Sorry, I got delayed in writing our adventures in Jaipur, New Delhi and then the wedding… In the meantime, enjoy this photo of paradise:
We got up understandably hungry and decided that before the roadtrip, we could have a nice breakfast at a place near the Taj’s southern gate called Joney’s Place, as we read in our guide that it was a really nice breakfast joint. Shortly thereafter, the day hit a first snag when the cabbie we hired for the day refused to take us there, arguing that cars were not allowed this close to the Taj and it wouldn’t be possible. We said we could walk there if he dropped us off at the neighborhood’s entrance, but he wasn’t keen on doing that either, so we settled on leaving right away and stopping for breakfast on the way to Fatehpur Sikri.
We got underway and soon were out of Agra, on the highway to the old Mughal capital of Akbar the Great, who was the grandfather of Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal’s fame.
After a toll booth, our driver unexpectedly went on the opposite lane, driving against traffic, which alarmed me somewhat until I realized he was taking us about 100 meters down towards an establishment that looked like the promised restaurant. Said establishment proved to be somewhat overpriced and underwhelming compared to others we’d been. The rest of the trip was uneventful, we got to see the countryside, animals and workers in the fields, etc.
When we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, the driver introduced us to an acquaintance of his who proposed his services as a guide… for double the official price. I wasn’t aware of this double-the-amount detail as I started bargaining, but Cris and Alex were, and decided to do without his services. At this point, we could have taken the tourist bus to the gates of Fatehpur Sikri, but it was a nice day and we decided we could just as well walk there instead, which made for a nice 20-minute stroll.
Once at the gates, we found a proper guide with official accreditation, and promptly started the tour.
The Fatehpur Sikri complex is composed of two major areas, one being the actual imperial palace complex, and the other being the Jama Masjid mosque where the tomb of Sufi saint Salim Chishti is located.
The imperial palace is a mix of several architectural influences, Muslim, Hindu, Jain and even Christian. Akbar the Great, third ruler of the Mughal dynasty, developed a new religion called Sulh-e-kul (universal peace), that encompassed all other existing religions under one single God, and proclaimed that they were all of equal importance and should co-exist in peace, he himself keeping his native Muslim faith. This policy also extended to architecture and the buildings show a remarkable variety of different styles.
Akbar had three wives, one Muslim, one Christian (from Goa), and one Hindu. As the story goes, none of them was giving him an heir, so he went to Chishti’s camp and asked him to bless his wife for a male child. Chishti blessed Akbar’s Hindu wife and she gave him his much desired male heir, and this is how Akbar decided to repay the Sufi by building his palace and set his new capital there.
It didn’t really work out as there were both trouble in the neighboring regions and a notable shortage of water, so after a few years, the place was abandoned and the capital relocated to Agra.
The palace is now empty of anything but tourists, but the mosque still welcomes a steady flow of pilgrims paying homage to the Sufi and his followers. An anecdote tells the story of Emperor Akbar going to visit the holy man and humbly mixing with the other followers and staying at the back of the crowd, explaining when asked that he may be the almighty ruler of the land outside the mosque, but once inside, he was just a man subject to God’s judgment, just like everyone else.
Outside the complex, there’s a tower in the distance. This is Hira Minar, the tomb of an elephant that was used to carry out executions (guess how). It was the Emperor’s favourite elephant, and was never used in battle as a war elephant.
Inside the mosque, there is a constant flow of pilgrims coming to pray to the Sufi and attaching little bits of string of various colors to the grids and walls. Each one of these pieces of strings represents a wish. You can also get a piece of cloth to place on the tomb, and the proceeds of the sale go to the city’s homeless and widows.
Once outside and in possession of our shoes again (as always, you have to take them off to enter the mosque), we went back to our car, another good 20 minutes’ walk in the sun. Hot but nice. We took a few street picture, tuk-tuks and camels, and then we arrived at the parking lot and we headed back to Agra.
Our driver kept silent as before, but was noticeably sullen compared to the way in. This time, we managed to convince him to drop us off as close as he could to the Taj’s southern gate as we were looking for a place to have lunch there. At the entrance of Agra, we got stopped at an intersection, as there was a lot of traffic and we couldn’t move much. The block amplified and we were soon surrounded by a honking chaos as everything came to a standstill. This situation lasted for a good ten minutes and in the midday sun, spirits became visibly heated and angry. This is the closest we’d seen to actual anger and fights in the streets up to that point, as for all the honking and crazy driving they do, Indians as far as we’ve seen remain remarkably cool under any circumstances on the road.
This however was threatening to turn into a shit storm of epic proportions as more and more people came and became glued into the mess. I personally started feeling uncomfortable when people started actually trying to move our car on their own, bumping into it and even climbing on it to pass.
