BootsnAll Travel Network

Agra and Jaipur

I arrived at the Varanasi train station about an hour early and found my train already at the station. This was not so surprising as the train orginated in Varanasi. I boarded the train and got my first view of sleeper class which is the second lowest class of the eight available in India. The car is arranged with six berths on one side of the aisle stacked three high and two berths running lengthwise along the corridor on the other. I had a top berth in the six. Much to my surprise, all the other five bunks were taken up by foreigners. Most travel at least 3 AC (the next class up). The windows opened but the windows had bars on them for security. In this class, no bedding is given, but this okay as I have a sleeping bag. The main difference between sleeper and 3 AC is the air conditioning and the bedding. As it wasn’t hot, I didn’t feel the need to pay a 2-3 times higher price for it. The train did get a little warm when we weren’t moving though. The bottom two bunks form a seating bench during the day.

I spent the first few hours visiting with the other people on the train and reading a newspaper that I had bought. As there is no dining car on the train, an attendant came by and took dinner orders. The choice was thali and only thali. This came about an hour later and was decent. It only cost 30 rupees. There were also many people selling tea and coffee. There were people passing selling different things to eat. Unlike China, I didn’t see any chicken feet for sale. We went to bed (everyone sort of has to agree on the time as we all share the bottom bed as a seat). At around 9:00 pm we went to bed. I didn’t get much sleep that night due to the cacophany of snoring around me. We were supposed to arrive in Agra at 6:00 am. Upon waking, we found we were going to be four hours late. In the morning, I ate my remaining crackers for breakfast. I passed the time watching the scenery out the windows and observing the policeman armed with rifles roaming the train. At one point, a cross dressing eunuch came strolling regally down the aisle bedecked in a bright sarri. He stopped at our section, waved, blew kisses, and then kept going. There are a caste of eunuchs and transgender people in India. They tend to show up uninivited to parties and weddings in groups requesting money. If you give them what they want they perform if not, I believe, they curse you.

At 10:00 am, the train finally arrived in Agra. I was picked up at the train station by a friend’s father and uncle. They drove me to the father’s house. The uncle lived next door. After saying hello to everyone and eating something, I had to admit my tiredness and need for a nap. I spent the afternoon with my friend’s cousin Anurag (he gave me permission to use his name). We went on his motorcycle first to Akbar’s (a Mughal emperor) Masoleum. It is a great example of Muslim architecture. The tomb itself is quite plain and made of white marble. The outside though is made of red sandstone and is directed with geometric patterns and Koranic verses. We then went to an unfinished temple that has been under construction for better part of a century. It is still not finished. The marble carvings here are exquisite and actually exceed what I saw in the Taj Mahal. The work is still ongoing through private donations. It is interesting to see a building actually being built like that today. The cost must be mindboggling. If it ever is finished, I believe it will equal the Taj Mahal as a tourist attraction. We finished the day on the street where Anurag works. He is a computer scientist who consults by email to clients around the world. He works mostly at home, but sometime out of a music shop owned by his friends. The street is a small side street with various clothing and electronic stores. There is a nearby teashop and street vendors selling various Indian food. We ate dosas (a large flat pancake that comes with various dipping sauces) at a South Indian Restaurant.

The next day was my big sightseeing day. My first stop was the Taj Mahal (built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his second wife). I was dropped off about a kilometer from the west gate. Internal combustion engines are now banned from getting closer than 500 meters to the Taj Mahal due to the pollution damage they were causing to the monument. One can now take various forms of transportation ranging from camel and elephant to electric or natural gas bus/car. So many choices, (I would expect nothing less from a country that has eight train classes. In the US we have two.) I decided to walk. I bought my 750 rupee (almost forty times more than Indian’s pay) ticket and went in. As it was early morning, there wasn’t much of a line but it was foggy. I really couldn’t see much of the tomb until I got right up on it. It is white marble decorated with carvings and a flower motif. The flower petals are formed by semiprecious stones set in the marble. The roof is topped with three domes. The inside contains two fake tombs surrounded by a marble screen. The real tombs are below the Taj Mahal and off limits. There are also two mosques on either side undergoing restoration work. After viewing the tomb, I wandered around the gardens in front of the tomb. The gardens are a typical Mughal design with a lawn and trees divided into squares. The garden is full of still functioning pools and fountains. I was annoyed, however, to see the gardens littered with water bottles and chip bags. One would think for that much money, they would hire someone to pick up trash. I found a sign giving the cost of the Taj Mahal in rupees at the time it was built. They also gave the price of gold at the time of its construction in 1653. I did the math later and found out that the Taj Mahal in today’s dollar cost nearly US$2 billion to build.

