Most people arrive in Agra from Delhi and head to Jaipur as part of the Golden Triangle, but we like to be different so headed there after Rajasthan. This was for two reasons, Agra was well connected on the railway network and we needed to start heading south and also it was approaching my birthday and we wanted to mark the occasion at Taj Mahal.
Our arrival in Agra coincided with Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. We had booked into a hostel with a roof terrace with incredible views of the Taj and took part in preparations for the Diwali celebrations with staff and other guests. We prepared oil lamps and took part in prayers and blessings before heading up to the roof to light the lamps and set off firecrackers. All this was accompanied by lots of alcohol and the incredible discovery that if you try really hard you can fit eight people in a tuk tuk. Aside from the Taj the other big (and possibly only other) attraction in Agra is its Fort. Although large and intact it was rather lifeless and underwhelming and having visited several forts in Rajasthan it left us concluding that we definitely do not need to visit any more forts for quite some time.
After two nights in a hostel dorm, including our first encounter with inconsiderate dorm mates leading to a sleepless night we were extremely excited to check out and into a fancy hotel as my birthday treat. There we did nothing but hang by the pool and marvel at the luxury (There’s a bath! Infinite hot water! There are proper napkins! The bed has a duvet!) whilst laughing at ourselves and how grateful we were for small details such as that.
We got up at 4.30am on my birthday to ensure we were amoung the first in line for sunrise. Obviously we had already seen the Taj from the hostel roof but to experience it close up was something else, particularly in the ethereal early morning light. It was so beautiful, I had never considered calling a building beautiful before but this the most beautiful, romantic building I have ever seen. The detail was astonishing and close up it becomes even clearer as the morning sun glistens off the jewels set in the walls. You’re only allowed three hours in the grounds and we spent a large part of that time just sitting and taking it all in.
After that we were back at the hotel and spent the rest of the day by pool. What a perfect birthday! When were travelling five years ago we visited Machu Picchu on my birthday so we have now decided that every five years on my birthday we have to do one of the new wonders of the world!
From Agra we took the overnight train to Jalgaon from where we intended to visit the Ajanta Caves. These are a complex of 30 Buddhist caves made up of monasteries and temples and full of statues and wall paintings. These were just stunning. Some of the caves were so dark you just couldn’t help but be mind blown by the fact that this detailed work was carried out in the dark. How the accuracy of the Buddha statues and the details in the colourful paintings were achieved in the pitch black we can only imagine. We had caught a local bus to the caves and the roads were the worst we had encountered. They were full of pot holes following the monsoon and it took 2 and half hours to drive 60kms. We spent the whole journey being thrown around the bus and were dreading the journey back. Once we finished in the caves we stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus to flag down. Then a car stopped containing three guys who had asked us for the arbitrary selfies in the cave and offered us a lift to Jalgaon. We jumped in with seemingly no hesitation, grateful that we didn’t have to do the bus ride again. It was only when we were in the car that it dawned on me that we’d gotten in a car with three strange men. Everything your parents tell you not to do. I spent the journey in a heightened state of alertness making sure my metal water bottle was close at hand so I could use it as a weapon if required. Luckily it was fine and they really were just doing a nice deed. Not sure what it says about my cynicism or India as a whole.
The next day we caught the train to Arangabad to visit the Ellora caves. These were a set of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples, equally as impressive as the Ajunta Caves. These are also home to the world’s largest monolith and a UNESCO world heritage site. Unfortunately for us, the world’s largest monolith on a weekend means hundreds of locals and that means hundreds of selfie requests. It got so overwhelming that I had to ask Joey if we could leave. Foreigners are charged 600 rupees and locals 40 so given that we were paying 15 times what they were I really wanted to enjoy the caves! We did find some quieter caves to enjoy which helped.
Again we found ourselves on the side of the road waiting for a bus. This time we were rescued by tuk tuk that contained two elderly Indian men and we shared that back to Arangabad. Joey was in the back with the elderly men and I was perched at the front with the driver who of course took selfies of us whilst driving. Upon arrival at Arangabad the heavens opened and we took shelter in a doorway at the station and waited for the rain to stop. And waited and waited. In the end as the streets were flooded and it was getting dark we decided to make a dash for it. We only had to go 300 metres but we were soaked by the time we got back.
We were due to catch a bus to Mumbai at 11.30pm so we had a lot of time to kill and headed to a shopping centre with the intention of either going bowling or to the cinema. In the end we did neither, heading instead to McDonalds and Marks and Spencers. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of home. Upon leaving the centre we tried to get a tuk tuk and inadvertently got caught up in some tuk tuk mafia warfare. Other drivers tried to stop us getting into one particular tuk tuk and even dragged the driver out for a ‘word’ it was a little bit scary but we stood our ground and made it back despite his best efforts to divert us along the way.
From Arangabad we headed south to Mumbai where we were spending a couple of nights before heading to Goa. We were a little underwhelmed by Mumbai, it felt like just another hectic city full of scams (hello milk lady!). It was a good place to get some laundry done and stock up medical supplies but otherwise it left us jaded, cold and feeling like we would rather spend time in more interesting smaller towns. We did take a boat trip across the harbour to Elephanta island and caves, again a set of cave temples. This time there were only 5 of them so I left feeling very cheated at paying the same price as we did for Ajunta and Ellora caves but the boat ride there was pleasant and it was a nice way to escape the city. There’s also a hill on the island that you can climb which we did. As we started the descent down we met a boy who stopped and asked ‘Auntie can you see me down the hill?’ It turns out that he was scared of monkeys and didn’t want to walk on his own so we accompanied him down. ‘Auntie’ is a term used towards older women so I was a little bemused by this! I can definitely pass for 27 right?!