Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Great Agra Rip-Off and Leaving India

We leave at the crack of dawn, waking the reception boy as we leave, and walking to the station in the dark. I’m glad we left a bit early, as the walk seems to take forever. At least we’re not getting hassled. At the station we find the usual battered light-blue train, we’re in carriage B1, a 3-tier AC one. I try to get some sleep. It doesn’t work.

Or does it?!

We arrive in Agra just after 10pm. The guy who has been chatting to Thuzar tells us to get off at the next station, it’s Agra Cantt, the one we want. I’m suspicious, Cantt is supposed to be after Fort. So he prompts us to take our bags to the door area. We do this, and are waiting for the train to stop when someone else points out it’s Agra Fort next, Cantt is half an hour later. Oh yes, says the chap who told us the complete reverse of this. Sigh. Back to seats.

Finally we arrive, we’re off, and we dump our luggage in the cloakroom. The attendant asks us if we’ve locked our bags. Not a good sign! Before leaving the station we head into the “Comesum” food plaza, according to LP potentially the best station restaurant in India! It is good, clean and well-stocked, though slightly annoying that we get waiter service imposed on us, whereas locals just do self-service.


We also try to use a public phone booth to call the Delhi Airport Retiring Rooms. They told me a few days ago to call on the day to reserve a room, but now they’re saying this is not possible. With a few days warning it would have been much easier to make other plans. As usual in India you never know what on earth will happen in the future, you just have to go with the flow. Anyway, the first chap told us that by 8pm the rooms have all usually gone, so looks like we’ll be sleeping on the airport floor. The price for the call was also suspiciously high. I’m sure the guy is lying to me about the length of the call. What can I do?

Out of the station, we head under a barrage of touts to the pre-pay rick-shaw booth, where we ask for one to Sikandra, about 10km north west of here, and home to Akbar’s Mausoleum. 200 rupees replies one of the touts, who seem to be in control of the “police” box (the lone policeman looks a bit clueless and doesn’t appear to understand much English). That’s funny, I reply, because it says on the pre-pay list 120r. Oh yes, cough, that’s just for two hours though. Fine by me.

So we’re driven fast through the unmade streets of suburban Agra. It’s a thrilling ride. It’s also toasty hot, but bearable with the breeze from our speed. Actually I exaggerate, we’re not going that fast – I think one of the reasons we haven’t seen many accidents in India (we have seen a few) is that although the roads are incredibly dangerous, they’re so chaotic, badly-made etc that no one can pick up enough speed to do much damage.

Akbar’s Mausoleum
Arriving at the tomb, one can see it’s a good choice. Beautiful, imposing, but far enough off the normal tourist trail to reduce hassle to a bearable level.

Akbar (the Great) was a Mughal Emperor, born in Afghanistan, by name and reputation the greatest Mughal, in that not only did he unite an empire from Assam to Karbul, but he also governed fairly and wisely, encouraged the arts, and was tolerant of all religions

We pay the ticket (110r per foreigner, locals 10r), then walk through the gateway, which has three-story minarets and is built of sandtone, inlaid with marble geometric patterns.

Inside, there’s a stone walkway which leads to the actual tomb, the biggest building. There are channels for water which are sadly dry. The whole complex is a big garden, which has beautiful yellow flowers carpeting the grass between the palm trees.

Entering the tomb, we have to take our shoes off. We leave them by the door, then a boy scoops them up and tells me he’s the shoe boy and will guard our shoes. As in, tip expected. Groan. The room just through the door is fantastic, decorated with Arabic script and beautiful carvings and paintings.

From here there is a plain walkway which leads to an undecorated central chamber. There are a few guys about imposing their services as guides. We avoid them, and walk round the marble coffin which sits alone in the centre.

Back outside, we grab our photos and refuse to tip.

We circle the building, trying to stay out of the sun for long.

Back at the front we head down on to the grass for a few photos.

There’s a sign which says no photos from the lawn, so we go down and take some of the lawn until a chap yells at us.

Outside we jump back in our tuktuk and motor back into town.

To the Taj Mahal
He drops us off, and we walk the long way past Agra Fort, across the railway bridge over Yamuna, and along to Mehtab Bagh.

Our favourite drink

Agra Fort

Crossing the railway bridge, as you have to do to get over the river, we get our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal sitting by the river

It does look magnificent, perched above the river. As we walk along through the small villages, I wonder what India would have been like if the British never sorted it out. I’m sure there are only surfaced roads, a standard for which side to drive on (which is of course only very loosely adhered to) and traffic laws because we imposed them all and some of it rubbed off. Anyway, there’s laundry being done down below us in the river. This is the way washing clothes works here. No wonder everything comes back somewhat beaten up!

At the gardens, we pay entry fee and wander in. It’s a strange place, lots of shrubs all equidistant, giving the place the appearance of an orchard rather than an ornamental garden.

Girls tend the gardens. And ask for money of course.

We head to the far side, just pass the centre of the Taj Mahal, and grab a seat in the shade.

The Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetric, so the only thing one misses out on here is the lake that appears in all the “classic” photos with the tomb’s reflection. For 1,500r for the two of us, I’ll live. Plus we get the river foreground, complete with wildebeest!

