Friday, 7 March 2008

To the home of the Taj Mahal.

25/1 - And so onto the home of the Taj Mahal. The building most people want to see.
You may find it hard to believe, but I had a plan, you may find it easy to believe it went west when I stepped out of the station. I am happy with everything I got for my money.
I booked my ticket out for tomorrow, a bit negative???? or a bit of planning, OH NO. Then I walked out to see Agra fort staring me in the face, which I shouldnt have been surprised at since the station is Agra Fort. It is a big fort, they didn't mess about when they built this. Very imposing. The big red walls block any view inside, but once away from it the view is very impressive. The biggest fort I have seen. The rickshaw driver and his son, who very subtly maneuvered me into their rickshaw, pointed out my first view of the Taj. Fairly spectacular in the morning haze, I don't think it is smog as vehicles have been banned and factories closed that are close to the Taj to stop its erosion.
The rickshaw driver engineered me into a hotel of his choice, not the one in my plan, but I was very firm again. I was shown the room, I asked the price and said OK. It is worth 6 quid and the view of the Taj from the roof is spectacular.
The rickshaw driver, DS for short, offered to give me a guided tour of Agra, taking in the sites other than the Taj, so again I was very firm, asked the price and said OK. I thought I'd spoil myself for 7 quid. I could have bartered, but you may have noticed I am not good at it.
I was told by an Indian gent on the train to see the Raja Swami temple. It is not finished and is in Dalaybagh, about 15 minutes outside of Agra. DS offered to include this in his price, which is inflated anyway, but I smiled. The half built temple is very very ornate marble and very beautiful. The picture inside of the finished article shows it will be magnificent once complete. I doubt that entrance will be free as it is now also. There are no photos allowed, so you will have to check it out on the web if you are curious. DS's son, Nites, came with me as it was free. Fair enough. It was funny listening to him using the same phrases his Dad had used to describe the Taj Mahal. Especially since he then confessed this is his first visit. He's keen enough and a pleasant kid who shrugged off me questioning him over whether he should be at school. He is 14/15. Above the entrance to the temple itself, there is a huge golden word inlaid in the marble plinth. When I asked Nites what it said, he told me "No Photos" I have my doubts. This has been a great start to Agra, it is a beautiful semi-building. The artwork in the marble is better than I have ever seen. The gent who told me about this said it is more beautiful than the Taj. I would not be surprised if that is the case regarding the marble work.
Next stop Itmad-ad-daulah, locally known as the Baby Taj and another beautiful building. The first to move to white marble and the first to use pietra dura, the way the marble is inlaid in the Taj Mahal too. (facts courtesy LP). I could have spent time just sitting in the grounds, it is peaceful, but went back after a slow stroll to the waiting DS and son. Another cracking place and Agra is going great, so far.
The next stop was some gardens around the back of the Taj where you can get a complete view of it across the river. It is Rs100 to go in or you can wander down a path at the side of the gardens. You guessed it, I'm tight and took the path. It lead onto a beach by the river and the view is closer than that of the gardens. Lucky choice. The view of the Taj is the best yet. Initially the kids pestered for chocolate, rupees, photo. But they all started to cry and left when I sang back "No chocolate, no rupees, nothing". They had a laugh and got the message. I could have sat here for an hour or so, but DS is waiting. Mind you I would have frazzled sat on the white sand. Back at the rickshaw and a sting in the tail of the day, well a minor prick. No wisecracks. DS wants to take me to a carpet maker and marble inlay specialist. I forgo the carpet place, I already have 3 x 5 pound Ikea rugs at home, but concede to the marble place. The marble is pretty cool, actually and artistically. It is called Mughal and particular to Agra, so I am told, but India does put doubts in your mind when you are told anything, even what day it is. I belive them this time and may even treat myself and get a little marble table top sent home. I didn't do the Gilbert thing and jump in with both feet, I said I would think about it overnight. The marble bloke and DS were pretty good about it, no in your face touting, only professional, subtle touting.
DS took us back over a bridge that he told me "This was built by the British and forgotten by the Indian government". There was no level surface only interlinked potholes. I hope the railtrack on the top tier is in better nick.
I'm ready to go back and chill. It will give DS a better hourly rate too. He gave me some tips on pickpockets and touts then hits me with tomorrows schedule. After about 10 minutes of toing and froing he lets me have my own schedule, ALONE. He was not a pain about it, just pleasantly persistent and I was pleasantly firm, for once. So a mug of coffee I think and a chill.
I'm sat writing this log on the rooftop of the hotel with the Taj Mahal set in front of me, just bragging a bit. The call for prayers has gone off again, but I'm not going, yet again. The sun is dropping into the horizon, this and dawn are great times for me, in half decent weather that is.
A bloody smashing day in India. Even the commission visit to the marble place was a pleasure.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

No change still in Varanasi, but not for long.

