The Taj Mahal.
An enduringly beautiful, magnificent, and majestic monument that symbolizes India. One of the seven new wonders of the world. Millions flock there every year to see it and there are millions around the world who dream to visit.
But not this guy. I don’t want to see it.
However, I should only see it because I feel like I HAVE to. Otherwise, I would just skip it because who knows if I’ll ever return to dear old India.
The internationally famous Taj Mahal is located in Agra, a city located between Delhi and my current location of Varanasi. I planned on Delhi being my final stop in India before I move onto Nepal, so I figured I would travel to Agra as it’s already on the way. My method of transportation would be via the Indian Railway which I hoped would be my last Indian train for the rest of my life. I’ve done three of them already to get a genuine Indian experience.
Three too many.
The first one was delayed three hours and lasted about 15 hours total. It was an uncomfortable experience, but not as rough as I initially assumed.
The second train was delayed only an hour and lasted about 12 hours total. I slept most of the time and woke up to an almost empty cabin which was absolutely glorious.
The third train was a local train which costed only 10 rupees but I was practically almost squished to death. I was able to find the humor in being stuck in that claustrophobic nightmare.
Let’s do one more train for the road. It’s the cheapest alternative. (Sometimes I wonder why I put myself in these harrowing situations. I could freely choose to go anywhere in the world, like relaxing on the beaches somewhere in the Caribbean, but instead I choose to ride dingy, poop-filled Indian trains.)
While in Varanasi, I booked a train to Agra which was scheduled to depart at 4:00pm the following day. I’ve noticed every traveller who left Varanasi before me, stayed at the hostel a couple of hours longer because their trains were always and expectedly delayed. There was a website to check the train status, which proved to be convenient instead of waiting around at the actual station to find your train to be delayed.
Well, I checked the start of my train and it showed to be delayed by four hours. Alright, no big deal, we’ll just chill in one of the common rooms of the hostel until then. I wasn’t the only one waiting. Another traveler by the name of Jean (Argentina) was ticketed on the same train as me, also on his way to Agra. I let him know about our delay and so we chilled in the hostel. He made me a veggie sandwich as we waited. What a nice guy. In the mean time I also booked a cheap hostel in Agra, so that way I’d already have my accommodation sorted.
I continuously checked the Indian Railway website throughout the evening to check the status.
Delayed another three hours.
Delayed another two hours.
Our train was delayed from 4pm to 1am the next morning!
Our hostel was kind enough to let us wait inside until midnight, but since we didn’t pay for another night, we had to wait the remaining hour in the outside lobby where it was flippin’ cold.
I nestled onto a bench and tried to keep warm while Jean was covered from head to toe near the front desk. We both decided it would at least be warmer at the train station, so we found a random rickshaw in the middle of the night and were escorted to the train station in Varanasi.
When we arrived, we saw that our train was delayed ANOTHER hour. What the heck man?! I’ve heard the trains in India were notorious for being delayed but I’ve been relatively lucky with the past three…I guess my luck ran out this time. We found a room where other gringos were hanging out to keep warm and so we found a place to sit and wait it out.
Periodically, Jean and I would take turns to go down to the main floor to check the status of our train.
Delayed two more hours.
Our train that was supposed to leave at 6pm yesterday was now leaving at 4am in the morning.
Afraid to fall asleep in fear of missing my train, I stayed up the entire time. Nearing 4am, there were no other updates, so Jean and I gathered our bags and headed to platform 9 as indicated on our tickets. Our train finally arrived a bit after 5am, but on platform 8. Finally.
This train would only take about 13 hours so we should be there around midday.
I didn’t realize how wrong I was at the time.
I had the lower berth which meant less privacy, but whatever, I was just glad to finally be on the train. It was the middle of the night, so I immediately made myself as comfortable as possible. A family entered my cabin, a grandma, a dad, a mom and their two boys, loud as can be, talking to each other as if there was no one else in the train at all. It took them forever and a day to finally settle in the berths near me. I would have slept, but an onslaught of the most monstrous collections of snores I’ve ever heard happened in my cabin. This will be over soon Daniel.
Daylight came and people were already up. I woke up to find one of the kids chilling between my legs. Yeah just make yourself comfortable there, kid.
I opened my water bottle to take a sip and felt the old woman across from me staring. She pulled out a giant empty plastic bottle and motioned it toward me, indicating that she wanted some of my water. I gave her about half my bottle. I needed to ration the rest of my water. I got up to attempt to use the toilet and found this.
I think they expect me to stand on those two metal islands and attempt possible splash back. All while a piece of poop is already floating in there? Yeah, naw.
The other two toilets had shit all over it too and what was funny was that even the locals on the train refused to use them.
I went back to my lower berth. I was getting hungry but I wasn’t brave enough to get off the train and quickly get food when it made a stop at a station. So I just laid there hungry, dreaming of the day when I can ever eat a giant juicy Big Mac again. I looked down below and saw a rat run along the side of the cabin down below to where my big bag was stored. I didn’t budge. I was not surprised. Go ahead and make yourself cozy in my bag, rat…I don’t care.
The train made numerous stops in the most random of places. As a matter of fact, due to the crazy fog that was happening, we stopped for hours at a time…waiting…waiting…frustratingly wishing I could just teleport outta there. The family in my area turned my cabin into their own personal living space with their feet bare sticking out hanging all in my face and everything.
Did I mention I’m not a fan of feet?
