Scenic bus photo, from somewhere near Jammu:
What the photo doesn't show is that the ride was 27 hours, and then a transfer in Delhi to another bus, which was another 5 hours. Now this shorter jaunt was a regular, "local" bus. Local buses are crazy. India, everywhere in India, is just swarming with Indians. For about 2 minutes the bus is awesome and fun and a big carnival, but then you realize it's 5 hours.
Due to some sort of bewildered respect afforded you as a Westerner on a local bus, the Indians make sure you get a seat. It's not comfortable by any stretch, but still, thank you very much! So 33 hours after leaving Srinagar, I'm in Agra.
Alright, I'm gonna try to keep this mostly positive, but let's be honest: Agra sucks.
Now I might be being unfair, since there was this tragedy of errors that had nothing to do with Agra, per se. My ATM card inexplicably stopped working (and after hours of trying to reach my bank, they think the card might be physically damaged, which could be trouble), and my plans to go Agra -> Udaipur -> Mumbai have been thwarted by angry Gujjars, which could also be a hassle, since my flight is out of Mumbai on the 16th. And this kinda hell day fell right on my birthday! That puts my 25th right up there with my 7th, when I ended up in the hospital with a broken clavicle.
Oh, and, aaand, the wee chocolate birthday cake I brought all the way from Srinagar? They mixed things up and turns out it was a raisin cake! I hate raisins! Bummer city.
But really, I think Agra kinda sucks in its own right. I'm used to touts by now, but Agra is ridiculous. It's almost worth the great little video I made by simply turning my camera on and walking out of my hotel. Why is that a great video? Every two steps I'm assaulted by another tout. It's as unbelievable as it is predictable. Every single time.
Alright, alright, let's get to something positive before this becomes all Ranty Von Sourpants. (Agra stinks.) First, the Agra Fort.
It's a World Heritage Sight, very important, blah blah blah. Might've been neater if you weren't constantly accosted by "certified tour guides" who won't leave you alone. The price goes from 475 rupees down to 100 rupees before they finally, finally give up and the next tour guide predator comes beelining. The fort's really big.
There's a great bathtub used by whoever used it. It's like a teacup for a titan, carved from a single piece of stone.
There were some pretty, very stripy chipmunks around the fort.
And there was this killer little tiny dark staircase that nobody noticed. But I noticed!
I like tiny steep scary stone stairs.
And the staircase led you to a little platform with a nice view.
Everyone who passed underneath would look up at me bemused: how did he get there? And then some security came and yelled at me to get down. Don't I know I can't climb the fort?
But I just went up the staircase!
You're not allowed up that stairwell!
Well I didn't know that, there's no sign (jerk!).
You should know!
But it's the most inviting staircase I've seen all week!
That one guard was most unfriendly.
Enough Agra Fort.
Yeesh, even that didn't sound very fun, did it? I guess I just can't enjoy Agra. Everyone here, everyone here*, is out to screw you. You know that trick where the tablecloth is pulled from under the dining set, and foooop, it's like it was never there! I think that happened to the moral fiber of Agra. An example:
* - I'm just reading over this (typos, that kinda thing), and I feel kinda bad about this statement. Look, there are nearly two million people in Agra, and I'm sure the VAST majority of them are kind and just and wonderful. I'm just very bitter at the amount I've been jerked around by crooks and swindlers here. A small minority, certainly, but what a minority! Back to the promised examples:
How much is water? 15 rupees, the guy says. The water bottle says 10 right on the damn label. No, 10. 15. I walk away. A vendor at the next stall overheard. Okay, sir, friend, 12 rupees! Fine. I hand him a 20. He gives me 5 change. Where's the other 3? No, he says, 15 rupees. YOU SAID 12! He walks away.
The autorickshaw driver took me to two hotels before the one I requested, against my vocal wishes. Then he didn't have change for my bill, even though I asked him beforehand, until I threatened to leave without paying.
I could give you two dozen other examples. I hate this place.
Alright, let's see the Taj Mahal, and then let's get the hell outta Dodge.
Oh, oh, before I forget, one of the rickshaw cyclists (a rickshaw is bike-powered, while an autorickshaw is motorized) was this old grey-haired guy, and when we came to a low-grade but looooong uphill, he just got out and pushed. I told him to get in the rickshaw, and I peddled him for the next 5 minutes or so. Everyone passing just loved it.
