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INDIA | Monday, 24 March 2014 | Views [235]


This morning we (Stacey, Kristyna, and I) left Varanasi for Agra. The girls unfortunately did not get a seat on the train the day before, so they bought general tickets (2nd class) on today's train and were meant to be upgraded on the train to sit with me in my seat. Which is not as bad it sounds since a seat in first class is really a berth, or a bed size seat, which can easily accommodate three.
Well, "upgraded" was the word they used at the train station. The ticket takers on the train, the three of them that turned up to deal with us, used the word "illegal". But the girls refused to budge and so of course, as you might expect, after the ticket takers talked about it at length, they decided they could issue them a receipt and they would both have to pay the full fare for the seat plus a small fee, 10% or so. It was kind of amusing. And confusing given that the stories changed depending on who you talked to.
Sharing the seat would not have been so bad since we are travelling during the day, but the arrival of the train ends up being about 6 hours late - so we spent 13 hours on the train when we thought it would only be 9. Sharing a berth is not really ideal for this length of time. Especially when it's night time. Although obviously they do it in general seating class all the time. We're so spoiled.
But when we do finally arrive in Agra we will be in the home of the Taj Mahal - the grand poobah of things to see while in India. And this will all be worth it, right?
We arrive at the train station six hours late, at 1 am. Luckily, the guy from the guesthouse comes to collect us. We make it safely to theguesthouse and get 4 hours rest before rising at 6 am to go see the Taj Mahal. We are told sunrise is the best time to go.

En route to the Taj this morning, we see horse drawn carriages/rickshaws as a mode of transport. First time I've seen that in India, I think. Lots of bicycles here too, though maybe not as many as in Varanasi. That place was overrun with bike traffic.

Wow!. .. Wow! Wow! The Taj Mahal is totally worth it! Not overhyped at all. The symmetry of the building and its wing buildings, the beauty of the white/grey stone, and the gardens. As you move closer you see the script engraved on it and when you get very close you see the beautiful inlaid jewel stones, jade and ebony and others. Reds, yellows, blues, greens, blacks, and they even used a multi-colored stone as part of the pattern.

And the carved stone panels with three and four flower patterns. So incredibly detailed and beautiful. And that's the outside.
The inside is equally detailed and there is an enclosure under the dome that houses a replica of the two stone caskets of the two who are buried here. The real ones are locked in the basement apparently for security reasons.
The whole place is just lovely and I'm so glad that we got up at 6 am to see this monument to love and beauty in the cool of the day. It was completely worth it!! I think the pictures will prove it.
Afterwards, we returned to our hotel for breakfast and a 90 minute rest before heading out to see some other sights around town.
First was Agra Fort or the red fort. This is a palace surrounded by a red stone wall, a palace in the style of the ottomans I think. It looked very similar to the architecture we saw at the palace in Istanbul, but there were none of the mosaic tiled walls like we saw there. It was very impressive and hand-  with five court yards of various sizes and shapes. Some were lawns and others were made of stone. And the main living space was fantastic.
After Agra fort we visited baby Taj, which was I think actually a fore runner to the Taj. It was pretty fantastic, like the Taj, but in miniature. And I felt like the mosaic on the outside was better. And there were a lot of rooms, unlike the Taj, which was only one big room. And the rooms were decorated with elaborate paintings of flowers in vases. They were so detailed and colorful! I was really impressed. They were great art in their own as well as contributing to the overall whole of the place. Only because Taj didn't really have a lot of the mosaic on the outside.
After baby Taj, we went to another tomb, even older and not kept up well. It was a bit of a wreck on the outside but some of the ceilings on the inside were really incredible, despite being unrestored.
Last place of the day, was a garden started by the guy who built the Taj across the river from the Taj to mimic the grandeur of gardens he had seen elsewhere. It was planned and geometric with rows and grid alleyways. And a nice place to see the Taj at sunset.
We returned to the hotel for a relaxing dinner. I had the paneer tikka masala- which was sooooo good. Paneer is a sort of soft cheese that's the consistency of tofu. They usually cut it into squares or small shapes and toss it into the stew, probably near the end so it doesn't break down. It doesn't really have much of a flavor so it's good with everything and has a wonderfup cheesiness.
All in all it was an amazing day, and a great final day for the girls, who fly out of India tomorrow. They are quite thankful about that as they waited in train stations a bit too much for it to be fun.

