The Great and Powerful Taj

We boarded our train in the evening and the four of us found ourselves in the same sleeping cabin as two other foreigners.  Shortly after boarding, an officer came up to all of us and asked us to sign a waiver telling us to lock up our belongings to prevent theft and to not accept food or drinks from strangers because it may contain poison.  This was a little concerning, to say the least, and we asked Lisa and Antoine (who had now been traveling in India for several months) if this was a normal procedure.  They admitted this was the first time they had ever had to sign such a waiver on an Indian train, so we all took it seriously.  Apparently, the route from Varanasi to Agra (a well beaten tourist track) is one of the sketchiest train rides in all of India for foreigners.

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This was only our second train in India and our first time in sleeper class.  This class of train has six beds in each cabin and two across the aisle as well.  It was quite cramped and the train was open air, allowing smells and dust to roam freely inside the train car.  It also meant that the train got a bit steamy, given that the outside temp was in excess 100 degrees F.  All of this is manageable though, especially when you have a bed…as long as it isn’t occupied.  The Indian railways also sell standing room only tickets for passengers who may be traveling a short distance or for those who simply can’t afford a difference class of ticket.  Since standing room only tickets do not have assigned seats and the sleeper class train cars are not locked, it’s not uncommon to find three people crammed into a bed and several people strewn about the floor and aisle.  It is essentially a chaotic mess of people in a train car, sleeping wherever they can find room.  It’s no wonder that we were asked to lock our bags up because any number of people could rummage through them or take them away in the middle of the night while we were sleeping.

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John wasn’t feeling well and went to the top bunk early on, while I had the middle bunk just beneath him with my head right by the window.  The middle bunk sounded nice given that a breeze came through the open window, but not so nice after waking up to a hand coming through the window and reaching over my head looking for something to steal (or feel).  It was definitely an alarming experience.  The windows have the option to be fully open (which was the case), barred, or closed altogether.  It seemed as though this man was reaching in to give something to someone else, but regardless, we barred the windows afterwards.  I’m generally a hard sleeper, which is really not convenient in situations where you should remain a bit more alert at night.  While John and I were sleeping, Lisa heard a group of Indian men giving some European girls a hard time in the berth next to us.  Antoine went over to investigate and scared them away.  The next morning, we learned that some other foreigners had locked up their bags, but left their shoes out while they were sleeping.  When they woke up, their bags were fine, but their Birkenstocks were stolen!  What a bummer!  I would have been so mad if someone stole my only pair of sneakers.  Luckily, they were so beat up by then, no one in the right mind would want them.

After an eventful ride, we got off the train in Agra, feeling dirty and unrested.  Our immediate impression of Agra on the tuk-tuk ride to the city was that it seemed a bit quieter than we expected.  The town itself was run down and dirty, but not as packed with tourists and locals jamming themselves into tiny alleys as it had been in Varanasi.  We found a guesthouse in town called Sai Palace complete with a view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant.  John and I even had a view of it from our window on the upper floor!

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Lisa wasn’t feeling well, so John, Antoine, and I spent the afternoon touring the Agra Fort while she rested.  We walked the whole way there, took a wrong turn around the massive fort wall, and ended up at a dead end.  We walked back in the blazing sun to find the entrance and toured our way through the rather impressive fort.  This was our first time touring a fort in India and we weren’t disappointed.  The views from the top of the fort were fantastic and we spent about two hours wandering around, taking photos, and posing for photos with Indian people per their request.

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When we were finished, Antoine headed back to check on Lisa, while John and I took a tuk tuk to the other side of the river from the Taj Mahal to catch the sunset.  We saw the clouds moving in on our ride over and by the time we got there they had completely covered up the sun.  Oh, well.  Even without the sunset, the view of the Taj from this part of the city was gorgeous.  We took some photos, watched the water buffalo graze by the river, and gazed at the white birds flying around in front of the Taj.

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We returned to the guesthouse to see a storm brewing in the distance.  As darkness fell, lightning began in all directions and we sat on the roof to watch the show.  John ended up snapping one of the most amazing photos of the entire trip.  A massive lightning bolt over the Taj Mahal!

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I awoke the next morning with a case of Delhi Belly, the inevitable stomach problem travelers get in India.  It could have come from any number of filthy encounters with dirty food, dishware, or water.  Who knows.  It wasn’t too awful, but we decided to delay our visit to the Taj until the following day.  After all, we had been looking at the Taj from our rooftop for almost two days already, so we were in no particular hurry.  We got up for sunrise the next morning and ate breakfast while we watched hoards of monkeys running and jumping along all the roofs of Agra.  After breakfast we made our way down to the streets and found our way to the gates of the famous Taj Mahal.

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My expectations were fairly low since people generally talk up famous sights like this, but I was pleasantly surprised at how magical it felt when we entered the grounds.  It was stunning!   As it was still early in the morning, the light was good and the crowds were small which allowed us to take some pretty amazing photos.  We were particularly impressed by the intricate marble carvings that covered both the interior and exterior of the mausoleum.  The Taj Mahal is truly an amazing work of art and I’m very glad I was able to see this amazing place in person.  As far as tourist attractions go in India, the entry fee is pretty “steep”  (750 rupees, or $12.50), but it’s well worth the price.

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It was finally time for us to part ways with Lisa and Antoine.  They were headed north to the mountains in Rishikesh, while we were headed west to the deserts of Rajasthan.  We said our goodbyes and relaxed on the hotel rooftop for a few hours as we waited for our night train to Udaipur, our first stop in beautiful Rajasthan.

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