Periodically I would get up and check on Jean who was two cabins over and every time I checked on him, he was dead asleep on his semi-private upper berth. I previously told him that I would let him know when we arrived in Agra, since he had no way of knowing. Before we departed I downloaded a map of our route and was able to use the GPS to track our journey. Whenever I checked, the progress the train made was minimal. The journey already surpassed the estimated time, thanks to the thick fog that took over northeast India.
After 24 of the longest hours of my life, our train finally arrived in Agra, at 3am in the next morning. Jean, along with another foreign traveler on the train we met named Jiwan (Korea) didn’t have a place booked yet, and so decided to come with me to the hostel that I booked prior. We caught a rickshaw towards my hostel in the thickness of the fog. Barely any other life was present in the middle of the chilly night. We found my hostel in the alleyways and walked inside. Like I imagined, no one was present at first. It was 3am in the morning after all. But like every other hostel in Asia, there is always a guy who “lives there” sleeping behind the desk, in the office, or something along those lines. Low and behold, a sleepy man popped out and I informed him that I had a reservation. Granted, I was half a day late, but still I was hopeful.
“Why did you come so late?” he asked with a blank face.
“Our train was delayed due to fog,” I responded. “There was no way I could contact you.”
“Sorry, we have no beds.”
“But, what about my reservation?”
I proceeded to show him the e-mail confirmation from my phone. He went over it and handed the phone back to me and simply repeated, “We have no beds.”
“So you gave away my reservation?” I said, annoyed as heck.
To be fair, I did rock up extremely late, but seeing how trains in India are always late, I figured there would be some leeway as to when their guests arrived.
I was visibly irked and let him know how it’s not good business to just give away a reservation, especially after I reserved with a credit card. That train took up most of my patience I suppose.
I was irritated and left the hostel back onto the fogged up main streets with Jean and Jiwan following suit.
“What do we do now?” asked Jiwan.
We were alone in the middle of the road. The street lamps created a mysterious haze in the fog. It felt unnatural, especially given it was the middle of the night and I was hungry, thirsty, and tired. Not to mention, I felt grosser than shit from being trapped on that train for 24 hours.
“We look for another place,” I told them. “Fortunately, there are a lot of other places to stay nearby. We just gotta walk to some and find one that will take us.”
Poor Jiwan. He was a nervous nelly. One thing I learned through years of traveling, is that everything is gonna be alright. Freaking out will only escalate things.
We found some places nearby and one of the hostels, Zostel, we recognized because it is a chain in India. We entered the gates and a sleeping man let us in. He informed us that the only space he had was a private double bed room, enough for two people.
“Can we squeeze three people?” I asked.
“Yes, its possible.”
The good news? We finally had a room to sleep in and were able to split the cost of the room three ways. The downside? I had to share a bed with two strangers I literally just met.
How did I end up here?
The next morning, we had breakfast at the hostel and decided to walk to the famous Taj Mahal, which according to Google Maps, was only a 30 minute walk away. But first, we needed to get to an ATM, which proved troublesome.
There is a cash crisis here in the whole country of India (as of early January 2017). There has been a surge of counterfeit 500 and 1000 rupee notes recently, so the Indian government discontinued them and banned any use of those particular notes. The only denomination any ATM would give out were 2000 rupee notes which were equivalent to roughly $30 USD, which is way too much to pay for the daily necessities such as food and transportation. Making change is hard to come by and many shops and restaurants will deny usage of the 2000 rupee note, simply because they don’t have change. Besides that, most ATM’s are always completely wiped out of cash or not in service. It was a huge hassle during the entirety of my Indian trip so far and it’s only gotten worse the further north I got. Here in Agra, it was also a pain.
We learned the price of admission into the Taj Mahal was 40 rupees…if you were a local. For tourists like me, the jump increased to 1000 rupees. What a jip! Another salt in the wound in the series of unfortunate events leading up to the Taj. But unless I was Indian, or at least looked like one, there was no other way around it.
I handed over my 1000 rupees, feeling like I was getting suckered. And I was. I understood there was a local and tourist price but the difference in value to see the Taj Mahal is a prime example of how countries like India assume that all tourists are rich and it’s not a problem for us to be taken advantage of. Listen India, I saved up for quite a while and spent a boatload just to get over here. I am not made of money!
Jean, Jiwan, and I continued on inside the Taj Mahal gates and yes, the Taj Mahal was magnificent to look at and just as big as I imagined. We went during the crowded hours of the day, so there were other suckers just like me everywhere. Jean and Jiwan were in good spirits, so we had an amusing time goofing off and exploring. Finally, we were here.
What an ordeal.
Was it all worth it? Eh…I’m undecided, as I was never too gun ho about seeing the Taj in the first place. That train sucked. That hostel that gave away my reservation sucked. But, I was glad to finally get the Taj Mahal out of the way. It was similar to how I felt about the Eiffel Tower in France. I felt like I HAD to see it.
Now that I did, I can move onto the less touristy things in the world. Onwards to adventure! Though one can say that the journey getting to the magnificent Taj was an adventure in itself.
P.S. – The inside of the Taj Mahal absolutely sucked. There was nothing, and I mean nothing inside there. Just a crowded line of eager patrons that went in one direction and came out ten minutes later disappointed by the time they just wasted. I would show you the inside but no pictures were allowed to be taken, probably because the people who ran the place doesn’t want the world to know how lackluster it is inside the Taj Mahal.