It has been described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love. “A teardrop on the face of eternity” according to Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, “The embodiment of all things pure” according to Rudyard Kipling.

It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child (now that’s love!). After starting it the year she died, 20,000 workers completed it 22 years later in 1653. Skilled craftsmen were brought from all over Asia and even Europe to create the intricate detail. Costs apparently ran to 3 million rupees, about $70 million US today.

After fending off a couple of waves of begging kids and surviving the heat, we sit, waiting for the sunset that we want to watch, but the weather suddenly changes – dark clouds roll in, and it seems like it will rain.

Finally a Decent Train!
We walk back towards town. We reckon we have enough time to head over to Amar Villas, supposedly the most exclusive hotel here, for a beer before going to catch our train. A tuk tuk driver agrees to take us to the Taj Gate East Road for 50r, but ends up dropping us above the South Gate, a few km walk. I’m not very happy about this, but pay up. Only afterwards I got thinking – why did I pay – we agreed a price, he didn’t take me to where we said I shouldn’t have paid up. Anyway..

We take a cycle rickshaw to Cantt station, which seems to take forever – is he using some kind of ring-road? At the station we eat at the same restaurant again – how delighted the chap is to see us again, more tips. I try to take money out from the ATMs – all declined? Hmmm. Then we wait on our platform for our train, number 2001, the Shatabdi Express to Delhi. These are India’s whizzo trains, but I’m so sceptical after all I’ve seen. It’s late, but only 5-6 minutes.

Suddenly, after an old engine, we see new carriages slowing past us! It still has that Indian hand-painted sign feel to the outside, but inside appears like any other Western train! Clean, new seats, bright interior.

On we get. We’re in coach E1. The labels on the platform have C1 to 5 then EC and GRD. Guard, Coaches 1 to 5, and what is EC? It’s Executive Car, aka E1 on our tickets. Why can’t they just number the carriages and be done with it? Inside it’s nice. First class. We find our seats. Comfy. Power point! Laptop out!

It’s all good. Then they bring food. I turn down the soup. Then they bring another tray of curries and things, I cave in, and decide Thuzar and I can share one. Code for me eating it.

They also give us litres of water each. There are still quirky touches – firstly it’s still an Indian train, so jerks back and forth and stops more often than it should. Also I note that the doors at either end say they close automatically. They do, but not because of any advanced motor – they are just so heavily sprung that one can hardly open them!

Only problem with the train, or specifically this carriage. It’s full of Indian business bores yapping about how incisive they are. Laptops everywhere. Outlook. Mobiles. Meetings. And worse, where two are sat next to each other, they try to out-do each other. It’s just tedious. Headphones on. We arrive in to Delhi late, almost an hour late. We left Agra 5-10 minutes late. Where did the time go? This is India – travelling time just creeps away. Tip: leave slack, plenty of it.

Begging has become more obvious as we’ve passed through the more touristy areas of India. It tends to be dark-skinned extremely dirty children, and rarely cripples. If money requests don’t work, they ask for pens (pronounced “bens”). They rarely accept no as an answer, one has to get quite nasty for them to leave. Of course, all the time they’re about, you’re watching your own wallet like a hawk. A boy passed along the carriage as we sat waiting to enter Delhi station, staring wide-eyed over the rich fat Indians and Westerners with laptops and mobile phones.

New Delhi Station Again
I’ve got the confidence of having done this a few times before now. Bash porters out of the way, over past platform 12, be rude to taxi and rickshaw touts, out and towards bus station. No buses, so to the main road. Flag down an auto-rick, he quotes 150, I try 110, we agree 140, I think pay 150 including tip assuming no problems.

Next we have a rather hair-raising bumper-cart ride to the airport. It’s dark, we’re going fairly fast along dual-carriage roads weaving between heavy-goods vehicles, buses and cars. Nail-biting stuff! At the airport, in, and of course, there are no retiring rooms available. B**tards. We find a spot on the floor and get comfortable. Only 9 hours left. The place is swarming with mosquitoes. Did I mention that Delhi airport is apparently a Malaria hotspot? Ooh and they apparently have the ability to bite through this top I’m wearing. SWAT!

Sam’s Tips for Finding Rickshaws, auto or otherwise:
1. Fix priced booths tend to be too expensive. Check their price as a reference then haggle below.
2. Don’t ever deal with a bunch of them at once, this will reduce your haggling power
3. Walk away from station concourses etc, find a main road
4. Try to avoid those sitting about or worse, touting for business. Look for those already on the move
5. Go for scruffy unshaven simple looking types. Avoid smart, fast-talking types, especially with moustaches
6. If they don’t take you where you agreed, refuse to pay until they do
7. Always tip if they are reasonable, quote fair price straight off and don’t hassle you generally.

