Saturday, 10 November 2012

Agra

30th October-2nd November

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. After Delhi, I was looking for some light relief. Unfortunately Agra is not the right place to look. Don’t get me wrong, the historical sites are stunning, but the city itself is a dump. Get in, see the sights and get out.

Luckily, the guest-house we’d chosen was an oasis of calm amid the madness. The Heritage Homestay is just outside the city centre (if you can call it that) and is run by a very nice Sikh family. We had a great time there eating home-cooked Indian food, drinking chai and being regaled with anecdotes and stories by the head of family, Mr Singh. He’s quite a character is Mr. Singh – just don’t let him tell you any jokes!

The easiest way to see the sights in Agra is to hire a rickshaw driver for the day. A word of warning though: you have to make it clear you don’t want to go shopping otherwise you’ll be taken to clothes, carpet and marble shops and given the hard-sell (the drivers make a healthy commission if you buy anything). Our driver, Rama, was pretty good. He only took us to one shop (a marble emporium) but we did get some good background info on the main attractions and tips on what to see and what wasn't worth it.

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A rendezvous with Rama
The best time to see the Taj Mahal is first thing in the morning, so that's where we started. It was simply stunning.

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No Princess Di today
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View along the river behind the Taj Mahal
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Morning sun behind one of the towers at the Taj
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Leaning tower of Agra
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Taj Mahal with the mosque to the left
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Closer view of the mosque
Just make sure you go early to avoid the crowds.

Next stop, the so-called Baby Taj.

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It's like a baby Taj Mahal
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The Baby Taj
Then we took a quick trip across the river to see the Taj Mahal from the back. Although it was only about 11am we could already see the difference in the size of the crowds. Just beside this spot lies the foundations for what was supposed to become the second Taj Mahal, an exact replica made of black marble.

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Taj Mahal from the other side of the river
Finally, after a short pakora break, we visited Agra fort.

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View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort
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Inside Agra Fort
On our second day we took the bus out to Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city complex 30km southwest of Agra. This time we had no protection from our friendly rickshaw driver so when we got off the bus we were at the mercy of the touts and guides who deliberately sent us the wrong way up the hill. As a result, the first building (which should have been the last), a huge mosque, was largely spoiled (for me at least) by the incessant interruptions from adults and children offering themselves as guides or trying to sell postcards. They don’t take no for an answer either: more than once I actually had to get snappy to stop us from being followed. Don't they know I'm ratty in the mornings? (They do now...)

Once we got inside the city complex itself, things got a bit quieter, probably because of the ticket price. Sweet relief! Here are some photos.

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Inside Fatehpur Sikri
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Royal Pavilion
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View from Royal Pavilion
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Royal parcheesi board
According to the guide book, the king loved his parcheesi (which we know as ludo). He would play it with human pieces (of course - he's a king) and games could last for as long as two months during which time no-one was allowed to leave. Plus, if anyone started looking bored or tired they would be forced to drink a glass of wine. Penalty shot! Sounds like my kind of king...

On our last day we had an evening train to catch to Jaipur so Karen relaxed by doing some interview preparation and I relaxed by having nine holes of golf. I learned two things:
  1. Six months without playing golf is poor preparation for a round of golf. There's only so many poor shots you can blame on a badly-kept course (for some reason the only place where there was no sand was in the bunkers).
  2. Golfing etiquette hasn't really caught-on in India. The greenkeepers thought nothing of loitering on the green as I played my approach shots (probably the safest place to be) and before I'd even teed-off I had to break up a fight between two caddies who were literally wrestling over my golf bag!
So, in summary, if you're anywhere near Agra you must to go and see the Taj Mahal, just don't linger in the city any longer than you have to!

Next up, the Pink City of Jaipur...

Current location: Delhi until 14th Nov
Next stop: home

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