Saturday, February 11, 2012

Asian Adventure: Day 32 Trains are no Better than Planes

We were up before dawn to catch the Shatabdi Express train to Agra at 6:15 AM. Unfortunately the fog that had plagued us in Nepal had followed us into India and as soon as we reached the train station we heard the announcement that our departure had been pushed to 7:30 AM due to a "weather delay".

We found a couple of free chairs on the train platform and we waited... and waited... and waited. We were getting to be pros at this waiting game.

The train finally pulled into the station around 8:00 AM and we excitedly boarded - our first train in India!

The excitement was short lived as the train pulled out of the station into the fog. The "express" train crawled along the track, usually so slow you couldn't tell we were moving, sometimes not moving at all. The fog was so thick you could barely see beyond the tracks and we only got the smallest glimpses of the passing countryside. Thankfully we had splurged on first class seats - a whopping 700 rupees ($15) - so we were able to stretch out and enjoy the "ride" and the multi-course breakfast included with our tickets.

A local sitting beside us was kind enough to explain that the fog was unseasonable, usually India is not hit with heavy fogs until mid-December, but that it had been delaying trains and flights for several days now. The good news was that the weather forecast called for the fog to clear over the next couple days.

The train ride that was supposed to take 2 hours and arrive bright and early at 8:15 AM, finally pulled into the station at Agra shortly after 1:00 PM. Five hours late - our best time yet!

The fog was still as thick as pea soup, so we decided seeing the Taj Mahal today was likely a waste and we would take our chances that the fog would clear by tomorrow.  Instead we hired a taxi to take us directly to Fatepur Sikri from the train station in hopes of making the most of the few hours of day light remaining.

The fog

Fatepur Sikri is located about 40 km west of Agra. The guidebooks and our taxi driver both promised that the drive would take about 90 minutes - yah right! About 20 minutes out of town we hit a gridlock of traffic as far as the eye could see. As we slowly crawled forward the source of the delay was clear - they were in the process of twinning the highway but had not yet taken the time to twin the road at the train crossing. So four lanes of traffic had to merge down into one lane of alternating traffic to cross the tracks in between the frequent trains - and of course there was no form of traffic control to be seen! The pushiest vehicle got across first and frequently vehicles were stuck on the tracks only able to pull inches away from the passing trains!

Eventually we made it across the tracks (after a considerable amount of praying that we didn't get hit by a train) and made the rest of the trip in record speed. Reaching Fatepur Sikri, we left our taxi driver in the parking lot with our luggage and headed to the Jama Masjid mosque.

The mosque is an impressive red stone structure built in 1571 surrounding a white marble tomb. Inside the tomb, a tour guide instructed us to tie a string on to the lattice wall to make a wish. My wish... that the fog would disappear and we would not have anymore weather delays!

From the mosque, we headed to the ruins of the palace. The palace was a massive complex of red stone buildings built around the same time as the mosque and one is of the first examples of Mughal architecture. Unfortunately it was abandoned after only 14 years due to inadequate water sources. We spent hours exploring the maze of buildings and studying the intricate carvings.

As the sun was setting, we relocated our taxi driver and headed back into town. Once again we hit the traffic jam at the train crossing but this time, with the help of some local teens who were excited to talk to some foreigners (and take our photo of course), we were able to convince the driver to take a detour through the surrounding farm roads. We finally pulled into our hotel at 8:00 PM thoroughly exhausted and starving since we had not eaten since breakfast on the train. We ate dinner at the hotel and immediately crashed for the night.

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