An unplanned journey on a bus.

Sunday 13 November 2016 – Delhi, India – Part 2.

Back at the homestay I had a long conversation with the owner, Faiz, about my finances, the money I transferred from my NZ bank account into his had not yet arrived, which I had anticipated would be the case. In the end we swapped contact details and he will let me leave this afternoon even if the payment hasn’t arrived. This is a wonderful gesture that I very gratefully accepted. This was the cause of a bit of stress this morning as had no other way of paying him and no-one has any idea when the money situation would be resolved, weeks probably. At least I could move on. Thanks Faiz, you have reminded me there is good in this world!

My tuk tuk driver was as reliable as ever and picked me up as agreed at 11:00 and we went to see the ‘Baby’ Taj.

The ‘Baby Taj’s real name is the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah and is regarded as a first copy draft of the Taj Mahal, being completed in 1628, four years before the Taj Mahal was started. It also marked the transmission between architectural styles; from the traditional red stone to the new cleaner white marble. I’timad-ud-Daulah was a Persian Emir in exile in India and was the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, who the Taj Mahal was built for. It too is on the bank of the River Yamuna.

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With my finances sorted, at least for the day, I am still broke, but not worrying about paying Faiz was a weight off my mind, I could enjoy my brief time here, it was also significantly more peaceful than its more youthful sibling up the road.

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It is a lovely looking building, essentially the same from all sides, inscribed white marble for the mausoleum and red stone for the out buildings.

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I also took a couple of photos up and down the river, the air had cleared a bit since the early morning, plus we are a bit further away from the centre of Agra where the air is at its worst. As in so many poverty riven countries the river, no matter how filthy it is, is used to do laundry, wash people and a public toilet.

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I enjoyed walking around and investigating the place, I would liked to have taken a guide as I was listening to some other tourists guides and it seemed like there are a few interesting stories to be heard. Finances dictated otherwise.

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A place worth visiting if you are in Agra.

I took my tuk tuk back to the guest house and had an early, final lunch before bidding farewell to Faiz and profusely thanking him yet again for his help, his loan and for letting me leave without the money hitting his account. (It has now and everyone is happy!).

And that was the end of Agra – and the rest of the day pretty much turned to shit after that.

I got to the station really early, I didn’t want to linger awkwardly at Faiz’s so I arrived at the station about 1:30 for my 2:20 train to Delhi. Except it was delayed by 4 ½ hours and was not due to arrive here until after 6:00pm. This was a potential issue, a potential big issue. I was relying on my train arriving at New Delhi station with enough time for me to be able to get the metro to the airport as my hotel was near there. I had barely enough money to get from the airport to the hotel as it was. There was no way I had enough to get from the station. Not knowing what time the metro finished on a Sunday and with a minimum 5 hour journey from Agra I started looking for alternatives.

Naturally in any train station in India, there is someone nearby with an alternative. A man suggested the bus, 6 hours to Delhi, 300 rupees for a non-AC and one leaving in 25 mins. I took it… He took me to the bus station, for a pretty good rate, I am sure he got a good kick back from the bus company, and I was sitting on the filthy 2:00pm bus to Delhi. It was full. It took six hours. Six, dusty, dirty, swaying, bouncing hours. I slowly got more and more stressed as the day went on, as the light disappeared and I had no idea how far away from anything the bus station was. It was not a pleasant trip. To be fair, it was far from the worst bus trip I have ever taken, and if it wasn’t for the money thing it would have been fine. It was never going to be fun though!

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We arrived at the bus station in Delhi about 8:00pm. Thankfully the pollution in Delhi was not at the levels it was when I arrived and it was merely bad. I was jumped on by tuk tuk drivers before I even left the bus and was quoted 400 rupees to the nearest metro station. I showed them the content of my wallet which had 280 rupees in it and got a 200 rupee ride…

I still had no idea what I was going to do, or how much the metro to the airport was going to be, or what I would do once I got to the airport. I knew that from New Delhi Station the ride to the airport would be 60 rupees, so I was praying the ride to that station would be 20 rupees or less. It was 12 ! Yes !! I could have kissed the ticket man!

