Wednesday morning, we were up at 4:15 to get ready for a 5:15 taxi (that’s a long time to get ready, you say? We need to stretch and shake out the joints and muscles in addition to having breakfast and tea). Of course, the taxi did not show up on time. We had the security guard call the driver and guide him through the final turns to our obscure location and we were off. The train station was only 20 minutes away, 10 to get to the intersection in front of the station and another 10 to get through the crush of cars, trucks, bicycles, motos, tuktuks, handcarts all trying to make the same turn into the station.
We finally got into the station, and boarded our train to Agra. The ride through the countryside was very interesting, as was the first class service: somewhat more comfortable than Boston’s Orange line (shittiest line serving the poor people for those of you from other places) but not as clean. We were surprised to get service in our seats: big bottle of water, a juice box, white bread and butter and some potato croquette. All for $1.60 each.
After 2 hours we arrived on time (!). As soon as we got off the train, a guy walked up to us and called us by name. It was Mohsin, our guide for the day. Mohsin took us to the car and with his driver, we were off. First stop was Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city about 45 minutes away. Along the way, we noticed many uprooted, blown over trees. The previous Tuesday, Agra was struck by tornado-like winds that did lots of damage and killed 42 people! We’re so narcissistic in the US that we don’t have any idea of major events like this.
Fatehpur Sikri was built in the mid 1500s by a Moghul emperor, Akbar. It was abandoned after 10 years because there was no reliable water supply. So Akbar moved back to Agra. This abandonment, combined with the desert climate preserved the buildings in beautiful condition. When we had seen enough and were thoroughly heated by the 100+ degree weather, back into the car for the ride back to Agra.
Next stop: the Taj Mahal. The most beautiful building in the world. Mohsin started barfing out facts, wanting to make sure we knew how smart he was. He also grabbed Maria’s phone and took a bunch of cheesey pictures of us in front of the Taj. There were many trees down, and a tower had blown off one of the entry gates to the complex. It did lots of damage to the walkway below and there was a blue tarp canopy to provide shade for the workers who were repairing. Unfortunately, it spoiled the classic view of the Taj through the archway.
After the Taj, Mohsin took us to a very nice restaurant for a grilled Indian lunch and our first beer of the trip.
Finally we visited the Agra fort. Shah Jahan who build the Taj Mahal for his beloved dead wife, was imprisoned in the fort by his son who wanted to prevent him from building an identical black mausoleum across the river and bankrupting the kingom in the process. He did however have a nice view of the Taj from the windows of the fort, which was very luxurious. His daughters lived with him in his sumptuous prison.
Then the dreaded event of any tour: hard working practitioners of a dying art show you their magnificent work and ask you to pay $500 for something you never thought of until 10 minutes ago and they’ll ship the thing to you free anywhere in the world! First were craftsmen who set semiprecious stones into marble tabletops, jewelry boxes, etc. These are the guys that maintain the inlays that make the Taj Mahal so special. Beautiful, but what are we going to do with it? How about something smaller? Like a little hand carved marble white elephant, very appropriate!
After that, the rug merchant. Did you know that every oriental rug in the world is made in Agra? Yup, every single one. Same thing, he went from room sized carpets, eventually trying placemats until we were able to escape.
We had spent the day in 105 degree heat and sun with no breeze. Back on the train, where we slept the whole way, arriving in Delhi around 7:30. Miraculously, yet another driver found us in the mob and returned us to our apartment.
Yogurt and some almonds and pass out, knowing that we can sleep in tomorrow.