My next stop was the red fort. Shah Jahan was later imprisoned in the red fort by his son after he was overthrown. He was overthrown partly in fact due to the cost of his building projects which bankrupted the empire. Shah Jahan lived out his life in the fort and was then buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal. The red fort was not crowded and I was able to wander around. It is an immense structure containing ruined palaces surrounded by a huge red sandstone wall. Part of the fort is still used by the Indian Army and is closed. The standing palaces are either made of red sandstone or white marble. The palaces are empty of everything now. The main things to see are the carvings and paintings. Some gardens appear to be in the process of being restored. There are some good views from the fort as well.

I was picked up at the red fort by my friend’s father and dropped off at the bus station. I asked around and found a bus to take me to Fatehpur Sikri. This is an abandoned palace complex built by Emperor Akbar as a tribute to a new religion he was trying to start. It was only inhabited for about 14 years or so and then abandoned due to inadequate water supplies. Once on my bus, I sat in a seat next to where the conductor sits. Everyone kept asking me in Hindi where the bus was going. I had to just say I didn’t understand. Everyone thinks I am Indian when I am not in the tourist area. Hence, I still have to pay the high prices. There was a Muslim (identified by dress) who kept staring at me apparently fascinated. After the bus loaded we were told we had to change buses. At this point all chaos broke loose. You would think we were on the Titanic and fighting for the last lifeboat instead of going to a bus less than five feet away. Everyone sprung up and started running, pushing, and shouting toward the door. Normally Indians are respectful towards the elderly and women. This time it was a free for all. I managed to get next to the door behind an old women who was trying to go down the steps. I physically had to block the aisle so that the woman wouldn’t be mowed down. Behind I could feel an immense pressure and shouting as people were trying to go foward. This must be what a dam feels like. When the lady was down, I walked off and got on the next bus. On the new bus the same crowd was once again offering their seats to women and children. (???????). An Indian man offered me a seat next to him in the front after seeing my long legs.

My first stop at Sikri was an immense mosque entered through by the largest stone gate in Asia. A young Muslim man attached himself to me and said he wanted to be my guide so that he could practice his English (no money). Yeah right I thought, but let him accompany me anyway. He did show me around the mosque which included a tomb to one of Akbar’s favorite holy men. The tomb was covered in mother of pearl. People put fabrics on the tomb which are later given away for charity. The fabrics are bought from sellers in the mosque. I, of course, got suckered into participating by my guide costing me 100 rupees. The backside of the mosque has gravestones from members on the holy man’s family. To his credit, my guide did have a lot of information on the mosque. Upon leaving the mosque, I wasn’t disappointed. My “free” guide who wanted no money wanted to know if I could give him a tip. I gave him two dollars and made up my mind at that point not to trust anymore Indians in tourist spots no matter how rude it might seem. After the mosque, I went into the main palace complex and explored around. It covered a lot of ground and was similar to the palaces inside the red fort. The bus back to Agra took me to a bus station on the opposite side of town so I had to be picked up instead of walking back to the house where I was staying like I had planned.

