37 days travelling and I think I’m now 80% curry.
27th October 2018 (Agra)
This morning we were blessed with a rare, and very much welcomed, lie in. This gave us some more time to enjoy our enormous room and mentally prepare ourselves for yet another bus ride. After scoffing down a buffet breakfast we jumped into a cosy, private bus that would be taking us all the way to Agra. Running to the front of the group, we were the first to jump onto the bus to grab what we thought were the best seats in the house – how wrong our somewhat rushed assessment turned out to be.
For the next four hours we spent our time rotating seats between the two of us to give each other some respite from the suns scorching rays. Little did we know that our seats would be just out of reach of the rather faint AC. Instead we had to sit there and suffer in silence, for we were the ones who pushed to the front and had too much pride to admit our mistake.
With a sigh of relief we arrived at our hotel in Agra and formulated a plan for that evening. The original idea was to visit the Taj Mahal for both sunset and then sunrise the next morning. Our guide suggest we opt instead to visit the Mehtab Bagh gardens, which overlook the back of the Taj Mahal from across the river. The gardens themselves were nice to walk around as the sun went down. I felt bad for the landscapers, as everyone there wasn’t paying the slightest attention to their handiwork.
It turned out to be a great shout from our guide, as the Taj Mahal looked absolutely packed to the brim, with people moving at a snails pace around the outside and darkness was quickly descending. Settling down on a quiet vantage point on one of the garden walls, we got some nice uninterrupted shots in a somewhat more relaxed environment. We could only hope that it wouldn’t be so packed tomorrow for sunrise, although it was a weekend.
That evening we were taken to a questionable eatery that screamed tourist trap. It was the first place that really felt as though we were only taken there for some sort of kickback to our guide. Apart from another western tour group, we were the only people there. The food and service weren’t great and a quick google showed it certainly wasn’t popular, just an all around odd choice.
28th October 2018 (Agra, Overnight Train)
Today we were not so lucky, there was no lie in on the cards. After a pretty restless night sleep, we begrudgingly dragged ourselves out of bed to the sound of our alarms that went off at the crack of dawn – even roosters were fast asleep at this time. In our zombie like state, we made our way down to the lobby to wait for, you guessed it, another bus. Although this time we didn’t care where we sat, as thankfully it was a short hop and we wouldn’t have to battle with the sun at this ungodly hour.
By the time we got there, a queue had already started forming and as always, there was one for the men and another for the women. To celebrate getting up so early we all tucked into some chai from a local vendor, which certainly hit the spot – now we were ready to battle the crowds to get those iconic shots. To our surprise, despite the amount of people flowing in, the grounds felt remarkably empty. Sure, there were clusters of people at the front taking the usual shot of the Taj Mahal, but even then it was quick and easy enough to jump in for your own.
I’m not sure what I expected from the Taj Mahal. My first impression was that it was pretty small and I’d almost almost argue, underwhelming. It was only as I got closer that the sheer size and beauty of it started to hit me. It’s not often that something blows me away, especially a building. There was just something about it that made you want to just sit down and admire it. So that’s just what we did. We found a nice quiet spot to just soak it all up and make the most of it. That of course was after we did the standard swirling silhouette shots, taken through the arches of the mosque, of all the girls. I am ashamed to admit I got dragged into this embarrassing charade too. What? “Boys just want to have fun” too you know.
Getting there early was definitely the best thing we could have done. You got to see the colours change on the marble as the sun rises and beat the majority of the crowds, even on the weekend. After a couple hours we made our way outside and ventured over to the nearby Agra Fort. I’m not sure if it’s just because we came from the Taj Mahal, but I found it to be a little dull. To be fair, it was hot and pretty over crowded – although having said that, the other forts, like Amber Fort, were far more spectacular. Calling it a day, we headed back to the hotel to kill some time before our overnight train to Varanasi.
We ordered some packed dinner from the hotel and either I ordered the wrong thing, or they misunderstood what I wanted, and I ended up not being able to eat anything. Despite my good intentions, it was another journey fuelled by crisps and snickers. There is usually a lot of staring in India, especially for western woman. Most of the time it’s fine as you are on the move, but it can be a little overbearing when you are standing still on platform waiting for a train for half an hour. It’s hard to explain, but it’s not like staring any of us had experienced before, as harmless as it may be.
