Wednesday 21 November 2012

Golden Triangle Part 5 : Aggro in Agra (How Not to Travel by Train!)

After being virtually forced into buying the rug, we made it to Fatehpur Sikri en-route to Agra.  Built during the second half of the 16th century by the Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri (the City of Victory) is a World Heritage Site.  "It was the capital of the Mughal Empire for only some 10 years. The complex of monuments and temples, all in a uniform architectural style, includes one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid".   

By this point we already thinking "Another City, Another Mosque".  They all seem to merge into each other after a while..perhaps we are just cultural no hopers.

After watching a strange lady making yoga shapes in one of the archways, we decided it was time to get away, and drove on the 1.5 hours or so to Agra.

I won't go into great detail about Agra except to say that we visited the Taj Mahal first thing in the morning when there was still a queue at the expected sunrise time of 6.00am.  But it was so worth getting there that early as the mausoleum was definitely more beautiful and far less crowded at that time in the morning.  We found ourselves a crazy little old man of a tour guide who told us very little about the building, but was an ace at pushing other tourists off the prime photography posing sites - ie the Lady Di bench.  With him in tow, La Visitante and I were able get great photos separately and together - I was only sorry I hadn't found him when I previously visited the Taj Mahal with my husband.

Crazy tour-guide-cum-David-Bailey-Royal-Photographer

Later that day we decided to start getting ready for the rather dreaded 12 hour rail journey between Agra Fort and Varanasi.  Unfortunately, although I had booked the tickets well in advance (second class air conditioned or "2 AC"), we had only been 'Waitlisted".  This meant that the train was fully booked and that we were on a waiting list.  We were at positions 6 and 7.  You can book train tickets from 60 days before the travel date but what happens is that travel agents get ahead by booking up as many tickets as they can in the hope of selling them on to the public themselves.  You've therefore gotta be quick if you are going to use the on-line train booking system (I used where you can now book Indian National Railway tickets) rather than go and buy Tourist Quota tickets at selected stations which is what I should have done.

You can check your waitlisted status online to see if any one drops out.  On the day of travel at 9am we were still at positions 6 and 7.  By midday we were at 3 and 4 which was a little but still useless progress.  Our train journey was at 9.30pm so I was getting very nervous by this point.  At 3pm La Visitante and I took ourselves off to Agra Fort train station to see if anything could be done. 

We hounded the man behind the glass partition for about an hour.  But it seemed that no improvement to our situation could be made there and then.  He told us to buy a 'general ticket' but I was not sure what this meant. Then he said come back at 5pm to see if any passengers had not shown up for the train as it had progressed from its starting point in Jodhpur. There was no way we could not get on this train as it would mess up our schedule - we were flying back to Mumbai from Varanasi and if we missed this train, we would more than likely end up missing that flight.

When we went back at 5pm. we found the same guy and he told us we had moved up to positions 1 and 2.  Relief!! Surely this would mean that we would get on...surely someone else would not show up for the train and we would be safe!  I should have touched wood.

At 5.30 the railway clerk checked again ...this would be the last stop before Agra and the last chance for a vacancy in our carriage.  But alas!  We dropped off the manifesto altogether...there were to be no spare seats by the time the train got to Agra!  I was in a real panic now but the clerk said don't worry, go and find THE MAN IN THE BLACK HOOD when the train comes in and he will help you.  Wow, I would go and see the grim reaper, this did not bode well.

Our third and final visit to the station was an hour before the train was due in.  The platform was absolutely chokka with locals and tourists alike.  I forgot to mention that it was also the peak of Diwali that night - so there were more people than usual, trying to get home to their families over the period of celebration.  I could see where this was leading.

I checked the lists that were posted up on the wall and I definitely could not see our names there.  So I went hunting for THE MAN IN THE BLACK HOOD.  I walked up and down the platform about four times with no luck.  The platform is about a mile long.  No joke.  Then a policeman wielding a big stick pointed out THE MAN IN THE BLACK HOOD to me (being actually a man in a black cap...not half as sinister).  I went running up to him to see if he could help me but he said come back later when the train arrived on the platform.  I was too early to hassle him.

