January 31 - February 11
31.01.2013 - 11.02.2013 26 °C
We were now leaving the state of Rajasthan and heading toward Uttar Pradesh where our first stop would be Agra. We didn't stop at any villages on the way but when we stopped for a drink late in the afternoon a couple decorated cars packed with men stopped as well. It was a wedding party of the groom and his men on their way to one of the multiple day celebrations customary in weddings. The groom, Bhanu, was very charming and honored us with an invitation to his wedding. I would have loved to attend but we still had quite a bit of driving left and weren't dressed appropriately either so with true regrets we declined. Back on the road we passed numerous wedding processions and they are quite the production. The groom travels on an elephant or in a highly decorated elevated seat, typically with a young boy (similar to ring bearer) seated next to him. He's surrounded by friends and relatives, noise and music makers. Young boys carrying decorated candelabras of lights and the generators for the lights are for hire and are a part of every procession. The noise is tremendous and it completely clogs traffic but no one cares. January is apparently wedding season so every mile or so we'd encounter another procession. The first one we saw we got out of the car to take some pictures and get a closer look especially as traffic had slowed to a halt. Some of the groom's relatives were delighted to see us and begged us to join the groom atop his throne. We were reluctant thinking this would detract from the purpose but they insisted it would be an honor so we gave in and rode with him for a bit. It felt strange, like we were part of a Thanksgiving parade but was kinda fun too. Interestingly, the driver of the truck pulling the wagon started to demand that we give some money to the groom. We were startled by this and secretly disappointed but thought maybe it was the custom so reached into our pockets. Fortunately the groom's man who'd invited us up picked up on what was happening and immediately rebuked the driver and emphatically stated “no money”. The driver who was hired and not a member of the wedding party didn't like it and argued but there wasn't much he could do. Once we got down though we made sure to enjoy the other processions from inside the car.
(Wedding Procession Crashers)
The traffic, dust, noise and chaos is beyond what you can imagine as you get closer to Agra. For many tourists if they only visit one place in the north it’s Agra because it's where the Taj Mahal is located. Elmar had seen it before and I was excited to see if it would live up to expectations. We made it to our hotel late in the evening and made plans for Ajay to introduce us to a local guide later in the evening. When we met Hilal however, he had bad news for us. The Taj as it always is on Fridays, would be closed the next day. The tour operator had not checked the day just made the plan according to dates. We refused to miss it so even though it would create a bit of complication with our train tickets to Varanasi we had them extend the time in Agra. It was well worth it. The Taj lives up to and exceeds every expectation. This rather than Udaipur held true romance. The story goes that Shah Jahan loved his wife Mumtaz Mahal over all other wives and concubines so much that when she died after bearing his 14th! child he built the Taj as a monument and to enshrine her body. Words cannot begin to do it justice and the pictures aren't able to capture enough of what it evokes so best is to put it on your bucket list. The entry fee is steep, over 700Rps. but no one cares even when you know that locals only pay 50 Rps. Your ticket at least allows access through the express line so don't feel bad when you zip pass hundreds of locals in line. It also helps to maintain the Taj and other monuments that are less popular and you get a discount to see a few other sites if you go the same day. It's good to go with a decent guide too as there are lots of interesting details and facts about the construction you might miss otherwise. You'll have to tolerate the hokey poses for pictures but it's well worth it. The Agra Fort is worth a visit too as much of it was built with the same symmetry and translucent marble that marks Shah Jahan's style and it's where he spent his last days in style gazing at the Taj across the river. In reality, he'd been imprisoned by his own son. The day it was closed we viewed the Taj from the gardens across the river and the colours were very different from when we toured it the next day. If you can, try to at least view the Taj at a different time than your proposed tour as the differences will be remarkable. That's if the smog allows. Pollution is terrible in Agra and the haze can be bad enough to spoil any early morning views.
