Smog and stone
Every trip has terrible bits. Days where nothing goes right, where if you’re lucky you temporarily lose your luggage and if you’re unlucky you fall off a waterfall. I’m being dramatic (as I am wont to do in moments of distress). There were no waterfalls in our day. Nor, to be fair, was there any lost luggage (fingers crossed for our upcoming train trip, about which we have already heard differing reports recommend sitting on / hugging / jealously protecting and in no event surrendering the aforementioned cargo to the baggage cart).
We started on a sad note, farewelling our beautiful Jaipur hotel (if you’re in Jaipur I wholeheartedly recommend Alsisarhaveli) and setting off on the 250km-odd journey which we now knew (oh the realigning of expected travel times) would take roughly 5 hours with no stops. Of course in India you do stop and we stopped first at Chand Baori (800-900AD), which at 3,500 steps over 13 stories is one of the largest, deepest and oldest stepwells in India. Built to conserve water, stepwells also functioned as places of refuge during times of extreme heat.
The stepwell itself was a beautiful and wondrous thing, besmirched in aspect only by the white metal picket fencing that had been placed all round to prevent adventurous tourists meandering down into its depths. (India does seem to struggle somewhat with the preservation-restoration balance. Historical sites are generally either in complete disrepair or badly restored with unsympathetic modern touches).
You’d think by this point in our trip we’d be old hands at walking that line of knowing when to tip / donate / otherwise give money in certain situations, but to be honest it just gets more confusing, as well as more annoying.
The stepwell guard told us there was no ticket for entry (ok) so we wandered aimlessly around. Only when we went to leave did he, in a circular and particularly Indian way (pointedly emphasizing the difficulty in in guarding the mammoth stone artefact), demand donations from each of us in turn. It’s one of those situations in which half of you is like, ‘I don’t care, it’s a dollar, have it, have two’ and the other half is like, ‘what the hell, if you wanted money charge a ticket price and make it clear’!
It is a not-particularly-benevolent or ideal feeling which I have noticed creeping up on me these last couple of days. Is it travel fatigue, perhaps? Of course I also managed to be a complete klutz and fall through a (pretty broken and twisted) cow grate, which improved neither my mood nor the mobility of my ankle. On the plus-side, the temple of Kali, though mostly allowed to fall into ruin (the remaining portion of the temple is now surrounded by walls fashioned from bits of fallen stonework, in a way that is both beautiful and bizarre) was cool and well worth a look if you’re in Abinari.
We lunched at an unremarkable tourist-trap hotel-cum-curio-shop-cum-dining-hall which had the familiar ‘tourist’ labelled vehicles (of which our own is one) stationed outside. We continued our intersecting dance with tour buses at FatehpurSikri, the Ghost Capital, which we decide to visit mostly because Ghost Capital sounds seriously badass.
To be fair, our first impression of the town on arrival is that is spooky as all hell. A dense fog/smog clings to the many (for India) trees, giving the place a depressingly solemn appearance. Once parked our driver tell us that as no cars are allowed on the site, we will need to walk through the gloaming to where the CNG buses will shuttle us up the hill. As he speaks, dark figures begin to emerge from the white, congregating 10-20 feet from the car. Hawkers.
We’ve been reasonably lucky in India to date but that all changes here and we are consistently heckled and begged in a curiously imperious way that takes offence when we politely tell them we do not want a guide. (‘I am not a guide! I am government employee! I charge you nothing!’). This pattern continues throughout the journey to the bus. Even after we are safely ensconced with our tickets inside the palace complex (‘I am not guide! I am gardener! I tell you information! Only donation!) it grows ever more insistent and somehow, more shrill.
I have to confess the entire ordeal, to which my temperament is particularly ill-suited, leaves me wishing we had never come to this Mughal city, founded as the new Rajasthani capital in 1569 by Emperor Akbar, only to be abandoned on completion, 15 years later, due to the lack of water. (Or perhaps it was the ghosts that obviously swirl in the mists that cloak the entire palace even during the sunniest portion of the day).
I feel like this post is not really painting me in the most flattering light but it is what it is. A week of long drives and slightly frayed nerves together with the (beautiful but) constant overwhelm that is India had conspired into a rather perfect storm which together with my PMS (perfectly timed, thank you self) meant that when one of the hawkers actually made contact with my arm in an entreaty to secure our used tickets (I wasn’t really clear on their use to him but also wasn’t sure whether we would need them to get out of the car park and so was unwilling to part with otherwise used stubs of cardboard), I may have rounded on him with a look so disdainful that he actually backed away, hands upraised in surrender. My bad.
Continuing on this happy path we then had a sort-of fight with our driver in the only way you seem to have arguments in India which is filled with a lot of agreement and even more passive aggressiveness. I can only imagine the post-it notes that could result. Our driver, the esteemed Mr Singh, asked us what time we’d like to visit the Taj Mahal the following morning. Although we had developed the habit (possibly unwisely) of deferring to his preferred time as our early attempts to guide in this area were invariably met with impassioned cries of ‘too early!’ ‘too late!’ (in this aspect only Mr Singh is a lot like Goldilocks), on this we were firm. Sunrise.
Our reasoning was simple. Seeing sunrise at the Taj was the entire reason we were in Agra for two nights (against the strong protestations of my mother who didn’t even want to go to Agra at all) so it seemed absurd not to do it. This of course was apparently impossible but – again, in a developing pattern of our interactions here – it was not readily ascertainable why. Eventually fog was settled on as the definitive reason. Fog would prevent any early morning foray (although, as I write this that very next morning, I can relay that the ‘fog’, for it is really smog, has yet to lift as the clock chimes midday). Finally, exhausted from our host of outright-aggressive, plaintively-aggressive and passively-aggressive-cloaked-in-subordination-and-best-wishes interactions throughout the day, we agreed to park the issue until later.
By this time we were entering the city of Agra proper. Agra is located in the province of Uttar Pradesh and it was the first time we had left the province of Rajasthan. It is impossible with this limited pool of provincial Indian experience to say whether Rajasthan is particularly lovely and well-off or Uttar Pradesh particularly blighted, but we saw more beggars in those minutes of smogful driving than in our entire trip to date. (This is probably terribly naïve but because so many people had warned me of such distressing poverty and because I actually hadn’t seen very much of it at all, I kind of assumed there must have been marked improvement in poverty levels between those travellers’ experiences and my own). But no. Suddenly here they were. Tiny brown fingers tapping at the window, making imploring gestures toward their mouths while, in the gloom behind, other figures sought warmth from piles of burning refuse.
In the lengthening twilight all seemed particularly hopeless. On arriving at the hotel my mother responded to such stimulus by emptying her stomach contents. Repeatedly. My sister, in protest or perhaps sympathy, would join her in these violent contractions a day later (pretty much as soon as we were back from the Taj Mahal).
(The Taj, just by the by, was definitely beautiful but also definitely overrated and a thoroughly unpleasant experience which involved being herded through metal cattle gates, patted down by an angry guard – who was in turn overseen by an even angrier baboon – and then confronted by the reality of the Taj; thousands of people all attempting to get a selfie which depicts the Taj and omits the swarm of people likewise posing. Would recommend doing a google search and avoiding Uttar Pradesh entirely.)
While we stayed in the Grand Imperial Hotel (fancy name) I would not recommend you do the same. The amenities and the food were poor and the historical charm faded beneath some serious damp issues.