Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur

Wednesday 4/4

I woke up at around 7am after an uneasy sleep, the bus cruising along a six-lane freeway through the suburbs of Delhi. About half an hour later the bus dropped us off at what the conductor said would be the bus station but was actually just a quiet road nearby. But it didn’t matter, we were near a metro station where we could catch a train to New Delhi and then a long distance train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

“Doors will open on the right hand side. Mind the gap.” The Delhi metro felt like someone transplanted the London underground to India, made it cleaner and nicer looking, less crowded and air conditioned. Even the English-language announcements were in a British voice, complete with information on changing for other lines or overground stations.

We get our tickets and a quick breakfast at New Delhi station and go off to catch the 11:30 train to Agra. Somewhere in the rush to find the right platform and carriage, my iPhone disappeared. When I set off, it was in my pocket – foolishly, in retrospect, in one of the non-velcro pockets where anyone could reach their hand in to grab it without me noticing. When I sat down on the train, it was nowhere to be found. I think, after having recently seen the Dalai Lama, that this may be the world sending me a personal message about non-attachment to physical possessions. On the other hand, losing my phone means losing my music, losing convenient access to my electronic Lonely Planet, losing the convenience of internet access wherever I go and losing my best – in some cases only – way of contacting people I’ve met on my travels through India.

Our train arrived at Agra in the early evening, and both of us were feeling pretty knackered. The rickshaw driver that our hotel provided to pick us up was friendly and opportunistic, offering us a whole day of his services for Rs.650, starting from sunrise to look out over the Taj Mahal, ending after we’d seen the Taj Mahal at sunset, and with a heap of other things during the day. We took him up on this offer, and arranged to meet him at 5:45am outside the hotel the next day.

After checking into the hotel, we discovered that they had a truly wonderful side benefit: free wireless Internet. Fairly standard in a lot of countries, this is perhaps the third time in India where I’ve had it. This was great for taking care of mundane things like letting people know my phone had been stolen, attempting to wipe it remotely (although the phone was uncontactable by the time I got to Agra so had probably already been wiped by its, er, new owner), and booking train tickets.

Thursday 5/4

We got up super-early for our sunrise date with the Taj Mahal. It was, to be honest, a bit underwhelming. We looked out at the Taj from the other side of the river, with a barbed wire fence and a lot of rubbish between us and the river. At least it was a fairly secluded location.

After the Taj at sunrise, we stopped for a quick breakfast of poori and then onto the “Baby Taj”, the tomb of a nobleman which predates the Taj Mahal, but done in a similar style. I really enjoyed it – we had the place to ourselves and the architecture was absolutely beautiful.

Next stop on our tourist itinerary was Agra Fort. Highlights included the audio guide, which explained the history of the Mughal empire, voiced by an Indian gentleman doing a surprisingly good approximation of Received Pronunciation English.

After this, our rickshaw driver took us to a couple of stops we didn’t ask for but likely earned him a nice fat commission: a carpet factory and a shop selling marble handicrafts. Both Erin and I fell sucker for their sales tactics and bought presents for people from both places.

At this point it was mid-afternoon and we were starving. Our driver helpfully took us to what must have been the most expensive restaurant in town. At least it was air conditioned. We ordered a ridiculous amount of food and gorged ourselves, eating as much of it as we could until we were both stuffed.

After a quick stop-over at the hotel, we were on the road again, this time to see the inside of the Taj Mahal in time for sunset. It was insanely crowded, although at least our ridiculous overpriced tickets (Rs.750 for foreigners vs Rs.20 for Indians) entitled us to jump all of queues. It was, to be honest, a little bit underwhelming. We barely got to look at the inside because there were so many people, at we were shepherded through fairly quickly.

When we got back to the hotel, I looked into train tickets from Agra to Jaipur for the next morning. The only tickets available were either at 5:10am or later in the afternoon. I was keen for the super-early start despite having had hardly any sleep for the previous two nights, but Erin still wasn’t feeling well and eventually decided to pass on Jaipur altogether, staying in Agra an extra night.

