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.