Sunday, February 9, 2014

India Adventure: Agra

Taj Mahal in Agra, India.
I wasn't looking forward to it, but there wasn't much of a choice. And in the end, it wound up being perfectly fine. I took a 14 hour overnight train ride in the "Sleeper" class (again) from Varanasi to Agra, departing Varanasi station at 6:15pm on Feb 2, arriving in Agra at about 9am the next morning.

The Spanish couple and I found and boarded our train at Varanasi, and I was up on my top bunk with my backpack securely locked to the seat and dozing by 7:30pm. I was the only foreigner on my train car, but far from the only foreigner on the train. Varanasi and Agra are two very popular stops on the backpacker route, so there were many young backpackers on my train. At least two were in the "Sleeper" car just ahead of me.

The train was cold at night but the ride was otherwise completely uneventful, other than that of course we arrived at Agra station almost 2 hours behind schedule. This meant I began jumping out of my bunk and briskly walking down to the end of the car to peer outside of the door at every train stop to see what stop we were at, from 5:30 - 9am to ensure I didn't miss my stop. But it's all good - I didn't miss my stop. Much easier to not miss your stop when your train arrives in daylight hours, and you can read the hard to find train station signs from the windows or door of the train.

When I exited the Agra station I was greeted by a friendly taxi driver who displayed his official taxi license ID card, and offered to drive me to my hotel, Tourist Rest House for 20 rupees more than what the hotel had told me the ride should cost, by auto rickshaw. He pointed out - accurately - that it was much more pleasant to take a taxi than an auto rickshaw, and 20 rupees really isn't much more money. So of course I said yes, and got in the taxi feeling slightly hesitant, but in India you just go with the flow.

I soon discovered that taxi rides from train stations to hotels provide taxi drivers with a great opportunity to pitch taxi passengers on taxi drivers' personal guiding services. After some negotiation - well, not really, more that I just kept saying "no" - for the truly good price of 400 rupees ($6.50) my taxi driver would be my personal driver for a whole day, escorting me to all of the major sites, and waiting for me while I explored them, before driving me to the next one. (Essentially what Andre and I did in Varanasi.) I was touched by the pile of journals he handed me and had me flip through, as he drove, containing pages and pages of handwritten comments written by previous clients who had really enjoyed his guiding services. He knew all of the comments by heart, and directed me to the comments written by other Americans. I left a nice comment in one of his journals before exiting his taxi at my hotel, having declined his guiding services.

I was immediately really happy I chose the Tourist Rest House. The staff was really friendly, the hotel was almost fully booked, and the interior courtyard garden was safe and inviting - with a restaurant, wifi, and music and white Christmas lights at night.

I was finally in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal - the one touristy thing that I had wanted to do while in India. Me, and many other tourists - Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra form the "Golden Triangle", India's most popular tourist itinerary. Agra is on this list thanks to the art, architecture, and landscape gardening left behind in Agra by the Mughal Empire, who ruled in India from the early 1500's through the 1700's.

I spent my first day in Agra exploring Agra Fort, constructed between 1565 and 1573. It was the seat and stronghold of the Mughals for successive generations. It stretches out for 1.5 miles along the Yamuna River, almost directly across the river from the Taj Mahal. It is made out of standstone and marble, and wow ... it's gorgeous. I took an audio tour of the property, frequently getting lost in the fort's vast interior spaces. The Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan who had the Taj Mahal built as a mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, died inside of Agra Fort, imprisoned there by his son. I saw the spot where rumor has it that he stood longingly, staring out across the river at the Taj Mahal, thinking of Mumtaz. He was later buried next to her in the Taj Mahal. One of my favorite parts of the Fort is the oldest section, where the ladies of the court lived. It's amazing how open the space is to visitors. I was there until closing time, and at that hour there were few visitors. I was the only person walking down dark corridors and peering into dark interiors. It was a little creepy but also just really ... neat. It was so quiet that I was able to imagine what life must have been like here, so many generations ago.