(The Taj Mahal from across the river)
(...and the Taj from the front)
Hilal also took us to a local Dhaba for some simple but delicious local food. Agra's strong Mughlai influence is reflected in the cream and curd based sauces (that I'm partial to, especially cashew cream) as well as the curries and should definitely be sampled. As is the case in much of our trip we paid no more than $10.00 for the four of us.
It was time to say goodbye to Ajay as we would be continuing our trip by train. He was a really careful and thoughtful driver/guide and we'd been lucky to get him. The big question was how to tip. There were some guidelines on the internet that were helpful in sharing typical daily rates which are about $10 - 20 per day. Ultimately, you choose what you feel is right based on the service you received and that's what we did.
The train ride from Agra to Varanasi is best described as an adventure. India has the largest train system in the world and you can travel for days or for short hops between cities. There are luxury trains such as Palace on wheels where you can travel in lavish style on specific routes for about US$ 1000 per day and your standard commuters with sleeping compartments for the price of a cheap meal in the US or Europe. Many have not been updated since built by the British and not all have air conditioning available. When you book you select the class of seating. Typically each train will have about 4 -5 classes ranging from first class/air conditioned to 3rd class unreserved no air con or sleeping facilities. A train journey is an essential part of the experience here if you want a taste of daily life, but I would not recommend the unreserved third class for anyone on their first trip and definitely not if you're travelling overnight unless you enjoy feeling like a packed sardine. Tickets are very affordable when you consider the extensive distances they travel so opt for the reserved section and keep in mind that it's better to use a reputable booking agent rather than try to do it yourself on line. Once booked however, there's an APP that tracks the progress of every train and can let you know if your train is delayed or not and if so, will provide progress updates as it nears your pick up station. We did not have this App for our first train trip and ended up waiting 6 hours for our train and arriving at our final destination with a 12 hour delay. The waiting room, which was designated as 'first class' was a sight to behold. I should state that we were not at the main station in Agra but had travelled to Tundla, which is about 25 Km outside of Agra. Avoid this station if at all possible. The first class waiting room had a few metal seats stretching against the wall leaving a wide area in the middle. This was soon to be filled with tired of waiting passengers who laid on the floor surrounded by their luggage and promptly fell sound asleep. Huge, and I mean huge rats darted in and out of the room scurrying through holes near the doorway. I refused to go to the ladies' room which was in another room after Elmar told me that the men's room which was through an open arch right off the room where we sat, had more feces on the walls than in the toilets.
Ajay, bless his heart, had arranged for a porter, or kuli how they are called in India, to tell us when our train was close and take us to the correct platform. This at least allowed us to relax since we couldn't understand the updates, which were only provided in Hindi. The food available in the snack bar looked dubious at best and to be frank, when you stood outside the door of the waiting room you can only breathe through your mouth or turn blue trying to hold your breath because of the stench. The tracks serve as a dumping ground for every bit of garbage generated by the thousands that transit the station. Many of the trains also don't have a waste disposal so the toilets all flush directly on to the tracks. Hence the very healthy rats who enjoy a sumptious daily buffet. (Rats having a feast)
This station was also home to a million starlings who roosted in the eaves and wires above. They also added their perfume and if you tried to stand near the door of the waiting room to view oncoming trains or ease your boredom, you were guaranteed a bird dropping or two. Finally the porter came and got us and we huddled our freezing toes unto the platform only to wait there for another 90 minutes as it took the train that long to get it's turn to pull into the station. Once we found the right compartment which you do by reading the car numbers and letters on the outside of the coach to match your reservation ticket, the adventure became more positive. We had two top bunks as we agreed to swap our bottom bunk with an older couple who were sharing one bunk bed. We both slept quite well and found the ride fairly smooth and rhythmic. After what we'd just experienced it felt like luxury. There were sheets, blanket and pillow, a reading light by each bunk, a small night stand and pouch for water. (Travelling in cozy 2nd class A/C)
The next morning hawkers came by selling chai and omelets and they were pretty tasty. It's a bit of a strange environment sharing intimacies with strangers in the small compartment. It might have been that they didn't speak English, we didn't know as somehow they and us enveloped ourselves in a little private world where we avoided looking at or talking to each other. All in all, while I never want to go back to Tundla, I was glad to have my first train experience. The next time I watch Slumdog Millionaire I will for sure have a great frame of reference.