Thankfully we shared our train bunks with an incredibly friendly family who all wanted to get selfies with us and share their food – despite none of us being able to communicate. It made up for the slow train that stopped numerous times during the night, with people jumping on and off and playing with the lights incessantly. It was another restless night, for me at least. My wife slept like a baby. Typical.
29th October 2018 (Varanasi)
We survived our first sleeper train and arrived in one piece. To be honest, despite the lack of sleep it was remarkably pleasant – the carriage was reasonably clean, easy to navigate and well maintained. I couldn’t really sleep on the overnight trains when we went interrailing around Europe many years previously, so I’m not exactly the best bench mark. Our next challenge was to navigate the traffic outside the station – and there I was thinking Delhi traffic was bad. It was practically grid locked with all manner of motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians fighting for every inch of road space, edging forward at a painful pace.
It was a relief to get to our hotel and after a quick lunch we headed off on our walking tour that took us along the infamous ghats that hug the Ganges. It was much more peaceful than the roads outside the station and was interesting to watch the religious bathing, people washing their clothes and even brushing their teeth (yes, you read that last part right) in the holy river – there was even a cow submerged to its neck at one point, much to the dismay of its owner. We eventually ducked into the narrow side streets and started to wind our way through them, dodging bikes and the usual cows as we went.
At the far end we popped into a shop selling various scarves and had a quick demonstration on the various qualities and styles – even learning the fire test to see whether something is genuine or not (not sure how willing shops keepers will be for you to burn their merchandise). From here it was a short walk back to the riverside where we embarked on what was sold to us as a sunset boat ride (although it was well passed sunset by now). We had our own little flower ceremony, where we lit candles for wishes and set them off down the river. My wife kept getting alarmed when her candles toppled over in the water and insisted on making those wishes again with a new candle. The tour ended with us watching, amongst what felt like hundreds of other boats and tourists, a popular fire ceremony held every evening after sunset on the banks which I believe is to pay respect to the sun.
30th October 2018 (Varanasi)
It wouldn’t be India if we didn’t have another incredibly painful early wake up call – this time is was 4am. The same ceremony we watched last night takes place again every morning before sunrise too. We stayed on dry land this time and sat on the steps, in much calmer surroundings, and admired the proceedings somewhat sleepily. Sacrificing my jumper to my wife (I was cold too you know), we jumped onto another boat and began our trip back up and down the Ganges for sunrise.
There were plenty of people bathing again and you could clearly see the cremations taking place along the banks – some of which are 24/7. At one point we were approached by a man and his son on their floating shop – you just have to love the entrepreneurial spirit. It was quite misty, which gave for a rather eerie ambience and was incredibly difficult to capture well on my camera. Still, it was a nice time to be out on the river and we were glad we dragged ourselves out of bed for it.
The rest of the day revolved mainly around yoga (my wife, not me), camping out and stuffing our faces at our favourite spot called Open Hands – which was dangerously close to our hotel. That evening we had a group meal at Brown Bead Bakery, which went horrifically wrong. I was really looking forward to it as they supposedly had gluten free bread. Turns out they barely had any bread left, they messed up our orders (one girl didn’t even get her meal) and got our bill so incredibly wrong. It was a real shame as the staff were lovely, the setting was pretty cool (another rooftop restaurant) and they had a local musician playing to add to the ambience.
31st October 2018 (Varanasi, Overnight Train)
Today was our last day in Varanasi, so we headed back to Open Hands (picking up on a trend yet?) and had some breakfast – knowing full well we would be back here later on to kill some more time before our overnight train. As a lot of our group were leaving as soon as we got back to Delhi we had our leaving meal at the the hotel – although this turned out to be more of a lecture on how to rate our guide than an actual meal together.
Later that evening we hopped into some tuk tuks and headed to the station. We arrived with plenty of time to spare and decided to treat ourselves to the AC waiting room, which had comfy couches and TV – which cost the two of us a whole 40 INR Rupees (~40p), absolute bargain. The night was rounded off with a brand new modern train that was super cold – just how I like it. I got my packed meal right this time and gorged on a delightful jeera aloo (lightly spiced potatoes), not forgetting the snickers bar. Tucked up under my blanket I couldn’t help but giggle at the old man below me who wouldn’t stop farting out loud. That’s an overnight train in India for you.
Until next time.
P.S. We’d completely forgotten about it being Halloween. Probably a good that it’s not a thing here, otherwise it would have been a long train ride.