24th - 30th March
24.03.2009 - 30.03.2009 30 °C
From Udaipur we got a night train to Agra which passed without incident. We got a rickshaw to a hotel in the Taj Ganj area, relaxed there for a bit, then went on a tour of some of the sights with the rickshaw driver who took us to the hotel.
The first place he took us to was Akbar’s mausoleum which is a tomb commemorating Akbar who is regarded as the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Despite being a ‘tomb’, the massive buildings, gateways and gardens make it feel and look much more like a palace.
After that we saw Itimah-Ud-Daulah (known as the Baby Taj) from the outside then Chini-ka-Rausa, a riverside tomb which was set in nice gardens and actually resembled a tomb, albeit a very grand one. We also stopped briefly at a couple of mosques. This trip also gave us an opportunity to see more of Agra which was interesting although, like much of India, it is fairly desolate and poverty stricken.
Finally we went to the sandy banks of the Yamuna River for sunset where there are excellent views of the back of the Taj Mahal. It was really enjoyable to sit there, relax and take in a quintessential Indian scene; guys playing cricket in the sand with the Taj in the background.
We got up at 5.30 the following morning to be among the first to see the Taj Mahal that day. We were at the front of the queue with a few others until a tour group turned up, about five minutes before the gates opened, and barged their way to the front with the help of their tour leaders and the security guards. Despite this we still got the benefit of being there before it got ridiculously busy later in the morning.
After leaving the Taj we chilled out for a bit before going to see Agra Fort later in the day. Agra Fort is an immense sandstone structure built by the Mughals and is definitely worth a look.
On our last day in Agra we did the Taj Nature Walk which is basically a stroll through a park with occasional glimpses of the Taj in the background. We had time to kill before our night train to Varanasi so we stayed in the park for a few hours and drank chai at various cafes, including the one on the rooftop of our hotel that has yet more views of the Taj.
We arrived at the train station to find that our train had been delayed by an hour and this set the tone for the rest of the journey. When we got on the train and found our seats we were met by an Indian woman who asked us which seats were ours. We told her that we were 12 and 15 and then she started repeatedly and aggressively shouting ’42 and 44’ in our faces. Eventually we worked out that she wanted us to swap seats with her so we reluctantly walked down the carriage and saw that her seats were occupied. It was turning into a farce, with her shouting at more people in Hindi, so we went back to our proper seats which she wasn’t happy about. She then refused to let us put our bags in the space for luggage as she said that our bags would break the things in her bags so we spent an uncomfortable night with our big bags on our bunk beds. The situation deteriorated at about 2.30am when the lights were turned on and lots of people started playing Indian pop music on some speakers as well as talking and spitting loudly until about 5am.
Our predicament didn’t get any better when we arrived in Varanasi two and a half hours late. We got into a rickshaw and told the driver which hostel we wanted to go to. When we left the station the driver turned round and said that he wouldn’t take us to the hostel we wanted but to ones that were ‘better’ (i.e that he gets commission from). We didn’t like the first one he took us to so once more we asked him to take us to where we wanted to go. He agreed to this then took us to a different place. We’d had enough by this point and were really tired so ended up taking a room there
We relaxed in the hotel for a few hours, had showers, then decided to go for a walk. On our way out the owner of the hotel tried to sell us a tour. We said we’d think about it and left the hotel. He then followed us and said that he’d show us how to get to the ghats at the Ganges River (which are extremely easy to find) and wouldn’t take no for an answer. As he walked with us, and we tried to get rid of him, he was going on about how we shouldn’t trust anyone who might try to sell us silk whilst trying to get us to come to a silk factory with him so that he could sell us silk. It was all very strange and after he eventually left us alone we were glad to have some peace.
The next morning we got up at 5.30 to go on a boat trip on the Ganges River. This turned out to be the first ‘sunrise tour’ out of all the ones we’ve done this trip where we actually saw the sun rise so our efforts to drag ourselves out of bed were vindicated. Varanasi, and the Ganges River in particular, is the holiest place for Hindus in India and is regarded as being where the physical and spiritual worlds meet.
The trip along the river allows you to see the famous ghats. Most of which are bathing ghats but there are also some burning ghats where bodies are cremated. The river is unbelievably polluted with dead dogs and sewage visible so seeing people washing their bodies and clothes there isn’t very pleasant.
Whilst we were in Varanasi we also went on a tour of some Hindu temples and the university.
Other things we did included going to a swimming pool at an upmarket hotel for an afternoon, going on walks along the banks of the river and the narrow side streets and hanging out at Brown Bread, a German bakery with good food and comfy seating.