Saturday, 30 November 2013

Ah, that Taj thing

I was in the area, so I thought I might pop into Agra for a bit. Apparently they've got some famous monument there or something.

First: getting there.

That involved going to the big station at Jhansi, half an hour from Orchha.

How much for an auto? 200? Yeah, that'll do.

No, all the way to Jhansi please, I don't want dropping at Orchha. Yes, the train's on the platform, which means it'll leave before I make it there. Ah yes, I'm right. Jhansi please.

I suppose Orchha's allowed to try to hold on to me.

I made it into Jhansi and got past the staring masses to the unreserved ticket counter. Then I had a look at the timetable, which quite frankly just confused me. Luckily, there's always a helpful local who speaks English. Or will try to. 12:30 train will do it. The something-or-other Express.

Yeah, this is India. There's no such thing as an "Express", or even more laughable, the "Superfast Express".

As per usual, there was a massive scrum to get into the seating carriages, so I went for the disabled carriage on the basis that I could actually move around in there. Some of the Indians pushing and shoving their way on had even less reason to be in there than I did, but as soon as we were on the ticket collector came along and told us to go into cattle class.

Yeah, give me half an hour in there and I'll be disabled, believe me.

I was almost right. Please stop pushing me, no, there's no space, and no, I'm not leaving myself some space in front, I'm already basically half way on top of my pack as it is.

And if you punch me, then I will remind you who built your railways in the first place. Behave.

Thankfully, there was a laughing smiley Indian guy, who gave me a run for my money in that department, who helped me out. He shared my awful sense of humour too - the luggage rack is "first class comfortable seating". And he agreed with me that turning the fan on to wake up the guy sleeping up there was totally hilarious.

Eventually I got there, and to my surprise, I wasn't classed as disabled by the end of it.

But I realised something. It was Thursday evening. Tomorrow was Friday. The Taj would be closed, unless I could pretend to be Muslim. No, don't think that's going to work somehow. I'd have to stay another day.

Autorickshaw? Autorickshaw? No, I'm going to the prepaid desk, leave me alone.

Turned out to be a good move, as I got lucky. In Agra. My driver, Pradeep, realised that I was a bit sceptical and untrusting, and immediately took his pack of recommendations out - various cards in various languages saying thanks to him.

He even told me that I could pay what I felt like paying - if I'm happy, he's happy.

I was still a little sceptical, especially when he suggested a cheaper place that was right by the Taj Mahal, but when we couldn't find the place I'd booked (why would you put an address 5km away down?!) I went along with it.

Yes, 300 rupees for a room, and right opposite the Taj. He'd managed to get me a discount too. No commission, this man.

Oh, and I'll do you a full day tour if you like. Here, here, here, here. Places I hadn't actually heard of before. And you can go to Fatehpur Sikri on the bus, to save you money.

How much for?

Ah, up to you.

I must have gained his trust by this point because I asked him to take me to somewhere I should never go with an autorickshaw driver: a camera shop.

Oh, I know a local place, and it'll be a lot cheaper than anything locally.

And it was a local place. Cameras sold at MRP. In Agra.

Eventually I found what I was looking for: something that was more than the usual crap little camera, but not quite an SLR. 8000 rupees (£80) and it was a Canon. Sorted.

"Are you hungry?"

Yes, of course I'm hungry. I'm always hungry, and I've had 3 samosas since breakfast.

Veg or non-veg?


OK, so I wasn't quite that harsh - but he took me to a really good place, and decent prices too. He insisted on not coming in for some food, even though I offered. He's not the usual walk-in and get commission type. How I've managed to get this lucky in Agra is beyond me, but there you go. Autorickshaw drivers are bad at the best of times, and in Agra I expected to get messed around a lot.

I gave him 200 rupees for the trip (he asked me if I was sure several times, then thanked me profusely) and agreed to go on the day trip the next day.

5:30am. I must be crazy. But I'm going to see the sunrise over the Taj from the opposite side of the river. Might just be worth it.

Even if there's a festival going on, which means that they must play rubbish music far too loud all night.

5:30am was cold. Incredibly cold. So I sat down around a campfire drinking chai with some locals, and randomly using the 5 words of Hindi I'd learnt in Orchha. I watched a couple of tour buses come in, despaired that I'd have to share the riverside with them, then realised that they were missing out on the real experience.

