Wednesday, February 2nd 1994
The early morning alarm call sounded at 4:30am. After a quick wash we had just enough time to eat the croissants that room service had provided.
We went out into the cold Delhi morning and hailed a black and gold taxi. We arrived back at New Delhi station and were amazed to find that the market stalls, lit with small electric lights or gas lamps, were already bustling with trade.
The Shatabdi Express was already standing at Platform 1 but it was in total darkness. Eventually with only a few minutes to go, the lights came on and we were able to board the executive class coach. The coach was mostly occupied by other foreigners and they seemed to be swapping their various stories of food poisoning in India. My stomach must have overheard them because I suddenly had the urgent desire to use the western-style toilet.
The Shatabdi was renowned to be amongst India’s latest trains. It was quite comfortable and reasonably clean, but it must have been at least 20 or 30 years behind anything from the UK or Japan. The shoddiness of the fittings, the ill-fitting tables and the clumsily welded footrests were all testament to the fact it was not a very well-thought out design.
We set off from Delhi and, as the sun began to rise, we were served with breakfast. The meal consisted of potato cutlets and small omelettes arranged on foil trays. I was feeling a bit rough and just picked at mine. My wife ate all hers up.
The train moved reasonably fast through generally unremarkable countryside. It was a quick 125 mile trip and after just 2 hours the Shatabdi pulled into Agra station.
After a little discussion we decided on hiring a taxi for the day to see as much of Agra as possible. We approached a line of vehicles and engaged ourselves in a bit of battering and eventually settled on a particular guide and taxi.
The guide was a friendly-looking old-man (we later found out he was a 72) and the taxi was a white Ambassador. Part of the deal was that we would not be taken to any shops we didn’t want to go to and we would be taken to a specific restaurant we had already chosen from the guide book.
We set off in the direction of the Baby Taj. We parked up and followed our guide towards the building. On the way in there was a wire fence with a man standing in front of it. The guide told us we had to part with 2 Rupees in order to have the man holding the fence together to open it so we could get past.
Next we set off to Agra fort and were met with the same thing there too. Another 2 Rupees went to another man.
We also saw a lot more women beggars, some of them had legless babies and the guide told us that the women actually rent the babies so they can get more money from tourists. He told us not to give them any money. I thought this was good advice, but I wondered if his real intention was for us to conserve our cash so we could continue to fund the guys sitting next to the fences.
We had been getting on well with the guide up until then but then we found the next stop was a marble shop. We started to get a bit frustrated. We sat down and refused to buy anything. The guide then got quite very angry.
The relationship got worse as we next found ourselves outside a totally different restaurant for lunch. We stood our ground and refused to get out of the car until we were driven to our own choice; “Zorba the Buddha”. The guide eventually gave in and drove us back across town. It was certainly worth it as we had some fantastic potato curry and excellent chai and tea.
The afternoon saw us at the Taj Mahal. It was every bit as enchanting as the photographs we had seen and we spent over an hour just admiring the whole thing. They were selling beautiful Saris around the Taj mahal and that was when my wife first got the idea she wanted to buy one. We thought we would wait though and didn’t tell the guide.
After the Taj we were taken to a crafts emporium situated in an old English lodge “to see carpet making”. It was obviously a tourist trap, but to our big surprise we actually ended up buying a carpet. (2017 and we still have it all these years later) The guide seemed much happier and probably got the wrong impression that we had decided to go on a spending spree.
Over at the metal counter we met a man who had experience of living in Japan and we talked to him in Japanese and explained we were not interesting in buying anything. He seemed fine with that and was happy to chat about his time in Tokyo. The guide looked on perplexed.
We were then quickly taken over to a jewellery counter and encountered such aggressive selling tactics that we simply walked out and went back to the car ourselves.
We then had a massive argument with the guide and in the end we just told him to forget taking us to any more shops and drop us back at the Agra Grand Hotel. Finally he gave up but he was still a bit angry as he dropped us at the hotel.
We sat in the bar at the Grand and had a really refreshing beer and then another one.
Eventually we walked back to the railway station along a dark, dimly lit road. It had stalls on both sides and the food stands were pumping out a fair bit of smoke. We had to do our best not to be knocked down by bicycles.
We arrived back at the railway station and used the first class waiting room to wait for the Shatabdi Express. It pulled in bang on time at 20:18 and we clambered aboard. We had a problem with the seat back numbers which didn’t correspond with the ticket reservations. We then got into an argument about this with a horrible British guy. He easily won the award for the worst person we had met all day.
We went and sat in a different carriage.
Dinner was complimentary on the train again and, feeling rather better, I enjoyed the vegetable cutlet, vegetable curry, chapatti and curry that we were served.
We arrived back at New Delhi station and then engaged in some fierce negotiation for a taxi back to the hotel.
It had been a long hard day, but we were gaining in confidence and getting used to India a bit more.