The Taj Mahal is better the second time round.
Admittedly, the train ride there was pretty horrendous – sleeper class was much less comfortable than I remembered it, and 4am is not a time of day that is kind to anyone – but when we got to the Taj it was all worth it. Worth the sweat and the 4 hours sleep and the discomfort of not knowing whether people were going to come and claim the seats we may or may not have stolen from them. We arrived to the Taj at about half 9 in the morning, after having given in and arranged two tuk-tuks to drive us around for the day. Though it went against my stingy nature, I thought 400 rupees for each auto wasn’t a bad price. It was horrendously hot: normally I am a fan of the sun, but this was just ridiculous. Body parts that we didn’t even know we had started sweating copiously (I don’t think i’ve ever had sweaty wrists before), and we could only take so many pictures of Dan posing like Princess Di before we had to run for the shade. And by run, I mean trudge lethargically. But on the plus side, taking selfies with the Taj Mahal is much more effective when the sky is blue and clear. Very pleased with all the photo ops.
We spent an enjoyable couple of hours there in all, but just as I remembered, the outside is a lot better than the inside (other than the lack of shade), and the ‘museum’ is just a collection of old bits of stone and stuff. We were then taken to a place for lunch by the auto drivers (on commission, of course) and were so in need of air-con that we wouldn’t have cared what the price was, although luckily it was pretty reasonable anyway. After that we headed to Agra Fort, which I actually had remembered as being a lot better than it was – again, I reckon the outside was the best bit – but we sat down for a rest and had an enjoyable half-hour lecture from Tyler on imperialism (the dad behaviour finally paid off!). It was basically just too hot to function, so we were powerless to resist the offer of a bazaar “to see some beautiful marble handicrafted you maybe like some elephants some plates something gifts for family” – i.e. his mate’s shop.
In fairness, it was relatively interesting, because as a preamble to the ‘optional’ shopping, we got to see how they make some of the marble bits and pieces, and he showed us all the different stones used in the making of the marble plates. Malachite from china, onyx from Rajasthan, Turquoise from Turkey: all were passed around the circle, and we all did our best ‘impressed and interested’ faces before dutifully handing them back to our lecturer. Our interest began to dwindle when he then handed us over to his brother – because “my English not so good” – to give us a more thorough talk. We then got to see (again) how they make some of the marble bits and pieces, and he showed us (again) all the different stones used in the making of the marble plates. Malachite from China (again), onyx from Rajasthan (again), Turquoise from Turkey (again); all were passed around the circle (again), and we all could no longer be bothered with our best ‘impressed and interested’ faces before handing them back to him. So after a word-for-word repeat of the spiel we had literally just heard, we duly traipsed into the shop and pretended to be interested in buying things which were quite expensive even by English standards, wangled a free cup of chai, and then skedaddled, deciding just to be taken straight back to the station rather than repeating the whole farce with a textiles and silver shop too. 400 rupees suddenly seemed like a steep price to pay for our tuk-tuks.
The rest of the time in Agra was a bit strained: we were all tired and hot and sweaty and couldn’t be bothered to deal with people asking us if we wanted an auto or taxi or to see a “very nice bazaar very beautiful clothing for you.” After realising that the promised ‘air conditioned restaurant in the station’ was actually a fly-infested cafe with suspicious looking food and half a broken fan, Token Aussie googled mapped the nearest coffee shop and we hotfooted it there, with still an hour or so to the train.
The train back was at least 138% more enjoyable than the train there. We’d actually booked tickets on two different trains because there wasn’t enough space in the Foreign Tourist Quota (yes that’s a thing) for all of us to fit on one, but decided to risk it and somehow squeeze six fully sized adults into two booked berths. Our luck held: there were three spare upper berths that the boys took, us three girls sandwiched ourselves into the two booked spaces, and no ticket checker ever materialised. The time passed super fast because the boys were engrossed in some of Token Aussie’s ‘conversation starter’ debates (free will vs determinism, sexuality, Malthusian economics… and warhammer), whilst the girls were getting along swimmingly, chatting with an extended Indian family who literally took up the whole compartment by the end of our journey. We were quite sad when we had to leave them: we’d talked about the differences between India and Britain, had a great time playing with their adorable baby, and they’d shared some traditional Agra-made sweets with us, and in general turned around our slightly stressful afternoon.
We were in a better mood by the time we disembarked – so much so that we decided that actually, we should probably go out to celebrate Token Aussie’s last night. This turned out to be possibly the best decision we’ve made so far. We branched out from our last venture into Delhi’s bar scene, and settled on a place called Roost, which was advertising ‘ladies’ night’. Though we were sceptical about the legitimacy of the claim that it was free drinks for all girls until 12.30 and buy one get one free for boys, we checked it out anyway and were not disappointed. They delivered on the free drinks promise and Emma, Kate and I took full advantage of it, trying every cocktail on the list before the offer ran out. The DJ was incredible – I’ve never heard bhangra and Bruno Mars mixed before – and we then met some guys who took us to some kind of club place, hidden on the top floor of an obscure building somewhere. As a sign of how upmarket this place was, the beers were 500 rupees a bottle (about 5 pounds). Happily, we were fuelled by our free drinks and had a great time dancing madly until the place shut.
It was a great end to a day that felt like it had begun about half a year ago, and by the time we got back at 3am we had actually been up for almost 24 hours. We designated the next day as a chilling out day, and collapsed into bed absolutely dead to the world.
The Taj Mahal is definitely better the second time round.
So is Delhi.
So is India.