Sunday, March 22, 2009

India: Delhi to Agra

The trains of India are famous, so travelling at least once by train is an essential experience. We have chosen this method of transport to get from Delhi to Agra - and as it turns out, this is the only time we will take a train.

Fighting through the crowds of porters, hawkers, loiterers and other passengers to the ticket counter, obtaining a ticket and finding the right platform is an exhausting enterprise. There's a train at the platform when we get there, surely not ours, as there appear to be no second-class A/C carriages which is what we have booked. This one is entirely open carriages with barred window openings and wooden slat seats.

All signs are in Hindi and a couple of hikes up and down the long platform reveal no apparent railway official, but fortunately I eventually strike up a dialogue with an intelligent-looking woman in western clothes who speaks faultless English with a California accent and who assures us that, indeed, it's not our train, which will arrive after this one departs.

(Lin turns out to be a delightful acquaintance: a Major in the Indian army, she is returning to her unit based in Agra. As of this moment she is preparing with 5 colleagues to climb the fifth-highest peak in the Himalayas as part of an army promotional exercise.)

While we wait, other passengers come and go or settle to wait on our platform, and trains pass by on adjoining tracks.

Minutes before our train is due to arrive, the one occupying our platform pulls slowly away. Ours chugs in, but we are still trying to find our carriage when, without any warning such as a flag being waved or a whistle blown, it begins to move. Following Lin's lead, we run for the nearest door and leap in. Michael, who is last, barely manages to haul himself aboard as the engine gathers speed.

It is already evening and very soon dark, which is just as well since we can make out little through the double-glazed and amber-tinted windows. During the 4-hour journey we are entertained by men passing regularly through the carriage carrying large canisters of tea, sold by the plastic cup.

It's ten o'clock by the time we reach Agra. Fortunately, at our request, our hotel has sent an auto-rickshaw to pick us up, as we have no idea of the layout of the city. The hotel is not very prepossessing and our room, though clean, is cell-like with a barred window opening onto a light well. However, the great advantage of this particular hotel is the view of the Taj Mahal from its roof terrace, which compensates for its other deficiencies. Michael happily spent time up at this vantage point with his sketchbook, and the results can be seen on his website.

As we arrive, we encounter an unexpected bonus: in the street below, under a light-strung canopy, a wedding celebration is winding up.

In the morning, the revellers are gone, and the area is deserted except for a cow picking through the remains, and couple of parked auto-rickshaws.

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