Guest blogged by Anne
After meeting Alice and Dave in Delhi, we boarded a 14 hour overnight train to Varanasi. Indian trains are quite an experience, with a crazy mix of old and modern, rich and poor, organization and complete chaos. We were in second class which is quite comfortable, clean linen, western toilets and allocated bunks. A guy takes your order for hot food, phones it in and then picks it up for you at a subsequent station. Most of the other travelers on the train went straight to sleep and seemed to sleep for the whole journey so we followed suit. Some train pics:
Varanasi is often referred to as the spiritual capital of India and is a highly religious city. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. As a result, the old city is full of narrow alleyways, wide enough for only 2 or 3 people to walk although that doesn’t stop scooters, motorbikes and tuk tuks from racing around at high speed. The banks of the Ganges and the various temples in the city are always busy with somewhat cryptic religious activities on the go 24/7. It is considered especially auspicious to die in Varanasi, so many pilgrims journey to the city towards the end of their lives and between 200 and 400 cremations happen on the banks of the river daily. In some cases, especially children, bodies are (hopefully) carefully weighted and lowered into the river instead. The proximity to death takes a bit of getting used to – sipping your lassi and chatting while (carefully wrapped) corpses are carried past at regular intervals. The river itself is not as dirty as one might expect and doesn’t smell bad, although I won’t be bathing in it any time soon (bathing and drinking the water are important ritual activities). Some pictures:
Our next overnight train, from Varanasi to Agra, was packed full of Western tourists. India takes tourist safety very seriously so a guard came round with a bit of paper telling us to watch our belongings, not accept any food and never give away our personal details. Immediately afterwards, we had to write down our personal details on another bit of paper, and then someone came round to offer us food. The super-vigilant armed guard then watched over our carriage all night.
Agra is a notorious for being tourist-packed and a bit dodgy but we escaped the chaos by staying at a great little B&B a bit out of the really busy section but still within a 20 minute walk of the Taj Mahal (called N Homestay.) I also think it helped that we were there a bit out of prime tourist season and at a relatively cool time of year. The Homestay organized a tuk tuk and driver for us (named Mukul), who gave us very useful tips on the cheapest ways to do things, good places to see and eat and how not to get ripped off.
First sightseeing stop was the Agra fort, which has been in use since the 11th century and was rebuilt in its current form in the 1500s by the Mughals (a Persian dynasty which ruled much of the subcontinent). It is a very impressive red sandstone structure and Dave says much more impressive than the fort in Delhi. It is the site where the Koh-i-noor diamond which is now part of the Crown Jewels was originally stolen by the Mughals (the British also stole it but a few hundred years later). Some pictures:
Next up was the the “baby Taj” which is the tomb of the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal (of Taj Mahal fame). It is a beautiful building on the banks of the river, and it currently being cleaned.
Last stop was a viewing point across the river from the real Taj. You can pay Rs100 to view from a small garden, or walk down the road to view for free. (Mukul tip). Photos of the view from across the river:
Our second day in Agra was spent travelling by local bus (not private car, another Mukul tip) to Fatehpur Sikri, an important Moghul site about 30km away. The massive complex was only occupied for less than 20 years after completion in the mid 1500s but the architecture is magnificent and well preserved/restored. It is most famous for housing the harem of the Moghul king Akbar said to include between 3000 and 5000 women guarded by an army of eunuchs. Pictures of the various palaces:
Sunrise on our last day had to be spent at the Taj Mahal itself. It really is worth getting there at sunrise, both from a picture and crowd point of view. The whole Taj complex really is incredible, it is regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the world for good reason and even the masses of tourists don’t detract from the experience.
The Taj was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. Since it was her 14th child in 19 years the cynic in me says this was more of an inevitability rather than a tragedy but then I’m not exactly a romantic. Regardless of whether you regard the Taj as the ultimate monument to love or an outrageous display of excessive wealth, it is overwhelmingly beautiful. Many photos were taken:
We arrived at the station at 5am the next morning only to discover that our train had been cancelled and we were sent across town to another station from where we could catch an unreserved “passenger” train. Fortunately we got on at the first stop so managed to get some decent seats together and the train wasn’t too crowded so what could have been a real hassle turned out to be quite a lot of fun. Unbelievably, the 7 hour train journey cost less than R10 (USD1) each.
This train took us to Ranthambhore National Park for the tigers. We stayed in an amazing, luxurious lodge called Khem Villas (recommended by Erol and Elke). Gorgeous rooms, surrounded by little dams (complete with crocs) and proper five star service. Food was particularly lovely, all vegetarian, and all grown on the lodge’s property. There is even a small herd of dairy cows. Some lodge pictures:
Ranthambhore is a bit different from what we are used to in a national park. There are roads, farms and villages within the boundary of the park and there is an amazing thousand year old fort in the middle which has a very important Hindu temple in it. It is therefore not unusual to see people walking around in the middle of the park, apparently unconcerned about becoming tiger-lunch. Unless you stay at one the incredibly high end properties, all game drives are government run using a bewildering system of guide rosters, rotating cars, zones, prepayments and post payments. Vehicles are not too dissimilar from African safari vehicles, although the guides are mostly just interested in finding tigers rather than the type of guiding we’re used to. An actual tiger sighting is total chaos, with manic driving, attempts to push other cars off the road and animated bickering in Hindi. No keeping quiet or staying seated here! We were incredibly fortunate to see a tigress with two cubs on the move on our first drive and we saw the family again that afternoon. There were very few sightings in the park over the time we were there so we were very lucky. We also enjoyed seeing the other wildlife in the park, lovely birds, deer, antelope, bush pigs and monkeys, although you can’t always get the guides to stop for them. Some wildlife shots (I will add some more in a separate post):
Khem has been a lovely break from the constant hustle of the rest of India but we’re looking forward to exploring some of the Rajastani cities next.