Several cups of chai down and I was ready to go. So I paid the requisite 100 rupees (EVERYTHING is 100 rupees for us foreigners), wandered into the garden opposite, turned a corner, and there it was.

Yes, shrouded in mist so I could barely see it.

Maybe I should come in the monsoon season. Good view and no tour groups.

But for now, I had to share the view with tour groups. They invariably turn up in brand new sports shoes, and wonder why they get muddy. I have some dodgy sandals I bought in Varanasi. Not that I'm judging them or anything.

Then the sun came up.

This could be a sunrise anywhere, so I'm going to convince you that it's definitely Agra.
And there she was. Camera settings adjusted and I could actually pick the thing up.

Then I got shouted at by the army for walking somewhere I shouldn't have in an attempt to get a better shot.

Look, I'm a smelly backpacker with a camera. I'm not going to blow the thing up.

Eventually I got bored of staring at something that I could barely see, and taking a hundred identical photos, and went to jump in the auto to see what else Agra had to offer.

Number 1: the Baby Taj.

Dear man who puts shoe covers on: no, that does not warrant a tip, especially since you earn more than the average Indian for something I could do myself.

Number 2: some mosque that was falling apart. I wandered down the river and Pradeep insisted that I took this totally uncliched photo.
Because it's not obvious at all
Yes, gora is here. I now know what that word means, and no, please leave gora alone.

Number 3: Agra Fort.

Guides, touts, everyone else: please leave me alone. Ah, and I've got an excuse to shout "cello, cello" already. What a shame. No, I don't want your books or postcards, I bought them in Orchha where they're a lot cheaper. Also, who buys the big books of postcards? I don't need 20 postcards from everywhere I go. The "been there, got the postcard" approach I take involves a SINGULAR postcard.

I suppose it's one of the two things that everyone knows exists here. And to be fair, that I knew existed here.

And I attempted to look at the Taj.

Then a security guard took pity on the lonely foreigner, and eventually he gave in and let me have a photo in his beret. Which I failed to wear properly.

And I attempted to speak some Hindi to some Indians, who thought I was fluent but managed to get across that they wanted a photo taken...

I have a new camera, of course you can have a photo
Then I escaped, and informed the various guides that no, I'm leaving - and told the autorickshaw drivers to leave me alone, or they could experience the wrath of Pradeep. Like the wrath that was felt by a guy who tried to sell Duracells for 60 rupees rather than 50.

I wonder what he would have said to the guy who tried to get 150 out of me for them in Khajuraho.

The entry fees are nearly as bad as Nepal here as well: 100 for this, 250 for that, another 100 for that. Don't even let me complain again about the 750 rupees they charge for the Taj Mahal itself - versus 20 for Indians. Ridiculous.

In Orchha? 250 rupees total.

So we went off, via some Catholic cemetery and a Sikh temple, to Sikandra, where Akbar's tomb is.

100 rupees lighter and I headed towards it.

Actually, walking up to the gate of Sikandra was more striking for me than walking up to the Taj Mahal itself. Weird. And this being a bit further out and not really as well known, I was an object of amusement and bemusement again.

Are you hungry?

Yes, I am. Sightseeing is too tiring for me. How the grannies manage to get carted around sight after sight for 2 weeks is beyond me, but I have a newfound respect for them. Wandering is much more fun.

OK, so maybe not in Agra.

So Pradeep found me another local restaurant, where they were quite surprised that I just went for a biryani and not one of the expensive things.

White man is eating in my restaurant? MUST TAKE PHOTO OF WHITE MAN
Eventually though, 5:30am took its toll on me and we headed back.

I gave him 800 rupees, which I thought was fair based on what I'd paid last year for a similar day's sightseeing in an auto, which actually took us further - down to the beach from quite a way inland.

No, not OK. "Sir, the official prepaid rate is 1200, and it's been a long day. And my costs are X, Y and Z". Which added up to about 900 rupees.


Have 500 extra.

He seemed profusely grateful for that, so all was sorted.

So I went to have a look at the Taj again, this time from the rooftop.

No, change the batteries.

No, change the batteries again.

OK, third set might work.

