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Back to India - touts, tuk-tuks and the Taj

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Our return to India began with yet another marathon journey, beginning with a night bus from Pokhara to the Nepal/India border at Sunauli. There are no plush tourist buses as an option on this route so local bus it was; fortunately it was comfortable enough and a good margin less bouncy than the one we had taken from the Eastern border to Kathmandu a month earlier. We arrived at the border before daylight and spent a little time milling around, since we were in no hurry to get onto another bus and wanted to stretch our legs. We had chai and hung around until sunrise since that made seeing what was what a little easier, then walked across the border via the two immigration posts (Nepali one to be stamped out and then Indian one to be stamped back in again).

Still in no hurry to get straight onto another bus we had some breakfast at a small street shack, (puris and channa; even though we had walked just 100m or so across the border, the difference between India and Nepal is notable, including the food). After this we could delay no longer and hopped onto a local bus to take us the 60 km to Gorakhpur from where we could get an onward bus to Lucknow. Although only 60km this journey took 3 hours, Indian travel is infuriatingly slow... At Gorakhpur we had not much time before we were on yet another bus to take us to Lucknow. We could’ve broken up the journey by staying in Gorakhpur, but having seen it we agreed we would rather not.

We tried to take a fancy a/c bus with nice big reclining seats, but despite a guy happily taking our bags and putting them in the hold (see, it was a fancy bus, bags go in a hold instead of on the roof), and giving us a ticket for this, it transpired 10 mins later that we would have to get off the bus as it was fully booked, ho hum, it had all seemed so easy... We were pointed towards a packed state bus that was just pulling out of the station – we had to jump onto it whilst it was moving; it looked… uncomfortable, and sweaty. But, with little other option we squeezed on and just about found places (at either end of the bus) to dump our big bags, some people even shifted around so we could sit together which was nice. The seats on these buses are not what you want on journeys of 6 hours plus, the headrests are only shoulder level and 3 people are squeezed on a row so you can’t nap or make yourself comfortable really. However, we are getting used to these long journeys and the 7 hours to Lucknow, while boring, was not as bad as we feared it might be.

Arriving in Lucknow after dark, our first impressions were good, it seemed quite developed and the people were friendly and helpful. The roads are in good condition, there are many large, elaborate roundabouts and modern buildings, shopping malls etc.; we even saw our first Indian McDonalds (they don't sell beef, imagine that). We walked to the main central road (named Mahatma Ghandi Marg, what else - we haven’t encountered any Indian town that does not have one of those!) from where we were going to seek accommodation. We spotted a sports bar that had been recommenced when we were reading up on Lucknow and decided that after 24 hours traveling, a beer would be good. We enjoyed a refreshing one, then went off to find somewhere to stay. This involved a cycle-rickshaw ride with the driver taking us to a place from where he no doubt got commission, but having checked out the rooms we declined (not worth the price, plus we prefer to find our own place rather than be told where we should stay). We settled on a room in the hotel next door which, while a little odd and with some abrupt staff, had a decent enough room with big bathroom, tv and a strange round bed. We spent the evening with a take-away kebab (Lucknow is famous for kebabs, as well as Biryani) and watching an awful film (The Hangover) on the cable tv as this was all we felt like doing after the journey.

Next morning we went for a walk around and discovered that rickshaw drivers here are particularly persistent, following along beside us naming prices. Journeys are v cheap, but we weren’t going anywhere, we just wanted to look around! We took in most of the key sights of Lucknow during the day including several old colonial buildings and some ruins of The Residency which were largely destroyed during the siege of Lucknow in 1857. It was worth a look around but as ruins go (having been to both Athens and Rome, for example) it was nothing special. We also went to Bara Imambara complex (more old colonial stuff) which did look impressive and has an underground labyrinth which sounds interesting, however when we discovered that the foreign tourist entry price was 500 Rupees, compared to the Indian price of 50, and that it was not possible for us to pay to enter just certain parts of the complex as it was for Indians we decided not to bother. We understand why things cost more for foreigners, but that difference we found excessive and 1000 Rps for the two of us is a lot, and it’s not like it’s the Taj. So, in the end they got no money out of us, but we did get to look around within the courtyard and take plenty of photos of the impressive buildings, so we were happy with that.

The following day we called ‘Wandering Day’, we have those from time to time once we have seen all the must-sees in a place but then have time to kill before our transport out of there. We simply let our feet lead us around random streets without any real target. We ended up at a (trying-to-be) Western style bakery – where T amused herself buying a ‘pineapple head’ (see photo) sweet treat to make friends with. Passed some time in an Indian Shopping Mall, one of the first we have seen, which was full of middle class Indians on a day out, there we even saw our first xmas trees and decorations in the window of one shop, a brief reminder about the time of year and happenings back home. Before leaving Lucknow we had to hunt out a well-renowned café Tunday Kebab. As per where we had eaten the previous night the place was packed with locals which is always a good sign. We had a yummy mutton kebab and mutton biryani (both dishes which Lucknow is famous for), it was delish.