Anyway, back to the Taj.
During the day, the tour groups come in droves, so word is the best Taj viewing is as early as possible to beat the crowds. And honestly, from noon to 4pm I try not to be outside anyway. You know how hot it is here? 2 days, and don't forget I'm having lassis and juices and water with every meal! These are each 1L.
So BEEEEP, BEEEEP, the alarm goes off at 5:20am. Taj opens at 6. Admission for Indians is 20 rupees. For tourists, 750. That's official (and common: Agra Fort was 20/300). The ticket guy shortchanges me 250 rupees (a HUGE amount here), and just flat denies it. There's absolutely nothing I can do. So even hating Agra as much as I've ever hated Agra -- and I hope there's a special place in hell for this city -- even so, I gotta admit, the Taj is positively heart-stopping.
It's really tremendous. There's just no way you can feel the Taj through photos (I won't even bother with any more photos), but being there? My god, it is beautiful. It is just moving. Nobody's there yet, the sun's waking up, and the Taj... the Taj just stands there, motionless. I wasn't even that excited about it, but when you're there, you feel like you've been waiting your whole life to see it. You feel like people felt that way 300 years ago, and in 300 years, the Taj will be there, motionless and beautiful, as people look up and are silenced. It is positively humbling.
The Indians take their Taj seriously. No vehicles are allowed within 500m of the premise (don't want pollution tarnishing the marble), you have to take off your shoes (again, the marble), and the security is insane.
That might not look crazy at first, but check his left hip! Yes, an AK-47 with a full clip of 32 bullets on his right side, and God forbid that's not enough, he has FOUR MORE MAGAZINES in his pouch. I just cannot imagine a situation where this guard is dropping his clip, action-movie-style, and cha-chinking in a second. Or fourth. Who's after the Taj, Rambo? I've seen this movie before; you're a terrible shot.
(By the way, this guard, like many folks, approached Lindsay -- the girl in the photo -- and I to chat, not the other way 'round. A lot of Indian families wanted to have their photos taken with us. In a few weeks, there'll be dozens of families in India with their photos on the wall: them, the Taj, Lindsay, and me.)
By 9am the Taj was super crowded.
If you anger some vengeful god or for any other reason find yourself in Agra, see the Taj at 6am, be humbled and inspired and totally silenced with serenity and awe, and then remove yourself from this wretched city.
So I really, really, really want to leave this den of touts and thieves, but stupid Gujjars and their stupid strike. Imagine being in Vancouver, and you hear on the news that there's a huge strike that's entirely shut down transportation in Washington State. So you check a map. Hmmm, your flight's in San Francisco, and Washington State is... oh dear. Oh man, that's exactly where you need to go! So you try a workaround and rationalize that Yellowstone is super uber cool, but the fact is it's way out of the way. That's basically what I'm doing, but instead of Yellowstone, Khajuraho. Should be great (anything but Agra...), but it's a train to another bus, and I'm going AWAY from Mumbai. But seriously, I would pay all the money I can't access in my account to get out of Agra. And thanks to my family (but especially my brother's selfless work on the phone with his bank!), I'll be able to get a few bones and blow this joint. Tomorrow morning, which is not soon enough, but tomorrow morning I'll be on my way to Khajuraho.
You know how memory works? In a year I'll remember how the Taj so unexpectedly and thoroughly moved me, and I'll kinda remember to not recommend Agra. That's how memory works: wonderfully!
I should note, for the sake of fairness, that while a brief internet search suggests most people share my view of Agra, two of my well-traveled friends suggested it -- one very strongly. (And I don't begrudge them a bit! Not one nanosmidgen!) Maybe they came in winter, and the temperature was nice and they met a fantastic family with whom they had a great time. Or maybe they came before the touts in this city got all rabid, and there wasn't such sprawl and noise, and you weren't constantly being jerked and screwed around by a million crooks and swindlers. Or maybe they're just confused and are right now going "Taj Mahal? In Agr... oh no, no! I didn't mean Agra! I meant LEH!" I think it's probably the latter. But I'm just saying, as with all travel, your mileage may and will vary.
And honestly, as weird as it sounds, the Taj was almost worth it. I found it as surprisingly wonderful as Agra is surprisingly obnoxious. And those are huge, HUGE surprises.