So then I decided I'd try out my Hindi on the staff there, and they taught me the numbers. And laughed at my attempts to say 14, for reasons I'd find out a week later.

The next day I had a second 5am start in a row. All I know is that I am really not a 5am person. Or a 7am person. Or a 9am person for that matter. I'm just a lazy backpacker.

And it turned out that getting there for 5:30 was a little pointless as the ticket counter actually opened at 6:10am, and the gate at 6:30am. But ah well, I was third in the queue, and ready to split my 1000 rupee note that noone wants.

Oh no, you have to use your hard-earned change. We don't have any.


Didn't they think that if they charged 750 rupees, then people might just try and pay with 1000, and it might be a good idea to go to the bank ready?

Or maybe if you reduce the price to 500 for foreigners and make it 50 for Indians, as would be a whole lot more reasonable, then you might avoid the problem entirely?

Logic level: India.

But I made it in, eventually, after losing my torch, which apparently I should leave in a locker. But no, that would involve leaving the site and queueing again. And my ticket's already been stamped, which would probably make someone cry.

So I had the Taj to myself.

And there she was. And because of the mist, I could barely see the thing, but ah well.

If I'm honest, it was a bit of an anti-climax. The thing's a bit over-hyped if I'm honest, though it is pretty nice. I reckon that you actually need to go through a tunnel and walk out about 20m in front of it, and then it will have a more memorable and imposing effect. When you see it from this far it's not quite the same.

But I walked up to the thing, and oh wow it is massive.
Since I'd gone straight inside, and not wasted time taking pictures of nondescript entities or listening to a guide blabbering on about something trivial, I was alone in there. Now that was surreal.

The artwork is so intricate as well, really done well.

Unfortunately though, I don't think it'll stick in the memory like some other places have done. And once the crowds had started to pile in, take their stupid photos and say the stupid, stereotypical things that package tourists tend to, I was done, and was out of there.
I'm just far too rebellious lately, aren't I?
So off to Fatehpur Sikri it was, as I didn't quite have time for a nap to restore my body to normality. Ah well, I'm sure I'll get fed up of Jaipur pretty quickly.

Except that you have to say "Patehpur Sikri", as Indians can't pronounce the letter F.

It was all far too efficient for India. We got there, there was a restaurant with a left luggage facility right by the bus station (you clever, clever kids) and I could eat something too. Ah, pay when you leave, it's fine.

Then I walked up to the main old city, and the usual touristy India returned. No, stop trying to sell me your rubbish. I definitely told a guide that getting lost is quite fun, and that he should try it sometime. He seemed unimpressed.

That said, a guide might have been a good investment to stop people befriending me as a precursor to guilt-tripping me into going to their shop. No, that is not a good price, please don't pretend it is. Yes, I'm everyone's first customer of the day, which quite frankly says more about you than me. Yes, everyone's struggling to sell things and has cut their prices right now. Apart from the fact that everything is 50% more expensive than this time last year.

Eventually I got fed up with being treated as a human ATM and got out of there. Shame, because the place is really quite nice - a well-preserved Mughal town and deserving of its UNESCO status. And a nice place to use my new camera, which I was still far too excited about.

Lunch finished and I went to find a bus to Jaipur that I could flag down on the main road. There's meant be a (cheap) state bus every 30 minutes, but after well over an hour I got fed up of waiting and just flagged down any bus going to Jaipur. I got on a tourist bus that was actually quite comfortable, but unfortunately the creepy Indian guy who decided that I was his new best friend did too.

With two 5am starts in a row I wanted to sleep, but he just wanted to attempt to throw broken English at me and talk about nothing in particular. Or give me pan masala, that he didn't get that I just didn't like. "Blah blah blah blah NOT INJURIOUS TO HEALTH blah blah". They know some weird phrases here. I guess it's because "injurious to health" is their way of saying it here.

The English-language newspapers are a great read here too. They're written in a fairly Victorian style, and are a good laugh.

But to creepy Indian guy: no, I am not your friend. Please stop waking me up. Please stop opening the window every 5 seconds to spit out of it, it's not civilised and it's cold. And no, I am not going to stay at your house, I'd rather stay at my hotel.

Darkness came and Jaipur approached. Golden Trangle part 2. Avoiding the touts, part 4.

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