Friday 6/4

Woke up at 4am, feeling with death warmed up. Discovered that contrary to my best intentions the night before, I’d fallen asleep with the lights on. My bag was unpacked, I hadn’t had a shower and I still needed to be ready in about half an hour to check out of the hotel and find a rickshaw to take me to the railway station. Against all expectations, I was out of there by 4:35 and in a rickshaw by 4:40, making to the train station just as the announcement over the PA informed me that my train had started boarding. I dozed a little on the train and finally arrived in Jaipur at 9:30am, feeling tired, hungry and a little disoriented.

Fighting off hordes of rickshaw drivers desperate for business, I walked in the general direction that appeared in the Lonely Planet to have a number of cheapish hotels. The one that sounded most appealing to me appeared to not exist any more, but over the road was a cheap restaurant where I had breakfast while watching the cricket on Channel Ten. Yes, that Channel Ten, complete with Australian-accented commentary – although the Indian version seemed to be a channel dedicated to sports only (possibly cricket only) and had local Indian adverts.

I picked a hotel at random; by complete chance, the first place I went to had an air conditioned room for Rs.600 per night. That was good enough for me. On a roll now, I dumped my luggage and went to the bus station to investigate bus tickets to Delhi for the following evening. I was first told “buses every 10 minutes, no need to book” but after enquiring more specifically about air conditioned buses, it turned out there were only a few per day, and I did need to get tickets in advance. So I did. Mission accomplished, I went back to the hotel and collapsed in the air conditioning for a couple of hours to avoid the hottest part of the day.

You may be noticing a certain theme recently, specifically my love of air conditioning. It’s been about 40C outside now we’re no longer in the mountains, and while I’m familiar with such temperatures in Perth, that doesn’t mean I enjoy being outside in it.

When I was rested and ready to venture outside again, I went for a rather indulgently priced but mediocre lunch at an Italian restaurant. The garlic bread was okay, the pasta was decent but overcooked, and the Indian red wine that I had was absolutely dreadful – especially considering it cost close to what you’d pay for an acceptable glass of wine in a restaurant in London.

Later in the afternoon, I went for a walk around the Pink City, the original walled portion of Jaipur. It was okay but after I while I found the bazaars quite claustrophobic, especially when I had no intention of actually buying anything. After getting a little bit lost, and then un-lost again (despite no longer having GPS or Google Maps to aid me), I had dinner and collapsed in bed.

Overall, my impression of Jaipur so for has not been positive: smelly, busy, expensive and full of people wanting to take my money for one thing or another. Arguably most of these things are true of India as a whole, but other places I’ve been to in India have had plenty of positive things to more than make up for these downsides.

Saturday 7/4

First sleep-in in a while! Very welcome. I even did a little bit of yoga in the morning, for the first time since leaving Purple Valley almost a month ago. Then I went for breakfast at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Jaipur city, including a decent pot of coffee. I felt alive!

Today’s sightseeing mission: Amber Fort, a little way out of Jaipur town. It was okay … I think I’m already feeling a bit jaded about impressive old forts and palaces after Agra. Kind of glad I hadn’t locked in a longer trip through Rajasthan.

After the fort, I went to a shopping mall with an iStore – an Indian chain which resembles the Apple stores in other countries, but not actually run by Apple. My goal: to see if I could get a replacement iPhone, or maybe an iPod Touch, for cheap while I was in India. Unfortunately, the prices were about 30% higher than back home in Australia – no wonder Apple products don’t seem particularly prominent in India. I did, however, have a hot chocolate at a Costa Coffee. Not because I particularly wanted a hot chocolate, but because I was enjoying the air conditioning in the shopping mall, and because it seemed to bizarre to see an English cafe chain with a presence in India.

By this time it was mid-afternoon, time for me to have one last meal before my bus to Delhi. Late lunch or early dinner, I’m not sure what it was. I sat in the restaurant for almost two hours, going through photos and catching up on writing this blog. The highlight, I think, was when my cup of tea was brought out. As I raised my cup of tea to my lips and the waiter interjected, “Sir! Sugar is separate!” as if to save me from the indignity of drinking unsugared tea – the way I’d normally have tea back home. Indians do love their sugary hot drinks.

And now this post finishes as it began, with our intrepid hero on a night bus to Delhi. My flight to Leh leaves at 5:40am tomorrow. Stay tuned for the next episode, a visit to the isolated region of Ladakh, so far up in the Himalayas that the roads there are still covered in snow.

More Photos

As usual, the full set of photos are up on Picasa, with just a few highlights included above.

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