Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tickets and Touts - Agra

No Sleep In Agra

At last the moment I'd been waiting for... Not seeing the Taj Mahal but riding the Indian Railways! We were prepared for chaos but somehow despite the crowds (most of whom never seemed to actually get on or even anywhere near the trains) it was all too easy. Up the stairs, our train was already on the board, then down to the platform, check the train plan and wait... Looking around and taking in the atmosphere is much more interesting than standing at Paddington or Euston. Cattle spotting, guessing what's inside the huge containers people are guarding and the sound of the trains blasting out their horns to clear people from the tracks as they come by. Not wanting to risk standing for several hours we had opted for AC2 Class seats which convert from seats to beds for those who want to sleep. A word to the wise, make sure to book the lower berth if you want to choose whether to sleep, sit, stretch etc. The non-side seats will happily hold three people and this is well worth bearing in mind when you choose your seats. If you have an upper berth then you are dependent on whether the person in the lower one wants to sit or sleep, so you may find things a little uncomfortable. Unfortunately on this train the windows were heavily tinted so it was hard to see much of the world go by. We were also accompanied by some armed guards in our carriage as it seemed we had a VIP on board, who it was we will never know.

Some hours later as dusk had turned to night we beeped our way in to Agra Cantt. After reading in our guide book to head straight for the prepaid taxi booth we did just that and had the pleasure of fighting the crowds and learning to watch out for being given old money by people. We ended up in the cab and enjoyed the drive towards the East Gate of the Taj Mahal (which included the sighting of an elephant!) where Hotel Sheela awaited us. As the area around the Taj Mahal is a traffic free zone we had to walk the last few minutes of our journey and had to laugh at people trying to offer us a rickshaw ride for what was barely a 5 minute walk!

Our first impressions of the hotel were good. A lovely outside area, people sitting having dinner etc. However, shortly after check-in the second impression totally undid all the work of the first one. The room we were shown to was possibly the worst place I have ever stayed in or seen in my life. We were expecting something basic and we were paying accordingly but basic does not, in my book, mean poorly maintained. The room resembled a prison cell with with plain walls, bullet-hard beds and a dirty bathroom. To top it off the fan in the room made such a noise it was impossible to sleep. Good job we were getting up at 5am to get a head start for the Taj Mahal. Apparently our booked room was given to someone else. Rooms there were allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, what you reserved was largely unimportant. Apparently we had a chance to move into a better room the following day. It wasn't like it could be any worse! We had dinner at the hotel, which was a cheap and cheerful affair (which would have been more cheerful and less cheap if we had been able to cash our travellers cheques the day before) and then tried (and mostly failed) to get anything resembling a good night's sleep.

Our sole full day in Agra started bright and reasonably early. We set out for the short walk to the Taj only to find out that to buy the tickets you had a 15 minute walk back up the road to the ticket office. Our prime location was looking less prime with every passing call of, "rickshaw." Everyone knew where you were going and all would follow you along the road to the ticket office and back again promising the best fare. The "head down, no eye contact" method worked pretty well and half an hour later we were through the security path down and about to see one of the wonders of the world. Walking around the entrance gardens was reasonably peaceful, and through the gate... Then you see this amazing monument in the early morning haze and out comes your camera, then you put it away, find your space and relax. He must have had a massive guilt complex. You walk though the gardens, past the Diana chair and up to the monument itself. Those beautiful red shoe covers come into play here. (When you visit the ticket office for the Taj you get a little goody bag with water and shoe covers and it helps the rickshaw drivers know whether to say Ticket Office, Taj or Red Fort). Anyway, with it being so early in the morning the area is quite peaceful and you can enjoy the magnificence of the monument itself or a lazy look out along the river. I had some magnificent photos but that's another story.

After taking in every last bit of the Taj and enjoying it immensely, fatigue and hunger kicked in. It was now time to change some travellers' cheques and grab some food. Back at the hotel we managed to move to a better room. It wasn't better by much but the fan worked without making a deafening racket and it looked a little less like a prison. Things were looking up, we had money we could actually spend again and I had a really nice breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with fried potato shreds, red onions and tomatoes washed down with a painfully sweet fruit juice and a big pot of coffee. The outside area of the hotel was just right, it was still not enough to forgive the rooms.