The Delhi metro is fantastic, clean, efficient and fairly straightforward to work out, no worse than the one in Valencia anyway. I arrived in Delhi Station about 8:30 and was wandering around vacantly trying to find my platform. I spotted an ATM with a big queue at it, a queue was a good sign, most of the ones I had seen had no queue – meaning no cash. I walked up to the queue, and the policeman at the front waved me straight in, effectively queue jumping like at the banks. I hated doing it, but was utterly relieved. I could only get 1000 rupees, but 1000 Rupees !!! it was like magic. The stress just fell off, if I did not have a heavy backpack on my back and a heavy camera bag on my front I would have jumped for joy.

The ride to the airport was a breeze, as was the taxi ride to my hotel, which cost 500 rupees. I would have been stuffed if I had not seen that ATM. In the end I made the correct choice, the last metro to the airport was 11:00pm, I would never have got there in time if I caught the delayed train.

The Hotel Aura is the most expensive place I stayed in India at 22pounds a night. It was also the worst. Don’t stay there people! Noisy, dirty and there was no hot water. I was craving a hot shower. It was 9:30pm. I ordered a beer and then went to bed, no dinner.

It was one hell of a day, but I made it to the final destination, as always !

Tomorrow doesn’t get any better…..

The Taj Mahal.

Sunday 13 November 2016 – Agra, India – Part 1.

This post is all about the Taj Mahal, which I visited this morning before catching a train to Delhi, where I will stay the night near the airport before flying up to see my daughter, Meliesha in McLeod Ganj in the morning.

Well that was the plan when I wrote that sentence this morning in between visiting the Taj Mahal and the ‘Baby Taj’ and then leaving town. Though it did not turn out that way! More about the that in the next post…

It is a quiet day in Agra, I believe it is a holiday, but not sure what for. I was up earlyish after a pretty average night. I wanted to get to the Taj Mahal reasonably early. I selected this home stay because it is half way between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, the two main things I wanted to see in Agra, both are a walkable distance. The home stay owner, Faiz gave me a lift on his motorbike to the entrance which was nice, he is a good host!

The queue to get in was tiny, but quite maddening, lots of Indian men waiting by the foreigners queue asking foreigners to change their small notes for big ones, as the ticket counter was taking the big notes. There has been changes made to money this week which is causing chaos in India, this will feature a lot in my day today. I did swap 1000 rupees in small notes with one of the guys and used his 1000 rupee note to pay the entrance fee. This made him very happy. It took about 15 minutes to process the two people in front of me.

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Like yesterday at the fort Faiz had told me I would not be allowed to take a bag into the site, and they were a lot stricter here than at the fort. No-one had large bags, there is also a lot of armed security about as well. Again, I just took the small camera and a bottle of water. I have been looking forward to visiting here, it is one of those must see places that adorn the list of anyone who likes to travel.

The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653 and is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the Mhughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 10 years to build and is the centre building in a fairly large site that also includes a guest house and a mosque.

The Taj Mahal site is a lot bigger than I expected, and not quite as crowded as I expected it to be at 8:00 am – it opens at sunrise, which this morning was around 6:15. I had pondered arriving for sunrise but the air is so thick that from a light perspective there would be no point, so I stayed in bed. I suspect it was busier then than it was when I arrived. It got very busy later in the day.

The great gate from the outside.

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The first view of the building is pretty breathtaking, and everyone stops just inside the great gate to take their first picture – and a hell of a lot of selfies…

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I didn’t bother stopping, I knew I was going to take a lot of photos, I also knew I was going to try and take this one, the classic reflection shot. I was very lucky to grab one without anyone in the way.

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I was not really in the mood I must admit, so my roaming of the site was a bit listless. I am very worried about my finances, or complete lack thereof. Spending 1000 rupees on the entry fee alone seems to be a lot, when I am not sure if I can get to my next destination, however I am here to see things, and the Taj Mahal is THE thing. This place is the sort of place you need to visit with someone to share the experience with.

I spent a couple of hours walking around, I took a lot of photos as you would expect. There were some very helpful gentlemen there who pointed me to the exact spot to get reflections etc, for a tip of 10 rupees, I am quite surprised that others did not take up their offer. I was very happy with their recommendations. I would not have gotten the photos I did without them. I didn’t manage to get another one without people standing in the way !

