The Aman Homestay in Agra was perfect in every way, clean spacious rooms, helpful family, good food and close to the sights only Jon was still hungry after the lunch and he took a Talli on the roof but the rest of us waited until breakfast to sample the food.
Our guide that was supplied by Hakim Khan assured us an early start would enure missing the crowds so we were ready at 7.30 am ( yes, chilly) ready to go but for the first time on the whole trip the driver and guide were late so we didn't set off until nearly 8 am. We drove to a nearby parking place where we were transferred into electric vehicles for onward the five minutes as they are trying to reduce pollution around the Taj Mahal ( not gonna happen).
Entry to one of the ancient seven wonders of the world does not come cheap at 1,000 INR for foreigners, even Indians have to fork out a couple of hundred but it is worth every penny. Tip make sure you use a guide you can skip queues and it is informative.
I won't insult you all by giving you the history of the Taj Mahal but for a those who were not aware the guy who built it was a Muslim and although a Cenotaph, next to it is a fully functional mosque with a replica on the other side just to keep everything symmetrical. Entry is through the dignitaries gate into a square and through an impressive arch you catch your first glimpse of this iconic building. Enough of my chatter and enjoy the pictures.
When leaving the electric car you will be obliged to run the gauntlet of touts selling everything you didn't know you needed at prices that can never be repeated and are only for you. Mostly overpriced tut but if you take a fancy to anything forget the 700-800 Rupee being asked ignore and wait until it comes down to 100 cheap enough to buy and still giving them a profit. Getting used to this bargaining lark.
Our next stop that day was to The Red Fort situated about 5 Kms from The Taj Mahal and although anything is going to pale into insignificance after that it was still worth the 500 INR to get in and must have been really something in its day. There were two moats one filled with water 70 feet deep with crocodiles and water snakes after which came a 50 feet deep dry moat with lions, tigers and anything else dangerous to deter intruders. True to my current run of luck didn't see any Tigers yet again.
On our return to the hotel I stayed to finalise payments and tie up loose ends as Denise and I had managed to get passage to Varanasi from Agra overnight the next day which was not available from Delhi and would therefore be catching the 8.30 pm train the next day.
The last meal where we would be all together was taken in the hotel and although no choice, the food was good and filling and we stayed up chatting with another couple from Minnesota who were travelling with their young children and a couple from New Zealand before heading for a good nights sleep.
My final day was spent packing and making preparations for hotels and trains while the others visited other landmarks and did last minute shopping and all was going well until I found that the train we were catching would be three hours late which was apparently quite usual for it to run even more hours delayed? By the evening when we were talking to a very helpful Indian gentleman over a chai we discovered that the train was now running 7 hours late but our attempt to change to a sleeper coach were thwarted when we were pipped to the last two seats!!
Unable to say goodbye to Jon, John and June as by now they had gone to bed I crashed in Kay and Denise room with a taxi booked for 2 am to catch the 8.30 pm train now, expected at 3 am. Not the end of the story yet folks awoken by the alarm at 1.45 am I checked the status of the train and it was now due in at 4 am so a quick call from reception and we got another hour in bed. 3 am and no taxi available so a Tuk Tuk took us the 20 minute drive in the freezing cold to the railway station for 500 Rupee.
Agra station looked like the scene of a refugee evacuation camp with bodies lying on the floor everywhere waiting on trains up to 10 hours late. We found a space on the floor in the ladies waiting room and waited until he train pulled in the station at 4.40 am eight and a half hours late.
Nearly finished so stick with me, with absolutely no idea of how to decipher the berths we had from the ticket we headed for a carriage with "Sleeper" written on the side as we had been assured by the booking agent we had a confirmed berth. Trust me, never trust a booking agent, sleeper berths are only used by the Indian people where you could get two or three in a berth and too bad to do it justice trying to describe.
Hastily moving down the platform to the front of he train I deposited Denise complete with bags on the train and with assurances "I'll be back" I set off to find the guards of the train. In broken English punctuated with the sight of large Rupee notes we negotiated an upgrade to a second class Air con coach which although not perfect was a million times better than the fate that had awaited us. I am now going to try and get some sleep as the train lumbers along clocking up more delay hours by the minute and hope we eventually get to Varanasi - watch this Blog ..