Big white building

OK, we have two sections to today’s report. First of all the one to make you all jealous. While you were stuck with crappy television, repeats of comedy shows that were bad enough the first time, enough turkey to choke a herd of Tyranosaurs and so many paper hats the local fire brigade branded your house a fire hazard… Hans and I were walking around one of the architectural wonders of the world.

Well, eventually we were. First of all we had to fend off the “guides” without whom we wouldn’t understand the Taj Mahal. And then we had to tell more than a handful of kids that, no, we wouldn’t be visiting their shop on the way back. Oh, and no – we don’t need a rickshaw and we did know it was a whole kilometre from the car park to the Taj Mahal, but that we personally didn’t consider that a long distance.

Finally we got to the gate. Then we bought our tickets (Foreigner: 500Rp “tax” ticket which covers you for all five major local monuments on the day of issue, plus 250Rp entry fee for the Taj. Indian: 20Rp) and then we queued. Men on one side, women on the other for some reason. Finally, at the front, we were subjected to a fairly thorough search. First a metal detector and then a frisk. My camera bag was rooted through and the majority of the contents removed. Bizarrely, the cables for the charger were taken out but the chargers themselves left behind.

Hans had his iPod speakers taken off him as well. They’re really strict about what you can take in with you, though the rules are bizarre and their searches actually somewhat lax given that they didn’t query what was in my pockets even though the guard could feel there was something in there (my second camera). All the bumph ended up in Hans’ rucksack which we put into storage – for free, thankfully. I’m glad Hans had his rucksack as the guy there was refusing to accept my camera bits and bobs without a bag to put them in and I needed the bag itself with me to carry the equipment I was allowed to keep.

All very bizarre. Anyway, off we toddled inside to watch the school groups posing for photos, families posing for photos, and individuals posing for photos while they pretended to hold the Taj Mahal by its pointy spire.

Oh, yes. The Taj Mahal. That’s what you’re wanting to hear about. A feat of human engineering, built around 400 years ago as a mausoleum dedicated to the wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It was built on raised ground with a clear backdrop to ensure that it would always stand out. Nothing is allowed to be built behind it to spoil the perfect skyline and took 17 years to complete.

It’s huge. There’s no denying that. It’s impressive as well. Amazingly, it’s also still remarkably clean and white except around certain points close up where the marble seems to have yellowed. Walking inside the Taj Mahal is quite quick and unidirectional. You remove your shoes before setting foot on the white marble and queue, though this seems to move quite quickly. In honesty, the inside’s just not as impressive as the exterior partly because it’s dingy and partly because you simply can’t appreciate the scale from there.

The second section of this report reads thus: meh. Big building. Looks nice. Gleams. Impressive in a way, but meh.

Maybe I’ve seen too many huge buildings recently, maybe it’s just because I’m down at the moment, but on the whole I’m just glad to say I’ve been and can tick it off the list. Animals still interest me more. As I explained to Hans, we could build another Taj Mahal but could anyone design a new cow and build it from scratch? or a dolphin? Or an ant? My mind works in weird ways!

After retrieving our terrorist equipment (a handful of USB leads, a plug adaptor, a camera tripod and Hans’ iPod speakers) from the locker room – and being asked for a tip when the Indians paying a fraction of our entry fee weren’t – we once more braved the “Postcard? Book? Rickshaw? Taj Mahal snowglobe?” brigade. Seriously. We had been joking about this the previous day, but one guy did try to sell us Taj Mahal snowglobes. They really exist. And they’re as shoddy as you’d expect.

Stop two in the morning was the Red Fort. Another huge building. Only this one is red. The clue’s in the name.

Again we queued to get in. This time it was just one queue and the guy behind me seemed to think that the harder he pushed me, the faster said queue would move. If he’d got any closer I’d have had to ask him to marry me. I just took to leaning backwards and then suddenly shifting to the side to see if I could knock him off balance. That was fun for a while. Then I spent a minute or to trying to conjure up a fart, but to no avail. That would have been funny as he was so close – I am not kidding – that he’d have felt the heat had I been able to let one rip.

