- Arrived early in morning after a train ride with a nice Sikh family that featured a schoolteacher mom and a dad who looked like Ali G. He wore a skull and crossbones doorag, camo pants, and a SWAT TEAM shirt. He was also a partner in a company that represents Marshalls in purchasing bathroom accessories, and does $3M in business with the US. They gave us some snacks, including Gajak, which was really tasty, and gave us newspapers to keep ourselves clean while we ate DELICIOUS food on the train (some of the best food we had on the trip was on trains, for 39 Rs (less than $1) per head.
- Got a driver for the day for about $24 for the three of us. He was from nepal, and really cute (including his cellphone ring)
- Visited Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Asia, which was built by the same guy that built the Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan). On the way in, Meredith and I lost sight of A.J., and by the time we saw him, a tout had attached himself to us and wouldn’t let us leave until we paid a camera fee for a camera we did not have. He essentially ruined the experience for us, since we left to avoid him without properly taking in the experience.
- Briefly stopped by the Red Fort, which we decided to avoid because of long lines and being “forted out” after Rajasthan. A bit of a mistake, since this and Agra fort (which we later skipped as well) are magnificent and different than the Rajasthani ones. This fort is mostly symbolic—it’s the last bastion of defense for India, so if you take that, then you’re in charge of India.
- Headed to Gandhi’s cremation site, which sits in a beautifully green and calm park in Delhi with the cremation sites of many other important people in modern India’s history. The monument was simple yet inspiring, and it was good to reflect quietly about just how amazing the man was. Then an entire school of children came screaming into the site, but it was as we left, so we didn’t mind so much.
- Went to Akshardham, which is in the guiness book of world records as the largest hindu temple. Construction finished in 2005, and it shows. The complex surrounding the temple is HUGE, featuring many distractions like water/light shows and boat rides. The temple itself is awesome. We had a samosa each for 6 Rs (12 cents, the going price) outside the security line, in which I was felt up like I was never felt up before (but at least it was delicate). The food court in the complex was huge, and we ordered too much food by accident, but managed to eat it all since I was ravenous and felt invincible.
- Headed to Humayun’s tomb, which is a masoleum for the second Mughal emperor. I’ll post an entry on Humayun’s tomb along with Akbar’s and the Taj Mahal, since they are all of similar architecture and serve similar purposes.
- Drove past parliament/various minister’s offices, and then India gate, which looked nice in the foggy night.
- On the way back to the hotel, stopped by a store to buy extra toilet paper. Will write an entry on storefronts. One of the rolls had urine on it. Oh well.
- For dinner, we decided to try Mcdonalds, since it’s so different from an American one. We had a Veg surprise (A.J.), McVeg and McAloo Tiki (Meredith and I), and we all had fries and soda. The raw vegetables were so refreshing, since we weren’t allowed to eat them all trip. The icecubes in the soda were also nice (another nono, since the ice might be from bad water). All of the burgers are essentially some take on a potato patty with some peas. Nothing like an American veggie burger patty exists - it’s all made of vegetables you can recognize by sight or taste. +10 for Indian Mcdonalds!
- Woke up at 5 am to drive to Agra with Saje, who had taken the extra day to drive to Delhi. He pulled another fast one on us, and we ended up at a ridiculously classy breakfast place, which ran us ~$24 for the three of us. We were not pleased, but they did have a man with a jumping monkey outside.
- First went to Sikandra, which is Akbar’s tomb. Will discuss more in the Mughal masoleum entry.
- Went to Taj Mahal. Oh. My. A $15 entry fee (Indians are charged $1) was well worth it. We got a guide by ignoring a guy who asked us for $20 (quoting the US price!) and then $5 for a guy who asked us for $2 and passed our quiz to test his knowledge. This was after our car was chased by a guide on a motorcycle as soon as we entered Agra. So much to say about the Taj, will discuss more in the Mughal masoleum entry. A.J. bought some souveniers, and on the way out we saw a cute cuddling monkey family, and gave our water to a kid who spoke pretty much perfect english for the four phrases he knew.
- Ate lunch at another classy place with Saje. Lots of Stars of David (they were common throughout the trip). It turns out that these are common on Mughal architecture—who knew?
- Went to Agra fort, but got too scared to enter when our hotel in Varanasi told us our train was cancelled. Went to train station, where they told us everything was fine. Got on train, and were woken at 4 am and told to get off train. Got out in Lucknow, which is, by the way, not Varanasi. A.J. and Meredith waited on the platform while I made my way through the crowd to find out what to do. Waited for the next superfast train (faster than an express, which came and went) until 8 am at the suggestion of other people who were doing the same. Found a random sleeper cabin (we were supposed to have AC, but who’s counting at that point), and sat down next to a cute old Nepalese (?) couple that didn’t speak with us. Next to us were some really friendly and chatty Muslim guys who gave us lots of snacks, in exchange for which we gave them some snacks and bought them chai. Made the fact that we arrived at 4 pm instead of 8 am a whole lot better.