The oldest living city known and also called the city of light by the many devotees who travel here to be cleansed and get in touch with the divine. The city is considered to be so holy that if you die here you achieve instant Moksha or enlightment, which is the zenith of Hindu faith and means you won't need to be reincarnated. It draws pilgrims from all over the world, the devout as well as the curious. Everything centers on the Ganges river or the Ganga as the Indians call it. The access to the Ganga lies via the Ghats which are concrete steps leading right into the river. It is here that you will see some of the most bizarre looking people in search of and performing all kinds of rituals to purify themselves. Because the Hindus believe that salvation can be obtained after death, it's also the ultimate burial place. Every day between 100-150 bodies are cremated by dedicated cremators called the untouchables. The ashes are then scattered into the river in hope of achieving salvation. Our first evening here we took a walk down a series of the many alleyways that make up the city and fought our way through the thick throng of people heading to or away from the ghats. (Devotees taking a bath in the holy Ganges)
There are about a hundred ghats here and each has significance and is visited for different reasons. The most popular are those where the live cremations take place and where elaborate celebrations occur. We could see the smoke from the funeral pyres but our new local guide took us to one where we could view the evening celebratory performance. We hopped unto a long boat and joined the many other tourist filled boats on the river. You typically have to haggle over boat prices but ours had been secured by the tour group so we just paid as we were directed. You are typically given an offering of a floating candle surrounded by a few petals that you light and set in the river with whatever prayer you're inspired to mutter or simply to follow the custom. As the sun sets all the boats begin to cluster around the main ghat where the daily celebration of life which they believe comes from the river, occurs. Around seven young monks dressed in vibrant orange and yellow robes, perform a ritual of chanting and coordinated low key dancing while playing a series of percussion instruments, burning and throwing incense. It lasts about 30-40 minutes and is the type of thing you get out of it what you put in. We could see some boats trying to get out after about 10 mins while others held people riveted and some even crying. (The daily 'celebration of life' ritual on the Ganges in Varanasi)
The next day we visited Sarnath, which is about 15 Km north of Varanassi. It's not as popular a destination but it's here that Budha gave his very first sermon and began to record the main tenets of the Buddhist faith; then just a philosophical concept. (Buddha's first sermon to five followers)
The atmosphere here is as one would expect for a Buddhist center, quiet and peaceful. There are museums close by that house a lot of relics but aren't a must see from my perspective. Our guide was really interesting, he was a devout Hindu who studied philosophy. When we asked a question, unlike many others we'd met, he refused to pretend knowledge if he didn't know. He provided a very simple explanation of the main tenets of Buddhism and shared other basic beliefs of Hinduism. It was amazing how similar they are to Christianity in many ways. There is a consistent theme of the first man and woman, the need for holiness or purity and the sacrifice of One who took on human form. It's his belief that there is only one God even though he may have different names and people chose different paths for worship. It left me wondering why we spend so much time majoring on the minor differences rather than respecting each others preferences. (The stupa in Sarnath where remains of Buddha Sidharta are buried)
On our own later that afternoon, Elmar and I decided to visit some of the other ghats. We loved the narrow quaint little alleyways that meander through the old city on the way there. They look more like what I imagine an old city to look like. It seems I'm not alone in my preference as there are a number of German bakeries and restaurants offering Korean Japanese and Syrian dishes among others so they are well frequented by tourists. It was about then that I made a discovery. There is a rhythm that you develop from wandering the streets in India. Your eyes constantly roam taking in as much as you can of the life teeming by. At the same time, you have to keep an eye on the road as cow dung, sink holes rubble and refuse abound. You also begin to get a feel for when cyclists, rickshaws or cars are on your tail and you're soon bobbing, dodging and weaving