“The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it.” – Mark Jenkins

Today marks the exact halfway point for our 16 weeks in India. As a reward we were treated to the Taj Mahal! But before that…

We (Toby and I, Joe blogging here) rose early in Jaipur on Saturday (26th) and took a 7am train to Agra. Nearly all the trains were booked up (No surprise there) so we were forced to book an air conditioned express service which took only three hours, costing 5.00GBP each, which is quite a bit in India! We came prepared with our usual morning train food (Sweet bun, 10p) but were treated instead to: a copy of The Times of India; tea and biscuits; a 1L bottle of water; and a cooked breakfast, all served by for free by attentive staff. It certainly made the ticket price seem worthwhile!

On arrival in Agra we made our way to our guesthouse which sits in the travellers district of ‘Taj Ganj’, just south of the entrance to the Taj Mahal. Agra is a horrible city. A constant haze of smog hangs above the sprawling mass of low-level blocks. Traffic is awful, a manic free-for-all. It’s probably the most unpleasant place we’ve been to so far, and so was suitably matched by not the finest room. Meeting none of the facilities advertised the shower could barely spit out water, and worst of all there were gaps in the window’s insect sheet so we had to stuff curtains into the gaps and spray them with repellent! (It worked though!). At 2.00GBP each a night it also seems overpriced but the district is full of such grim alternatives we were content with the room for two nights and the location was very good, 5 minutes from the Taj entrance. A favourite phrase of Toby’s was very apt: “One you’re asleep, you don’t know the difference anyway.” The rooftop had a great view of the Taj itself, a sneak preview, but an appalling menu, so I satisfied my craving for muesli, fruit & curd (a staple breakfast here for me), elsewhere.

On Saturday afternoon we did some light sightseeing, first visiting the ‘baby Taj’, a smaller version of the main mausoleum that we all know, and then into the centre of Agra to take a look at the Jamid Masjid (Central Mosque). We weren’t even allowed in, but the highlight was the journey there. We were at the whim of Agra’s mid-afternoon traffic. At a standstill for much of the time, it took us about 30 minutes to travel 2km. Jostling for space on the 3m-wide road (I’d say akin to a ‘close’ or ‘drive’ in England) were cows, goats, dogs, cars, scooters, rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and trailers carrying everything from bicycle tyres to water bottles. It was India at its rawest and crudest and we were up close and personal with it, and those petrol fumes too. What a sight though. I would have loved to teleport any friend to be in the rickshaw with us. On arrival at the Mosque we walked around local markets, so small and rammed that locals could barely gather their English and say the “Can I help you sir” sentence as they were so shocked to see two foreigners walking around!

Yesterday, Sunday, was spent 30km West of Agra at the ancient (And now dormant) Mughal City of Fatephur Sikri. Emperor Akhbar made the capital of his Empire here 1560-1605AD. During 1572-1585 he lived here (Just 13 years?!), his ‘most formative years’. We first came across the giant Mosque, which as well as being FREE to enter ranks among the largest and finest Mosques in the world. We’d both arrived in shorts (Big no no) so I had great fun in squeezing mine down my legs as far as possible to avoid paying for a dirty shawl. ‘Baggy shorts’ – my new take on Madness’ classic hit. Built entirely of red sandstone, with a spacious courtyard containing a (very dirty) pool of ablution, where locals bathed (That sari won’t be bright pink for much longer, darling). The most striking element was the giant South gate, built in three tiers and set high up on a hill, reached by a large set of steps as our necks creaked to view it in one. Akbar had the South gate rebuilt as he wanted a more imposing entrance – and he certainly got it! The Mosque is a major congregational mosque, like Mecca. We then walked to (and paid into) the main complex of the old city, which was much smaller than we imagined. It was worth paying a visit to, but perhaps I’ve been so spoilt recently with forts and palaces that I wasn’t really amazed by it. There was a distinct lack of objects, art, and ornate work in what was essentially a ruin, albeit a well-maintained one. Our whole door-to-door day was about 5 hours, but we only spent 90 minutes at the site. But even if the city had been jaw-dropping, my view would have been re-calibrated regardless by what we saw this morning…

After rising at 5am (and dressing in my freshly ironed kaftan, 10 pence well spent) we ended up being first in line for the Taj Mahal, something we hadn’t planned or had our hearts set on, we just wanted to be in early! At 6.15am we rushed in to the empty pathways that led to the central archway that you pass through and as we got closer I could begin to see how empty it was and I began to run, shouting to Toby to “Come quick, there’s nobody here!”. We thus came to survey an unforgettable scene. The light was still low and the sky very hazy, but the Taj was just breathtaking. It was perhaps 500m away, but I still felt as if it towered over us, it’s trademark dome punching the sky like a rising hot-air balloon.The first 20 minutes or so were frantic. We were endlessly taking pictures, snap snap snap! This angle, that setting, this pose, over here. We jumped onto the platform which sits halfway along the reflecting pools and sat with the Taj behind us, not a soul in sight. 10 minutes later the platform was crawling with tourists and locals alike.

Over the next two hours we walked all over the site. As the sun rose the Taj became golden, and most of our images make it look so, though in reality it’s a brilliant bright white, so complete and singular despite the individuality of each marble block. Then we sat in various places and wondered, walked and pondered, on the beauty that was here in front of us. For me, in these situations it’s so overwhelming that I needed time to actually acknowledge I was there and to take it all in. You see so many images over time, that when you’re there you almost have to tell yourself that you’ve made it. I thought the quote that opened this post was within this theme. I know Toby felt very moved by it too, it was like nothing else we’d quite seen before.

Tonight we take an overnight train to Varanasi, a VERY holy city for Hindus (many go to die here) and we’re expecting it to be as busy and hectic as Agra, though hopefully with more energy and spiritual significance. The trains were full again, but we spoke to an agent here and he’s managed to work wonders (or, to be precise, sent a child down to the station in the small hours of the morning to queue for our emergency ticket, the price we pay via the commission).

I’ll end by contemplating how India might be affecting our personas. Yesterday we were told by a South African couple that, though we’re both lovely and all, they wouldn’t mess with us, and maybe that’s why locals don’t either! For me I think India is teaching me more patience but paradoxically making me ruder: It’s now common for me to push my way through the streets or barge somebody out the way when they come up to me selling some tat. Yesterday I timed my walk behind Toby so I could ‘accidentally’ clash with a pesky necklace seller, and of course we’ve learnt the art of blissfully ignoring somebody who’s talking directly to our face. So much for all that good karma in Rishikesh!

All aboard to Varanasi! X