For my last day in Agra, I went back to the Taj Mahal area to find a bookstore that was in my guide book. I was dropped off by my friend’s parents as they went to work. I had about three hours to wander around before they would pick me up again. I first went to the bookstore and then walked around the Taj Mahal. The line into the Taj Mahal at the west gate was immense today. It stretched for hundreds of meters. There were hardly no lines at the south and east gates. I would recommend that anyone coming to the Taj Mahal after about 8:00 am use those gates instead. After wandering around, eating bananas and sampling some spicy street food, I sat down by the west gate to people watch. As soon as I perched on the fence, I was surrounded by salesmen. After convincing them that I really didn’t need ankle bracelets, postcards, and chess sets, I was able to actually have a decent conversation with one of them. He was twenty-four with a pregnant twenty year old wife. He also had a daughter. He supported his family by selling at the Tah Mahal. He wanted know if I could change some money for him. Someone had bought something from him in US dollars. He could only change the money on the black market at a horrible rate. I was happy to help and gave him a much better rate. Much to my amazement, I was actually given a free ankle bracelet as a gift. During this time, it was also interesting to see that many Indian tourist were also being bombarded by salesmen. The only “bad” thing about my conversation was that it put a face to people who were normally just a crowd that I had to constantly say no to. This makes it harder to be firm and rude if need be. The salesman that I talked to actually told me that I should say no angrily to the salemen if I want them to leave me alone. At the appointed time, I was picked up and spent the remainder of the day on the Internet or reading. That night, a potato dish was cooked for me by my friend’s mother. I can’t remember the name though. It is a puffy pancake stuffed with spice potatoes.

In the morning, I went to the government bus stand and caught a luxury bus to Jaipur (the Pink City) for 175 rupees. I was actually able to fit in the seat. The six hour ride was quite comfortable. I may actually have to look into this a bit more as most state governments run a “luxury” bus service which is not much more expensive than regular buses. In Jaipur, my first stop was the train station where I bought a ticket to Jodhpur. The train was sold out, so I was put on a waiting list. I have to check at the station tonight to see if I actually have a seat. The ticket seller assured me I would. I then went to the tourist office run by the Rajasthan state government in the train station and booked a tour for the next day as I didn’t have much time in Jaipur and there were many things to see. It was 170 rupees and included a guide and transportation. I still had to pay the entrance fees. They also called my chosen hotel only to dicover it was full. They recommended a hotel which I accepted. The hotel owner picked me up from the station and took me to the guesthouse. After dropping off my bags, I decided to try to find the McDonald’s that I was told was in town. (I haven’t had fast food in five months.) It was near a cinema. The rickshaw driver took me to the wrong cinema. As it was getting dark and I hadn’t really taken my time to study the town map, I decided to head back to the guesthouse and eat near there. My cyclorickshaw driver this time was a very old man who kept having to stop to ask for directions. He kept apologizing that he had bad eyes in the dark making me feel even more guility that he was pedaling me around. After eating, I watched an Indian wedding procession go down the street (it’s wedding season in India. They are everywhere). A band was playing as the groom came down the street on a decked out white horse. In front of him, the wedding party danced and shot fireworks. At the gates to the lawn where the wedding took place, someone gave me a flower and invited me in. I really wasn’t overly comfortable with the idea of going to someone else’s wedding especially since I was severly underdressed and didn’t know anyone. I walked in due to their urging and someone shoved a glass of somesort of milk drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other. They then disappeared leaving me alone. I stayed for a few minutes and then made a discreet exit. I didn’t want someone to demand to know why I was in the wedding and have to say ” Oh, I’m the bride’s second cousin from her white side of the family. Oh I’m sorry, you didn’t know she wasn’t a full blooded Indian. Oops lets just keep it our little secret.” or the other party favorite, go up behind a group that is laughing and start laughing too in hopes they think you are part of the conversation.

I went to the train station at 8:00 am the next morning and joined my tour group. I was a little dismayed that about 30 people had to share one guide. The group consisted of mostly Indian tourist. I sat next to the plant manager from the Syngenta Plant in Goa. This is important because I used to work for this company. He had worked for a few weeks at the St Gabriel site where I was employed as an intern. We visited many sites that day. My favorites were the observatoy which had the world’s largest sundial and the amber fort. The fort contained a stunning palace with walls that were covered in artwork made from mirrors and colored glass. There were great views of the city from the fort.
I was a bit disappointed by the City Palace which still houses the current Maharaja. It was the most expensive (200 rupees) site on the tour but it only contained a small museum containing textiles, weapons, and art. If you are short of money in Jaipur this is one attraction to skip. We also went to a Hindu Temple that had carvings of all the gods of the world’s religions on the outside including a Madonna and Child. While on the tour I bought a rice paper painting from a salesman. I paid 160 rupees instead of the 500 rupee asking price.