with the general flow. When you get to this point you really begin to relax and enjoy yourself and you realise you've finally adapted. The cacophony of hawkers, horns, and animals are not necessarily soothing but they are no longer bombarding your senses and you can absorb more fluidly key focal points. Before then, you're just a piece of flotsam being dragged along with the rush of human tide and you're only grasping at what's around you in surges. You look and think you've taken in an entire vista, which you did, but the intensity of the next distracting wave makes it difficult to sort it all and you desperately hope that you're remembering what you want. But back to our walk to river banks and ghats. We got a bit lost through the alleyways but we didn't mind at all and eventually they all lead to a ghat so it was just a longer route. This is where the very mellow spiritualists hang out and we were asked several times if we wanted some weed. Some were strumming guitars and singing Bob Marley tunes while others bathed in the river and even drank a bit of it. (Holy men, saddhus and other enlightened cats in Agra)
This is the fascination of this city, that the familiar and alien and often what we would consider private are on public display. We wandered from one ghat to the next and were having such a good time that we were almost late for our pick up at the hotel. We would be taking the train for the final destination of the tour then we would be on our own.
The train from Varnassi to Kolkata was not as smooth a ride as Agra to Varanasi but thankfully the train station wasn't as bad as Tundla. There were no birds with their horrible droppings and rats were not as visible and numerous. We were running a bit late and thought the train would be similarly delayed but we only had a 2 hr wait. At this station just outside of Varanasi, male and female waiting rooms were strictly separated so we couldn’t sit together in the waiting room. (Female 'VIP' waiting room)
We ate a simple meal bought from the train service rather than an independent provider and this proved to be a mistake for Elmar. The next couple days would be pretty miserable for him. Lesson learnt, be wary of food provided by the Rail service, use the independent vendors. We also had an interesting experience that exposed us to another side of train behaviours. When we boarded the train, our compartment had only one bunk available. We started to question the gentleman occupying our bunk and he in stilted broken English kept repeating number. 11. Our seats were 1 A and B. After a few moments where we checked and confirmed our reservation, we finally understood that he wanted us to switch one of our seats because he and his wife had separate seats and wanted to stay together. The thing is, he wasn't asking but was telling us to take his wife's bunk, which was down the corridor at number 11. We politely said no but it became clear he wasn't interested in that answer and was shooing us away. Elmar decided the nice guy route wasn't working so he stood taller, got closer, looked directly in his eyes and in a quiet voice said 'No, get out!'. That got his attention and all of a sudden the arrogant demeanour disappeared and without another word he grabbed his luggage sheet and blanket and scampered from the compartment. During all this commotion the other passenger who was in the bunk above his wife slept the sleep of death. We'd noticed this before that so many people here could sleep soundly at the drop of a hat regardless of the location, discomfort or noise level. It's quite a gift and if we could figure it out we could make a killing on the thousands of insomniacs in the west. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we arrived in Kolkata not too far from our scheduled time and were taken to the lovely ‘Peerless Inn’ hotel which is very close to the Esplanade and the main city center as well as Sudder street, which is one of the main backpacker areas in town. We had given an ultimatum to the tour operators as the quality of the hotels had been steadily slipping as we travelled. We would arrive in a city to a different and sometimes inferior one than had been promised. They responded to the feedback and we not only had a decent hotel but were upgraded to a suite. The service was good which is often a hit and miss even in some of the finer hotels and especially in restaurants. Often when eating out, we couldn't help but notice that the wait staff would get totally engrossed in clearing a table or diligently doing something useful like shining the silverware and seem to studiously avoid looking in a customer's direction. It wouldn't matter if the place was empty or packed to the gills. This place was a noticeable exception and was such a boon after our constant pack and go mode we decided to extend our stay. That wasn't the only reason however, the other is, we were really enjoying Kolkata. In contrast to the many hyped cities we'd visited, Kolkata was quite clean, traffic was manageable, the pace was less frenetic and people were polite and left you alone if that's what you wanted. Most of the taxi and rickshaw drivers would turn their engines off if waiting, something we had not seen anywhere else. ("Human Horses" in Kolkata, hand pulled rickshaws, the only city in India where you still find them)