Eventually we saw a couple of soldiers run our way (as in towards the block, not us specifically), followed by another three or four. With tough talk, baton wielding and probably some not-so-veiled threats of trouble for people who didn’t comply, they quickly resolved the situation and we were soon rolling again towards our destination. Pretty intense.
As it turned out, the driver this time didn’t encounter any difficulty whatsoever taking us exactly where we wanted to go, which as we discovered was right across Joney’s Place, conclusively proving that his morning excuse of not being able to drive there had been rather economical with the truth.
We did enjoy a very welcome break at that restaurant, the name of which escapes me, as we sat and ate on the rooftop terrace, taking in the view of Agra rooftops and the Taj in the distance. We also were lucky to see a colourful wedding procession go down our street.
After lunch we got back to the cab and proceeded to the Agra Fort, our last big stop of the day.
Although it was relatively late already, we did time it perfectly for photos again as we arrived smack in the middle of the golden hour and saw the very red indeed Fort in all its colorful glory. The majestic entrance, exterior walls and moats reminded me of the fortified city of Carcassonne in France, which has the same no non-sense, tough-built feel to it.
The present Red Fort was built on top of an existing fort by Akbar, of Fatehpur Sikri fame, but it is also famous for Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan. After building the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan had plans to build its perfect counterpoint, a replica made of black stone on the opposite side of the river. Unfortunately for him, it was never to be. His son Aurangzeb seized power after arranging to have his three brothers executed, and had his ailing father confined to the Fort. Only some foundations were laid out and the Black Taj was never built.
He stayed under house arrest there until his death in 1666 in the care of his daughter Jahanara, who immediately arranged for his funeral in the Taj Mahal next to his love Mumtaz Mahal. Incidentally, this unscheduled addition makes it the only part of the Taj Mahal complex that is not symmetrical.
We skipped the guides this time, opting instead for an audio-guide device, but the formal visit was cut short by sunset. We rushed to give the thing back, then played a little hide-and-seek with the guards who were shuffling people out, trying to steal a few extra minutes and see as much of the palace as we could. We eventually walked back and left just as the night fell for good.
Once back at the hotel, we briefly met with Sunil one last time to arrange the pickup-time for tomorrow, to take us to the bus station to Jaipur.
Agra. My god, Agra!
Let me start from the beginning. We got up pretty early at 5am in order to catch our bus around 7am at the Sarai Kale Khan bus terminal. Our cabbie got a tad overexcited and left us near the first bus he knew was bound to Agra, and even started unloading our backpacks directly from his cab to the bus! We had already told him we actually had our own tickets to our own bus and we needed to find that bus, but he sort of happily ignored us and we pretty much had to snatch Alex’s backpack before it disappeared into not-the-right-bus…
Our sole clue was that our bus was a blue Volvo, so we started asking around for the Volvo bus to Agra. Not many people spoke English and the entire area seemed a little shady, making it difficult, but we eventually managed some clear-enough directions and started walking… away from the bus terminal into some kind of deserted area with bus wrecks and bus carcasses all around. I had my doubts that we were going in the right direction, seeing that we were leaving the buses behind, but I was eventually proven wrong when we arrived… at the entrance of the “real” Sarai Kale Khan terminal! Realizing with some frustration that our cabbie had left us almost but not quite where we had expected him to, while pretending he had, we nevertheless found our famous Volvo bus there waiting for us.
The trip to Agra itself was nothing unusual. It was kind of monotonous, but in a nice way as the highway is really good. The bus only stopped once about halfway through. The arrival to Agra however, was met with some uncertainty as we had no idea where we should stop and where we would be in relation to our hotel. We crossed the Yamuna river but couldn’t see any landmark that could give us a clue…
Tourists left the bus but we stayed on, eventually riding it until the Agra terminal where everybody got off. That’s where we finally saw a map and realized to our dismay that the bus had first bypassed Agra, then entered it at its southern end, going all the way up to the northern part where the terminal was. This meant that we had to find a way to double back and cross the town all over again to get to the hotel’s neighborhood.
We quickly found that there were no taxis at the terminals, only auto-rickshaws (or tuk-tuks, as tourists call them) so we looked at each other with a mix of excitement and dread, and negotiated rates for our very first, but hopefully not last, tuk-tuk ride.
