The Taj Express to Agra pulls out right on time at 3.20pm. The train is so long and we’re right at the rear, so it feels as if it takes us 5 minutes to clear the station. It’s an all seats train and there are two air-conditioned cars at the rear for (mostly) us foreigners, preceded by 20 non-a/c cars for the locals. There’s always so much to see from a train. I see an old man picking up only the silver paper from the rubbish beside the track. There’s an old woman herding goats, another old woman collecting a bundle of sticks and a small girl taking a shit. I remember reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazar about 100 years ago, and I assumed his report of a thousand people reliving themselves outside Bombay was just a literary device. But a handful of days ago, as we pulled into Varanasi in the early morning gloom, the track seemed to be lined by people with their pants around their ankles. I start to think for a moment of the maths. 1.3 billion people. Their bowels move once a day. If I knew how miles of track, I could perhaps…. Nah, it’s too much work. The attendants on the Taj Express work the aisles, crying “Chai chai”, and “chips, cake” and something indecipherable. There’s also a man with a large bucket who seems to offering “funny water”, but I’m sure I misheard that. Now if we could just get a little Singapore girl with her trolley of G&Ts and snacks we could reform the railways.
Next morning in Agra we set out to see the big Momma-ji of them all. The Taj Mahal. And certainly she does not disappoint. Although Agra is still a little misty, the Taj sparkles in the filtered sunlight. Five million people visit the tomb each year, but for all that, it’s not too oppressive. Because combustion driven vehicles are not permitted within 2kms of the monument, supposedly to reduce pollution around the Taj, we are ferried the last bit in horse and cart, probably more accurately a buggy. Maggie climbs in, our guide climbs in the back, and as I get one leg up into the pint sized seat, the horse, who’s done this trip once or twice before, decides this would be a good time to get going. Without his rider. We are jerked back as the horse sets off on a fast clip. Fortunately, the horse with his hapless guests on board is not traveling fast enough and his rider catches us up, swinging himself up onto one of the “wooden bits that joins the horse to the cart”. (Well, I don’t know what it is!)
Between the Taj and the next stop at the Agra Fort the guide tells us we are stopping for a cultural experience and a demonstration on how the inlaid marble that decorates the Taj is made. By descendants of the original craftsman who constructed the Taj. Really? We’ve played this game before and while Maggie uses the “very clean rest rooms” I explain to the guide that we are not shoppers, at our age we have a house full of stuff, and we certainly don’t want anymore. “No obligation”, says our guide. We sit through the slightly interesting demonstration and then are taken into the sales area. The sales person – who a few minutes ago was the cultural person demonstrates the properties of the marble. He pours Coke on it, demonstrating it is not porous. He hits it with a weight to demonstrate that it will not crack. He substantiates his ability to ship worldwide by throwing a packaged marble top across the room. We watch it bounce as we try not display interest. His helper switches lights on and off on cue as he demonstrates the translucency of the work. A small (albeit beautiful) marble table top, about the size you’d use to put a hot pot on your dining table, will set us back only $1,200US (plus shipping). Maggie rolls her eyes.
The Agra Fort is another amazing structure, both in terms of its red sandstone construction and its massive size. Even after the magnificence of the Taj, it’s still pretty astonishing. There are signs everywhere warning us of pickpockets but the closest we get is the ubiquitous pat down at the security check. We marvel at the detailed marble in the Fort that was begun by Akbar in 1565 and later used as a garrison by the British. Even today, much of it is reserved for the military and so is off limits to us tourists.
For dinner we set off in a tuktuk to the South Gate of the Taj. As these things work, the tuktuk driver has his son, “my boy”, he says, nodding proudly, squeezed in beside him. His “boy” is somewhere in his 20s. Along the way we slow and another bloke squeezes in the front, and then not long after we enter the congested tiny streets around the South Gate, he quietly steps out and walks away. No explanation is offered. We find the restaurant, perched on the top of a small hotel that allegedly offers spectacular views over the Taj. It was mentioned in the SMH a few weeks ago, and the reviewer praised the view but warned the food and ambience lacked sophistication. Certainly, it’s simple place, but 45 minutes after ordering, dinner has still not arrived. Two monkeys have run across the balustrade, I’ve swallowed a couple of Kingfishers, and apart from the fact that the power has failed completely twice, and that there’s no sign of dinner, all is well. We’ve been to cities like Washington where the monuments are brilliantly illuminated at night. Even the Sydney Opera House shines in the evenings. So I guess we had an expectation of some sort of evening view of the Taj. After all, we took a tuktuk, climbed three levels of rickety staircase through a 2 star hotel we might have stayed at in our 20s to get this view. But when dinner finally arrives, we eat it in silence and in darkness, as the Taj is not illuminated at night, and remains a ghostly yet distant shape in the darkness.
And the photos are here