Backdated from March 21/22.
Apparently, no visit to India is complete without a stop at the country’s sweetheart site, the Taj Mahal. I honestly might have given it a miss regardless, but Agra was a natural stop along the route from Jaipur to Khajuraho. First, though, we had a quick detour to the middle of nowhere to visit the Chand Baori stepwell.
I’d never have known Chand Baori existed if not for Pete. Lonely Planet doesn’t acknowledge its existence and Abhaneri, the town in which it lies, isn’t exactly a hub of tourism. I’m not sure if the place even has accommodation of which tourists can avail. But one of the advantages to traveling by bike is that you can make detours, bus routes be damned, to check the little ‘off the path’ places like this.
Pete was aware of the site as it was one of the shooting locations for ‘The Fall’ (you’ll see a shot of the stepwell scene at 01:49) – a movie of which he’s a big fan. A little short on plot but undeniably stunning in its visuals, the film’s scenes were shot on location in a variety of sites around the globe, and Pete had made it a side note of his RTW trip to try and visit as many of them as possible.
We parked the bikes in front of a small shop just across from the stepwell and hired a guide; partially to tell us the story of the site, but more to purchase some good faith from the locals so our bikes, still loaded down with our baggage, would remain untouched while we were away from them.
Unfortunately we were not allowed to actually head down the steps into the well but, even from above, it was a pretty neat site to take in. Built in the 9th century, Chand Baori, with it’s 3,500 steps spanning 13 stories, is one of the largest and deepest stepwells in India. During certain festivities, when the water level rises, locals will jump off the balconies jutting out from the lower levels and dive in. It was hard to imagine this viewing the well at this time of year, when the stagnant, green water sat in a shallow, murky puddle at the well’s base, rubbish floating on its surface.
From there it was on to Agra, a town that, from our short experience, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot going for it outside of the Taj. But, given that the grand, Mughal mausoleum is the most visited site in all of India, I suppose that’s all it needs.
The first view of the Taj upon entering the site is pretty impressive. Particularly in contrast to the dusty streets and stained, weathered buildings that lie outside the gates, the Taj rises like something out of a fairy tale, an impossibly white beacon in the centre of an immaculate garden. Upon clearing the Southen gate we reach the first platform, where tourists scramble for their textbook photo of themselves with the Taj behind. A thin, blond American woman struggles to hold back tears upon having her photo taken. We overhear her exclaiming to her friends that this is the moment she traveled to India for. Pete and I, being dicks, joke softly between ourselves that she finally has the Facebook profile pic she’s always wanted.
After the second platform we encounter a curious sign, urging Indian tourists to head right, and foreigners to bank left. Possessing both an often unhealthy curiosity, as well as a tendency to do the opposite of what most signs urge me to do, we headed right.
Taking the alternative path doesn’t actually bring you to a different entrance of the Taj, it just takes you longer to get there. Were I to wager a guess as to the reasoning behind this, I’d say it’s that foreigners, with their inflated ticket prices (Indians pay 20 Rs for entry, whereas foreigners pay 750), are given preference for reduced wait times. Pete and I arrived at the Taj well early in the morning to avoid the crowds as much as possible but I’d guess that the site can get pretty crazy around midday, particularly during high season, and the longer ‘Indian’ route likely becomes a line-up that wraps the Taj entirely. By heading in so early, though, following the longer route afforded us a 360 degree view of the celebrated tomb and its surrounding mosques, which reminded me of miniature versions of Humayun’s tomb from back in Delhi (which did, apparently, largely inspire the design of the Taj). Along the way, I’m stopped even more often than usual by Indians excited to get their photo taken with the tall, tattooed foreigner with the multicolored hair.
Afterward, while grabbing a bite to eat outside the site, Pete and I got into a discussion regarding seeing ‘The Sites’. Personally, I don’t get much out of them – the tombs and museums and monuments to empires I didn’t take the proper courses back in High School to know much about. There are certainly a few exceptions – The Temple of Karnak in Luxor and the Western Wall in Jerusalem spring to mind – but, 9 times out of 10, I much prefer to wander aimlessly around a city as opposed to follow a guide book map, ticking off places viewed as I go like some sort of geographic scavenger hunt, my photos as evidence I’ve been there. When it comes to sites, I’m just far more likely to feel disenchanted than moved.
So why do I keep doing them?
The short answer: I don’t know. Compulsion, maybe? Being a stranger in a foreign land, it’s almost difficult not to follow the tourist circuit, and go to all the places Lonely Planet and Rough Guides say you should. When swapping stories with other travellers and friends back home, it’s much easier to recount having seen the pyramids or the Berlin Wall than it is to rave about a really great little market or a chance encounter with an interesting stranger. They photograph better as well (more on that here). As well, the stationary experiences – the monuments and tours and scheduled festivals – are ones that can be replicated by people to follow, whereas the experiences gained by being in the right place at the right time (or, alternatively, the wrong place at the wrong time) are unique, fleeting and more challenging to pursue. There is no promise of certainty, no guarantee you will find what you are looking for.
Hell, maybe that’s why I value those experiences so much more.
Experiences like drinking Transnistrian cognac between the trees one evening in a park in Chisinau, and seeing a man videotape a topless ballerina as she danced across the stones that stretched from a church’s entrance. We clapped as she finished and, unaware of our presence until that moment, the duo darted away.
Or meeting up with a dead cool Couchsurfer in Amsterdam, who showed me the little corners of the city she’s called home for a lifetime that still make it an awesome place to live. Making a salad and taking it out to a bar along the canals to meet up with her friends and, later, joining a party at one of their killer squats.
Or diving in the Red Sea off the coast of Dahab and, while staring out into the blue of those waters, spotting a sea turtle munching grass in an area it had no business being in, a rare spotting for the time of year I was there.
Pete had found that the Taj had actually managed to live up to the hype, while I remained far more enamoured with the flight patterns of a flock of pigeons beyond the deck of our rooftop restaurant – how they would all change course in perfect, unspoken unison, the way the sunlight bounced off them, how they would seem almost to change color from grey to white depending on which way they faced. I’m always far more likely to be moved by natural sights than anything man-made; nature has a perfection to it that we just can’t replicate, no matter how hard we try.
. . . Which makes me wonder why I don’t spend more time out in it.
A thought which I’m sure I’ll expound on further at some point in the future. For now, though, I’m excited to be heading East, and away from the cities. Our next stop – Khajuraho – is undoubtably a tourist site, but does have the rare distinction of being an ancient erotic one. And Varanasi should be an interesting city to make our last. But after that we’ll be heading into Jharkhand, a new and rarely traveled state of India, to head towards Betla national park. We’re both excited to take a break from the city tours, and spend a bit of time chilling out in nature.
And, if we’re really lucky, we might just get to see one of India’s National Animals – Tigers! (Spoiler: we don’t).
Health update: Been back in Canada a week now and, while I’m still not 100%, I’m sure as hell feeling a lot better. Naps are no longer a necessity and I’m managing to keep down small amounts of chicken. Should be hearing confirmation from the doctor tomorrow on what unwanted intruder has taken up occupancy in my GI tract.