Today I decided to explore the old city of Jaipur from which it gets its name the Pink City. It was the first planned city of Asia and today is full of shops and buildings all covered in a plaster painted pink. At one store, I was drawn into it by a man offering me a 20 rupee shirt. Two hours later I walked out with three silk paintings and a scarf and my wallet $75 dollars lighter. After I had told him that I was really looking for some silk paintings, he took me to a nearby shop. They were really quite good but we spent nearly a half an hour bargaining over the price of each one. The usual game (I am poor, but it’s great quality) that sort of thing. I managed to get each for about half of the initial asking price as I could pay in US dollars. I am sure I still overpayed though. Now I have to figure out how to keep them and my rice paper painting safe. As I was now destitute, I decided to head back to my hotel. The salesman gladly helped me get an cyclorickshaw. The only problem was none appeared to be around. This surprised me as I usually look like I am conducting a parade as I walk down the street with five rickshaw drivers following me wanting to give me rides as I continously say no. We finally found one though.

After I finish this blog entry, I will go to the train station to catch my midnigh train to Jodhpur a.k.a the Blue City, a.k.a home of the “I Dream of Genie” puffy pants.

I would like to thank my hosts in Agra. They were very gracious. I loved being able to spend time with normal Indians away from the tourist traps. I was able to have some very enlightening conversations about Indian society with them.

Sidenote: With the declining US dollar, you get a 20% discount by paying in dollars instead of rupees at the sites as the dollar has declined that much since prices were set in rupees and dollars. I wish I had discovered this at the Taj Mahal. You will have to check whether this is allowed as they wouldn’t let me do it in Jaipur. I think the Indian government is wising up to this revenue loss. They would only accept the higher rupee price.

I have posted pictures for Karnali, Varanasi, and some Agra pictures. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find a computer that will let me organize them. I will probably wait until I get to my friend’s house in Baroda before trying again. You are welcome, in the meantime, to flip through them. I have labeled some of them, but they are out of order.

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3 Responses to “Agra and Jaipur”

  1. Gashwin Says:

    Wow, Barry. You rose several notches in my estimation. I haven’t traveled like this in India since college — buses, sleeper car, yada yada. All power to you man!

    And you survived an Indian Railways thali!

    In the west (Gujarat, Maharashtra) the buses are really decent — apart from the State buses, there are privately owned coaches, called Volvos (they’re all, well Volvos) which are great, comfortable, reliable and cheap. One can even book them online at times!

    And boy I’m glad I still have a bunch of rupees left from my last trip!

    And you’ve now been to places in India I haven’t — I’ve never been to Jaipur or Jodhpur.

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  3. Jamie Says:

    Not sure if you remember me or not from St Thomas More, but I traveled to India this past summer and found my experiences to be quite similar to yours. I enjoyed Jaipur a lot more than both Agra and Varanasi. Varanasi was a bit overwhelming for me.

    I strongly suggest getting to Kerala if you can. It is absolutely beautiful and the people are extremely friendly, kind and helpful. It was such a needed respite from the chaos and frustration of the North.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog and I think you are remarkable for going on this trip! Good luck on the rest of your adventures!


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  5. Preeti Says:

    The actual tombs in the Taj Mahal were open to viewing both times that I’ve been to Agra, but honestly they’re not that spectacular. They’re basically in a dark basement area almost exactly under the “fake” tombs above. Honestly, my memory of them is two plain caskets, and the basement is very plain compared to the rest of the Taj Mahal. And have you heard the rumors that the Taj Mahal was not originally intended as a tomb? They’re saying now that “Taj” makes little sense as an abbreviation of “Mumtaz” (Shah Jahan’s wife’s name), but the historians haven’t yet offered a satisfactory counter-explanation.

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