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Let me tell you a Sikri

India, Day Twelve – Agra, Fatehpur Sikri

Today has been a pretty full and reasonably eventful day.

Yesterday, my cycle rickshaw driver (as he became for a while) seemed quite helpful and pleasant. Well, no – he was quite helpful and pleasant. I was walking through Taj Ganj in the direction of the autorickshaw stand, when I went the wrong way and needed to turn round. I was intending to go to the Fort. This rickshaw man followed and offered to take me there for 20 rupees. It seemed a bargain so I accepted.

The driver (if that’s the right word for someone who operates a cycle rickshaw) was fairly old and his rickshaw was in worse condition than many. A lot of them have padded seats and spangly decorations. This one had a seat of woven ribbon cords, a missing footrest, and a sunroof made of plastic sheeting. Also the driver had to get out on any sort of upward slope and push. Once or twice I had to get out and walk.

Towards the end of the day, as he had a break on the way back from the Yamuna to have a piss and a cigarette, I asked him again how much it was for the tour. The answer was 150 rupees – but that was without the Yamuna excursion. He told me that I was a nice person and he said that he would be happy with some extra money and just as happy without – money wasn’t everything. I ended up giving him 200. In some ways, maybe I am a nice person.

(The other place I visited yesterday, but forgot to mention earlier, was the Jama Masjid – the mosque (notable for its stripy domes). The caretaker quickly introduced himself to me and gave me a tour. At the end, he showed me a sheet with various names and donations of 500 rupees. So effectively I had to give him 500 rupees. Then he wanted 200 for the tour and I couldn’t really refuse him. He left me a lone to take some photos (including one of a rippling beehive in the main arch of the mosque; this really wasn’t in a good state – hence the request for donations), but came back a moment later to ask me how I’d come here. When I answered he told me never to buy anything promoted by a rickshaw or taxi driver. Good advice. Good advice that I was already fully cognisant of.)

At the end of the day yesterday the richshaw man said he’d take me to the bus station the next day so I could go to Fatehpur Sikri. I met him this morning at 10:07-ish and said I wanted to go to the railway station as well to buy a ticket for Lucknow. He kept telling me that it would be better for me if I got a taxi that would take me not only to Fatehpur Sikri, but Sikandra as well. Then he told me the train station might be closed in the morning because of Eid, and that I could go to a travel agency and book a ticket there.

We arrived at the travel agency and I refused to get out. The train station now, apparently, being closed, full stop, I told him to go to the bus station – which he did. But when we got there he kept on telling me it, too, would be closed for the morning. I paid him and started to head over to the station. First, though, he told me he’d be here for me at four o’clock. I protested that I didn’t know how long I would be, but he was confident I’d be back by four. I got the feeling that even if I was an hour or two – or several – he’d still be there waiting for me and my money.

I asked at the enquiry desk about going to Fatehpur Sikri and the man there indicated the bus right behind me. So I got on. The bus left at about 11:25. The fare was 22 rupees (more than the 17 quoted in Lonely Planet, but somewhat less than the 700 my rickshaw driver was telling me a taxi would cost).

The bus was held up for quite some time by roadworks, but eventually it got there. There were a number of other foreigners on the bus – a couple of Russians (by the sound of them) and a gaggle of Korean youngsters (one of whom bore the Korean Lonely Planet guide for ‘Indo’). Once off the bus, I wasn’t sure where to go. For no particular reason, I followed the Russians. They turned around halfway down the bazaar street. I didn’t because a) I don’t like turning round in public and b) it would have looked stupidly obvious that I was following them.

Not too far along the road was a junction, with one arm doubling back on the left. I went up there and found the Jama Masjid. Quite an impressive building, and populated with a fair few tourists and a fair few Muslims there for somewhat more legitimate reasons. Not very many of either, though.

After that, and having consulted my own Lonely Planet, I attempted to go to the other attraction in Fatehpur Sikri, the palace of Jodh Bai – which is apparently not the palace of Jodh Bai at all, but of Akbar the Great (not to be confused with the admiral from Star Wars). I went in completely the wrong direction and ended up walking for a couple of kilometres through streets of shops and houses.

When I got to the palace I went through it backwards. Which is to say I started with the stables and worked my way round to the main palace. It’s a sizable and complex, um, complex, featuring many finely decorated structures of the now very familiar terracotta-red stone. I took many photos.

The real adventure of the day started on the return journey. At, say half past four, I was one of the first to arrive for the next bus at the stand at the foot of the hill surmouted by the mosque. A number of Indians and non-Indians turned up in the following hour. One bus came, dropped off a load of people and left again without taking anyone on. As twilight drew nearer, people started drifting away. An exodus of foreigners began as we all started following each other away.

It gradually and uncertainly became apparent that there wasn’t going to be another bus. So a handful of English people (no Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people), a pair of German couples a brace of Russian (different Russians) and a trio of Koreans (ditto) milled about in the bazaar waiting for something to happen. Some order taxis. The Koreans had their bags and went to a hotel. I hovered in the group and eventually asked an English girl who I recognised from my hotel if she knew what was happening; her reply was negative, but good-humoured.

Eventually, at around six o’clock, the middle-aged German man secured, or was offered, a ride to the main road where one could catch a different bus to Agra. The ride was on a horse and trap, with space enough for six people (plus two young drivers). I was one of the six. The lad with the horse showed us to where the bus would stop (it doesn’t seem right to call it a ‘bus stop’, as there’s not really anything there).

The bus came and it was packed. But not so packed that you couldn’t squeeze in a few more people – and squeeze in we did. I was lucky enough to secure a space where a) I could lean against the driver’s partition (which was also full of passengers) and b) there were people in the seats next to me who got off relatively early – allowing me to sit down. (As I was standing, I looked around at the faces looking curiously back at me and met the glance of a man with a bulging eye who looked exactly like a cross between Sammy Davis Jr and Admiral Akbar (not to be confused with Akbar the Mughal emperor).)

The bus made good time, stopping only to let off the occasional person. All the remaining Indians got off at various locations as we drove through Agra, until there were only us foreigners left. We were expecting the bus to go back to the Bus Station at Idgah, but it looked like it wasn’t going any further. I have a feeling it was simply communication problems that led us to getting off where we did, each party making statements posing questions, and the other not being able to tell the difference.

Anyway, we got off and wandered along looking for an empty autorickshaw (empty except for the driver – yo know what I mean). When it came, the driver, unusually, had no English at all, and some time was spent with random Indians trying to him what we wanted. Then we got to the exclusion zone on our side of the Taj Mahal and we all walked back to our hotel (we were all staying at the Hotel Sheela). It was five to eight, and my rickshaw driver was happily forgotten.

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