The train was supposed to arrive into Agra by 3am and so I woke up and waited. Usually we travel AC class and so I ask the ticket wallah to come wake me, offer them 20 rupees and they’ll do it, offer them 50 rupees and they’ll sit patiently waiting. However, there was none and so at 3am I sat at the door of the train, listening to Coldplay, feet dangling down, looking out into the dark as the train tore across Northern India. The kids were both in bed sleeping and as I relished the quiet, the serenity and the coolness I felt a tap on my shoulder. An armed guard was there with an AK47 gesturing shooting me. I stood up and tried to converse with him, I didn’t quite get what he meant. A guy stood smoking a woodbine, in broken English explained that people at the doors of trains at night get shot, then when their bodies fall from the train they are robbed. I was soon back in bed.
Despite the absolute chaos of daytime, by and large Indian people are early birds. Cities become abandoned by all but a few hardcore touts by around 11pm. Come midnight most places are desolate places of what was. And so as we pulled into Agra Fort at 4am there was a little hustle outside the station but nothing like it usually is. It was a cool 24 degrees and within minutes we were heading off into the night. Home to the most beautiful building in the world and one of the most visited tourist destinations on the planet, Agra holds a real mystique. Its the sort of place you get goose pimples thinking of, and for us it was the respite we needed and what all our efforts had been geared towards over the previous few days.
Our third time in Agra and our third time experiencing the classic Agra scam of autos. The area we stayed at was called Taj Ganj and is set around the perimeter of the Taj Mahal. Its common knowledge that any powered vehicles cant get right to the permitter, but they can get very close. Actually so close it’s almost pointless having the barriers. The alleyways around the Taj Ganj area for a first timer, are very confusing and one can easily get lost. So picture this, its pitch black and there isn’t so much as a street light on. All the shops and hotels are shut down for the night and suddenly the auto stops right outside a hotel, the front lights are on and the manager just so happens to be stretching his legs out front. The driver reckons he cant get any nearer and if you want to go find your hotel you are free to do so. Enter the hotel manager in full force offering up everything. Situations like this for a guy are something and nothing, but for a woman I have heard some real nasty stories. Not just in Agra but all over Asia. The easiest thing all round is just to say you’re husband/wife is at the hotel you are heading to. We finally climbed into bed around half four in the morning. Exhausted.
The first day in Agra was spent doing very little, we had laundry that needed doing, I picked up and Indian sim card and we went for a walk in the nature reserve. It has excellent views of the Taj Mahal, which can be viewed from the lush green nature walk. It was somewhere we could be alone, escape the hassle, noise, touts and everything that comes with Agra. We spent a couple of hours just wondering around, the only people in the whole reserve, we found a lookout tower, it had shelter and perfect views of the Taj Mahal. We lay down, there was absolute silence and solstice and played 20 questions. Charlie finally managed to get himself banned from choosing due to his impossible things. After about 100 questions between us, me and Abi could not guess what Charlie had chosen and gave up “A bald Mole Rat” said Charlie with a confused looking face, wondering how we could possibly not have guessed that!
The second day in Agra was spent using it as a spring board for Fathepur Sikri, an ancient, fortified town about an hour West of Agra. We were heading there on advice of a girl we met in Kathmandu. She claimed it was one of her favourite places in India, and since it was en route to where we were heading we gave it a shot.
Emperor Akbar (genuinely) rocked up in 1571 and decided to build a new capital city. Fortified with a huge wall he built an absolutely stunning city all set behind one of the most amazing mosques I personally have ever seen. He was a bit of a Casanova and decided out of his many wives he would chose his favourite three. It just so happened one was Muslim, one Hindu and the other Christian, and in their recognition he built them all a palace. Not quite sure how well this went down with his other wives though… After Akbar had croaked it the city fell into disrepair and everyone had bailed by 1585. Cue an earthquake that reduced much of the city to ruin and what remained was a huge palace complex and the mosque, all surrounded by ruins. The mosque is breathtaking, I mean it really is. It is enormous and the kids had a real blast, it’s completely open with no roof and free to get in (still being used today) There are a lot of tombs in the grounds and Charlie commented he was “walking amongst the dead” Charlie two years ago would have laughed when saying that, Charlie now said it solemnly and with absolute respect.
A quick walk up from the mosque is the palace of Jodh bai, we was creamed 260INR for entrance with the kids being free. Once inside I realised, or rather we did, that we had the place to ourselves. A vast complex of about 50 buildings and palaces and just us roaming the grounds. It was completely surreal, but as I watched the kids climbing in and out of temples I waited for Jack to come out shouting at Abi for leaving him. As they hopped over walls and ran through gardens I felt complete regret that Jack wasn’t there. The odd thing is, I hadn’t said anything about me thinking about Jack particularly strongly that day. Yet as Abi hid from Charlie who had gone searching for a way up to this huge tower she said “I wish Jack was here dad” I held back tears as I nodded in agreement and said “I do too”
We spent around three hours in the complex and only as we were leaving did we see a single other person and it was some kids all bathing in a murky green pond surrounded by a wall some 20ft high. I was talking to the kids from above and bet one of them he wouldn’t dare jump into the pool from the wall. He asked how much and I said 20 rupees. Quick as a flash he was off, ran around and bombed into the water. It made for a good picture.
Right now in India there is a festival going on nationwide for Hindu’s. Not sure of the name but what happens is that brothers and sisters tie a piece of string around each others wrists. It reaffirms family values and is an important time throughout India. So, as the bus made its way back to Idgah station in Agra (27INR per adult, kids half price) we sat and watched the festivals roll by. Home made ferris wheels that are a ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers dream and music blasting out so loud the bus was vibrating. It was the real fun bus for everyone but me who had a kid keep punching me in the back of my head. I turned and spoke to his mother who didn’t have a clue what I was on about and so just laughed. I figured she’d get the message. A smack in the head 2 seconds later confirmed she hadn’t.
And so it was, the fun bus rolled along, I got punched in the head, Abi and Charlie fought the humidity and we had just visited quite possibly one of the most amazing places in the North. Had Jack been there to share the complex and serenity with us, and it might just have been one of our favourite days in India.