24/2 - No hot shower today, but 1 day out of 2 isn't bad. Just dossing today, trying to let the shakey legs recover. I am getting to be an expert dosser. DDDDDDoser.
Back to the Shanti rooftop for some breakfast, the view is great. I have enjoyed the Shanti probably the most out of all the guesthouses, which for 2 quid, is pretty good. This has been another good stopover. Varanasi is a cool place.
I have not been looking forward to the trek to the autorickshaw, but as I was walking out the door, fully laden, a bloke gave me a tip on the way to go. I never had to negotiate a step all the way, only the cowpats. I went through the maze of ghalis (little alleys) like a fell runner, albeit in super slow motion. The ghalis are really interesting to walk around. They can be claustrophobic, so could set some panic attacks off in the susceptible.
I had the usual carry on with the rickshaw.
No, Rs50.
He asked for another 10 for parking when we got to the station, but he didn't get it. He probably would have done a week to 10 days ago.
The next stop, Agra, is the penulitmate stop in India. I have been told the touts in Agra are fierce, so it will be a good test.
I think someone put that sign up behind me again "Come and talk to stupid".
I was sat on my rucksack outside the station and 2 deaf, mute lads came over to talk. Work that one out. Between a page from my diary, a pencil and the LP we got along famously, much to the intrigue of a lot of Indians. You should have seen the look we were getting. It looked like they thought it was "You've been Framed".
We chatted or whatever you would call it, for about an hour, then I had to go and check on my train. You never know, it may have been on time. The last thing one of the lads wrote was "Thank you" and we had 3 very big smiles. THis is a great country.
The train was almost on time. Got on and was bunked up with a Japanese lad called Go and 2 Korean lasses both called Something SOmething Lee. I never understood the Something Something parts. They were chatty and good company. Our Mick will be jealous.
A couple of stops down we were joined by a family from Jodpur. While the bunks were setup I ended up with one of their kids asleep in each arm. It was just like being a Grandad. I missed the photo chance though. Blooming useless.
Off to climb into my bunk and snore.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Still in Varanasi

23/1- Up and a pleasant surprise of a hot shower. Wandered upto the restaurant for some banana porridge. When it turned up I thought it looked a bit strange, cornflakes, yoghurt and banana, but this is India. I found out later it was strange, it was for the girl sat at the same table. She never said, but ate the porridge anyway.
I want an easy day today, bit of blog, email and people watching to try and catch up after getting worn out yesterday, so I slowly made my way along the ghats, stopping at several as I went. There are some terrific buildings directly behind the ghats and some dumps. They have a great feel about them, so it is easy to sit and chill here. It may be a bit different once the cremations start. They run 24 hrs. Varanasi has a great temperature now, easy to walk in and not melt with jeans and trainers on.
4 young college lads come over for a chinwag. The usual starter is cricket, but there is a 1st. I was asked for my autograph. "What's that all about Grandad?" They were a laugh and a smiley bunch of lads. One asked for some tips on chatting up women, so I passed on my extensive knowledge. He'll either end up a bachelor or gay. We finished with the obligatory photograph. They want it emailing to them, but that was overa week ago, although it seems like yesterday and I have not received any email yet.
A young kid came over to flog me some postcards, but I think he was more intrigued by the binoculars. He sat for ages scsanning everything and was very polite. It was a treat to watch him being so enthralled and trying to catch the birds with a hand in front of the binoculars.
There are a lot of people at the ghats washing away their sins in the Ganges and doing their dhoby too. You would not get me in there to easily, it is not a river where you can sit and watch the fish. Some things do float by, but they don't look much like fish. Even the buffalos are getting in on the act and having a wash. It was a laugh watching 2 lads trying to get them back to their stakes by the river. When they are not going, they can't be made to, even a cricket bat on the backside had no effect. A couple wandered off down the ghats, so the lads just let them go. No doubt they'll be back.
The ghats have different purposes and some are more prestigous than others. The Manikarnika ghat is the major burning ghat, but I passed a few funerals at other ghats along my wander. I don't know if it is more expensive for the more prestigous ghats, or if families get a connection with certain ghats.
The buildings behind the ghats vary from temples to guest houses to not a lot at all. The overall impression is that of a fortress along the river bank as walls rise high above the river. It is really a city set high above the Ganges and an old city at that. The streets immediately back from the ghats are all very narrow, for about 400 yds with no traffic, making it more peaceful, if a bit claustrophobic. Across the river from the ghats is what looks to be a smashing beach, but there is not a lot of sunbathing going on over there or bathing for that matter. Perhaps it is only beneficia from the ghats. Rowing boats ferry people across for Rs 10.
There was a bloke over the other side, stood in the water for about an hour. I thought he was fishing, but when I checked him out with the binos, he was praying and was still there over an hour later.
If it wasn't for the steep steps this would be a place to linger a while longer perhaps, a few more days chilling. The people are very friendly, so I guess it is only Kolkata that is stand offish, or perhaps it was just a one off experience I had.
Purely for scientific reasons, I have been checking out the ladies and the Kolkatans definitely have some American genes, they certainly sit lower in the water than anywhere else I have been in India.
The evening looms so I am heading back to the main ghat where the dance ceremony is done for a bit more people watching and some more scientific research..Then into town for a bit of snap.
Headed off back to the guest house through the Indian market, which is different again from others I've visited. Mostly jewellry, but an interesting wander. I made it back without hitting a cowpat, so time to hang out on the rooftop, then an early night to see if the legs get back to normal tomorrow. The rooftop is open 24 hrs and there was still a party going on at 2 a.m., but I am out of my depth here, so didn't stay around. I'm becoming a lightweight like Thomo.