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The great gate from the inside.

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The mosque.

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The view of the River Yamuna, overlooking a bit of where I was yesterday evening.

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The building is covered in inscriptions and motifs on the walls, though I did not capture any of the detail, part of my listlessness I guess. There is also renovation work going on on the sunrise side of the mausoleum.

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There were the ubiquitous monkeys everywhere, I think this is going to end badly!

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The crowds had really ramped up when I left, I think I picked the perfect time of day to visit… I enjoyed my time there, though I wish I had been in a better frame of mind as I would have appreciated this wonder of the world a lot more than I did. Glad I went though!

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I walked back to the homestay. I think to the bemusement of some of the locals, I had lots of hellos and waves from people on bikes and on tuk tuks, I don’t think they get many westerners walking the streets.

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Forts, frustrations and a first glimpse of the Taj.

Saturday 12 November 2016 – Agra, India.

The day did not start off brilliantly. My throat is really sore and the air is foul, I can taste the pollution, it is very unpleasant. I have no money, I have a head cold and the wifi is complete pants  I think I am the only person in this home stay as well, which this morning is compounding my misery. I hate travel mornings like this.

Over breakfast in the home stay, thankfully complementary due to my finances, I talked to Faiz, the owner. He was telling me how bad the past couple of days had been in his little part of Agra. The ATM has not been uploaded and as no-one is accepting the 500 and 1000 rupee bills all the small businesses are starting to suffer, and those who are willing to take the old money cannot give change as the change is all disappearing. The price of staples like sugar and salt are going up as the small shop owners need to get an income somehow. I am surprised at how calm it has all been.

There is an official tourist money changer at Agra Fort so Faiz is going to loan me 4000 rupees in now unusable, 1000 rupee bills (about 50 pounds), which I will need to change. I am then going to pay him for the board and lodgings and the 4000 via bank transfer from my NZ account. |The 4000 will be my living and touristing money. Like all small businesses, he does not have access to taking credit card payments. As it is I do not have enough money to pay him for the board and as there is no ATM and I cannot get any cash, this is a win/win for both us and a very nice gesture.

Faiz dropped me at the fort, it is about 1.5 kms away from his home stay, and at the craziest junction in Agra. The entry fee is 550 rupees. The fort accepted one 500 rupee note – for the 500 part, but would not accept a second for the 50 part. I had to use one of my few precious 100 rupee notes. I almost got into argument with the ticket man. Just one of the many ridiculous bureaucratic frustrations of this lovely but annoying country. There is no arguing with a government man.

I walked in to Agra Fort in a hump. Faiz had also told me I could not take my camera bag as large bags were not allowed in the fort or the Taj Mahal. I just took the G16 camera and a bottle of water. As I was going in I saw some people were allowed to take massive back packs in and others were told to leave them in a secure room. It seemed entirely inconsistent. Though not as futile as everyone walking through an airport scanner that beeped everybody,  though everyone was waived though regardless. More bureaucratic nonsense.

This did not help my early enjoyment of the place. There is not a lot to see when you first walk in, a big empty space with lots of people in it a large square surrounded by large red walls. I yawned. Definitely not as good as the fort in Jodhpur. I did see a squirrel that did not run away immediately. I took a photo.

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I walked about aimlessly for a while – should have taken that damn audio guide again, teach me to have the hump. I liked these arches.

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And this balcony, which I am assuming someone high and mighty spoke and waved to the peasants from.

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Eventually i found my way though a doorway into what I guess would have been the inner castle if this was in England, much better! Lots more things to see.

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The fort was built in stages throughout most of the 16th century, and under a variety of rulers. In the early 17th century the white marble sections were added under the rule of Shah Jahan, the Muslim Mughal ruler. He also oversaw the building of the Taj Mahal and some other sites in Agra. More on them later.

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The Taj Mhal is 2.5 kms away in a straight line, but I could hardly see it through the haze, this photo has been sharpened massively to get it to stand out at all. The air is so thick. You can barely see the River Yamuna which the Taj sits beside.

