11th Feb 2010 - 12th Feb 2010
India (Part 3): Taj Mahal and a trip to the hills
Day 6 – Taj Mahal and a long drive
The plan this morning was to get up early to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. However, early morning mist/smog meant that visibility was near-zero, so an extra hour in bed was a sensible conclusion. After a leisurely breakfast waiting for the sun to burn off the smog, we headed off to see the famous sight.
No matter how much you read about it and how many pictures you see, nothing can quite prepare you for the majesty of this building. It looks like it has been painted onto the sky. The cleverness of the architecture is unbelievable: as you walk through the 10m long archway that gives you the first view, the Taj is framed perfectly. Surreally, as you walk through the archway, more of the Taj becomes visible and so it appears to get further away as you walk through the arch. The building itself is pure marble, surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens and a lake which captures its reflection perfectly. The detail on the building is amazing, and the marble is so pure and unblemished is seems like it was built yesterday. It is almost translucent. Not bad for what is essentially a tombstone. And it’s a shame about all the bloody tourists getting in the way!
On each side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque (one genuine, one built just for symmetry!). If these were anywhere else, they would be considered stunning in their own right. They are also amazing sights but go almost unnoticed next to the Taj.
The Taj was built as a monument to love: it was built between 1631 and 1653 by the Emperor Shah Jahan, as a memorial to his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child (as Becca says, she was probably knackered and just gave up!). The legend says that Shah Jahan had planned to build a mirror image, in pure black, on the other side of the river. This never happened as his son, Aurangzeb, seized power and, concerned about the huge drain on the empire’s resources, imprisoned his father in Agra Fort. Which, as it happens, is where we went next.
The fort is huge, and was built as a military stronghold. It was turned into a palace by Shah Jahan, who then spent his final years as a prisoner of his son. His son showed a semblance of filial love by allowing Shah Jahan a room with a magnificent view of the Taj Mahal, so he could gaze at the resting place of his beloved Mumtaz. The view these days is less inspiring: you can just about make out the Taj Mahal through the smog. The fort itself is very impressive – its almost a city in its own right, and indeed two-thirds of it is even today a military base. We wandered round the other third admiring the intricate decoration, beautiful domes and vast courtyards. As a popular place for local tourists, it was also a really nice place to find a shady corner in which to rest and do a spot of people watching.
So after a nice morning, we embarked on a tortuous journey back to Delhi, in order to catch the train north to foothills of the Himalayas. The road from Agra to Delhi is only around 200km, but the drive took 7 hours. This was mainly spent in gridlock in the Delhi suburbs, but before that we drove for a couple of hours through some very bland scenery. The boredom was only interrupted by trying to resolve the mystery of the brown discs. There were piles of brown discs in the corner of fields for many miles. We couldn’t work out what these were until we saw some women carrying some on a tray and occasionally stooping to collect some more. They were, of course, fuel. Or, as you and I more commonly refer to them, cowpats. Dried ones, just in case you were wondering. So next time you think you’re having a bad day at work, just think, you could be a cow-pat collector instead!
The rest of the trip was mainly spent dozing, as there wasn’t much else to do. The coach was very spacious and comfortable, with big reclining seats, so it was quite easy to snooze with the assistance of ear plugs or an iPod to drown out the constant honking of horns.
Once in Delhi, we stopped for a quick meal and shower, before rushing off to catch the sleeper train to the north. Even late at night, Delhi traffic is manic, and after rising degrees of panic, we arrived at the station at 10:39pm, for the 10:40 train. Naturally, the train was then 20 minutes late. Once it arrived, it was once again quite comfortable. We were each allocated sleeper berths, with clean bedding provided, and the gentle rocking of the train soon sent me to sleep.
Day 7 – Nainital & the Himalayas
We were woken up at 5:30am (!!) and disembarked the train into what seemed like another world: gone was the smog, bustle and constant cacophony of Delhi, and in its place was a more tranquil world. We were now in the foothills of the Himalayas where there is more space and even the luxury of fresh air! Of course, all drivers were still mental, but there were far fewer of them, so the sound of horns honking was occasional rather than constant.
After a couple of hours in a new coach, we stopped for what our guide called an “adventure breakfast”. What looked like a grubby little shack turned out to make the most amazing omelettes and have the most breathtaking view of the mountains from the verandah at the back. It certainly made a pleasant change from hotel breakfasts. The only real “adventure” however was the toilets. One look inside the door caused my self-preservation instinct to kick in and guide me behind the nearest tree as a much safer option. The toilet reminded me of the one in the film Trainspotting. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll have no idea what I mean. If you have, you’ll know why I used a tree! Anyway, after that close encounter, it was back in the coach to Nainital.
Nainital is a small town surrounding a lake set in the hills. It was founded by colonial Brits who were apparently missing the English Lake District, but is now has colourful and distinctly Indian feel. In the centre of the town were a cricket pitch (a rather painful looking Astroturf, sand and gravel combination), a mosque, a market and a Hindu temple, nicely encapsulating much of Indian culture in a single view. We wandered through the market until it started to sleet (it wasn’t warm, being both winter and at altitude). We sought shelter under a tree while the cricket match suffered a “sleet stopped play” interruption that would have made the old colonials feel at very much at home. These days however there are very few Western tourists here, although it is popular with domestic holidaymakers. The upside of this is that the restaurants served decent spicy curry, rather than the usual toned-down stuff that many other restaurants serve to white faces.
We also decided to take some well-needed exercise and went on a 6km walk to the top of Cheena Peak, which at 2,611m, towers above Nainital and gives a fantastic view of the Himalayas in the distance – despite my various travels, this was the first time I had set eyes upon them. On the way up we saw many monkeys and birds, which added to the nice feeling of being out of the city.
Mid-afternoon, we set off in the coach (well, a minibus and a jeep) to our nest destination – a rural lodge a couple of hours drive through the mountains. It was certainly an “interesting” drive …. The mountain road was untarred, had no barriers, and had suffered a number of recent landslides. Another “rule” of Indian driving also became apparent: reversing is either illegal or such an affront to manhood that it is not to be considered. So, when a car was coming the other way and space was tight, the solution was both edge forward as close to each other as possible, but DO NOT GIVE WAY OR REVERSE. EVER. Even if the road is wide enough for two buses to pass only 5m back. Bonkers …..
Having said that, the views were astounding and we stopped several times to stretch our legs and take photos. Eventually we arrived intact at our lodge, which was a wonderful place at which we were the only guests, and which backed onto woodland. We had a fantastic meal and a few beers around the fire in the evening …. perfect.