I know, I know.
In an effort to cure the recent blogstipation, I give you Part 1 of the fantastic tale of the trip from Shimla to Delhi to Agra. In October.
Only a complete arsewit would decide, “Hmm, 5 hours from Delhi to Agra, 5 hours back – I've got 14 hours. I think I'll go visit the Taj Mahal!” And, as you may have gathered, I am that arsewit.
Having booked the taxi whilst in Shimla I was keen to arrive, get off the bus and get going straight away. However, in a hitherto unheard-of stroke of fate, the bus from the mountains was about an hour and a half early and it wasn't the restful and refreshing trip I'd hoped for. Far from it, it had obliterated my self-perception that I can fall asleep under any circumstances – I can sleep on boats, at work, in lectures, in my bedroom with a motorbike roaring outside the window and demolition going on next door – but not on a bus in the Himalaya.
The taxi eventually turned up, driven by a disturbingly sleepy-looking bloke called Sachin. This was about the fourth 'Sachin' I'd met during my brief period in India – I'm coming to the conclusion that Sachin is the equivalent of Dave. So anyway, with the sun having freshly risen and me feeling about as roped out as this guy looks, Dave and me head off towards Agra.
It's one thing to watch Delhi traffic but to be in it is a whole other experience. It became pretty clear to me that if I just looked out the window I'd go mental and probably put my back out from looking over my shoulder all the time as we're changing lanes, so I figured that photographing things was the best course of action. Even at 7am the roads are heavily congested with all manner of vehicles. Photos were a bit tricky as not only were we in a moving vehicle but the air over Delhi carries a perpetual sinister haze and visibility was extremely poor. Dave said that in the city of Delhi there are reportedly 7.8 million vehicles. Those are vehicles, not people. This goes a long way to explaining the ever-present brown cloud of evil.
We headed in what I assume was a southerly direction and about 3 hours later stopped for breakfast at a roadside cafe. On the way in I got a picture of a guy with a cobra in a basket. I gave him some money. There was a guy there with a monkey on a leash who was standing next to him and he demanded money as well, so I said they could share it cos I was out of cash. This caused some consternation and I suspect they weren't from the same entrepreneurial enterprise. Ah bollocks to him, the snake was way more interesting than the monkey. The breakfast stop taught me a valuable career prosperity pointer as well – if you really wanna clean up in tips as a toilet attendant, simply put no bog roll in any of the stalls. You're guaranteed a steady stream of income.
Setting off again I was continually stunned at the crowded auto-rickshaws we saw buzzing along the highway. You'd see people pressed up against the windows of those things like toys in a skill tester. And 4 people to a motorcycle wasn't uncommon either.
Once again, with ignorance as my co-pilot, it occurred to me that I had no idea what the Taj Mahal was for – only that it was a hefty and impressive spectacle, and one which I'd forever regret not visiting whilst in India. Cunningly, I'd organised a tour guide to show me around once we'd arrived there and, unlike other tour guides I'd been lumbered with on the trip, this one spoke good English and was loaded with facts and information. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum to house the remains of the favourite wife of the Mughul emperor Shah Jahan, and to show his dedication to her and his grief at her death (during the birth of their fifteenth child). It struck me that in the ancient world, such displays of devotion to one's wife were not unheard of – Edward I erected a series of 12 crosses at each of the resting places of the body of his wife on its journey from Lincoln back to London. Now, most blokes I know take a pile of convincing before they'll even think about erecting a gazebo for their wives, and that's while they're still alive!
The Taj Mahal complex is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship and contains some incredibly articulate and intricate masonry. The site is completely symmetrical, with the one exception being the gravesite of the Mughal Emperor. According to the guide, the Emperor had plans of building an identical mausoleum in black marble across the river for himself, however after completion of the white one his son wrested his power away from him, largely on the strength of the fact he had been wasting the kingdom's money on extravagant architecture. The black Taj was never built, and the Emperor was buried off to one side of his wife.
Possibly one of the most unusual things about it was that there was no gift shop. There was of course no shortage of opportunities to buy miniature replicas, pens, snowdomes (yes, I know) and all the other usual tat, but there was no large and obvious official gift shop/merchandising opportunity. For that, I felt extremely refreshed. That puts it one level of integrity above Westminster Abbey, anyway.
I can't really do it justice with description – the smooth and complex marble tessellations along the walls and the onyx-inlaid scriptures from the Koran decorating the doorways are beyond what I could evoke with words. One thing that did impress me though was that in order to get from the main car park (a couple of miles away) to the actual building, one must hire a battery-operated golf cart – due to the millions of visitors each year this helps to control damage to the stone surface by ensuring no exhaust emissions near to the monument. Plus it's another opportunity for enterprising locals to squeeze cash from you.
You could take endless numbers of pictures of that structure, tempered only by how bored you want your friends to be when you get back (“And here's ANOTHER angle of the flower carvings outside the main entrance!”) but one I was especially proud of was the one below – winner of Travelbeard.com's Beard of the Month for December! Global fame and notoriety, here I come.
