Gil and I are officially ready for reality TV after our trip from Varanasi to Agra.
We took a rickshaw from our hotel to the train station and soon found ourselves stuck in stand-still traffic. Having no clue how far we were from the station - but knowing we had very little time to get there - we jumped out and ran the next 2 kilometers, wielding our packs around cars, bikes, and cows with fearless determination. We were already late, but held on to the slim chance that we'd find our train in similar condition.
We made our way towards the platform (the one furthest from the entrance, of course) and frantically asked anyone and everyone who crossed our path if they knew about the train. One man shouted, "Agra? It's that one!" and animated toward the opposite track. The train was already moving and starting to pick up speed. As the last car passed in front of us, I resigned myself to staying a few more days in captivating Varanasi. But Gil would not give up so easily. He ran to catch up with the train, grabbed hold of the caboose and pulled himself through the doorway. I knew I had to follow his lead and managed to hoist myself up as well, encouraged by the cheers of onlookers. We have matching scabs on our elbows to prove it.
We found ourselves in an empty (and dark) luggage cart. I leaned around the corner to ask a man in the next car up if this was the Marauder Express and was informed, "no, it's the Jaipur Express". I immediately burst into tears. Our adrenalin was working overtime from stress and physical exertion, and now we were stuck on the wrong train!
Further down the tracks, the train came to a stop and a shot-gun brandishing police officer came to retrieve us. I wondered what sort of trouble we might be in for, first, leaping onto a moving train and, second, not having a ticket. But, the officer was very kind and, as we were actually on the correct train, simply showed us to our car and said goodnight. Such is India where the biggest stunt of our trip seems to be an everyday occurrence.
We arrived in Agra to a chorus of shouts from touts, for the home of Taj Mahal is probably on of the the most tourist-filled cities in India. But our first glimpse of the Taj from the roof of our hotel reminded us what all of the fuss is about. It certainly is a vision of grace.
Described as the "ultimate tribute to love", the mausoleum was built by a 17th century Mughal emperor named Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb is made of white marble and inlaid with semi-precious stones. Yet it's beauty does not lie in its decoration, but rather in its architectural symmetry. The four sides of the mausoleum are identical, and the structures and reflecting pools that surround it are designed to provide further balance and harmony to the complex. It undoubtedly deserves its reputation as the 8th wonder of the world.
The Taj, however, is not the only reason to visit Agra. There are several other mausuleums that are stunning architectural works in their own right, including the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah (often called the "baby Taj") and the tomb of Akbar, Shah Jahan's grandfather. The imposing Agra Fort is also an important monument, with it's labrinth of palaces and courtyards laid out across the river from the Taj. Shah Jahan was imprisoned here until his death by his son, Aurangzeb, but at least he could spend his days gazing out at his life's most magnificant work.