I spent the next day at the Taj Mahal, known locally simply as "the Taj". When I got my first glimpse of the Taj, I thought to myself that it was worth coming  to India just to see this. One of those things you just have to see for yourself. I spent the entire day on the Taj grounds, first walking through the gardens and around the buildings with the audio guide, and then later by myself, pausing often to reflect on the history of the place, and to people watch. There were people there from not only all over India but all over the world. The bright colors and languages were so much fun. Like the Agra Fort, I took a lot of photos and had fun trying to capture visually appealing images. I'll add some of those photos to this post once I get back to the US. I got to meet some of the restoration crew, who were busy restoring the Taj, which unfortunately is badly affected by Agra's air pollution. The marble is changing colors and growing a fungus. There's a lightboard just outside of the mausoleum that lists the amount of pollution in the air on the day of your visit. Overall, I absolutely loved my visit to the Taj and am so glad I decided to allocate a whole day to exploring it.

Andre, the Canadian I had met in Varanasi told me about Keoladeo National Park, locally known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. A 1.5 hour bus ride outside of Agra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is India's only national park that allows visitors to walk and cycle through the park. Constructed between 1726 and 1763 by Maharaja Suraj Mal, the then princely ruler of Bharatpur, the park was used as a duck shooting reserve and hunting ground by the Majaraja of Bharatpur until 1965. it became a National Park in 1981 and a World Heritage Site in 1985. Named after the Keoladeo (Shiva) temple located in the center of the park, it's now home to over 370 species of birds. It is a staging ground for migratory waterfowl arriving in India before dispersing to other regions of the world, is a wetland wintering area for massive congregations of waterfowl, and is the only regular wintering area in India for the rare and highly endangered Siberian crane. I spent my third and final day in Agra exploring the bird sanctuary.

I took a public, government-run bus from an Agra bus station to the Bharatpur bus station. A nice English-speaking Indian man on the bus from Agra to Bharatpur negotiated the price of a cycle rickshaw ride for me from the Bharatpur bus station to the entrance to the bird sanctuary. Once inside the park, I rented a purple ladies bike for the day for 60 rupees/$1, picked up a map of the park, and headed out on the open road. Other tourists - mostly Indian families and foreigners dressed in safari gear with large cameras and binoculars - hired cycle rickshaws to take them on the main roads of the park. Those rickshaws aren't allowed on the narrow side paths in the park. Since I was on a bike, I was able to take the quiet side paths where it was just me and the birds, some some deer, a water snake (I was no where near it - I saw it swimming in the water from my spot on the path), and the occasional park visitor. Especially having spent the previous day at the Taj with many other tourists, the peace and quiet of the park was really beautiful. I met an older couple - birders - from Canada who said I was so lucky to have stumbled upon this paradise of a park. They said of their travels in India, this park had been their most favorite.

At the very end of the day, just as I was wondering if maybe I should turn around and head back to the train station, I stumbled upon 2 Indian photographers from Delhi quietly staring into the wetlands on the side of the road, with large camera lenses pointed at two birds. The guide they had hired told me that they had been in the park for several days hoping to find the Indian Sarus Crane. They found one of the 3-4 pair that live in the park, and were taking photos of it when I rolled up on my bike. I sat with the guide and watched the birds, and took some photos. The Sarus Crane is the tallest of the flying birds, standing at a height up to 5.9 feet tall. They are found in India, Australia, and Southeast Asia. In India they are considered the sign of marital fidelity because they mate for life, and rumor has it that they will pine for the loss of their mates, even starving themselves to death. The guide told me that it's incredible that we got to see this bird - people come to the park from all over the world just to find it - because as of 2009 there were only 15,000 - 20,000 Sarus Cranes left in the wild. There are less than 10,000 in India. The species is considered Vulnerable, and is on the IUCN Red List. And I just happened upon a pair of Sarus Cranes on my bike, just like I just happened to be in the park in the first place, because I just happened to meet Andre in Varanasi when asking if he knew how to get to Saranath. I have been so lucky.

Funny story. On my way out of the park I was approached by three teen Indian boys, one of whom wanted me to "dance with him" on the road in the park. I politely declined, but when visiting the Taj Mahal I posed for innumerable photos with Indian tourists who asked if they could take a photo with me. I am rarely asked for my name or country of origin. It feels a little funny, but it makes people happy when I say yes, and it's a simple thing. Plus, a beautiful thing happened at the Taj Mahal. I was approached by a group of young Indians, including two young women in beautiful outfits that I had previously approached and complimented. The young women hadn't understood my English, but were now offering to pose with me for a photo in front of the Taj Mahal, using my camera. One of their friends took the photo for me. It's probably one of my favorite photos from my trip thus far. Also a really great memory of the kindness of the people I've met, here.

In sum, don't miss Agra if you are coming to India - and make sure to add the bird sanctuary to your list.

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