The Road to Agra and Other Disasters
The roads in India are simply diabolical.
Our cheerful foursome (Huckelberry B, sister-in-law, C, niece, MC, and me) arrived in Delhi before midday and, after dropping our major luggage at the local Hilton, we set off for Agra – and the famed Taj Mahal – at around 1pm. Our intention was to visit the Taj that afternoon before driving to Jaipur for the evening. The local agent with whom we were dealing assured us that our plans were sound. With time, however, we were to learn that caution was wise when it came to listening to anything this fellow had to say.
The distance from Delhi to Agra is less than 250 kilometres. By driving standards we are used to, we should have been in Agra by 4pm at the very latest with ample time to visit the renowned mausoleum before closing time.
What we were not prepared for, however, was the chaotically slapdash, every-man-for-himself, Persian bazaar, anarchic whirlwind of frenetic bedlam which is the Indian highway system.
And we thought the driving in Kathmandu was hectic…
Indian drivers make their Nepalese counterparts look positively obsequious by comparison.
I observed in my previous journal, that the fundamental road rule in Kathmandu was that you won right of way by placing your vehicle (or your body) in a position where a competing driver has a choice of either stopping or running into you. In India, the rule is the same, except that once you have won right or way you then have to scurry away before the competing driver does, in fact, run you down.
It’s a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself arena where only those who are willing to risk damage to their vehicle – or injury to their body – can survive.
Even where lane markings existed, they scarcely even held advisory status. An Indian driver will use any available square foot of bitumen (or accompanying dirt) to progress in a forwards direction. The results is that a road designed for three lanes will typically be occupied by two cars, a donkey drawn vehicle and a tuk tuk or two; with an array of motorcyclists trying to push their way through.
I once wrote about the Desert Highway from Alexandria to Cairo in a previous journal. As hair-raising as that journey was, we were at least able to make good progress and, in fact, made it to the Egyptian capital ahead of schedule. The difference was that, on the Desert Highway, slow moving vehicles moved out of the way when our driver flashed his lights, allowing us reasonably unimpeded progress, as we hurtled towards Cairo at breakneck speed.
In India, however, every driver is only concerned with advancing his own position, without regard of any kind for others. So we found our progress frequently impeded by a slow moving bus in the outside lane, or even a cart drawn by an old, tired camel or, most absurdly of all, a stationary tractor or two.
As if all this were insufficient to create a tempest of ferocious mayhem, more often than can be believed our driver had to swerve out of the way of vehicles travelling along the inside lane in the opposite direction to the prevailing traffic!
It’s sheer pandemonium.
Due to this selfish, lawless and utterly anarchistic driving behaviour, nobody got anywhere in a hurry. Our journey of around 225 kilometres to the Taj Mahal took us almost 5 hours to complete and, by the time we arrived, the gates had closed and we were not allowed in.
Sadly, given that the Taj is closed on Fridays and there was no possible way we were going to risk being stuck in India’s diabolical traffic on the day we were to fly out, we had no opportunity to return on another day.
The Taj did not want us. Indian drivers are to blame.
Exactly and Approximately
Anybody who has seen the Indian movie, Monsoon Wedding – easily one of my all-time favourite movies and one of the reasons I was keen to visit India – will remember the event planner, P K Dubey. All of the quotes he offered for his services were stated to be “exactly and approximately”.
We found during our trip to India that our tour agent adopted a similar practice.
Our agent had agreed to provide us with a driver. The basic terms of the contract were that he would drive us to Agra, then to Jaipur and back to Delhi, concluded by a tour of the capital’s landmarks. However, during the course of our visit, the subsidiary clauses of our agreement – formed over a series of email exchanges – proved to be less clear. We found that either the sum we had to pay would increase or the inclusions would decrease. Suddenly, for example, our agreed sum only including picking us up from the airport but excluded returning us there on our final day.
The total price in Indian Rupees also became a moveable Indian feast. It seemed to change from day to day in accordance with fluctuations in the exchange rate. However, the exchange rate which our agent applied was one personal to him; it was mirrored by neither the official rate nor the rate offered by the hotel. Of course, the variation was very much in the agent’s favour.
Then there was the Taj Mahal entry fee fiasco.
As we approached Agra, our agent contracted us on our driver’s mobile phone. He said that his information was that we were 10 minutes from the Taj Mahal gate and he suggested that his local agent buy us four entry tickets (to save time) on the understanding that we would pay him back 3,000 Rupees when we arrived. Moments after we agreed, we passed a sign saying that the Taj Mahal lay 17.5 kilometres down the road; a narrow road swarming with frenzied Indian drivers, all competing for the same square-inch of bitumen. It took us the best part of an hour to traverse that 17.5 kilometres and – as I have already reported – the Taj Mahal was closed for the day by the time we arrived.
We offered the local agent his 3,000 Rupees, but he declined; stating that if we did not see the Taj we did not have to pay. We offered to pay a second time and then a third time. The local agent refused each offer. At no point did he show us the tickets. To this day, we do not know whether he actually purchased them.
Be that as it may, our resolute Delhi tour agent contacted us the next day demanding repayment of the 3,000 Rupees. He asserted that the local agent was making demands of him. We do not know whether the tickets were ever purchased and we do not know whether the Agra agent was making any demands; but the whole episode left us feeling uneasy.
