Arriving into Agra train station we brace ourselves for an onslaught of touts. Before leaving the relative safety of the station we stop by a shop at the train station to ask the rough price of a taxi to the Taj, which we are hoping to do in a day and get back to the train station and off to Delhi later that evening.
He gives us a rough price and we walk outside armed with our limited knowledge, and while there are a huge number of taxi and rickshaw drivers everywhere you look, we weren’t quite being manhandled as much as expected.
We walk a safe distance away from the station and start bartering with one guy, getting him down to nearly a quarter the price he first quoted, and what sounded like a fair sum. He looked at our backpacks and told us that the entrance we wanted to go to did not have lockers for our backpacks, and that we should leave them at the train station.
This was never going to happen, so we just told him not to worry, it’s fine. We had actually read earlier on the train that his information was incorrect, so we knew he was trying to pull a fast one. It’s times like this, not knowing your surroundings, that you think he could drop us anywhere, tell us it’s the Taj entrance and be away before we were any of the wiser.
He didn’t do that, but he did drop us at a different Taj entrance then we had requested; it was the closest one for him to drop us off, as we later found out so he had still managed to fleece us a little bit.
Agra is a crowded nondescript city, with busy, wide and noisy roads filled with taxis and rickshaws as far as the eye can see. Not too deterred, we went and found the lockers near the entrance. Keeping a bumbag full of all valuable items, we asked ourselves the question ‘what would we be most upset at losing if we don’t get our bags back’, and we each choose our valued item of clothing, putting into a drawstring bag to take with us.
With a degree of trepidation we left our bags where instructed, paid the storage fee and were given our slip of paper as a receipt. There was no going back now, if we wanted to see the Taj we had to leave our bags somewhere.
As we made our way to the ticket booth, the increasing amount of touts started to ply their usual spiel. The most convincing of the lot was a young, well-dressed chap who had impeccable English. “Don’t worry, it’s okay, I work for the Indian Tourist Board. I just want to give you some information”, to which sceptically we listened to him give us some useful advice, such as picking up our free water and slippers after buying our ticket.
We were waiting for the kicker, and then it came “if you look at the queue here, it will take you an hour or two to get in, but if you’d like to save your time I can get you to the front of the queue….”, we cut him off earlier and went in search of where to enter, knowing this was a common scam.
There was indeed a huge queue, but as buying the foreign visitor pass apparently allowed us to use what is essentially a queue-jump ticket, we walked around trying to work out where it was we were meant to go. We spotted a sign that looked promising, and as we got near our good friend the tout from earlier had duped a group behind us, and he was chaperoning them in our direction, no doubt after accepting a fee from them.
From here it was only a short 5 minute queue, followed by a very hefty security check and we were into the Taj. Catching the glimpse of the top dome, we worked our way around to the main entrance. Sadly, we had picked a very foggy/smoggy day and visibility was poor, though there was no denying that walking through the entrance to take in the familiar sight in front of us was something special.
Not expecting to be particularly impressed, the Taj appeared much larger then I’d imagined, with people barely the size of ants at its base. It also wasn’t as crowded as I’d expected, as we walked towards it to take in its full view.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes it so intriguing to gaze at, but partly I think it is down to having nothing else on the horizon to distract your eye, as it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. This is due to it being raised off the ground and surrounded by walls on all side, a genius idea.
There wasn’t anything particular worth seeing on the inside of the Taj, as you are crammed into the inner tomb type area, with guards inexplicably blowing on their whistle to ruin any sort of ambience that may have been there, attempting to shuffle people on quicker.
By far the best view came when we walked down to one of the side gates and sat away from the crowds, with the top of the gate forming a natural border around the Taj. Away from the crowds, we sat and gazed up for at least half hour, enjoying the relative quietness and serene view.
And that was that – the Taj done in under two hours, and after the bags were safely retrieved we had far more time before our train to Delhi then we had planned for, so off to the train station we went.
Trying to find some relative peace in the chaoticness of an Indian train station, we found a patch of grass where we lay down until disturbed by some Indians claiming that the police were going to come and move us on. We played dumb and pretended we were French and didn’t understand any English – which was a surprisingly useful tactic for getting rid of touts.
