After our whirlwind day in Delhi we were braced for our first experience with India’s infamous train system. It was Holi and we were advised that that the metro wouldn’t be running a regular service and that our best option was to take a taxi to New Delhi Station. So, an uber whizzed us through the streets of Delhi, which were practically deserted compared to the previous day, and we arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare. Which was fortunate because the station was absolutely heaving and not particularly intuitive, we had no idea how to find out which platform we were leaving from as all of the boards we could see were in Hindi. We did what any sensible British person would do, found a queue and joined it with the hope that the answer was at the other end of it. In a way, it was; whilst queuing we spied a whiteboard with lots of handwritten information and in amongst the Hindi we saw our train number with the right departure time and the number 4, which we deduced to be our platform. We trudged up and down many staircases through the ramshackle corrugated iron behemoth that is New Delhi Station, found a spot in the shade above platform 4 and sat on our bags waiting for our train to arrive.Upon half-hearing an announcement about our train we hurried to the platform only to find that our train had disappeared from the electronic board above the platform and no other information provided. Slightly panicked, we scurried around the station fully laden down with backpacks looking for more information. Perhaps the announcement had been a change of platform and we’d missed it, there are 16 platforms at New Delhi Station, it would have taken ages to check them all and we would have missed our train. We finally spotted our train number on a semi-operational notice board upon which only half the words showed up, it turns out our train was delayed and we had another hour to enjoy New Delhi Station. What’s more, Caro was dangerously hungry.
After a fabulously nutritious breakfast of crisps and biscuits (we were too nervous to eat anything else in case our stomachs didn’t take kindly to it whilst stuck on a train) our train arrived. We tracked down our seats in the 2AC carriage and settled in. The compartment consisted of 4 bunks with the lower two turning in to seats for the day, though it appears many people sleep regardless of time of day.As the train pulled out of Delhi we saw lots of poverty, litter, dirt, dust, burning rubbish and a generally abused environment. This did eventually open up in to countryside and crops which was definitely a nice change, though you still could not escape the endless litter.The journey was actually very comfortable, as all of our train journeys since have been, we would just recommend getting to the station early to get your bearings. At Agra station, we jumped in an auto-rickshaw to our hostel, taking in the visual delights, or rather complete lack thereof, as we passed through Agra.Caro had found the whole day rather hard work but was pleased with our rather funky hostel, Spiritual Yoga , which was agreeably hippy and where our excellent host offered to go and collect dinner for us because all of the restaurants were closed for Holi and the one place that was open wouldn’t deliver.
Unfortunately, Caro was unwell overnight and still felt dreadful the following morning. We had an overnight train booked that evening to take us to Varanasi, a 13-hour journey which would have been a hugely unpleasant undertaking if she had still been ill so it was decided that Caro would spend the day in bed and try and sleep it off. James headed off to see the Taj Mahal alone. We actually ended up going back the next day together, so we will go in to more detail later, but James’s main reaction was simply: wow. James came back to the hostel to find Caro in no better shape and we took the decision to cancel our train for that night and stay another night in Agra, this would also mean that, with a bit of luck, Caro would be well enough the next day and wouldn’t miss out on one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, which James had been very effusive about.
Our hostel was fully booked for the night so we moved to a lovely guesthouse, Shreenu Homestay, and Caro settled in to sleep in amongst some truly interesting artwork and very loud bed sheets.The picture in the bottom right of the photo is not just propped against the wall, it is plastered in to the wall at ground level. Just glorious. Before we go on we have to say that both guesthouses were so kind when Caro was ill and took really good care of us both. James went out to explore more of Agra. The city itself is busy, extremely noisy with horns and dirty. Whilst it was interesting to wander round the bazaars and experience people’s day to day lives, Agra is not the nicest place in the world to spend an afternoon.The next day, Caro was feeling much better and we headed off to visit the Taj Mahal together. The queue for foreigners was a good deal shorter than that for Indians, which seemed a bit unfair but with the difference in ticket price it is actually a reasonable perk. You also get given a free bottle of water with your ticket, which is essential because it is incredibly hot around the Taj Mahal because of all of the white stone. We joined the throngs pushing their way in to the grounds through the main gateway, which is a beautiful building in itself.
The first glimpse that you get of the Taj Mahal comes as you walk through the gate.
Everyone tries to get a picture here because of how the Taj is framed in the doorway but the full impact of the building doesn’t hit you until you step out in to the open and try, unsuccessfully, to absorb beauty of the Taj Mahal. It is exquisite.It’s no wonder there is a bottleneck at the gate, even the most self-aware person will come to an immediate halt and gasp. Being at the Taj Mahal is an emotional experience, particularly when you consider that the entire edifice was built as an expression of love. Once you can drag your eyes away you can appreciate the surrounding area, which is lovely with gardens immaculately with pairs of shears for precision.As you get closer to the building three things strike you. The first is the size of it, it looks big from a distance but up close it is enormous. The second is that the white marble is dazzling. It’s pristinely clean and we struggled to look at it without our sunglasses on.Finally, you can truly appreciate that the minute detail of the carving and the floral designs made entirely of semi-precious stones.Before you can climb up on to the marble platform you have to either remove your shoes or cover them, in order to protect the marble. The marble was scorching hot so we were glad of the free shoe covers also included in our ticket price.You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the building and actually the experience isn’t a great one. The interior is absolutely beautiful and well worth a look around but you are herded like cattle, it’s noisy, people keep shouting not to take photographs and there are enormous numbers of people. You are usually advised to visit very early in the morning to avoid the crowds and for the interior, it’s probably worth doing that. Once we were back outside we could appreciate the view down through the gardens back to gate.We wandered around the grounds and stuck our noses in to the museum, which is small but definitely worth a quick look around, particularly to see the original plans for the estate. We took the necessary posing in front of the Taj Mahal photos and made our way back out.Agra’s other attraction is Agra Fort, another Mughal red fort and where Emperor Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his third wife, was imprisoned shortly after completion of the Taj. The fort is arguably more impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi although probably third out of the four forts that we have seen to date. As most people will likely be in Agra for a whole day it is definitely worth taking a look around Agra Fort, the sections which are open to the public are well preserved and maintained with more fantastic stonework on display.
The gardens in the middle of the fort are a particular highlight. As you walk around the apartments where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, you can share the tantalising glimpses that he would have had of his wife’s final resting place from his apartment windows. Shah Jahan was buried alongside Mumtaz Mahal eight years after his imprisonment, two cenotaphs in the middle of the Taj Mahal mark the position of their tombs below. Agra as a town in itself holds little to appeal to a visitor and is a pretty bleak place in general. That being said, you simply have to go for the incredible buildings that it houses. We truly believe that no trip to India would be complete without seeing the Taj Mahal which well deserves the accolade often accorded to it: the most beautiful building in the world.