Victory at the MCG
Whilst travelling in Nepal and India, the four Test series between India and Australia was getting underway in Melbourne.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a 24-hour cricket channel on Indian cable TV, called Star Cricket. Much of its content, whilst we were watching in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Jaipur or Delhi, was devoted to the build-up to the series in Australia. There were in-depth highlights and analysis from prior India / Australia matches. Every ad-break promoted the telecast of the upcoming series, with the tagline: `Feel the Heat Down Under’. In one advertisement, former captain, Sourav Ganguly, said that in Australia, the players `talk about you’ and proclaimed that this is when the champion rises within. In another, a local celebrity of some kind declared that when India plays cricket in Australia it’s `mind-blasting’.
I was somewhat bewildered, however, to discover that much of the promotion of the current series highlighted the controversy from the last series. The vision of Andrew Symonds and Harbajan Singh quarreling was replayed repeatedly, as were several other ugly incidents. As reprehensible as I found some of my countrymen’s conduct four years ago – and I truly believe we crossed the line too often back then – I wondered how offended the Indians really could be if they were using that conduct for the purpose of promoting the upcoming matches.
The rivalry between Australia and India on the cricket field is fierce. With the behaviour of Indians on the road and the practices of our tour agent fresh in our minds, Huckleberry B and I were keen not to lose to their national team on the cricket pitch. In these circumstances, the victory in Melbourne, by 122 runs, was particularly satisfying.
A Lovely Day in Jaipur
Our tour of India was not all bad!
We have, for example, loved the food!
There’s something about the mix of Tandoori chicken, naan bread and curry which is simply glorious!
After our disappointment in not being able to walk the grounds of the Taj Mahal, we drove to Jaipur where we stayed the night.
Little did we know the surprise Huckleberry B had in stall for us.
Our accommodation at Jaipur, the Shiv Villas, was a breathtakingly grand hotel constructed in majestic colonial style.
Upon entering, we were met by several hotel staff offering warm towels and cold champagne. The check-in process involved sitting at a lounge suite inside the central ballroom of the building, beneath a glorious painted roof complete with magnificent chandelier. That night, we slept in a four-poster bed. In the morning we admired the heated pool surrounded by an impressive array of statutes.
Before heading back to Delhi, we embarked upon a tour of Jaipur; the `pink city’.
The highlight, for me, was the Amber Palace; a huge honey-coloured castle sitting above the town, surrounded by a forbidding wall which resembled – and was probably inspired by – the Great Wall of China.
A Day Tour of Delhi
After another hellish drive back to Delhi – which occupied over six hours but only involved a journey of 250 kilometres – we spent the night at the Delhi Hilton.
When we awoke we braced ourselves for a tour of Delhi’s highlights.
I have to remain honest and say that Delhi is a very unappealing city.
The first thing we noticed when we landed was the pollution. Even from the plane, we could see the brown smog enveloping the airport and its surrounds. We could barely see the terminal building through the haze. There was no possibility of viewing a blue sky.
The next morning, the pollution was mixed with a low lying fog, which allowed us to literally stand and watch currents of tangible smog wafting by.
On a previous trip to Xian – the home of the Terracotta Warriors – Huckleberry B and I were appalled by the pollution. However, Delhi’s putrid air is much, much worse.
Notwithstanding the smog and the ongoing battle to get anywhere on the roads, we actually had an enjoyable day Delhi.
First we visited Qutab Minar, the tallest brick and stone minaret in the world. Standing at 72.5 metres, the minaret rises from the ruins of an ancient Hindu temples.
Next, we went to the Lotus Temple, which bears a striking resemblance to the architecture of the Sydney Opera House. The Lotus Temple is a Baha’i house of worship and was completed as recently as 1986.
After another very pleasing lunch of various curries and naan bread – remarkably, despite it being our last full day on the sub-continent we were yet to tire of Indian spices – we toured Humayun’s Tomb. This proved to be a very impressive structure. Humayun, we learned was a Mughal Emperor who died in the 16th century. His wife commissioned his tomb in 1562. The mausoleum is somewhat reminiscent of the Taj Mahal – as if we would know (!) – albeit perhaps not as grand and cast in a pinkish colour. Apparently there is some debate amongst Indian historians as to which structure influenced the other.
Finally, we visited India Gate, which is Delhi’s version of the Arc de triomphe.
The primary purpose of India Gate is to commemorate the Indian soldiers who fell in World War I. However, its wider purpose is to mark those who fell during the fight for India’s independence.
We were impressed by India Gate. It’s an imposing structure and certainly a suitable memorial for all of which Indians are proud.
The End of the Journey
This evening, my beloved B and I will fly first to Kuala Lumpur and then home to Sydney. In the meantime, C and MC will return to Hong Kong for three days before returning to Sydney. After over two weeks of quite extraordinary adventure in Nepal and norther India, it was sad to bid them farewell. They were very good travel companions.
It’s been an extraordinary trip. Some of it was arduous and some of it was tedious; but all of it was memorable.
We will never forget walking along mountain trails in the Himalayas, majestic snow shrouded mountain peaks looking down upon us, cast against a radiant blue sky. Nor shall we forget the frustrations of India and the sheer difficulty in travelling from one point to another.
Huckleberry B and I have been most fortunate to be much traveled. Often our trips were memorable for the comforts offered by our trip. Our journey over the last 18 days will be unforgettable because it was hard.