This post was originally published on a previous blog about my weekend trip across India. If I find the time, I’ll repose the colourful pictures that went with it :).
It’s not uncommon for employees of global software companies to find themselves in Bangalore with time to kill over a weekend. That sounds awesome - and it is! The only problem is, once you’ve explored the city, visited Mysore and other nearby towns(which I recommend), there isn’t a whole lot to see unless you enjoy wild dogs, burning garbage and endless dirt piles that never seem turn into anything. And those are the nicer parts of town…
I had a 3 day weekend and was looking to get away. My colleague and I had talked about doing a weekend trip to Delhi and the Taj Mahal several times before, but never got around to doing the booking. I always wondered - was it really doable?
Business travel to India is EXHAUSTING. It takes FOREVER to move anywhere in Bangalore and even if you don’t become ill from the food, the excess of chilis and beer can…let’s just say, give your system a good cleaning. Combine that with jet lag, and the urge to travel anywhere can be non-existent.
BUT… you are a 2.5 hour flight (to Delhi) + 2.5 hour train ride (to Agra) from one of the greatest wonders of the world! Many seem to talk about doing this trip – few actually seem to do it (or at least have written about it).
Booking a domestic flight in India can be surprisingly challenging. There are hordes of domestic airlines, but many of them do not take foreign credit cards - even when they say they do! After the sites of India’s two largest airlines failed to accept my credit cards (when they weren’t throwing ‘page not found’ error messages), and struggling with India’s largest online travel agent – makemytrip (UX consultants, call call them!), I found Cleartrip’s iPhone app. This app was magic – it actually worked, and my flight was booked in 5 minutes.
(Side note - I later found this blog that talked about how they developed their app. They are a company that clearly cares about design and code, and it really shows in the end product.)
If you enjoy negotiating with swarms of Indian touts, you could do this trip 100% independently. That would be the cheapest option in terms of rupees, but the most expensive option when time spent dealing with nonsense is considered. Even my Indian colleagues said they would use a tour company. Based on reviews and a few email exchanges, I booked with an Agra based company called Amin Tours. I highly recommend them – my TripAdvisor review is here.
My week had been going very well (read about it here if you’re interested in agile software training), leaving me in a great position to leave work after lunch on Friday to catch my 5pm flight to Delhi. It didn’t help that I was coming down with a nasty cold, and had been feeling ill all day. That 1.5 hour car ride to the airport was probably the most painful part of the whole weekend, and one of the least comfortable car rides I’ve had in my life (along with other Indian car rides).
Feeling like I was ready to vomit, I arrived at Bangalore’s International airport with time to spare. As I had only a carry-on backpack, I could use the self-checkin kiosks and avoid one more possible source of Indian bureaucracy.
My flight was aboard Indigo Airlines – a discount carrier that has quickly become the largest airline in India. Their service is very basic with no food included and paper thin seats, but they are highly regarded as the most ‘on-time’ carrier in India with good reason. Both of my flights left on-time to the second, and arrived equally on time. This is almost unheard for any form of transportation in India.
Arriving Friday evening was perfect – it gave me time to relax, have nice spicy curry with a side of Advil Cold & Sinus to clear up my congestion and get a few hours of sleep before waking up at 4:30am!
4:30am! A large dose of adrenaline gets you out of bed at that hour! I met my driver downstairs around 5:30 for the short drive to the New Delhi train station. Or rather, near to the train station. Due to the crowds around the station, my driver parked a block away and we walked through the early morning crowds and sidewalk sleepers to the station. He even bought a platform ticket so that he could show me to my seat on the train - great service!
New Delhi’s train station is a site to behold for a western tourist. It was experiences like this that were part of the reason I opted for the 2.5 hour train journey over the 3 hour car ride to Agra (THAT, and remembering that 3 hours in Indian time is usually means around 5 hours, with much of it fearing for your life).
Indian Railways is the largest employer in India – employing 1.4 million people. It is the primary – if not the only way for the average Indian to travel large distances within the country. The service is massive, but unreliable. The people you see sleeping on train platforms often do not know if their train will arrive today or tomorrow – and when they board, they may not get a seat or have to hang out of the door for what may be a multi-day train journey. For the first 55 years, the lower (most common) class of carriages did not even have toilets!
Ok, enough with the horror stories about Indian trains. The express train from Delhi to Agra is one of the nicest in India. It is also the fastest train in India reaching 160 km/h. First class is spacious, and second class isn’t too bad either. All passengers are given large bottles of drinking water, tea and breakfast/dinner. Just don’t use the washroom… I don’t think the liquid sloshing around the floor was disinfectant!