Today I took a tour to Fatehpur Sikri with four other travelers at the guesthouse. It was at least an hour ride there. We were slowed down on the road by Ann incredibly long pilgrimage. The last 15 kilometers or so of the drive, we saw maybe 10,000 people, that's just my guess, walking along the road. And there were stations set up to serve them all along the way every half kilometer or so with water and food and places to rest or sleep. And often with six or eight speakers blaring music on full blast. Unnervingly loud music in a country that's already at 10 decibels.
The pilgrimage also had music trucks- which are like delivery trucks with 8 or 10 horns off the back blaring music and driving along with the walkers. And the walkers would sometimes be dancing to the music.
This is not the solemn serious sort of pilgrimage your mind may conjure up from a stereotype. This is a five day party on your feet in the searing heat of India, which for them it feels like balmy spring, so no problem. None of them have sweat soaked shirts. Meantime, I'm sweating just sitting in the car watching as we drive by. It was a really interesting event to see, and of course we got to see it all again on the return trip.
For me, that was the highlight of the day. Fatehpur Sikri was a bit of a let down. There was four red walls, similar to Agra Fort, surrounding a large courtyard with two large gates. In the center, was a small building built for the king's holy man who blessed him with a son. The building of white marble houses the tomb and its considered a very holy place, so people buy scarves and roses and string and they lay the scarves and roses on this adorned tomb and pray and then they tie the string thru the holes in the marble window screens and make a wish.
It all seemed a bit touristy to be honest. We paid for an official guide who steered us not only to a guy giving us a spiel about the scarves and roses and string and selling it to us, but also later to a marble dealer set up in a corner. It didn't really feel like the official tourism dept should. But then it's India.
The interior of the tomb room was beautiful, but no pictures allowed. Outside, surrounding the room, was a lovely hallway screened in by amazingly delicate screens carved out of marble in several different patterns. They were quite beautiful. I did get pics of those.
There was a mosque on the far side of the square that was quite a nice space as well. It seemed really well designed.
In the end I bought an elephant in an elephant in an elephant carved out of marble. That's the specialty in this region. They also had turtles, which I would normally get. But they weren't carved out. I'll never understand why they don't sell cows here. There are no elephants anywhere, but cows everywhere and as tourists we are fascinated by them. We would eat up anything cow related. But again, an undeveloped tourist industry. You can rarely even buy postcards except from a kid on the street and the Taj Mahal has no gift shop.
Afterward, back at the tourist dept station, we had a tasty ginger milk tea- the best masala chai I've had here.
The touts selling stuff were at an all time high here, and most of them were children around 9 to 12 years. They spoke surprisingly good English for children, and for Indians in general. One young boy followed us back to the tourist place. He was more hungry to chat with us I think than to sell his pens. Nice kid.
There was a couple from Hawaii on the tour. The husbands family was from India but the wife was from the Midwest. They both spoke Hindi so we learned a lot about India from them. Nice relaxed couple.
I've run out bug spray which is a huge crisis and last night at dinner I got 25 mosquito bites. Then I went to bed early.

Today was a rest day. I visited the India post office. Not a bad operation in Agra. They sold me a box and properly taped it and only charged me 25 USD to send it home. Slow route. It was a heavy box so that was probably cheap. Only if I actually receive it of course. (Six weeks on and still no box.)

But oddly enough they still also sew packages into linen bags and seal them with dots of red candle wax. It looked really cool. But of course it is probably incredibly time consuming. I'm glad I didn't have to wait for that. And I don't have any idea how sturdy it would be.
I also managed to find a DEET free bug repellant- but it's in lotion form. At least I think it is. Apparently that's what they use here because the chemicals for making DEET are too expensive here. But studies show it works equally well. We'll see if it works as well as the awesome nz stuff. Hopefully it's not plasticizing. If it's not, then I will say I finally found an amazing product in India.

Agra was a pretty good place. Not smelly like Varanasi. A lot of touts selling stuff at all the sites. A lot of Indian tourists wanting to take our picture with them. A lot of beautiful stuff here and a lot of tourists! A lot. The most I've seen yet.


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