- Arrived in hotel at 6 pm. Had dinner at Kerala Cafe, which served ridiculously cheap (less than $1 per head) south indian food. One of the best meals we had. Idli is neat, sambar rocks, and Dosas are awesome. A.J. learned what a Sada Dosa is—it’s a Dosa with nothing in it—oops. Meredith had more luck with the Rawa Dosa.
- Varanasi was called Banares by the British.
- The big “attraction” in Varanasi, which is quite a religious city, is the Ghats, or steps down to the Ganges river. There are tens of these Ghats. Some are bathing Ghats to bathe in the river (which sometimes has 3000x the safe limit of faecal coliform bacteria). Others are cremation Ghats, which you can see being used if you come at the right time (we didn’t).
- We went down to the river at 7 pm to see a Fire Puja (Hindu Prayer) at Dashashwamedh Ghat, which included several people standing on platforms singing, clapping, and moving several kinds of incense around rhythmically. We also avoided touts to the best of our ability, although I got a handshake from a guy who quickly turned the handshake into a body massage, which I brushed off and walked away from.
- The next morning, we walked through all the Ghats, and saw people bathing and some ashes. We also saw clothes being washed in the river, which made me realize how western clothes are cleaned when you give them to the hotel:).
- After the morning Ghat-walk, we took a car to Saranath, which is a city nearby, and the place where Buddha walked to after achieving enlightenment to give his first sermon. A.J. meditated at a place where he did while Meredith and I walked around the ruins. While standing in line to buy tickets for getting into the ruins, I realized that Buddhists, while peaceful, are also pushy, and follow the same non-line rules that everyone else does.
- After seeing where the sermon was given, we went to a nearby Buddhist temple, where we saw a cutting of the Bodi Tree. The original tree was in Bodh Gaya, and is the location of Buddha reaching enlightenment. This cutting is from Sri Lanka, which claims to have a cutting of the original tree.
- We took the craziest taxi ride I remember (except for the autorickshaw in Udaipur which tried everything possible to avoid a parade blocking the whole town) to Mughal Sarai, which is where the train station was. The train was supposed to arrive at 6 pm, and due to Delhi fog, arrived at a timely 3:30 am, at which point Meredith had fallen asleep on two rat-infested floors, A.J. was ready to kill anything that moved, and I was hyped up on Chai. At around 3 am, a high-schooler sat with me and asked me which books to read to get into the IITs (the MITs of India that have something like 2000 slots for 300000 applicants), and I suggested he email me so that I could hook him up with someone that actually knew something about getting into a selective school.
- We had a lot of time to reflect while sitting on the train track. We met many dogs (track dog eats poop on the track, while platform dog mostly lies around on the platform). Platform cow has a turkey neck, and does rounds checking each garbage can (which are on hinges so that the cow can eat from the can without tipping it over) for new contents. Finally, disease rat spreads love and fecal matter everywhere. It was great fun, and I would do it again.
- After A.J. almost demolished a family for sleeping in our beds on the train at 3:30 am (I would have done the same, but he was in front), we ended up sitting with them until our arrival in Siliguri at 6 pm the next day (we were supposed to have arrived at 8 am).
- The entire day was spent sitting and eating random train food, but it was really just me eating cheap dosas and other assorted food from random stations (tasty potato soup wrapped in grape leaves, etc.) while my companions looked at my like I was nuts for eating food off of the newspaper it was served on. At least I wasn’t hungry:).
- The train went through Bihar, which is one of the poorest Indian states (for many reasons, including horrendous flooding that destroys roads for three months at a time). The countryside was beautiful, but the number of (five-year-old) beggars on the train made it clear that this wasn’t a rich area. I woke up once to a child pushing my leg to wake me up asking for money. He left after continuing to push my leg for one minute. I later ran into him running down the aisle with rice and a chicken dish, which he threw on the ground, grabbed a dish from the train’s kitchen, and mixed with his hands. I’ve never seen someone eat so ravenously. Later on as I was hanging out the door watching the countryside, he looked at the camera with curiosity. I showed him that it takes pictures of things and keeps the picture (using my hand and the countryside as an example). Finally, I turned the camera on him, which lit up his face when he saw the result. I felt bad taking a picture, but I think he learned what the camera did once he saw the photo.
- We arrived in Siliguri, called our Darjeeling hotel to cancel since it was too late and elephants would block the road, and found an amazing hotel in Siliguri. For 1000 Rs ($20) we each got a double, which was the cleanest and most amazing room we’ve had on the trip (and probably in my travel experience in general - this place rivaled any three- to four-star hotel in the US).
Darjeeling onward will follow!