Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Agra and Fatephur Sikri (India)

Our usual commentator is currently out of commission with a cold (don't worry, Mom!) brought on by wildly fluctuating environmental temperatures and general exhaustion (according to our guidebook, this happens to 25% of visitors to India) so Richard is making a guest writing appearance for today. I apologize in advance for the obvious lack of quality.

Following our rude awakening in Delhi (I met someone today that was also shocked by how hard that city was), we were glad to finally catch the slow train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Most tourists catch the early train that takes about an hour and a half to get there, but it was fully booked so we caught the evening train the night before and opted for an extra night in Agra. The train ended up arriving in Agra three hours late, which is pretty impressive given that it was scheduled to take only four. It seemed like the Delhi construction had followed us there because we were put up in a room that still smelled of paint on the first night. For the second night, we moved into an older room with "Indian air-conditioning" - a fan that blows air over trickling water - personally, I think I preferred having no AC at all. Power glitches (not uncommon in Asia, but a daily occurrence in India) through the night kept us awake with the fan fluctuating between jet engine speeds and nothing at all.

On our first day in Agra, we decided that we were too good for the Taj Mahal, and took some local transport out to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient Mughal fortified city about 40 km outside Agra. It sounded interesting, but we weren't prepared for the incredible beauty of the huge red sandstone structures. I think I was expecting "a series of small walls" (as Eddie Izzard claims Time Team always composes), not full structures around well-manicured gardens. Most of what we saw was the palace buildings, including the homes of the dude's (Emperor Akbar) three favourite wives - Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. He was apparently very religiously tolerant. The fort was well-preserved and big enough that you could have some peace from the tour guide touts. The way back to Agra was a bit of an adventure. When the bus finally turned up, the driver got out and (I assume from the shouting and gestures) announced that he couldn't be bothered to drive back for the scheduled return! A pretty big shouting match erupted between him and the trailing Indian passengers, and we (the foreigners) were used as leverage to get him to run his assigned route. He got his revenge by beeping his horn for 80% of the hour-long journey, so trying to have a conversation sounded like a Quentin Tarantino script playing on daytime TV.

The second day in Agra was spent chilling out before our train. No, sillies, we got up at 5:30am to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal! Monsoon season is probably not the best time to see sunrises, and we were actually a little late, so we watched the early morning rain at the Taj Mahal instead. Most tourists don't show up until 9 am or so, so it was relatively quiet. Again, we managed to find a few quiet spots to sit and take in the Taj without being bugged by touts. It's funny that it actually looks fake from a distance. Part of that was probably the flat morning light, but one sees so many pictures of the "reflection pool" view that it's a little surreal to see it in person. Once you get up close though, no pictures can do it justice. You have to be there to appreciate its majesty (and consummate vees, for you Homestar Runner fans). The Taj Mahal, commissioned by Shah Jahan at the death of his beloved wife, is built out of semi-transparent white marble and is famous for changing colour with the lighting conditions. We were treated to a short example of this when the sun peaked out for a few seconds to light the building up beautifully. There is a lot of hype around the Taj Mahal, and it's worth every bit of it. I have a question, though: why is everyone obsessed with taking pictures of themselves jumping in front of it?

It looks like no blog post is complete without some mention of food, so here's my take. The food in Agra is god awful! We tried several Lonely Planet-recommended places and thought you could get better Indian food out of a jar. The place with a "great thali for 90 Rs" has the worst thali we've tried so far. Let this be a lesson to guide book readers: don't believe everything you read in that book! We mostly have been finding our own eateries by going to the crowded places. Maybe most travellers don't want Indian food? I have to admit that most people I've seen are eating omelettes and cheese sandwiches. To get around the poor tourist food, we finished off Agra by taking an auto-rickshaw out to one of the bazaars and getting food on the street. Julie got a fairly unimpressive mutton biryani (rice dish with a two pieces of actual lamb), and I had a delicious tandoori paratha (bread) with spicy kebabs and spicier minty dipping sauce. Surprisingly enough, eating meat off the street didn't appear to cause stomach problems... yet.

[Submitted with only minor editting and interjections by Julie. Thanks and good job, Richard!]

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