before sunrise

The Magic of the Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal before sunsetI feel as if I’ve had India overload in the past three days, both in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly, but definitely more of the good. Emily, Melissa and I had a winding overnight bus ride down from the cold hills of McLeod Ganj down to Delhi where we arrived somewhere in the middle of North Delhi at about 7.30am and had to get a very overpriced taxi down to the station in the south. Here we squeezed into a crowded second class carriage for the three hour journey down to Agra where I was finally going to see the jewel in the Indian tourism scene, the Taj Mahal. Agra is definitely not the dump that people make it out to be, really it isn’t that bad. By 1pm we were sitting pretty in a rooftop cafe voraciously eating lunch with the Taj Mahal peaking up in the background. That evening while a still poorly Melissa was taking a nap, Emily and I caught a rickshaw around to the far side of the river where there was a wonderful panoramic view of the Taj and her flanking red sandstone mosques reflected in the low lying river. The sun was setting further upstream and there was just us,a few other people and the buffalo strolling along. Really beautiful.
Taj Mahal before sunsetThe next morning the three of us were up in the cold quiet before dawn and by 7am were entering the East gate of the site. I really expected to be slightly disappointed by the Taj Mahal, you see so many photos, pictures, statues of it in India, it is so hyped and there is also a 750 rupee entrance fee which is a bit of a stinger. Neither Melissa or I were brave enough to try and pretend to be Indian to avoid that one. Taj just after dawnI needn’t have worried, the building is incredible, especially at sunrise where, reflected in the watercourse running through the gardens it has an ethereal fairytale like quality with the misty sky behind and the white-grey marble looking almost unreal against the backdrop. You enter through an impressive set of huge red sandstone gates and there is a mosque and mirror image dark red building on either side of the Taj to complete the monument. The Taj herself was built in the 17th century as a monument of love for the wife of the emperor’s wife who died in childbirth. It took 20,000 people 15 years to build and the result is incredible. Even the flanking buildings with their Arabic engravings, towering archways and white domes are spectacular buildings in their own right. Wandering around the base as a huge red sTaj Mahal engravingsun began to rise over the horizon the white marble began to change colour from a milky grey, to cream, shades of pink and then white against a pale blue sky. Walking up onto the platform the mausoleum towers above you, the arches decorated with flowers and tendrils set with semi precious stones, swirling lines of Arabic script run around the entrances in black and the four minarets strain slightly outwards into the sky. Inside are the tombs of the queen and her husband, buried slightly to one side behind a delicate marble lattice running around the interior. We spent over two hours walking around before heading back through the gardens taking one last look and the marble domes between the trees before finally going to have breakfast!

Monkeys on the roof, OrchhaMinor Transport Traumas
After a frustrating half hour in the world’s slowest moving queues and being told there were no reserved seats left to Jhansi we managed to get 2nd class tickets and catch a midday train south. Physically unable to fit into the 2nd class carriage which was literally overflowing we decided to camp in the inter-carriage area of the sleeper compartments sitting on our rucksacks by the door which actually proved to be fairly comfortable. An hour later the conductor came through and upon seeing our tickets demanded rather crossly that we moved. I pointed out that it wasn’t possible to fit into the other carriage so we were staying here and suggested we pay the increase to a sleeper ticket and stay where we were. “No, move, move!” He yelled crossly and stomped off. We stayed put and when he returned he completely ignored us so that was that. Fifteen mintues before we arrived another conductor appeared and I put on my most English school teacher accent to inform him that due to the overcrowded status of the train we were having to sit here instead of in the correct carriage and how much further was it to Jhansi? “15 minutes” he mumbled and then left! We got to Jhansi and somehow managed to squeeze three of us and all our luggage into a tiny rickshaw to travel across town to the bus station. The girls were heading five hours onto Khajuraho and myself half an hour to Orchha. There were no more buses to their town so they went off in search of money and a plan so I said goodbye and went off to find a bus.

The entire bus station of Jhansi decided to conspire against me. Street food stall in OrchhaI found the bus only to be told I couldn’t get on, despite the fact there was clearly space and it drove off without me. Fuming I stomped off to find another and was directed back and forth around the bus station until, seeing I was about to explode, a kind man came to my assistance. We found the bus saying Orchha but the driver denied her was going there saying I had to take a rickshaw. So my companion managed to find me a shared tempo (a large rickshaw) instead for 20 rupees. Now this isn’t a huge vehicle and I am not joking when I say we managed to fit inside, the driver, my rucksack, two large bags of rice and twelve other people. To say the hour journey was a little squashed is an understatement but it did finally get me to Orchha where I found a guetshouse, was too tired to even haggle the price and collapsed in front of the TV and went to sleep.

Orchha CenotaphsOrchha, the “Hiden Place”
Today, however, has been wonderful. Orchha is a lovely little laid back town squeezed inbetween a number of beautiful and imposing palaces, temples and cenotaphs from the rule of the Bundelas in the 16th and 17th centuries. I had some gorgeous wheat porridge and chai in a roadside cafe before spending the day wandering around the labyrinth like passageways and staircases of the palaces. Each archway and window gives spectacular views out across the green countryside with spires breaking the horizon in every direction. Orchha viewsDown by the river a series of huge incredible cenotaphs, built for the dead kings, lined up along the river bank, noisy green parrots were flying around the spires and I spotted a large weasel running furtively through the undergrowth. As I walked along the banks of the cleanest river in India, the Betwa, a family of huge vultures was watching me from the tops of the spires. I had fried potato patties with chilli and chickpea curry by the roadside for lunch and the owner of this internet cafe has just brought me a glass of chai. It’s days like this, that it is impossible not to love this country and the nearer my departure date gets, the more and more sorry I am to be leaving.

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