A short rest later it was time to head out for the rest of the day. We found a very friendly rickshaw driver named Fayed by the East Gate of the Taj and it was off to the Red Fort. After dodging the guides (one was particularly aggressive telling us it would be like strolling through a park without a guide, which was however just what I wanted after a sleepless night) and ticket sellers, we were there. There was something underwhelming about being here, somehow my memory is of watching the scores of chipmunks running around the gardens and a big queue which looked like there was something exciting at the end of it, which in the end was just the way out!

We then found our rickshaw driver and it was an exciting but controlled drive to the Moonlight Gardens which are on the river banks opposite the Taj Mahal. After all the touristic sites here was my happiest time in Agra. It was peaceful and calm. The sky was clear and there was an amazing view of the Taj Mahal completely unobstructed with hardly a tourist in sight. It must have been mid-afternoon and you could see and hear the crowds at the Taj. Suddenly that early morning pain, the lack of sleep, the cell we slept in were a little more worthwhile. The only downside were a group of children begging after being egged on by the adults with them as soon as they saw us, realising we weren't giving them a rupee they left us alone and it was time to go back to the hotel. On the way back we had the inevitable stop at a gift shop to look at scarves, overpriced they may have been but it was more relaxing than trawling the main road and at least some presents were found.

Back at the hotel it was time for dinner and to check our plans for the next destination Orchha. I knew it would be another bad night at the hotel but what I did not know was the beautiful time I would have at our next destination. We spent the morning relaxing at the hotel, I had the eggs again and watched the gardener hard at work whilst I caught up with Mere Anarchy and wondered how nice this place could have been if they had put the same effort into the rooms as they did on the gardening. It was then back to Agra Cantt and up on the Kerala Express to take us to Jhansi.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Doing it on our own - Delhi

Dude Where's My Car...?

After searching the long line of pick-up drivers we found our man and it was off to the Master Guesthouse without a hitch, or so we thought. There was however, a small problem; the driver had lost his car in the airport car park. Luckily for all of us we went down a floor and the car was soon found. We were out of the airport and into the real world. As we weaved calmly through the traffic it was nice to look out the window and watch this new world go by. Not too many animals on the road just yet, but quite a few auto-rickshaws and plenty of traffic. As we were driven into suburbia we were soon at our hotel/guesthouse where we'd stay for the next two nights. On arrival we had our bags taken from us and headed upstairs for our check-in and introduction to Delhi from the hotel owners, Ushi and Nishi who lived on the ground floor of the building. We had some tea, coffee and cookies, a local map and some tips for what to do as well as a briefing on Delhi's metro and on how much to pay the rickshaw drivers (easier said than done when you don't have much in the way of small notes!). We had a nice room at the top of the building that opened out on to the terrace, it was fairly quiet and incredibly relaxed. The room was nice and homely and we felt like we were off to a good start. We took a short rest and unpacked before heading out to acclimatise in our new surroundings to the famous heart of New Delhi, Connaught Place.

I enjoy almost all journeys of any kind, my first ride on the rickshaw from the hotel to the metro station was interesting and surreal, watching the driver navigate through the traffic and around the pot holes in the road. Even for fans of trains great and small Delhi Metro is certainly an acquired taste. For short term tourists it's pretty straight forward, you buy a chip and the further you go the more you pay with an approximate 2INR increase for each station. Despite being mid afternoon it felt like rush hour. The stations have big long platforms but the trains, new and shiny as they are, only seem to take up about half the platform length and as a result they are very busy as people push their way on and off as if their lives depended on it.

