Friday 24 October 2008: The Taj
Part of a 2 week holiday back blip starting here on October 14th...
I thought long and hard before blipping the Taj Mahal, thinking it would be such a clichéd thing to do, but it's sort of integral to the plot of the last couple of days that it had to go in there.
So I left you two days ago with our train to Agra being cancelled, and instead flying the next day from Varanasi to Delhi then back to Agra instead, because the trains had all gone to pot with the various troubles (including them being set on fire...)
You'll notice a blip gap from yesterday, because basically we spent the whole day traveling and I couldn't be bothered shooting anything.
So. Our guide picks us (and three Americans he's also looking after) up at 12. Not really a problem, but for the fact that the flight is at 1.30pm, the airport is outside Varanasi, and we have to go past an 'agency' to pay for our tickets. At the 'agency' there is a typical scene from India. Three guys behind the counter, all dealing with the same thing, and getting nowhere fast between working out the exchange rate and working out what taxes apply. I'd already started wondering if this was a scam on the part of our guide, Pankesh, but figured we were in a bit of a hole and I'd start shouting at the travel agency when we got back.
The 'agents' needed copies of passports, several things signed, and it all took about 15 minutes. Which meant we were in a sudden rush, and there followed the most terrifying car journey I've ever had. We were in one car, with the Americans and Pankesh in another, and our driver was charged with trying to keep up. Let me just say that 70mph in streets littered with other cars, motorbikes, bikes, trikes, carts, buses, trucks, cows and dogs is quite enough to get your heart going. Especially when we have to haul on the brakes for every bad road surface, and whenever the traffic gets bunched up.
But we get to the airport on time and (more or less) in one piece. But the fun continues. India is a country which loves bureaucracy, but none of it seems to work that well. Pankesh went off to check us in, which sounds kind of lax, and checking other people in surely wouldn't be tolerated elsewhere. Along with our baggage. As was his wont for leaving things to the last minute he appears with our boarding passes some 30 minutes or so later, and about 5 minutes before boarding.
Through the scanners men and women are in separate queues. Women are 'frisked' behind a curtain to save their modesty (I kid you not, there's a sign saying 'Women's Frisking Booth'). Each piece of hand luggage has to have a tag attached. After going through the scanner this is stamped to say it's okay. People are meanwhile frisked after passing through the metal detector, and their boarding passes stamped to say that THEY are okay. Then both tags and boarding passes are checked by two separate people en route to the plane.
Commendable security I guess. Till we arrive in Delhi, and all people transferring to Agra are put in a separate bus, then dumped somewhere round the back of the airport and left to find our own way into the building, through the baggage handlers hang-out, through a non-descript door, and into another checking-in area. So we have to go through security again, taking off the old tags from the hand luggage, attaching new ones, going through our separate metal detectors again, having the luggage and boarding passes stamped, then checked again by two separate people en route to the plane.
It was crazy, inefficient, and if anything made you feel LESS secure. We were getting the feeling (apart from being cursed) that there are so many people in India that you've got to create jobs and problems in order to employ as many of them as possible. As an aside every single guide we had reckoned the problems in India were caused by too many people, but no-one seems to know how to deal with it.
But Kingfisher Airlines are superb, so the bits in between worked well, and we arrived at 5. Time, we thought, to make it to the Taj Mahal, because it would be closed the following day. Except on the way our new guide got a call that tickets were no longer being sold (1hr20m before it closed) and we wouldn't get in.
Which, in a long way round, is why the next day, Friday, we could only see the Taj from over the river round the back, knowing that in the afternoon and evening we were on our way again, this time heading to the hill station of Shimla. By the way, a black Taj was not planned on this side of the river. All very fanciful and came about because some 'black' marble was found over there, but which was actually discoloured white marble. No, a garden was planned, because Mughal mausoleums are placed in the centre of gardens, and the Taj is the only Mughal mausoleum in India that isn't. A bridge was intended to connect it, and it was to create this very view, the reflected Taj giving the Mughals was they most loved above all else: symmetry.
Oh, and that's smog. Our guide insisted it was morning mist, but it refused to lift all day. In the cities pollution is absolutely rife.
It wasn't all bad. After the Taj we visited the fabulous Agra Fort, and then went to the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri, home to the Mughals for just 14 years, before they moved back to Agra.
After that it was back on the road to Delhi to catch our last sleeper to Kalka (over 3 hours late), and from there another 'toy train' to Shimla.
Incidentally we shared that sleeper with a mouse, a cockroach, and the worst snorer this side of Mughal rule. We didn't sleep much.
And as a further aside, how can a country which insists on different lines for airport security, with women being dealt with behind a screen to save their modesty, put strangers of different sexes into such a confined sleeping space?