hours for us. I’m sure we were something of a disappointment: we’ve slept in our clothes. We stink of someone-else’s – hell, half of India’s – urine. And we carry no nice luggage, but two backpacks. Nonetheless, he welcomes us warmly and we climb into the most luxurious car in India for the half hour drive to the hotel.

The view from Room 422. Yours for 29 cents a minute.....

The Amarvilas hotel is located about half a kilometer from the Taj Mahal, and every room offers an uninterrupted view. Don’t get me wrong, the view is almost priceless, but the inflated prices associated with everything else in the hotel means that Lloyd and I could be living on crackers for the next two days. After a long shower, the breakfast buffet is welcome, but frankly disappointing for this level of hotel (and the associated price tag). You can’t fault the service or the location, but we fail to find any semblance of value-for-money in terms of food and beverage or concierge services during our time here.


But of course, we’re only here for one thing: the Taj Mahal. And we do have a splendid view from our room. As the day draws to a close, it looks – for a few minutes – as if the sunset could be glorious, so we rush out of the hotel and into the golf cart that will deliver us to the gates of the Taj Mahal. (I know, apparently Amarvilas residents are physically incapable of the half kilometre walk, although to be fair the cowpats and camel droppings probably make it a little precarious in the dark). By the time we get there, accompanied by our own security guard from the hotel (!), it’s clear that the sunset will be far from spectacular, so we decide invest our 750 rupees (almost $US20!) each tomorrow.

Down by the river at sunset... cheaper than tickets into the Taj

Instead, we are guided by thirteen year old Ashu (who wants to take us to his uncle’s marble shop) down the side of the Taj Mahal walls towards the river. The hotel’s security guard runs after us, and tries to direct us back to the Taj entrance. But within a few minutes, we find ourselves on a boat taking us across the river for an alternative view of the Taj. The light isn’t great, and really we enjoy the interaction with Ashu and the armed police perhaps more than our viewing of the Taj. The boat driver serenades us as he sails back to shore, where he implores us not to disclose how much we paid for the ride. Apparently, the police will expect half of the 200 rupees we paid, so we are asked to fib a little and proclaim we paid only 100 rupees.

Me taking a picture of Lloyd taking a picture of me taking a picture of Lloyd taking a picture of me..... oh yes, and the Taj Mahal

When we get back to the main Taj entrance, it is pitch black and the walk back to the hotel is unappealing, especially the need to run the gauntlet with the tens of young kids attempting to guilt us into visiting their father’s/uncle’s/cousin’s/grandfather’s store. To the security guard’s credit, he had been so concerned about our back-alley detour, that he is ready with the golf cart and a turban-clad driver to whisk us back to the ‘safety’ of our hotel. It occurs to us that many people come to India and allow themselves to be whisked from attraction to attraction and back to their super-luxury hotels, completely failing to experience anything of India at all.

On Thursday, we plan to visit both the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. Agra Fort is a massive, red sandstone, walled Fort built in the mid to late sixteenth century. Most of the Fort is still actively used by the Indian military and cannot be visited, but the remainder is a UNESCO Heritage Site. We heard from the hotel driver that serious steps are being taken to reduce pollution in the city of Agra in order to preserve both the Fort and its more famous neighbour, the Taj Mahal. Certainly, it was clear that work was underway to both conserve and renovate the site.

Improvements underway. On top of one of the domes, one young man took the time to wave for the camera!


From the Fort, there's quite a nice view of the Taj. I had a great picture taken from here three years ago with my Dad, so we decide to try and get a good piccie of Lloyd from the same spot. With so many Indians around, the outlook is not hopeful, but we've found on the trip that a little patience is usually enough to get the photo you want.

Crowds of tourists .....

.... plus a little patience .....

... results in a great piccie of Lloyd and the Taj!

And so finally to the Taj! This morning we woke at 0530 to find the Taj completely socked in with fog, making an early morning visit unattractive relative to a few more hours of sleep! Happily, when we visit in the middle of Thursday, it isn’t as busy as I was expecting, and we also benefit from a little blue sky which we really haven’t seen since we left Tibet. The vast majority of visitors are domestic tourists, but we are pleased to find that Indian groups are infinitely more pleasant than Chinese groups. We’re frankly a little lost not having to defend ourselves from the pushing, line-jumping, and spitting that we’ve become so accustomed to. Only smiling faces and brightly coloured saris all around us. Perhaps the most authentic way to experience the Taj isn’t alone at sunrise, but with several hundred Indians!


The wonder of the Taj is the fact that it’s impossible to take a bad picture of the thing, somehow it even seems to make us better looking.... maybe a little bit?


We take our ‘calendar’ picture and then walk the perimeter of the Taj gardens, where we find stone-carving and gardening teams at rest. For a little baksheesh, you can take a picture of anything around here, so I pay my ten rupees to pose with the bull-powered lawn mower!

Yes, those horns HAVE been painted green.......?!

In fact, we should start asking for a little baksheesh ourselves; during our visit, we are photographed maybe a dozen times, often by the ‘official’ photographers carefully posing Indian visitors.

After two nights in Agra, we – and our bank manager – are ready to escape the weird world of super-luxury Indian hotels. We are as unimpressive in our departure as we were in our arrival – we’ve hired a car and driver of course, but it’s a tatty looking Tata Indica that is announced for us, rather than one of the hotel’s gleaming limousines.

You wouldn't know this is an Indian chipmunk unless you heard its accent

Posted by jacquiedro 08:37 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world

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