In this case the man attempting to speak to us looked completely dumbfounded, continuing to speak in English he spluttered ‘But… but… if you don’t speak English, how are you travelling?’. Mairead and I just stared at him, seemingly not having a clue what he was talking about. Their ramblings went on for a long time, with another group of people joining in with berating us. It soon become obvious that they weren’t going to let us sit here in peace, for whatever reason, so we spent the next 4 hours in the demoralising Agra waiting room.
Keeping ourselves amused by watching a small soap opera of the most fed-up looking man in India working at collecting entrance fee desk for the toilet, we were treated to captive scenes such as patrons sneaking in, others refusing to pay, some sort of argument by what was possibly a rival toilet mafia over who the maintenance man was to work for, it all made bizarre and intriguing viewing.
As the time to the train began to turn into minutes rather then hours, we waited out on the platform. Curiously watching a group of young Indians play fighting and interacting on the other side of the train station, we were unknowingly being watched ourselves. Before we knew it we had a whole family up behind us and asking to take a photo, grandmothers and all! I couldn’t resist passing them my camera to get one of the funnier snaps of the trip, as we found ourselves ‘family-bombed’ in a photo.
Pleased to be leaving Agra behind we got into our seats and began what felt like a marathon train journey to Delhi. I’m not sure why it felt so long and uncomfortable, especially for someone who loves a good train ride. I think the actual time was around 4 hours, but it felt so, so much longer.
This was even with watching another Indian soap opera unfold in front of us, this time an extremely jobsworth ticket inspector. As we sat down, we both noticed a girl standing up and looking around nervously. As the ticket inspector (named Detective from now on), went passed meticulously checking tickets she put herself down on the end of our 3 seated isle once he had passed our row.
We both muttered to each other that she was probably not meant to be sitting there, but thought nothing more of it until a few stops later when a young family tried to board. Up and down they went, looking confusingly at their train tickets.
The man had eventually found his seat, but one of the younger children was walking past us again and again, looking up at the numbers. It was clear it was the seat our new friend next to us was in, and Detective became involved in a full-on investigation. Asking for almost everyone’s tickets bar the girl that had sat down, he strutted up and down the carriage, every so often asking for a person at random’s tickets.
After about an hour, two and two must have been put together and Detective was back to catch his prey. The poor girl next to us, probably thinking that she had gotten away with it, was then made to pay some sort of fine and was sent off to separate section of the train in tears. After all of that hassle the girl who’s seat she had stolen didn’t even return, classic.
We arrived into Delhi as night had just fallen and set about finding our hotel, which we did with relative ease. Absolutely empty of energy and craving sleep, we encountered a particularly bureaucratic receptionist, even by Indian standards. I think there must be a link between how much of a bureaucratic wanker you are, and how large your hotel sign-in book is, because this one was huge.
Again, we were left standing while he ineptly thumbed through our passports, attempting to find the ever-elusive Indian stamp. Again, I offered to find it but was completely ignored. Eventually all of our details were recorded in the huge book and we were finally given the keys. The next morning, an arranged rendezvous in the hotel with the ever elusive prick, Mark, actually happened to my surprise. He’d managed to get himself to the right place, after somehow being swindled out of half a bottle of whiskey by the receptionist on his checking-in. This was nothing compared to the story he offered on his first trip to India, being made to believe Delhi was closed and getting a taxi all the way to Jaipur.
The next day we set off to find what we we hoped to be our best accommodation of the whole trip. Far from a 5 star hotel, it was double bed with en-suite (and potentially hot water on top) in modern looking hostel complex, which by this stage felt like a distant dream. Buried in the chaos of the Paharganj area, we selected it for its proximity to the train station for easy access in and out.
Pahargnaj shouldn’t be high up on anyones tourist guide, even with the thousands of ‘Official India Tourism Office’ buildings that we passed. Littered next to these were hundreds of hotels and cheap restaurants, which all looked a bit like a place where failed tourist businesses come to die. The streets constantly crowded with people, taxis, tuk-tuks and noise, it wasn’t the most glamorous area.
On one of our first streets a man approached to try and warn us a large fight going on up the road between two different religions and it was very dangerous. The kind man was offering us to take shelter in some particular place, but we took no notice and carried on. Unsurprisingly there was no such riot going on up the road.
Eventually, and after a lot of pretending we didn’t speak English (no parle Anglais…) we managed to find our hostel. Complete with drinking water, clean bed, working toilet and warm shower, it felt like an absolute dream.