Agra Rip-off Chart
I hadn’t realised until shortly before arriving by train just how bad Agra is. Not in terms of being a tourist trap, which it inevitably is, but that foreigners are completely conned compared with Indian citizens. Indians wealthy enough to travel and visit some of the treasures around Agra are wealthy enough to pay more than a token ticket price. Anyway, if you’re planning to go, here’s what to expect:

1. Taj Mahal, the big one. Indian price 20r, Foreigner 750r. 37x more expensive! Boycott this outrage!
2. Mehtab Bagh, the garden across the river from the Taj Mahal. Indian price 5r, Foreigner 100. 20x more expensive!
3. Agra Fort, the city within a city. Indian price 20r, Foreigner 300r. 15x
4. Akbar’s Mausoleum. Indian 10r, Foreigner 110r. 11x and joint fourth with:
5. Itimad-Ud-Daulah, or the Baby Taj. Indian 10, Foreigner 110r. 11x

So as you can see, remember to take plenty of rupees along with you for rip-off city. Don’t take credit cards, as you won’t be able to use them, even when charged 750r per person entry. Enjoy!

Good Bye India
It’s been nice
Hope you find your
Tried to see your
Point of view
Hope your dreams will
All come truuuue

After a flight to Calcutta during which I’m so tired I keep doing that jerking awake thing, to the alarm of the woman sitting next to me, we taxi to the Tollygunge Club. This is an old colonial club with big gardens, lots of sports facilities etc. Unfortunately we’re so tired we use none of it! We go out to eat, at Darcy’s recommendation, Fire and Ice, which anywhere else would be a fairly decent Italian restaurant, but for India it’s paradise. Good food and free wifi – as Darcy says, what more could one ask for?

Last night in India but I feel no compulsion to eat Indian food. The Tollygunge is interesting but very run down, like most of the country, needs a Brit back in charge to sort things out. In the morning we refuse a private car for 500r, and walk out to the road where we find a cab. He quotes 400, I refuse, I say 300 which he agrees to before realising his error and quoting 350. Okay. At the airport, of course, he looks surprised when I don’t give him 400.

Airport security is the usual farce. They scan your hold bags (not hand luggage), put a sticker on it saying security checked, then you walk round (unguarded) to check in, putting all the narcotics, or whatever they’re checking for, into your hold luggage from your hand luggage. Reminds me of Kathmandu where they check your hand luggage and do a body scan separately – gun in pocket for first check, then just put it in your bag whilst you’re frisked.

On a brighter note, this may actually be the first time ever that my damned BA Silver card has come in handy – Thuzar and I get into the Clipper Lounge. Good when you’ve got a couple of hours to kill in a near-empty airport.

India Review
We’re had a good time here, but it’s long enough. I’m definitely very battle-hardened (bitter, some would say!) and much more confident now – very different to the India newbie who arrived in Bombay on the 2nd August. I spot ruses much earlier – you get a prepay taxi ticket, thinking this is the no hassle way of getting into town. You walk to the queue, someone looks as your ticket and confidently marches you to the cab. You think he’s your driver, but no, for the privilege of walking three cars down the line he wants a tip. Before I’d worry and feel bad about not tipping, or worse, even once or twice give in! Now I just tell them to go away.

The food has been great, although I haven’t dabbled much in street food. I’ve used my common sense in picking restaurants – going for busy local places generally. Bombay was great, but Calcutta it’s almost all street food in the centre, so harder. I haven’t been over-impressed with Tibetan influences, generally means hard bread, although you do get momos. One also has the impression in the mountains that the food tends to be more local, which is a good thing.

People have been very variable. We’ve met some fabulous locals – the musical bunch in Jaisalmer at the Artist’s Hotel, Sonu, our Punjabi warrior, and the Tibetans in Darjeeling I’d single out. It’s been hard to meet locals though, as you so rarely trust anyone (which is the way you have to be in India), so it’s generally been tourists that we’ve felt most at ease with. It is one of the aspects that I most want a break from – the feeling that everyone is out to get you. As an American chap I was chatting to put it yesterday – even the Thomas Cook at Delhi Airport tries to scam you – they short changed him by two 500 notes when giving him his money – he only noticed the “error” because he carefully counted the notes himself. It’s just tiring after a while, though perhaps it just takes some time to get used to. If you do get used to it, I must be most of the way there.

Thuzar’s opinion of India: Some place are really nice but Delhi, Calcutta, Jaipur and the big cities are busy, noisy and full of bad people. The weather can be cold or hot, but as long as the people are nice, it’s okay. Darjeeling and Ladakh are nice and the people are friendly there. Thuzar wants to say hello to everyone she meets, but she’s afraid of doing so in many places. She likes the food everywhere, especially an egg curry with plain rice.

Namaste India! We’re off to my dear old England.
We leave slightly late, amusingly because our BA 777 is made to wait for an Air Deccan flight arriving late! I wonder how we’re going to do with our 1hr 15min connection time cut down to about twenty minutes. We’ve just taken off and I wanted a newspaper, so I turned to grab the next attendant. There just happened to be someone standing right next to me. “Ah hello.” “Hello, Mr Crawley”! How does he know my name? “I wondered if I could get a newspaper”, at which point he revealed his hand, carrying a paper, for me! This frequent flier stuff is pretty cool, eh? Wonder what Gold Card holders get? (I’ll never find out at this rate, but I will retain silver for another year).

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