And a ride it was. The driver went all Fast and Furious on us, swiftly and insanely dodging traffic, honking left and right with a seemingly complete disregard for whatever surrounded him at any given time. The weather was hot and dry and the dust flew high, stinging the eyes and making it hard to breathe. While stopping at a traffic light, I glanced at a truck nearby and noticed its tires were worn to the thread, with no grip at all possibly left in them. I just absently thought that this guy would be in a bit of a pickle come the rainy season… But it was a brief respite, and the rollercoaster ride soon started again. Seeing some kind of traffic block ahead, our pilot deftly turned towards what served as the sidewalk and rode on that instead, but then there was a block on that side too while the road was clear, so without missing a beat, seeing a clearing in the ditch fit for that purpose he just drove into it and back up on the road again.
Long story short, the Dukes of Hazzard can go cry to their momma’s, ‘cause these guys have them beat for sure.
Oh, and we arrived to our hotel.
Let me start right away by saying that we had gone for one of the cheapest hotels we could find with good reviews. This one had two reviews: a good one from a German, and a bad one from a French. Never last to critique my fellow countrymen, we had agreed that the general fussiness of the French was of little importance compared to the legendary Teutonic affinity for quality, and we went for it. (Also, as I said, cheap.)
Well, it was… what we paid for, basically. We had four walls and a roof over our heads, for sure, but the general feel of the place was that of an unfinished building, probably because it was. It was only finished up to the second floor and the rest of the thing was, well, still under construction. (And had been for over 2 years…) We complained about moldy atmosphere (the windows didn’t open, even for ventilation), not-too-clean bed sheets and a distinct lack of towels, to get another room that was much better, as in less moldy and with slightly cleaner bed sheets (once we asked for them once more). We got the towels later that day, still wet. We had a lovely chat with the manager, a feisty, white-suit-clad mustachioed gentleman, where we discussed hotel management and the difficulty of pricing your products in the hard hospitality business. It was nice but I’m still not quite sold on the idea of prioritizing the 32” LED TVs over basic furnishings. While we were at it, we also talked to him regarding renting a cab for the following day, to visit Fatehpur Sikri and other sites.
Anyway, dont’t get me wrong, basic necessities were met with satisfaction, so we got some rest, then set out to find a tuk-tuk to go to the Taj Mahal, our first big visit, as well as a restaurant to satiate our hunger first. Priorities!
That’s how we met Sunil, a very cool cabbie who ended up being our go-to guy during our stay in Agra. We negotiated fares and even the trip to the bus station to Jaipur later this week, and started arrangements on cabs for Fatehpur Sikri with him too, to see who had the better deal.
We went for lunch to a restaurant called the Silk Route. We had read great reviews in our guide and were confused when our driver didn’t seem to recognize the name. Then we gave the address and he asked around and with a flash the answer came: it’s colloquially known as just “the SR”. The various tikka masala, butter chickens and biryanis were excellent again, as was the tea. We had the whole restaurant for ourselves, but it might have been due to the late hour. Not that it mattered. We had a great time.
Finally, we got out and went for the Taj Mahal. Sunil introduced us to a local (official) guide for us to discover the history of the place, and we expedited the entry formalities by going through the “High Value Visitor” channel. Being a High Value Visitor is nothing more than being a tourist: it means you paid 750 rupees for the privilege of visiting the Taj Mahal, instead of the 20 charged to Indian citizens. The only advantage is you get priority in the queue (that’s actually a neat bonus, as it’s pretty long).
Ah, the Taj. A magnificent and legendary building. Let’s pretend Wikipedia doesn’t exist and share a bit of history here.
In the early 1500’s, India was ruled by what would become known as the Mughal Empire. By the 1550’s, with Akbar the Great, it had stabilized into a full blown, unified empire, and it’s with Akbar’s grandson, the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, that it reached its Golden Age. Under his rule many great buildings, such as the Red Fort in Delhi, were built. Shah Jahan was madly in love with his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who gave him 13 children. Unfortunately she died giving birth to the 14th, and grief-stricken, Shah Jahan decided to give her the most magnificent mausoleum the world had ever seen.
The construction began in 1632 and ended in 1653. The complex is formed by three gates giving way to a plaza, where the main, majestic gateway is located. From there, you access the gardens with pathways to the Mausoleum itself, flanked by a mosque on its left (looking towards the river), and another “fake” mosque on the right, called “Jawab”. Everything in the construction of the buildings, of the gardens and of all the details, reflects the perfect symmetry of the place, a signature Mughal characteristic.
The mosque is still in use today, which is why it’s not recommended to plan your visit on a Friday as the complex will be closed to non-muslims.
We stayed there until closing time, enjoying the benefits of the golden hour. Perfect timing! 🙂
After that, we rejoined with Sunil and after some bargaining we managed a good price for the Fatehpur Sikri cab so we decided to go with his offer. Finally, exhausted by an overall intense day, we got back to the hotel and pretty much immediately went to sleep.
