India, Step 3 – Curries in a Hurry; the Final Push North!

Day 157 – Saturday, September 28th 2013

Our next major target for our sprint through India was to be Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, but since that was so far off in the distance (600km is a loooong way on Indian roads), that we felt that the detour in to the ruins of Mandu would make very little difference overall.

Yep, that's a cow drawn cart on a 4 lane highway.

Yep, that’s a cow drawn cart on a dual carriageway.

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This massive old castle was totally left to ruin, relics like this are a common enough sight in Madhya Pradesh, but there just isn’t the funding to look after them all.

The earliest references to the city date it to approximately 500 BC, though it was not until the 10th century that it reached its heyday. It remained influential throughout its history, even filling the role of capital to the area at times. It is perched high up on a plateau that overlooks state of Madhya Pradesh.

Since time was limited we only stopped in properly at the some waterfalls on the route into the area, and then once again at Roopmati’s Pavillion – both right at the edge of the Plateau. There are two theories circulating regarding the origins of the pavilion – the first is that it was constructed as military viewing platform, and the second is that Rootmati commissioned it to lure the love of his life, who refused to leave her village in the valleys below, fearing that she would miss it too greatly away – by building the pavilion, Rootmati’s love would be able to gaze out at the village that she would have to leave behind. The second theory is, of course, dismissed as total nonsense by anyone other than hapless romantics.

While we visited the pavilion we were stopped by at least half the people there to have our photos taken with them – it is probably fair to say that this area does not see a lot of foreign tourists.

As we left the village we started to notice another mark of the area… Camels were now a regular roadside sight. Nothing says ‘I’m somewhere exotic’ like seeing these big heffers out and about.

Not sure if this really deserved to be marked as a chunky red line on our map.

Not sure if this really deserved to be marked as a chunky red line on our map.

We returned to our main route and slowly made our way as far north as Shajapur before making the usual hotel / parking / restaurant / dinner arrangement.

Nothing quite like seeing a 50 meter high golden monkey to cheer you up after a long afternoon of driving

Nothing quite like seeing a 20 meter high golden monkey to cheer you up after a long afternoon of driving

Day 158 – Sunday, September 29th 2013

Today we were set to spend the whole day on the road – leaving Shajapur at 6:30am we were sure of covering a good distance, despite the poor roads. When planning our Indian adventure we had been sure that by opting for ‘National Highway 3’ we would be sure of a smooth passage to Agra – it did seem to be the main road between Mumbai and Delhi after all. Not so, we encountered not only the some of the worst roads of the trip, but by the time we’d dodged all of the cows, and been diverted through numerous farmers fields to get around a bridge that was ‘missing’, we only covered 280km during the whole day – averaging a shockingly poor 25km/h.

At Shivpuri we stopped in at a hotel and decided to take a room in the hope of a better nights sleep than we’d get in Ivor (the sun had been beating down all day, and the living area keeps heat in well into the night). Alas the room was home to a particularly large cricket, who waited until nightfall before serenading us with all his might.

Day 159 – Monday, September 30th 2013

As we gave Ivor his morning check over, we noticed that the hose connections to one of the water tanks had been smashed to pieces – the terrible roads had meant that whole of the living area had been moving around so much on its’ rubber mounts that it had collided with the connector. On closer inspection, it was the degradation of these rubber mounts that had lead to the problem. They had looked a little unhealthy while we were rebuilding Ivor after his container shipment, but they were obviously getting worse, and the time that we would need a long term fix was drawing ever closer. After taping up the pipe ends and the tank entry to keep as much of the Indian road dust out, we were on our way before long.

We arrived in Agra in the early afternoon and went straight to a hotel that had been recommended in a fellow overlander’s blog. The hotel itself was a beautiful building in a grandiose setting that has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair. The staff all have an incredible passion for the place, but there just is not enough money coming in to keep it up to scratch. It was rare that we would go through the reception without hearing a tale of the buildings previous splendour. At its peak, it had hosted Queen Liz (the 2nd), and it was with great pride that the receptionist sneaked a key from under the desk and led us to the room in which she and Philip had once stayed – also showing us the telegram that they had received to thank them for their hospitality.

The glowing welcome was not just reserved for Her Royal Highness either, we were well looked after, and they asked for only 150 Rupees (just over 2 USD) to give us a room for the night so that we could use the bathroom, and plug in our various electrical devices for an overnight charge.

We had just enough time to take an auto rickshaw to The Agra Fort, the lesser known of Agra’s two major tourist attractions. The fort is gigantic, and has been created almost exclusively from red sandstone, and has origins dating back to the 10th century, though it owes most of its modern day form to the Mughal Empire in the 16th Century. It is where the Emperor Shan Jahan was imprisoned by his son, when he feared that his father had been driven to insanity by the loss of his 3rd wife – it was this loss that inspired the commissioning of the Taj Mahal. The aging Emperor would be tormented yet further only being able to see his most beautiful creation from the barred windows of the fort, 2 kilometers down the river Jumna.

