We caught the ‘tourist’ train to Agra from Jaipur. It was so luxury in comparison to everything else we’d travelled on. Individual seats and breakfast served. You cannot imagine the excitement! Even though it was at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, none of us slept as it the day we saw the Taj Mahal. So a bucket list day for me. I’ve always wanted to go to the Taj but to be honest, after visiting Machu Picchu and being overwhelmed by the crowds and kind of sad that I hadn’t done it 20 years ago I was actually apprehensive about the Taj.
All dressed up (well as dressed up as you can be when living out of a backpack for 7 months), we arrived at the Taj. A separate queue for the women; so we were in first. When you enter the grounds you can’t see it yet, you have to turn a corner to go through the archway and BAM there it is. At first, it was much smaller than I expected; I thought it would appear huge but it’s only when you get up close that it is actually massive.
The Taj Mahal is widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. The exquisite marble structure is a mausoleum, an enduring monument to the love of a husband for his favourite wife which the romantic in me loves. A guide explained the love story to us for an hour and then we had hours to explore and, well, mainly take photographs. Everybody wants that iconic photo, don’t they?
My fears of disappointment were cast aside and I loved the Taj, everything about it. The people, the white material shoe covers to cover your own shoes, the Indian guides shouting at people that they were going the wrong way (would have been much easier to have signs!) and the buzz of the place. Hundreds of people, from all over the world come to see one of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever seen. It was a good day, and my camera had approximately 300 more photos than it did at the start of the day!
If you are going to shop around the Taj, you need a thick skin and need to know how to politely but firmly say no. If you have the right attitude its great fun (I love it!), if you don’t, I’d give it a miss if I were you.
Our second day in Agra felt very European. Costa for breakfast, and Pizza Hut for dinner. When I’m abroad I always try really hard to always eat the local cuisine but sometimes you just need a break. Even me, with my love of Dosas. Sometimes you just need a coffee and a pizza.
For lunch our guide took us to a fantastic initiative; a cafe called Sheroes. The cafe was run by the victims of acid attacks and are women from all over India. Sheroes provides a safe community for the victims and it was a privilege to support such a cause. A lot of the women there were attacked by family members, husbands, mothers and stepmothers. It was incredible to hear their stories, what they have been through and the help they get from Sheroes. So if you are ever in Agra, please find the cafe and show your support. Also, you give what you want for your lunch! No prices, just what you feel you can give.
That afternoon we split up, some people went shopping and explored Agra, some went back to the hotel for a rest and I went to the Baby Taj and Agra Fort. So you don’t have to throw a lot away like we did; no food is allowed in the Baby Taj, real name Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah. It’s definitely worth seeing! It’s not a huge area so can be done quite quickly. Unlike Agra Fort which is actually HUGE!
I loved the Fort, its pretty spectacular and has a view of the Taj Mahal which is cool. Although its pretty smoggy so you can’t see a lot. As four girls on our own wandering around the Fort, we got quite a lot of attention and in the end, we had to politely start saying no otherwise we would have literally not seen any of it. Once one group asks, everyone else gets the courage and in the end, nobody is taking photos of the Fort, but just us instead. It’s going to be very hard adjusting to being back in England, where I’m not remotely exciting and nobody wants to take our photos haha.
That night we were meant to be catching a sleeper train to Varanasi (which incidentally I was super excited about, I have wanted to go to Varanasi since I first read up on India when I was 17) at about 7.30pm at night. However, in the winter months in India, the fog halts the trains and they are often very very late. By 10pm that night, our train had still not left Jaipur, where it was starting from. Our guide was amazing though and get us three rooms to share between us all. The upside to group travel is that if I had been doing this on my own, I would have been waiting at the train station from 7pm at night until 8.30am not knowing what the hell was going on and worrying that I had missed the train somehow! Our train arrived 13 hours late at 8.30. We’d been up since 5 as we weren’t exactly sure when it was going to arrive. I slept most of the day, and as it was only meant to take 12 hours, I thought if I slept until about lunchtime, I’d be able to sleep that night. At 4pm, Giri came over and said the train was going to arrive at 2/3am, not 8 and in fact, we’d be 19 hours late. In the end, we arrived at 1am, so only 17hours later haha.