The ticket here was a further 250Rp after we showed the “tax ticket” we’d received at the Taj Mahal. We went in, walked around, took some pictures and left again. It was a fort. We’ve seen about 6 in the last 10 days. The one in Jodhpur was better.

Our final port of call for the day was to be the Roman Catholic cemetery – the largest European burial ground in India and home to the oldest marked European grave in the country, as well as a mausoleum dedicated to some of Dewi’s ancestors.

Only we couldn’t find it.

Sorry, Dewi. We did try, I promise you. I managed to find out the name of the area it was located in online, but when we got there nobody had a clue where it was. The closest we got was a catholic college with a church and a school next to it. Surprisingly, the church had a fair going on in the grounds but itself wasn’t open. I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me where the cemetery was.

Well, we got to see a new part of Agra that very few tourists visit. So few, in fact, that the locals there didn’t even harass me. I can only assume that the fact I was so far away from the touristy areas made them think I must be a local myself.

For lunch we headed back to the Sudar Market area where we (erm… I) had spent a fortune on cheap paperbacks the previous night. And McD’s. Hey, we weakened, OK? And Hans had another Chicken Maharaja Mac so it’s still kinda Indian.

After getting back to the hotel, we cut our driver loose and went for a wander. Hans had read that one of the nearby hotels had a decent bar, so we walked that direction. Eventually we passed it and went into the Mughal Sheraton instead. It was ever so slightly more upmarket than our fleapit, with bar prices to match. It made a nice change, though.

We managed to drag our beers out to an hour or so, and then walked to the aforementioned bar in the Kant Hotel over the road. There were only two people in it and it smelled funny, so we left.

Closer to base, we popped into the Howard Park Plaza (we think – the name kind of escapes both of us right now) which wasn’t quite up to Sheraton standards, but was still better than what we were paying for. The manager tried to convince us to join the party downstairs at 500Rp a head. In fairness, it looked like a good spread with a huge buffet. On the other hand, they had a DJ, a dancefloor, and party hats. Pretty much everything I was trying to avoid today. Plus, we had no idea how many – or few – people would be attending.

Instead, we noticed their bar was still on happy hour, so popped in there. Nice place. Low lighting, very quiet ambient music and relaxing. The beer was cold and surprisingly cheap especially with the 50% discount.

An Indian couple were sat near us and as they made their way out, the young guy approached us apologising for earwigging some of our conversation. He’d heard Hans talking about his trek up Kilimanjaro a few years ago and had some questions as he was considering the same trip next year.

Within five minutes he’d sat down and the woman with him – his mother – joined us. It turns out they weren’t as local as we’d first thought – they both live in Canada! We had a great chat for over an hour, nattering about travel, India, cultures, Bollywood, places for him to visit in the UK and so on. We swapped details and hopefully we can trade more information.

From the hotel to one of the dodgy phone places where I called my folks back home and then a very good friend of mine who I had promised I would ring. Viv, as ever it was lovely to speak to you and I’m glad I cheered you up. Trust me, you did the same in return! And see you in Prague…

For dinner… Pizza Hut. We arrived to find the place in full swing. The staff were dancing to Indian music – literally… five of them in a line boogying. When the music stopped, a bunch of kids who must have been there for a party started popping balloons and running around yelling. As I stated yesterday, I just don’t “do” Christmas. I have various reasons – this year more than most in recent history – but if there’s one thing that’ll make me smile it’s watching kids playing about and having a good time.

Try and invite me to a dinner party for xmas and you can forget it. No offence, but I’d rather sit at home with a pile of DVDs and a cuddly cat. Invite me to a house which will have even one small child ripping open presents with wide eyes and I’ll be on your doorstep at the crack of dawn to make sure I don’t miss it. Kids are Christmas. I don’t care about the religious significance (it’s been buried behind all the commercialism these days anyway) – the festive season is about children. In my book anyway.

So the day turned out to be not too bad after all, though it took a long time to get going. Tomorrow we drive back up to Delhi and then hop on a plane to Mumbai. With any luck internet connectivity will be better there and I can get pictures online!

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