Monday, 30 October 2017

Less Agro, More Agra

We departed Delhi early in the morning, catching an Ola taxi to the train station. Or as close to the train station as our driver could get. The crush of people, tuk tuks, roaming animals and other vehicles became more dense the closer we got, and we gradually ground to a complete halt. The final couple of hundred metres were on foot, pushing squeezing and banging past the many obstructions on our way to the station entrance. Once there, we queued up to go through security.

Security is a funny thing in India. I have never been herded through so many metal detectors in my life. Not just at airports, but at train stations, metro stations, theme parks, hotels and most tourist sights of any notable size. At transport hubs and some of the hotels, the security personnel meant it. Bags were x-rayed, people were shuffled through detectors and a secondary line of guards used their magic wands to probe and poke customers just to make sure. But at most places, security just for show. A pretense. Crowds were pushed through metal detectors, each person making the machine bing loudly. And not once would the guy on duty open his eyes and look up.

Once in the train station, life was more bearable. The stairways and platforms were crowded, but without the life-threatening crush we experienced outside. It was easy to find our train. Although even without the signage, we’d have successfully guessed where we should be – there’s a veritable gaggle of western tourists waiting to board the Gatimaan Express to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Follow any pair of confidently strutting white legs and you’d be fine.

The train is something of a flagship for Indian Railways, offering a speedy sub 2 hour service to Agra with, in one or two carriages at least, hot food served at table. It was a comfortable ride, the meal was reasonable, if a little bit ‘airline style’, fare. The scenery was drab. Mile after mile of seemingly half finished, single-storey concrete and tin blocks as we went through Delhi’s suburbs. A small break in the urban monotony when a few fields broke into view. Then back to the shanty towns following the line into Agra’s suburbs. But I watched the people living their lives along the route with fascination. Some walking along the tracks. Some sitting by the edge of the line. Others getting on with their day in their yards. All of them baking in the 30 degree plus morning sun.

I listed most of the sights in Delhi that we visited, with one glaring ommision. The Red Fort. My reasoning is simple enough. There are so many forts in India that you’ll quickly suffer ‘fort-fatigue’, unless you have some very deep seated interest in them. It’s best to pick a few of the best and utilise your limited time elsewhere when you can. Agra Fort is similar in many ways to Delhi’s Red Fort. But it is so much easier to get to,  much better maintained,  much more interesting to wander round. And it has fabulous views of the Taj Mahal across the river. Visit Agra’s fort. Give Delhi’s fort the elbow.

I’d decided one night would be enough for Agra. I got it bang on. Agra Fort in the evening, Taj Mahal the next morning, then move on. We also stayed at one of the more luxurious hotels that I’d booked on this trip, safely walled in from the monstrous city outside. We swam in the pristine pool, sunbathed next to the green, manicured lawns and feasted on a delicious, albeit pricey, all-you-can eat buffet.

We slept like a king and queen, in a bed that would have satisfied an emperor and a chunk of his harem. This was all fitting preparation for the next morning, when we woke and rose well before we’d have liked to. But we had a mission. The biggest ‘must see’ on any Indian visitors list. That most famous of monuments to the art of love, designed by a king for his most beloved queen, the Taj Mahal.

What can I say about the Taj Mahal? Or at least, what can I say that hasn’t been said countless times before? How do I summarise my thoughts as I approached one of the official New Wonders of the World? Let me try.

‘It’s quite busy here for six in the morning isn’t it?’ ‘Yes. honey. I think that must be the queue.’ ‘Watch you step there honey.’ ‘I really hope this is the right queue.’ ‘Jesus. In the world of cow pats, that is definitely their Hiroshima.’ ‘There she is! Through that arch!’ ‘My, it is quite busy.’ ‘No honey, I don’t think that’s an early morning mist.’ ‘Look, there’s Diana’s seat! And quite a lot of people pretending to be Diana.’ ‘Yes, honey. I’m pretty sure it’s pollution.’ ‘Still, it’s damned impressive isn’t it.’ ‘Let’s take a selfie here. Please try and not look like you’re still jet lagged and about to nod off at any moment.’ ‘Goddamit, I look like death.’

But in truth, it’s the many long, silent moments that are spent gazing at the Taj Mahal that tell the real story. Yes, it is busy. But it’s not so overrun with tourists to spoil the occasion. And enough of us were sharing those long silent moments of wonder to ensure a reasonably tranquil environment was maintained. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen or how many videos you’ve watched. Seeing the Taj Mahal up close and personal, in the flesh, marble to retina – that’s why you come here. It’s these moments that make the suffering of travel all worthwhile.