It’d be a lovely trip if it weren’t for the sites out the window. I have to think the track-side garbage-based shanty towns are some of the poorest in India – with scenes that rival anything I’ve seen on TV charity commercials. The train was moving very fast, so I couldn’t take any photos, not that it’s something you’d want to see anyway.
Arriving at the Agra train station, one wonders – is this it? From the train, the place looks as poor and dilapidated as one can imagine. After exiting the train, and pushing my way through the usual touts and I met up with my driver and guide for the day – nice guys. Immediately, it was off to see the Taj before the crowds!
I checked the forecast carefully. It was supposed to be sunny with a high of 35C (a cool Delhi day). I didn’t pack anything remotely close to rain gear, so of course… it’s pouring rain! Looking on the bright side, the wet marble and empty spaces made for some interesting photos (when I wasn’t covering my camera in a plastic grocery bag).
As for the Taj, it is a wonder of the world for good reason! Unlike many other famous landmarks that make you go ‘Is that all?’, the Taj Mahal is truly a complex to behold. I say a complex because the Taj Mahal itself is really just the centre piece in what is a very large piece of art that includes several buildings and a lot of landscaping. No photos can possibly capture the views and illusions that are created as you view the structure from different vantage points. From a distance, it’s trees and landscaping make it appear massive! Up close, it looks like a quaint little white temple…albeit with some of the most intricate marble work you will see anywhere.
We would go on to see the Agra Fort, which is still an operating military site. The part I found most interesting was the entrance way, which is well guarded by several gates and a long sloped passage way with several funnels from which defenders would pour boiling oil on their invaders(pictured)! An hour away from Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, which is an abandon city built by the Moghul empire shortly after completion due to a lack of a water source (oops!). I think the ride there and back was as interesting as the structure – finally saw elephants in India!
The day finished off with a very calm walk through Mehtabh Bagh, which is a garden across the river from the Taj Mahal that is geometrically aligned with the Taj(pictured). This makes for more great photos, and a chance to relax as the sun set over the Taj. This may have been the highlight of the day for me.
We were a bit early for the return train, so I had more time to observe the life at another Indian train station. Besides the cat-sized rats scurrying around the tracks, people were regularly choosing to climb down from the platforms on one side – gross 6 tracks and climb back onto the platform at the other side(pictured). You’d think this would be illegal, but then you see a policeman doing it.
Coming back I had 2nd class “AC chair car”. It wasn’t really that bad…I couldn’t detect the AC, but the seat was comfortable, I was only pushed a few times, and my dinner was what you’d expect for an Indian train meal. It was barely edible, but it did pass the 4 hour test which most Indian travellers are familiar with – so in that regard, it was a good meal.
It was around 11pm when I finally returned to my Delhi hotel for a Kingfisher and a tandoori meal – mission accomplished! It was a 19 hour day, but an awesome one.
The next day I did a quick tour of the main sites of Old and New Delhi with a guide. Old Delhi reminded me a lot of every other part of India I’d seen, though perhaps a bit busier. New Delhi was largely built by the British and, unlike most Indian cities, actually seemed to make sense for a capital. The streets are wide, clean and organized with large traffic circles at major intersections. One could forget they were in India… until you see a Ford Focus with 12 people in it (8 kids in the back seat). I wish I could have spent more time exploring the museums, shops and restaurants of Delhi. It is one of the great world cities on the level of a London or Paris, and needs a few days to really be explored.
To make the weekend more interesting, it coincided with multiple religious holidays. Hindus were celebrating Dussehra – the celebration of good over evil. As we drove through Delhi, and villages, we would see many people celebrating with parades, music and giving out food (which I wasn’t brave enough to try!). The festival would peak that evening with the burning of effigies(pictured) and fireworks that night. At the same time, Muslims were on the eve of Eid Ul-Adha – the festival of sacrifice. Thousands of goats were parading around the streets of Delhi – all well fed and decorated, ready to be sacrificed.
With that, it was back to Delhi’s international airport for the flight back to Bangalore. After a smooth flight, and a one hour journey via empty back roads I was back at my hotel in Bangalore early Sunday evening, and surprisingly not feeling very tired.
It was a fantastic two days, and far easier than I had ever imagined. It took me 4 trips to India to finally take the leap and do this trip, and all I could think about was why it took so long, and when I could come back and see more of these sites again with my wife. Til next time!
The full set of photos from my weekend are here.