In celebration we purchased a bottle of whiskey, to which Mark proceed to get ripped off again. Wanting to get just the cheapest liquor, he had somehow ended up with a limited edition statue figure of the ‘Black Monk’ whiskey he wanted. With his ceremonial figure in hand, we painstakingly recalled the rules of ‘drink a bottle of whisky game’ and sunk the whole thing between the three of us.
As Mark’s eyes began to gaze over and his speech started to stutter and fault, like the old times, he started to turn into the prick that we all know and (sometimes) love. His manners towards an unfortunate Slovakian guy started to be become increasingly erratic and combative, so it was time to leave him sound asleep on a chair on the roof.
We woke to our last day in India with a heavy head but with sincere intentions of making full use of the included buffet breakfast. It didn’t disappoint, as we loaded up on food and slipped some extra into a bag for later, for good measure. Flying out in the early hours of the morning, we had a whole day to kill in Delhi and though both of us were feeling over any sightseeing, the map appeared that we were close to both the Red Fort and some other attractions. Surely just a short stroll to check them out would be easy going and worthwhile?
Two hours later and I’m in the busiest street I have ever seen, every piece of pavement covered and flowing with a mixture of people, animals, shit and everything in between. We had accidentally strolled into one of the market areas, and for what felt like an eternity we were trapped in a river of people, unable to choose where we were going, just flowing with the river as it cascaded in the direction we hoped would lead us out of this carnage.
In those 2 to 3 hours, we must have passed tens or hundreds of thousands of people, but yet we must have only seen one other Westerner in the mix. How can all of these various shops be surviving, when there are just so many of them? The dusty air mixed with the ever-present but even more poignant smell of shit, making the whole experience completely exhausting and somewhat overwhelming, as we finally caught site of the Red Fort.
As we began to get closer to the fort, a gradual increase of white Western faces also started, as the Indian crowds slowly died away. The fort was impressive to look at, but we were more thankful for the relative solitude, we certainly wouldn’t be walking back through that in a hurry. We skirted the fort, not venturing to go inside and took a side trip to see Ghandi’s memorial, which was an understated gem, buried among some (rare) quiet gardens.
It was time to be heading back to grab our stuff from the hostel, and just as the one time you actually would like a taxi or tuk-tuk, none were in sight, despite us being on a main road. The only mode of transport that kept appearing were the bicycle rickshaws, which made us both feel uneasy about using, made even worse by our driver having a very strange technique that pointed to a busted knee.
When we were on-board, every turn of the chain looked to require all of his energy as he pushed down and lent his body weight onto it, knee bent to one side. It was an uncomfortable ride, and I’d have dearly preferred to ride the bike myself with him the back, if only I knew where I was going or the language barrier could be breached, allowing him to direct me.
It wasn’t more then a 15 or 20 minute ride, though through our guilt it felt much longer, as he struggled on through the busy Indian motorway. He didn’t try to rip us off and asked for what seemed like a very reasonable price, so we ensured he was well paid, but it still sat a little uneasy.
After gathering our stuff from the hostel we set out on the short 10 minute walk to the railway station, and as the sun had set on the day it left Delhi looking even worse than we had seen it the first time.
It had an almost apocalyptic feel to it, as we walked amongst a sea of people, at one point not seeing one of the many public urinals facing out to the road. As we caught the smell, it was enough to nearly knock you off balance, which for someone who doesn’t have a good sense of smell at the best of times, it was quite an achievement. Rubbish was littered everywhere, on the pavements and road until we made it into the train station building, which was the complete opposite.
Workers inside the station were aimlessly cleaning already spotless floors, while piles of shite build up just a couple of metres away. Now no longer a scene that surprises or amuses, it’s simply India. Irregular, baffling, frustrating though undeniably an experience.
When people asked us about our trip on our return, the term ‘experience’ was one that popped up again and again, like trying a new receipe from your mum that is barely edible, and when she asks you how it tastes you mention something about it being ‘different’.
For yet another time we passed through Delhi airport, having acquainted ourselves very well over the last few days. There was a feeling, bordering on relief, as we boarded the long flight that would take us via Amsterdam (free cheese shop, fresh air and no swimming pool in sight!) back to Vancouver.
I wouldn’t be rushing back to India in a hurry, and if I’m honest I couldn’t imagine a time in the future where I would go back, with so many other countries out there. Likewise I wouldn’t warn anyone about not going, but certainly prepare yourself for an ‘experience’.