That night we ignored the transparent pleas of our auto rickshaw driver to go to his friends restaurant (“that one food poisoning, I know one much better…etc”), instead opting for a safe recommendation from the Lonely Planet. We were still being a little careful after Vaughan’s issues in Chennai.

Day 160 – Tuesday, October 1st 2013

We were at the gates at 6am, in line with all the other tourists to get a glimpse of that most iconic of building; the Taj Mahal. The reputation that it has earned, we are pleased to report, is entirely justified. It would be far too easy to fall into a regurgitation of travel writer’s romanticism here, but it is perhaps better to simply say that it was as impressive as we could have hoped for, and its beauty is quite literally awe inspiring.

Probably the best of our pics from India...

Possibly the best of our pics from India…

We were fortunate to have beaten the worst of the crowds, and were able to enjoy the building from the tranquillity of its grounds before any of the major coach tours arrived.

Leaving town at midday we plugged ‘New Delhi’ into the GPS and were delighted to find the Toll road passing close to Agra to be wide, smooth, uncongested, and almost entirely livestock free. As our journey continued we were almost forced to upgrade our moods to ‘elated’ when we realised this expanse of tarmac would continue all the way to the capital.

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Not wanting to drive Ivor all the way in to the centre, let alone search for parking there, we took a hotel in the outskirts of town deciding to take public transport into town to explore the next day.

Day 161 – Wednesday, October 2nd 2013

With a combinations of auto-rickshaws, the metro, and good old fashioned walking we would take in a tour of the Red Fort (an unimaginative name, given that Agra’s version was constructed round about the same time, and of Hunauyun’s Tomb.

New Delhi, from our hotel

New Delhi, from our hotel

Our trip into Delhi coincided with the national holiday for Gandhi’s birthday. Although this meant that the Indian crowds were out in force, and that spending much time at the any of the multitude of exhibits within the Red Fort became an impossibility, it was actually more fun that way. Seeing it in all its glory, and getting to chat to all the locals that came up to say “hi’, to take photos with us, and even standing with a group of soldiers as the cameras were brought out again.

From our rickshaw journey, it was clear that we had made a good choice in avoiding the drive into town.

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The tomb had recently been reopened after a large scale refurbishment – so was in top condition. It is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor (Hunauyun, of course), who reigned in the mid-1600s. It claims the crown of being the first of India’s ‘Garden Tombs’, though it is definitely not the most famous.

Day 162 – Thursday, October 3rd 2013

Our quick tour of India was coming to an end, so we headed towards the border with Nepal. The roads away from Delhi were surprisingly good, except for a missing bridge on one road, and a large pile of building materials blocking another – a delivery truck had just unloaded right in the middle of the road, rather than on the large amount of space on the edge. When the bridge was missing a kindly man and his daughter lead us around the diversion that would be quickest for us.

The border was only open for vehicles in the morning, so we pulled just off the road at the last Indian town and settled down for the night.

Day 163 – Friday, October 4th 2013

Our first glimpse of Nepal, and those famous hills.

Our first glimpse of Nepal, and those famous hills.

We arrived at the border bridge mid morning and were surprised to find the officers on both sides efficient, friendly, and with a good knowledge of all of the paperwork that we had to have completed to temporarily import Ivor into the new country.

This Bridge forms the No-Mans Land between the two borders

This Bridge forms the No-Mans Land between the two borders

There was a sign at the border stating that having any Indian currency in Nepal of a denomination greater than 500 rupees was illegal, and punishable by imprisonment…. We had just taken out a large amount of this, believing that we would be able to exchange it for Nepalese Rupees once across the order. This sign was placed in the no-mans-land between the two countries, so since it was too late to do anything about it we figured that what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them – so we stashed the bundles of cash behind the safe in the truck, which is already hidden way out of view behind a panel, behind the fridge.

It was exciting to be in Nepal, since the Hymalayas were now only a few days away, but it was a shame that the constraint of the Nepalese trekking season had forced us to go through India at such a rate – particularly when we lost the best part of 2 weeks at the beginning trying to free Ivor from his container. We both agreed, that while the country had been incredible, interesting, and totally unlike any where we had been before, if we had the choice again we would visit in a different way in the future – Either taking longer, covering less distance, or perhaps opting for the well established rail network in preference to the crumbing roads. Nevertheless, the country has to be seen to be believed, and at least we had been able to get a taste of the real India – though not enough of one to have a hope of understanding it! We will return to pass through the eastern states later on in the trip, and we are both looking forward to seeing what surprises it will inevitably bring….

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