So Micha came back, and this time we spent his first half day in the country sweating our way around Lucknow on a cycle tour. We discovered a great city full of culture and heritage, as we fought our way amongst wild traffic and cows, squeezed our way between the maze of narrow alleyways, backstreets and hidden entrances of the crazy old town.
After a few days acclimatisation introducing Micha to the peacocks on the campus, we set off for Agra, home of the Taj. Booking last minute train journeys in India is a struggle, since everything sells out fast with so many people in the country. Thus we departed with only a confirmed outgoing ticket and reservations on the waiting lists for 4 different returning trains. Fingers crossed.
We spent the first 6 hours of our ‘mini-break’ circling Kanpur station, walking around in the dust inhaling the pollution, listening to nonstop high pitched recitation of train numbers over the tannoy, waiting for our increasingly delayed train. I think this lack of punctuality was particularly hard to bare for a german.
But it finally arrived, and we found ourselves sharing a carriage with a smiley couple who despite not sharing a common language with us insisted in sharing their food. Having been warned that Agra would be manic, we were pleasantly surprised to arrive in the darkness in peace and quiet to our hotel 100m from the Taj entrance (turns out this was a pollution producing vehicle exclusion zone).
Awakening the next morning we began our tourist program, hunted and obtained tickets for the Taj and in return were hunted and captured by a beaming guide (in the green shirt in photo below). Despite my protesting Micha agreed to let him accompany us, and I got my revenge by encouraging his enthusiasm for (romantic) photography. The Taj Mahal, a symbol of love (mirrored by the theme of our guide’s posing instructions), was built to house the tomb of the favourite wife of a Mughal emperor. It was truly breathtaking, and despite high expectations (and scaffolding around some parts) we were still completely blown away by it.
After inhaling one last great gulp of the beauty and serenity of the palace gardens (along with the other 5 million people within), we said goodbye to our guide-cum-photographer and his tales (repeated by every other guide in the vicinity), and we were out in the chaos of the inner city, crawling with monkeys, cows, autos and sellers, surrounded by red stone buildings and dusty streets lined with brightly painted walls
During our time in Agra we encountered the most extreme hassling to date. Often preferring to walk between sights or even to stroll aimlessly in the evenings with no particular destination, we were easy targets for the cloud of businessmen, autos and rickshaw drivers, who engulfed us the minute we stepped outside, driving slowly by our side babbling pitches incessantly.
On day 2 we visited Fatehpur Sikri (the remains of a highly impressive walled city built 400+ years ago), and at the beautiful still operational mosque here the hassling crescendoed almost to aggression when we refused to purchase any anklets or enlist the help of unauthorised “guides”.
With one last final sight to admire – Agra Fort, we spent the rest of the trip doing our best Mughal emperor impressions, lounging in ornately decorated gardens, bars, restaurants, parks, roof tops or even swimming pools, with a view of the Taj never far away… Until finally one of our wait-listed trains was confirmed, though our seats were in separate carriages, so we shared one bunk, and I gassed Micha with my feet all the way back to Kanpur.