As soon as we had left the station the touts were after us, the government shopping complex must have been paying a good commission as every other person we bumped into were desperate to take us there. We walked into the park in the centre of Connaught Place which seemed newly refreshed (but poorly finished) and we got a little flashback from Amsterdam as it was full of men holding hands, which in India means just close friends unlike many other places in the world. The park was not particularly memorable apart from using the same style of signs as the London parks and an incredibly drab water feature... As dusk was upon us we made a quick visit to the tourist office to pick up a free city map and despite the kind man's offer to completely rebook our entire two week itinerary we were pushing our way onto the metro, fighting with the rickshaw drivers and back at the hotel for dinner before we knew it.

After a light dinner of Indian-style scrambled eggs it was off to bed for an early night in preparation for our first day of proper sightseeing. Before continuing with our time in Delhi it is time for a note on the lovely beds I experienced during the trip. In all but one of the hotels and guesthouses we stayed in, the beds were rock hard and I woke up with back ache at best after a night's sleep and at worst after a couple of hours. To this day I do not understand the fascination with such uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. Perhaps I am just getting old.

There's nothing like curry to start the day, so to build my energy for sightseeing I started as I meant to go on with an Indian style breakfast of potato curry, bread and pickles washed down with plenty of coffee. I really enjoyed the food I ate at Master Guesthouse as it was always fresh and reminded me of the Indian food I liked to cook myself. So after another encounter with the oh so friendly rickshaw drivers who were trying to charge us five times the correct fare we were back at Karol Bagh metro station for the push and shove match of the Delhi Metro and we were off towards Old Delhi with its markets, the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. Other than a few calls from the rickshaw drivers and the crazy traffic it was quite calm walking from the station towards Jama Masjid, there were many food stalls along our way just setting up for the day, good job I'd eaten well this morning. We arrived at the mosque only to find out we'd arrived during prayer so we pressed on through the market area and a grotty subway towards the Red Fort where we were greeted by the postcard and guidebook sellers who were swiftly avoided.

Once through the ticket gates and security you walk through a small shopping bazaar and then in to the fort. We picked up a guide who showed us round and told us what the different parts of the fort were and explained the Hindu, Muslim and Christian aspects of the architecture as well as what the British left behind. The main reason for mixing everything was to reassure those that came to visit as they would see something familiar and feel at ease and that they would receive fair treatment. The guide was good and it helped us appreciate Agra a lot more without needing a guide to show us round the tourist sites there.

After the Red Fort we headed back towards Jama Masjid and off to lunch at Delhi's famous restaurant/institution Karim's. The restaurant is actually more like a courtyard with kitchens and seating areas in the surrounding buildings. We soon got a table and sat down to eat. I'm glad we visited and the food was good value though underwhelming (kebab and spinach curry, rice, bread etc.). Maybe we chose the wrong things as many other people seemed to be enjoying themselves. After Karim's we briefly visited Jama Masjid before prayer started up again and then headed out for a meandering walk around Old Delhi's streets. This was one of my best memories from Delhi, walking around watching people caught up in the excitement of buying and selling, the smell of the street food and the complete absence of hassle. Unfortunately looking for the Metro you see the other side of Old Delhi, the poor sleeping and begging in the street, the smell of urine and animals grazing along the road whilst everyone else is swerving round them. After asking around we made it with a huge amount of pushing and shoving on to the metro and back to the hotel, exhausted and just about in one piece. London will always seem a walk in the park after this. Back at Master Guesthouse we had a lovely home cooked dinner and a good night's sleep.

Our final day in Delhi was a damp and frustrating one. Our train to Agra didn't depart till late afternoon so we decided to visit what looked like a local temple. In reality it was more than a half hour's walk away along a main road. Not the best time for a heavy rain shower. Arriving at the temple soaked through we stood there bedraggled and took the first auto rickshaw back, somehow price was not important at this point. Luckily we dried out and it was time to bid farewell to the nice people at Master Guesthouse and get the train from Hazrat Nizamuddin to Agra.