It was 9.25 and we were feeling extremely frantic.  I had left La Visitante guarding our not insubstantial luggage (all the shopping from Jaipur) and local people were coming up to her and just staring....poor thing.  In the mean time, I had not been able to track down the same MAN IN THE BLACK HOOD but instead another MAN IN A BLACK JACKET.  This guy was not helpful and kept trying to brush me off.  As the train, our train came into the station, he started walking up to the front end with me running after him, trying to communicate and ask him how we could get on to this train (I was trying to ask him in an indirect manner if it was possible to bribe him!)  All I got was short shrift and told to head down the Sleeper Carriage.  The sleeper carriage is basically the bottom of the pile when it comes to train accommodation in India.  Nevertheless, La Visitante and I ran down to the other end, dragging our suitcases/Jaipur shopping, passing each sleeper carriage and trying to see if there was a free spot.  There was not.  All there was, were millions of bodies, with faces peering out of barred, glassless windows at us.  So we ran all the way back up the platform (again!) where the MAN IN THE BLACK JACKET was fiddling around with his paperwork.  I started pleading with him - "please let us on please let us on, how much how much?".  Angrily he shrugged us off again and shouted at us that we would travel in the General Carriage.  Agh! I knew that we definitely had a ticket for the General Carriage as we'd been told to buy one by the Railway Clerk.  So once again, La Visitante and I picked up our suitcases and ran all the way to the other end of the train.  Like I said before the train is about a mile long.  No Joke.  And I am very unfit.

So we reached the General Carriage with about three minutes to spare before the train is due to pull out of the station.  You know I said that the Sleeper Carriage is the bottom of the pile when it comes to train accommodation...well I was wrong!  The General Carriage has only bench seats and they allow as many people that can cram on to, well...cram on.  The door was blocked with standing men, women and children and I could already see that people were already sitting on top of each other in the carriage. Undiscouraged, La Visitante tried to clamber on top of the bodies so that I could pass up the suitcases.  But it was impossible.  And besides which I refused.  I was distraught but I could not travel for 12 hours overnight like this. I refused to go any further or make any attempt to join this unwieldy bunch of humans, goats and chickens.

In one last ditch attempt I shouted to La Visitante to start running back to the AC compartments.  I just had a feeling that we should try something.  I was in a terrible sweat at this point but we ran back again up the length of the train.  I spotted a gap in the doorway of one of the carriages and shouted to jump on.  I went first whilst my friend passed up the cases.  But then we turned around and who should appear in the doorway but THE MAN IN THE BLACK JACKET.  He gestured to us to get off the train.  He had a really scary look on his face.  An Indian passenger appeared next to him.  I was so exhausted I could not move.  He gestured again and this time three armed guards appeared behind him!!  Oh my god, we are going be thrown in jail for boarding a train without proper tickets!!  Then, on cue, I burst into tears.  I start wailing..."please please let us stay on the train...we have to get to Varanasi!".  The Indian gentleman talks quietly to the guard.  Then I realise that we are doomed and start to try and drag our bags back off the train. But then he puts his hand up as if to stop me in my tracks!  The Indian gentleman speaks to him again and then turns around to address us.  "Dont' worry, don't cry, he is going to help you...".

Oh my god THE MAN IN THE BLACK JACKET is going to help us??  Turns out there are two spare seats in 3AC (Third class Air Conditioned) and he is going to sell us a ticket.  But only because I started crying.  Man is that what it takes to get on a train around here? After this particular 'fat contoller's' display of power, I am really not impressed but I try to show some charm in order to complete the transaction.  He is slow and methodical about writing out a replacement ticket (no bribes accepted, clearly). Eventually we are shown our seats by the nice Indian gentleman that helped us (and is sitting two rows down).  I slump down next to two other back-packing couples who I had previously met on the train platform and who had also advised me they were on a waitlist (but further down than us!)

We could only conclude that the MAN IN THE BLACK JACKET was a sexist, conniving B*****D.

After 12 hours of not sleeping on a bunk suspended from the ceiling from what looked like a piece of spaghetti, we arrived safely in Varanasi. But with the opinion that we would never travel by long distance train in India again!

3AC bunk bed (one of three tiers, this is the top)

More bunks.
I won't show you the picture of the toilet that La Visitante took -
it will put you off train travel forever!

On a brighter note...more images from our visit to the Taj Mahal:

BombayJules makes her first appearance on the blog!

You just can't ever get bored of it.....The Taj at sunrise

I love these ladies - visiting from a rural village (I wonder if they travelled by train?.....)

And some more.  I bet they would have loved this photo - not having cameras themselves

1 comment:

  1. Just returned from the trip of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri..I loved reading this post..Images of Taj Mahal are very good..



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