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I liked the buildings, there is not a lot to see in them, some detail in the structures, but no museum like at Jodhpur. I did like the mix of the original red stone and the later white marble. The marble allowed a lot more detail to be inlaid in the source material.

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There is still some renovation work to be done, and the way it has just sort of ended was sort of cool. There were two armed guards/policemen here, not really encouraging much exploration. Stick to the good bits Phil!

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I left at the right time as a lot of people were arriving as I walked out the door and got into the queue for the money changer. Quite bit of patience went into getting those photos, largely free of other tourists. I know I could have just included them, but hey !

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I almost got into an argument with an armed policeman in the money change queue. When I arrived there was no queue, and two windows open. A Spanish couple were being served in one window so I waited at the other, in the meantime a large melee/queue started to form and was eventually guided back alongside the Spanish couple. It turned out the guy behind my window didn’t actually serve people, he just sat there. When the Spanish couple finished and I went to stick my form and passport through the hole in the window, the policeman said I had to go to the back of the queue. I politely told him I had been there since before the queue, he knew this as he had been there as well. He put his hand on my shoulder and I refused to move. It was hot, this is India and serving the two Spanish customers seemed to take about 10 minutes and I was not willing to quit my position. It was a tense couple of seconds and eventually his attention was taken up by someone else and I got my way. Whew.

I had a grumpy, but financially happy walk back to the home stay, where I had a very nice lunch., food seems so much nicer when you know you can eat again the next day. Miraculously the internet was brilliant (for about 20 minutes) so I had a quick and pleasant Skype with El. Always makes me feel better.

Late afternoon I left the home stay with Faiz and he organised a decent price with a tuk tuk driver on the main road to take me to the Black Taj.

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The Black Taj does not actually exist, there are some foundation ruins left on the ground, but that is it. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. As we all know the Taj is a glorious glowing white and is built on the banks of the River Yamuna. It is rumoured that he also built a jet black Taj on the opposite banks for himself. This has never been proven, though the foundations show something was built there.

It does have a great view of the Taj Mahal, and is supposed to be the place to go for sunset photos and a good reflection in the river; except you are not allowed near the river anymore due to security concerns, so it is all fenced off. The smog has not done the sunset any good either…

However, those things aside, it is a great place to see the Taj Mahal from. Though, naturally you have to pay to enter the site, I didn’t mind this as it meant I was left alone and no hawkers and beggars were there to follow me around. As I arrived about an hour and a half before sunset I was almost the only one there for quite a long time.

Peace, in India – a rare and beautiful thing.

As is the Taj Mahal, I know that we all know it well, too well probably, but that first sight is still utterly breathtaking. It is one of those places that you just have to see in the flesh. And viewed through a manicured lawn with virtually no-one else in sight; magnificent.

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Though even from this close it was still really hazy.  I was shooting with that wonderfully crisp Canon 70-200mm lens, and even that  had issues with the auto-focus grabbing on to anything.

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I had a bit of a walk around, there was quite a wait till sunset. This was the sort of scene I wanted to see in India, which I won’t see much of as I am staying for such a short time and just hitting the big tourist things. Ruins, disheveled, run down, surrounded by trees, animals about; waiting to be investigated, clambered around. The old romantic adventurer view. A fantasy world that is not my current reality sadly.

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But anyway, stop dreaming Phil. There is the Taj Manal – and its thousands of tourists, just next door, not something that most people will see, you are a lucky man.

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I was waiting for quite a while for the sunset, the air seemed to clear as the day disappeared, and birds…. quick, something interesting, take a photo.

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Back to waiting…. There was a brief moment of excitement when a couple of eagles started to dive bomb the crows nests in the trees behind me, there was a massive kerfuffle, screeching and fighting amongst the milling birds. I tried to take a photo but it was impossible, but it was good to watch the crows join together to fight the two massive eagles.

One of the victorious crows decided to pose for me and I took my last photo of the day. The sunset never happened so I left early as the crowds started to line my side of the river bank, the peace was finally over, a pleasant end to the day. (If I blank the chaotic and stinky tuk tuk ride out).

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