Woke up fresh for a new start and had a yummy breakfast while waiting for other wary travelers to show up…
Alex was first to come down and join us and we caught up on things over coffee, all the while preparing our trip to Agra tomorrow. We still had only a very vague plan and no place booked, which is adventurous to say the least, hehe…
The Stockholm party showed up later and introduced themselves. Then we got a message from New Friends Colony: Vilasini and Rareş were on their way to meet us at the hotel.
Time top get ready for the day.
The group split up in two: While Rareş and the Swedish gang went to a tailor to get custom-made suits, Cris, Alex and I would go with Vilasini for some sightseeing and then shopping. The plan was to go visit Qutub Minar first, a 73m-high tower and the largest brick-made minaret in the world, built in 1193. Unfortunately we waited so much for our cab that eventually we had to abandon these plans and proceed directly to the shopping phase. That ended up being a lot of fun as we rejoined the others at the shop, and we all spent quite some time trying on some traditional attire to wear for the wedding. To get an idea, imagine a reverse Pretty Woman situation, with a bunch of guys rolling in and out of the shop’s two small fitting rooms in all these colorful garments and asking the girls for advice on whether or not it’s good or appropriate or what have you… I settled for a long mustard-colored kurta with a brown vest, and the usual tight white pajama-pants that go with it. I couldn’t find sandals my size, which would be an ongoing quest until Jaipur and the source of a few funny stories.
We split again after this episode, and the four of us proceeded to Dilli Haat, a pretty cool faux-traditional market offering all kinds of goods. It was getting pretty late at that point and we were quite hungry, so getting some food quickly became the priority. We found a nice terrace there and I had some chicken tikka and biryani and parathas, and we all had a fantastic meal and stayed there a bit until we were ready to move again for more potential shopping.
And shopping we did. We found a shoemaker’s stand and immediately Alex and I started hunting for our much-desired sandals. It took a while but we did find pairs that we liked, unfortunately they were much too expensive (due to them being fashioned out of camel leather) and even with Vilasini’s help, it was impossible to bring the price down to an acceptable (to us) level… In the end, it’s Cristina who ended up taking a pair of sandals for herself, while we remained shoeless for the wedding! But we still had about a week to fix that so we didn’t worry much about it.
Alex did find a nice, traditional Cashmere hat and Cris and I got a bag of “saunf”, or “mukhwas”, these after-meal blends of seeds typical of India and Pakistan. She also found a nice pair of earrings.
After returning to the hotel to freshen up, we went to Vilasini’s place and found that Rareş had found and booked seats for us on the Agra bus tomorrow, and we only needed to book the hotel, which we promptly did online. After that, we all went to a really cool place called Monkey Bar for another delicious meal involving butterfly-shaped meat cakes and Goan spicy sausage and a super-extra spicy sauce called “After Death”. Needless to say, we had to try it, and it was indeed super-extra spicylicious, and… we survived. Yay!
We arrived in New Delhi after a long but uneventful journey via Istanbul. Went on to immediately disregard our friends’ advice and ended up in an unlicensed cab to the hotel, instead of the allegedly more reputable “standard” ones. We drove a hard, educated bargain to pay the fare a normal 1,000 rupees instead of double which was what they were asking for…
DELHI… under the fog and with the weariness of the trip, appeared more surreal than ever. Bustling and full of activities, insane traffic… They definitely use their klaxons as language!
We hadn’t written down the hotel’s address, in a surprising and embarrassing lapse of judgment, but we managed to find it in the end, and got to our assigned dwelling safely.
We fell asleep almost immediately for a few hours. We’re ready now to head back to the thick of it.
They say arriving in India is a shock. To us, the first contact has been a hazy, foggy shock that caught us somewhat unprepared and off guard in spite of all the warnings. It will be interesting to see now what they have in store for us. Feeling impatient to see more.
We finally met with Vilasini and Rareş at the hotel. Their wedding next week is the reason behind this journey. Rareş was knackered as well as he arrived pretty much same day as us, just a few hours before. They left shortly afterwards to rest and left us with some recommendations for lunch and sightseeing.
We took a cab to a place called Khan Market, which is a group of streets full of shops (tailors, jewelry, etc…. and food joints!) and we had a snack at an apparently semi-famous place called Khan Cha Cha. Super good as expected. So far Indian food doesn’t disappoint.
Our subsequent visit to the tombs of Lodi Gardens was unfortunately cut short by nightfall and we had to get back to the hotel.
We ended the day with Vilasini and Rareş and couple of their friends at a fantastic Nepali restaurant where much food and drinks were consumed with gusto.
And that’s how we had our first day in New Delhi. W00t!