I do love an Indian sleeper train though. At about 6pm, we got asked if we wanted dinner for 150 rupees about £1.60. We weren’t sure if it would be ok but our guide said to get it otherwise we wouldn’t eat. It turned up 20 minutes later, at the next station, properly packaged and was delicious! We all took turns in eating on the one table and tried to keep the comradery up on our loooong journey! BUT…. WE MADE IT!
Varanasi, at sunrise, on the Ganges – WOW! Everybody had told me that Varanasi was a serious assault on your nose but actually I didn’t find it smelt at all really. Well not something that bothered me. It was slightly overwhelming when getting out the tuk-tuks in the side streets and walking down to the ghats (by the riverside) but when you step out and you first see the river with the sun just rising above the horizon, it is something else. It was so hard to take in, especially after so little sleep! Sadly my grasp of the English language, at least my written English is not good enough to properly get across to you how I felt at that moment. I think a little emotional, a little bit amazed I’d finally made it to Varanasi and also excited to arrive at one of the most spiritual places in the world.
I loved being by the river and on the river but the rest of Varanasi is insanely busy. The traffic is so crazy, even worse than Delhi I think. We were walking along the street and out of nowhere you can suddenly hear singing/chanting and then a group of men carrying a body on a stretcher above their heads walks past you. It’s only on reflection that you realise what you’ve actually just seen.
I don’t think Varanasi was for everyone, personally, I loved it but I think it was probably just a little bit much for others or was the end of the trip and everyone was exhausted. It was definitely full on.
Most of the religious spaces and places we’d seen in India where Hindu, or Sikh so it was good to go to a Buddist temple in Varanasi. Sarnath is mentioned by Buddha as one of the four places devout followers should visit on a pilgrimage. I believe because it was the first place Buddha visited after attaining enlightenment. There is also a giant 70ft Buddha just down the road which is pretty cool, or as Becky said, a 7ft Buddha. Not quite so impressive!!!
That night back on the river Ganges was incredible! We were there for the evening prayers and to watch the burnings. As the river comes alive with fire, smoke and candles floating it’s quite a site. Its definitely like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We were lucky enough to light our own candles in a bowl of flowers for our loved ones and watch the nightly Hindhu prayer ceremony whilst floating down the river. It is most definitely a special and unique place.
I think today was my favourite day in India so far. Up at the crack of dawn to go to the Hindu temple right in the heart of Varanasi, down winding little lanes, past cows, people, bikes and commotion – you name it, it’s there in Varanasi. A few hours of contemplation walking along the River ghats followed by the Best Lassi in Varanasi.
The only thing you are allowed to take with you to the temple is your passport. After passing through all the metal detectors, and being body searched we were taken into a separate room to meet what looked like 4 Indian army generals. The area is very heavily guarded. They took down our passport details in a huge book, wrote Becky’s name down as BRITISH (which made me laugh so much), confiscated Lindsay’s tweezers, took our shoes and then told us to follow the crowd. Embarrassingly we overtook all the locals there, actually praying before the start of their day. It was a whirlwind. We were blessed, told to chant, stared at, glared at and shown so much fascination at us being there in their temple. It was amazing. Again, I don’t really have the words to describe the experience but I do think it was very much one of my favourite experiences of my entire trip.
Afterwards, we headed to the river. I really just wanted to hang out with the locals and the dressed goats on the riverside. The heart of Varanasi. Wandering along the river was brilliant, and I really felt that when I left Varanasi that evening that I’d felt part of it. Did you know, they burn up to 1000 bodies a day!! That people come from all over India to stay in Varanasi about 3 to 5 months before they die (or think they are going to die!) in order to be cremated on the Ganges ghats.
Another great thing about being on a tour is that you find places you’d never find your own. Firstly a silk mill, where they showed us the entire process from start to selling and then the best lassi in Varanasi! Sooo good, and I don’t even like Lassi’s
I definitely want to go back again, and want to share that experience with others. What a place!
Guess what? The train back to Delhi was delayed and took 12 hours longer than expected. Obviously!