There were also lovely gardens donated by corporations or legacies of the British with enforced no trash rules. We were curious as to the difference and as we read the newspapers we discovered the reason. Mamata Banerje is the current chief minister of West Bengal, with Kolkata as its capital, and definitely controversial. Each day we spent in Kolkata there was a new expose in the papers of how she yelled at her bodyguard or some hapless staff member or made some inappropriate comment about an ethnic group. On the other hand, we also discovered that she had initiated a 'clean city' campaign that was obviously working and was a strong promoter of the arts being an artist herself. The streets in the city are wider and better constructed than others we'd seen, thanks again to the Brits who had made this their capital in former years but Mamata was also ensuring proper maintenance and continuation. This was the first city we visited that even the smallest side street was paved, swept daily and repairs in evidence. We enjoyed reading the daily stories about her and despite the negative comments applauded her efforts. Kolkata has a bad reputation for being a really dirty, poor and unsafe city but we found the exact opposite. Every day we took the metro, which is Russian designed and runs from Dum Dum near the airport to Kavi Nazrul in the south, and found it clean (you could be fined if caught spitting), safe, efficient and cheap. We walked the streets for fairly long distances late at night and never once felt unsafe. The city actually shuts down pretty early so by 10pm all the street stalls are closed and only the street and sidewalk cleaners are about. The variety and quality of food offered in the city was also a nice surprise. While we still enjoyed meals at local joints we also tried out some more upscale restaurants. Our favourite places were Peter Cat (Peter Cat, our favorite eating jaunt), Tangerine (Late dinner at Tangerine) and Bar-B-Q, all on or close to Park street. Peter Cat is a fusion of middle eastern and Indian and is not to be missed. There's always a long queue for dinner but it's worth the wait. We would definitely recommend the Chello kebab - mutton and chicken kebabs on a bed of buttered rice, which is the most popular dish and is flavourfilled melt in your mouth good. At Tangerine the service is great. They listen, know about the different dishes on offer and are not reluctant to offer recommendations. We enjoyed the mutton biryani a lot. Bar-B-Q, a Chinese restaurant right on Park street where most of the well frequented restaurants are, is pretty decent too but the servings are huge so best to go with a group and get less dishes than number of guests. You will still have leftovers. At all of these places we still did not pay more than US$ 25 including wine/beer for our meals so while not daily fare for your typical back packer they are not exorbitant.
Besides food there are some nice places to visit here as well and lots of cultural events. The Victoria Memorial is absolutely lovely and saved from looking too manicured by families picnicking and romping in the many gardens. (Victoria Memorial)
Not too far away is St Paul's cathedral and the Academy of Fine Arts. Another surprise for us here is the tolerance for public affection. We visited Maidan gardens and were amazed as every bench and shady tree was occupied by young Indian couples nuzzling, cuddling and kissing with open abandon. We'd been told this was taboo in India so were delighted to see people expressing affections so openly.
Elmar had also been here on his trip 20 years ago and saw much more advancement than he had in Delhi or any other place he visited for that matter. We visited Mother Theresa's (Sisters of Charity) mother house where he'd spent significant time on his previous trip helping to take care of the indigent and he noticed that the building had been given a face lift. He also saw a huge difference in terms of less poor sleeping in the streets. We found the city sophisticated and easy to wander through and most of all, very relaxing. It was hard to leave Kolkata and we promised ourselves to return and spend more time there, but it was time to move on.