Passage To India

How we got there

For me my trip starts when I check in online and book my HEX tickets (with a hefty discount code of course).  My first taste of what to expect in India was the crazy world of Emirates' online check in.  For some reason the seat selection part of the process and I did not get on and every time I tried to move our three seats on the 777 the body of the plane seemed to increase in length from the middle and out...  Not a promising start and a few minutes of frustration turned into many more minutes of laughter as by this time the length of our aircraft had doubled and we now had infinite leg room (which in the end was far from the truth!).  Somehow as I went to bed that night I felt a little underwhelmed for what would have been the longest and most exotic trip I had taken in fifteen years.  A mix of good planning, sheer exhaustion and an early afternoon departure probably didn't help.

We were supposed to meet at Paddington at around 10am to allow for lateness etc.  This was a good idea as standing for 15mins in the cold waiting for a tube was not really the best start to the morning.  Anyway, safely on board the HEX with a nice set of seats together my excitement levels were up and keeping out the cold.  After 10 years the HEX is looking a little worn around the edges and for the money charged at full price or otherwise it could really do with a bit more TLC/refurbishment.  20mins after sitting down we arrived at Heathrow Central and made the short trip to T3.  The check in area was right in front of us, there was almost no queue, easy does it through security and off for breakfast.  We chose the middle of three equally average options as it was the only one still doing breakfast after 11am.  Strangely for the nice people serving us they managed to plate up an English breakfast in about five minutes and yet it took them half an hour to sort out a toasted cheese sandwich; impressive stuff indeed.  The book and magazine choice in WH Smith was significantly worse than the airport food, which was a pleasant difference to Gatwick's North Terminal.  Then it was off to the gate and a first glimpse of the beast of the skies, the A380.  Other than the scale of the aircraft my other highlight of boarding was getting a copy of The Economist, not really holiday reading but better than the dross in Smiths.

On planning the trip I wasn't too keen on doing an indirect flight and stopping over, the one benefit and selling point was the opportunity to try the A380, this was definitely a wise choice and one that got me at least a few brownie points as we were nearly booked on to something else.  The plan is large, comfortable and quiet and still feels brand new.  Up in the air and I was enjoying a few indifferent films on a decent size seat back TV,  Iron Man 2 and Polanski's The Ghost come to mind  There may have been something else but the lamb served as the main meal was more memorable.  By then seven or so hours had passed and we landed in DXB.  I was hoping to see some of the famous Dubai sites lit up by night such as the Palm but no such luck.

Once landed it was  back through security and then a walk through the terminal whilst we had four hours to kill awaiting our flight to Delhi.  Using the if in doubt try McDonalds option we settled down at a table for a while and waited for the boarding call.  By this time I had already lost all since of time and place, as it was around 4am local time when we headed off to the gate at the opposite end of the terminal for boarding.  The flight to Delhi must have special memories for someone at DXB, it felt like it was in the remotest of remote stands and a good 15mins by airport bus.  Aboard the 777 reality set in, gone were the wide aisles and spotless interior from the A380, these were replaced with narrow seats, yellowing overhead bins with a just edible Indian breakfast and The A Team to keep me awake.  At least there was Tetris which was sadly missing on the A380.  Anyway, we would be in India in a few hours and our trip would be starting for real.  Touching down a little late we were glad to be finally there.  On planning the trip we were expecting a bit of a nightmare on landing at DEL, in fact the new T3 was clean, comfortable and it was only a short time before we were through security, bags in hands and out to find our driver.  India was finally with us.

Voyage to India

14 Day Tour of North India Introduction
When: November 2010
This November I enjoyed a short 14 day trip around North India. The itinerary was Delhi, Agra, Orchha, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Delhi. The trip was self planned and allowed plenty of time for rest and contemplation as well as site seeing and the chance to stay in different kinds of places, foods and transportation. I will use the next few posts as my own online diary to try and keep the best and worst memories alive. It seemed so far away and impossible that I would end up doing this trip, then suddenly it is all over.
Passage To India - How we got there
Dude Where's My Car...? - Around Delhi
Tickets and Touts - No sleep in Agra
For Relaxing Times, Make it Orchha Time
Running the Gauntlet: Gurus, Gods, Goods and Italian Food
A Moment of Beauty in the Surrounds of Smog and Sarnath

Stuffed, Soaked, Sick and Home
An Amazing Time with a Little Regret