It’s often called Agro by tourists but we think we had a good run, and it fortunately didn’t really live up to it’s reputation of being a dirty smelly city where you can’t move one metre without being overwhelmed by a horde of touts, beggars and persistent salesman. There was an episode of salesmanship taken to an extreme that seemed impossible, but more on that later.
The train ride to Agra was an experience in itself. There’s a few classes of train in India, and we have generally opted for “sleeper”, which is the cheapest class you can get where you can reserve a seat/bed. The option down is general, and in India, this means everyone who wants buys tickets, no max limit, and everyone piles on to the point where people are hanging off people who are hanging off the edge of the door. Grant and myself lost each other fairly early into the trip (the lucky dog got a seat as well – grrr) and I had a nice cosy standing posse squashed next to the (nice clean…..) toilet, so there was plenty of pungent aroma’s to keep me awake. When we stopped at the first major train station, people charged on in numbers at least ten times the capacity of the carriage. People frantically shouted at me to move my pack as it was in the way and one helpful Indian urged me to pass it over, which I did in the panic of the moment only to watch him toss it out the door!. Anyway, I didn’t move until I got it back, which was only about 10 seconds, but in the madness and surging urgency of the moment, hordes of Indians nearly beat me to a pulp. Gulp!.
It really was like Indians turn into raging psychopaths during the mad stampede to get on the train, I’ve never seen anything like it. Fortunately, people calm down once their on, and I was lucky enough to avoid a beating. Perhaps being a bulky foreigner helped……..
The other end of the train ride was not up to the chaotic Agro expectations we had, and there were plenty of keen AutoRickshaw taxi drivers fighting over our ride to the hotel. We ended up with a guy that seemed quite nice, and had a book of highly positive feed back signed and written by his previously satisfied foreign customers. This should have been our first warning sign, the second warning sign was when he started calling us “my dear” and “my brother” after knowing us only five minutes. This could easily have just been an innocent language barrier, but our experience so far has been that anyone who calls you “my brother” every second sentence has been a shady con man or over keen businessman looking to take us for all we’ve got. Perhaps it was because we were tired, but we somehow agreed (after extreme pressure) to let him take us around some sites the next day for what appeared to be quite a cheap sum of rupees.
He picked us up at 6am the next day, and we drove across the river to see the Taj at sunrise, which was so good so far. From there though, all he really wanted to do was take us to expensive commission paying shops and restaurants, and we ended up paying him at 9am just to get rid of him, even then he pressured us for a tip.
For here on in though, Agra was a enriching experience. We saw what is known as the “Baby Taj”, which is really an old tomb in a similar style, incredibly beautiful though. It’s a well kept grass area, and the building is white marble encrusted with semiprecious stones, and really peaceful non intrusive calming patterns. The centre of the tomb had an awesome echo effect.
In the afternoon Grant went off the catch a movie while I spent the time visiting the Agra Fort. Grant wanted to visit the Taj compound itself the next day, which is pretty expensive so decided to save money and miss the Fort.
The Fort itself is absurdly large from the outside, with walls about ten metres high and three metres thick, and enclosing an area about 2km squared. The inside used to be filled with historic buildings, however we have the British to thank for leveling about 75% of these and replacing them with Barracks during an Indian Uprising, known as, the “Indian Uprising” :).
The Fort interior is still impressive though (the Army parts are closed off of course), housing some 16 Palaces, Gardens, Mosques etc. There’s also a tower there where the King who had the Taj built was imprisoned for the last eight years of his life (by his own son). The tower had a nice view of the Taj, which was also to become his Tomb. The Taj by the way, is actually a Tomb for this Kings wife (I forget his name sorry). He had the Taj built for her after she died, as a symbol of his love, and even went to the extent of removing the fingers of the craftsman involved in the construction, such that the feet couldn’t be replicated (nice guy). The Fort also contained a centuries old air conditioning system that we (apparently) still haven’t been able to figure out. It worked with three different levels of water towers somehow.
The following day, Grant was up before dawn to see the Taj compound for sunrise, so hell no doubt update this site with his memorable day there when he gets a chance. I instead took a bus about 40km out of Agra to visit the old Palace of “Akbar the Great”. The Palace, which has been restored and is thus in good condition, is surrounded the ruins of an old city. Akbar had the city built and planned as his new capital, and moved thousands of people there, but they had built the city too far from water, and were plagued by water shortages, so had to abandon it in less than a decade. The Palace is quite fascinating because Akbar was renowned for his efforts to overcome the religious friction between the various faiths of the time. One aspect of this was his invention of a new religion that combined Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Muslim, Christian and Judaism. Quite an ambitious project it would seem, but in his attempts to do so, he built his Palace and Temples combining symbology and architecture from all religions. Thus, there are Mosques with lotus flowers and Catholic domes etc. He also married three wives, one Christian, one Buddhist and one Muslim, and built them all little Palaces in their appropriate styles within his Palace compound. One last feature of the area of note is a tunnel that runs between his Palace, the Agra Fort and the Taj, thats 40Km underground!. Thus they used horses to travel underground, and had to build air vents all along the tunnel.
By the way, this was where I was lucky enough to encounter the keen salesman tactics mentioned earlier. You definitely get used to so serious persistence from people trying to sell you everything, but at the settlement outside the Palace it became silly. There were about seven shops all selling mostly soft drinks and smokes, and every time you walk within shouting distance, your attention is drawn by people offering you this and that, this is normal for India though. While attempting to walk past these shops, a guy selling a chess set and a kid trying to sell some postcards followed me for more than 20 minutes trying to sell me their wares. Every five seconds, it was no, no thankyou etc etc etc, but it just seemed like they were convinced I’d crack and buy everything at some point. I had to get slightly angry before they stopped and we finally talked about something else, but as soon as voices were calm again, it was back to the chess set and postcards!
On our last full day in Agra, we left the city to the a smaller town nearby that we thought had a Lord Krishna festival going on. In fact, there was no festival, but we ended up in a small town where English was hardly understood, and it was worth the trip. It is slightly famous, as Krishna apparently held up a mountain here, and also stole some cloths of some people while they were swimming (when he was a little brat of course), so some Hare Krishna and Hindu pilgrims still come here sometimes. We ate some food and visited a Krishna temple, then had to hop back on the Rickshaw to ensure we made the bus connection, so most of the day was spent travelling (and standing) on a bus.
We just made the train from Agra to Delhi, running down the platform with our packs and leaping on the train as it zipped away, I’m sure we would have missed it if we were ten seconds later. We had to take the first carriage we could, so we didn’t get to use our sleeper class tickets. Another fun ride in general….