Following the visit to the Taj the guide announced that for a special treat we would be visiting a family of stonemasons whose ancestors had helped build the Taj Mahal, and be able to see the techniques and materials used. So who needs a gift shop, eh? It was absolutely amazing, the detail and delicateness of the work these guys were doing: tracing patterns out on crystalline marble surfaces, chipping out all the sites to inlay the semi-precious stones, then cutting the coloured stones, sticking them in… Glad it's not me – that's even more infuriating than what I actually do for a living. The sales pitch was slick and rehearsed, and you actually found yourself thinking, “Hey, maybe it would be good value to buy a 3-foot-diameter round marble tabletop and have it shipped back to England!” However, I've been a victim of Situational Aesthetic before and I could hear Billy Connolly's voice shouting, “BEWARE!” in my ear, so opted instead for the small round jar purchase. After the guy had tried all sorts of attempts to get me to invest more I pointed out I was in a hurry and had to go, so he showed me out… past the room full of clothes, the room full of shawls, the room full of rugs (stopping to demonstrate the quality and price savings of each, of course), the room full of jewelled carpets and the room full of silk paintings, and finally: FREEDOM!
Dave seemed uncomfortable with the idea that we'd make it back in time – traffic being what it was – and so for the duration of the trip back I had that ever increasing knot you get in your stomach when you're going somewhere you've never been before and can't tell how close you are. Traffic out on the open road wasn't too bad – that is to say, it was EVERYWHERE – but it was fluid and moving. The traffic in and around Agra was horrifying though. Rather like London except without the restraint of anger and impatience or the 20th-century road surfaces. We had 5 hours to get back but, because of the duration of the drive to come, every second in Agra felt like 10 minutes. After a stop-start eternity though, we broke free and the car eased away and into hyperdrive.
It really is remarkable as to the quality of cultural tourism that can be done at 80km/h and given that I now had 4 tense hours where I couldn't really do anything else I set about looking at the kinds of transport that we were overtaking. In addition to the various cars, auto-rickshaws, trucks and motorbikes, it wasn't uncommon to see people driving along the highway in tractors. Evidently tractors are considered a form of mass transit, as indeed is any type of conveyance with an available flat surface that people can sit on. Trucks were loaded with people, people sat on top of buses, and it wasn't uncommon to see carts drawn by horses, oxen or camels. There were bicycles aplenty, and even one or two hand-cranked wheelchairs – they were powered by 2 things that looked like car-window-winders and the only downsides I could see with a design like that was changing gears and steering.
As I've said before, the traffic was a fluid entity and it is largely the Indian Sonar System of honking your horn whenever you're approaching someone or trying to get past them that achieves this state. Even at the speed we were travelling vehicles seemed to meld into the same space in a sort of balletic grace, accompanied by enough honking to suggest that these ballet dancers had gaggles of geese concealed about their person. The nearness of other vehicles didn't seem to phase anyone either; presumably if everyone keeps moving then that's one vector in which there's less likely to be a collision. However, I'd been brought up in Australia where every road user has a certain square meterage of sovereign territory around their vehicles, and thus every time someone came within half a meter or so my sphincter would involuntarily flex. I thought 6 weeks of Indian cuisine had given it a workout, but that was nothing compared to this car journey.
Despite being in what can only be described as a screaming hurry, Dave insisted we pull over for some food – he'd obviously had a phone call instructing us to do that because his masters at the stonework place hadn't grabbed the fat commission they were hoping for and so I still had my share of kickbacks to cough up on the trip. So I scarfed down an average chicken biryani and then had to wait while Dave had his chai. Hmm, where could I wait? Why, in the souvenir shop, of course! It strikes me that maybe the inside of Taj Mahal's the only place in India you *can't* buy souvenirs!
The usual selection of stuff was around the place – leather-bound books (identical to those found in Camden Market), wooden boxes (identical to those found in Shimla's Lakkar Bazaar), white marble jars and boxes (identical to those found in the house of artisans in Agra), mock-ivory trinkets (made these days out of camel bone), and a few other things which I hadn't yet seen. From the instant I walked in, a very enthusiastic and attentive fleecing assistant, who explained what everything was, trailed me. I picked up one particularly horrifying looking thing – known as a Rajasthani Katar, or Thrust Dagger. Devious looking thing – on this one you could squeeze the handle and the blade opened up revealing another blade inside, thus giving you three extremely pointy things with which you could ruin someone's afternoon. The blade would've been about a foot long, and the man said that they were very popular with American tourists (I'm not kidding, that's what he said!). He also said that the blade was 92.5% silver, although given his limited vocab I didn't think it wise to try to ask what the other 7.5% was, or what structural or performance benefits this metallurgical composition afforded.
It was time to go, and as the hour hand nestled in closer and closer to the 7pm position the darkness started to arrive.
It's about this point I should warn you to go get a cup of tea, because I've got a page of notes left and I think it's going to be a long one.