Lucknow is best-known for its food and in all that is what we enjoyed most about the place. Otherwise, it had its annoyances... We found that we were constantly stared at by (mostly) groups of men. And by constantly, we mean all the time, and unlike in other places, they are not just looking cos you stand out and when you look back they say hello, or smile, or ask where we are from or something, here they just stare, it is quite disturbing. We have generally got used to the strange fascination people have with us (people take our photos all the time or come to sell us stuff or ask us questions) but Lucknow was a bit ridiculous. We were also getting annoyed with cycle rickshaw drivers, mostly for harassing us when we did not want one, then when we did use one to find the kebab restaurant he asked if we wanted to go shopping and we said ‘No’, quite firmly, “just take us where we have asked to go”. So he decides regardless to take us to some crappy Fabric Emporium and starts insisting that we go into the shop to have a look (this is a common thing with taxi/autorickshaw drivers as they get a commission from shop owners for taking unsuspecting, gullible tourists to their overpriced shops). We got so angry with him that we got out to walk the rest of the way (thank goodness for GPS, though).

So we were not too sad to be leaving Lucknow, it is worth stopping off if passing through and the food is excellent (it’s about all it is famous for), but otherwise nothing special. We got an overnight bus, which was extremely luxurious compared to some of our previous transportation, to Agra. The bus was a sort of double decker with single and double beds above a row of reclining seats. We had the seats but these were luxury indeed compared to previous bus journeys, the beds would have been extravagance indeed. We managed to sleep fairly well on the seats, except when the driver slammed on the breaks which made us almost slip off under the seat in front, this happened fairly regularly given the in-efficient Indian driving style of ‘pushing on then slamming on’!

We got to Agra at 6.30am and were immediately pounced on by over keen rickshaw drivers trying to take us to hotels. One followed us for about 10mins, we got so annoyed with him that we dived into a local street café for chai to shake him off! This turned out to be a theme in Agra, they were more persistent than in Lucknow even, quite annoying. One guy followed us around for about 20 minutes, we told him we weren't going anywhere (just round the corner for street food), he kept saying 'maybe later' and 'maybe tomorrow', as though we would just suddenly decide we did want to get in his tuk-tuk.

We checked into our place and went on a big sightseeing day – Agra Fort (red fort built in 1573), The Itimad-ud-daulah (known as the Baby Taj and a precursor to the Big Taj), Sikandra mausoleum (a dead emperor’s rather lavish grave in grounds that reminded us of Tatton Park, but with palm trees) and Mehtab Bagh (grounds across the river from The Taj Mahal where the views of the Taj at sunset are great) plus we were mesmerised by the thousands of birds coming in to the garden’s trees to roost, it was spectacular, especially with the TM in the background. We went to bed knackered, especially given our night bus journey.

Even so, the following day started with an early 5.30am get up to go to properly see the main event, the Taj Mahal, for sunrise. Our place was walking distance so we had a nice stroll in the dark to the grounds. On getting in we immediately understood why it is one of the modern ‘seven wonders of the world’. It is truly stunning, although, we almost felt like we’d seen it before, simply because it is such a famous landmark and an image that we have seen it so many times, rather like the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, it’s bizarre to be actually looking at it with your own eyes.

The rest of the day was spent at a leisurely pace, including strolling through the Nature Walk route close to the Taj – R was happy because there were swings to play on and T was happy nature spotting – including a massive hornet nests and cute chipmunks (which she bought savoury snacks to share with, but the chipmunks were too shy so she finished the whole packet herself). We then spent a while wandering the local streets on the outskirts of the Taj grounds which are quite a contrast and fairly poor, the people there were so friendly though and we lost count of how many hellos/namastes/good afternoons/how are yous/high fives we shared with children over about a mile walk. This was quite a contrast to the rich, lavish (and impeccably clean and tidy) Taj and it was a little hard to comprehend how just 500m separates these places. It is probably a fine example of how money and wealth is so badly distributed in India…..

We had another fairly early night as our alarm clock was set for 3:50am to get an early morning train to our next destination – Jaipur in Rajasthan…. Hopefully soon we can have a decent night’s sleep – it’s been a while now!

Posted by TessAndRach 21:54 Archived in India Tagged mahal taj agra lucknow

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what a shame the chipmunk didn't want to play. Where is the pineapple had photo? can't wait to hear about your trip to octopussy land!

by Abi

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