Udaipur to Agra and Agra to Varanasi
Catching a train (let alone two in a sequence) here is an exercise in patience, tenacity, endurance, knowledge and luck. All of these were to come in handy over the following 36 hours. That fact that in the middle of that journey we were going to see the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Baby Taj as well as get into a hotel that I couldn’t contact on the phone in Varanasi to stay with a friend I made there two years ago was merely an added bonus.
The train to Agra was fairly simple, it involved getting to the train station at Udaipur station in enough time to find the carriage, find out berths in it, buy luggage chains (locking luggage to underneath the seat is a great security method as they won’t dig through it, they will simply nick the whole bag), get some water and biscuits for the train and help make sure that Mal was ok with the insanity that was going to ensue.
We managed to get to the station, find the train and find our carriage with no problems at all, however as we were quite early the carriage was still locked. I thought that this was good as it would allow me time to get Mal sorted on the platform with our stuff while I bought chains, locks, biscuits etc., which I duly went off to do.
When I returned Mal had made friends with the crippled shoeshine man (shine wallah) who had shined Mal’s hiking shoes for him. The fact that shine wallah spoke not a word of English and Mal not a syllable of Hindi was seemingly irrelevant as Mal attempted to get shine wallah to shut up and leave him alone and as shine wallah attempted to convince Mal to get my cloth and plastic sandals shined.
Relief came in the opening of the carriage doors and us finding our berths by the light of my iPhone. I didn’t feel the need to instruct Mal on carriage clothing etiquette but I am fairly certain that this was the first time that anyone in our carriage had seen a 52 year old man in a t-shirt and boxer briefs laying on a berth without a blanket over him. It was certainly the first time for me.
The trip to Agra was uneventful with the exceptions of a) Mal deciding that the three Indian boys below us were all gay and trying to pick one another up and b) him jabbing me awake at 4:00 because said boys were trying to steal our stuff. They were actually getting food out of their own bags and I am sure that the bruises in my back will heal with time.
I have to say that arriving in Agra at 11:00am and being booked on a 9:00pm train out is the only way I will visit that sty again (please take note Heather and James). We found a Rickshaw driver to whom I gave precise instructions, “Drive us to the Red Fort, the ‘Baby Taj’, the ‘Black Taj’ and then the Taj Mahal. No shops, no factories, no brother’s showrooms.”. Doing it in that order meant that we did indeed only see the things that we wanted to see and nothing that we didn’t. Well nothing except the 2/3 empty whiskey bottle that the driver offered us a swig from after the Taj Mahal and from which he had obviously been drinking all day.
One of the more fun moments at the Taj Mahal was taking this photo.
Another joy was introducing Mal to Indian Spring Rolls. They need capital letters as they are a true proper noun. Imagine your average takeaway spring role, but made out of a wrapper the size of a bread and butter plate. Mal saw them he ordered them and therein after whenever he saw them he ordered them. To say he found a new friend in that delicious and scary food is to be guilty of a gross understatement.
The final ‘joy’ of Agra was discovering that although my mate Govind had been right in getting us berths on the train to Varanasi he had been wrong in believing the official India Rail website when it said that the train to Varanasi went from Mathura to Agra and then on to Varanasi.
It used to, but unfortunately that stopped happening about 6 weeks ago so Mal and I waiting at Agra for this train would not have seen us get to Varanasi ever. Thanks to the tourist liaison man in the train station we discovered this in enough time to get general class tickets on a local train to Mathura with two hours to spare before the train for Varanasi departed. I still hadn’t discussed etiquette with Mal so it was another night of hairy thighs ahoy, but at least this time we only had grown men playing cards all night to disrupt the quietude and they did go to bed at about 1:00am.
We arrived at Varanasi only two hours later than the posted time and after catching a pedal Rickshaw from the station to as near as he could go (and about as far as his pulmonary system would allow) we walked with our new Russian American friends: Mike and Mike’s wife, to find my preferred hotel. It was easy enough to find Eden Halt particularly with lovely signs like this.
It was also easy to find Sanjay (the owner) as he was standing out the front and saying hello Malcolm as soon as he saw me. What wasn’t easy to anticipate was seeing one of the two guys who had told me about the place sitting inside watching the river wander past. Mal and I stayed there for four days and it was great.
There are so many things to love about Varanasi and a new on is the service offered by the lovely Pooja at Vodafone to solving Mal’s data roaming problem. The fact that after she solved it for him she bombarded him with requests for an audio feedback message for her boss only slightly soured his appreciation. I learned from this and made my feedback almost instantly when they helped me in Calcutta.
Flying from Varanasi to Calcutta was a case of ‘it’s pretty cheap and it saves time’ and it did both of those. Unfortunately it still left us at the mercy of the taxi drivers and their constant demands that we stay at a hotel that they knew. This was the case even when I was blunt and told the driver to just take us to Sudder St (where most of the tourist hotels are) and we would find our own. He did that, but when I was taking too long finding a room in one, he simply carried all of the bags with Mal in tow to the door of the hotel I was inside and drove off with his fare, but no hotel commission. I don’t think that he was a happy camper.
The highlights of Cal this time were visiting the flower markets again and actually getting to see the Victoria Memorial. Mal and I spent hours at the flower markets and took about 250 photos each. It looks incredible from a distance.
And it looks even more amazing close up.
After that Mal and I wandered back to find a cab and went to the Victoria Memorial Hall. This is an ornate pile of marble that the British rulers of India built using local money to celebrate the triumph of their rule over the sub-continent. I am not making this up people. Mal was the one who pointed it out and I began to realise that there are a number of buildings like that in India and instead of spending money celebrating themselves in a building that took 20 years to complete they might possibly have built some engineering or educational infrastructure.
This is from the Wikipedia entry.
‘On the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901, Lord Curzon, who was then Viceroy of India, placed before the public the question of setting up a fitting memorial to the Queen. He suggested that the most suitable memorial would be a “stately”, spacious, monumental and grand building surrounded by an exquisite garden.
This was to be a historical museum where people could see before them pictures and statues of men who played a prominent part in the history of this country and develop a pride in their past. The princes and people of India responded generously to his appeal for funds and the total cost of construction of this monument amounting to one crore, five lakhs of rupees, was entirely derived from their voluntary subscriptions.
Sir William Emerson, President of the British Institute of Architects, designed and drew up the plan of this building, while the work of construction was entrusted to Messrs. Martin & Co. of Calcutta. Vincent J. Esch was the superintending architect.’
That’s right, the Indian people through the princes paid for it, it was designed in London and the poor Indians were to traipse through it (when appropriate) to learn how and why their betters we’re better.
The fact that they could have spent that 10 500 000 Ruppes on building water or sewerage systems didn’t occur to the Brits. The fact that the building is essentially useless (comprising of a series of interconnected grand spaces with no specific purpose) and is set in over 60 acres of gardens that would require constant upkeep was seemingly irrelevant too.
Victoria doesn’t even look happy that the building was built.
Having seen all that Mal wanted to see and having seen all that I had missed last trip we went to the airport to catch our plane to Mumbai for Mal’s last few days.