Varanasi, Agra and the Epic Taj Mahal.
Our first stop in Uttar Pradesh was at an absolute hole of a town called Agra which has a reasonably famous white building.Unfortunately, not a lot can be said for Agra, a city which seems to be the absolute antithesis of the Taj Mahal - dirty, not looked after, and generally a blot on the landscape. There is a nice cafe called Joney's in Tajganj which seats about 15 people at any given time and everything is cooked on a campfire, but tastes amazing. It's a shame really, if Agra was nice, I'm sure people would be much more inclined to stay longer. As it was, we stayed in Agra for just over 24 hours and made out of there quick smart. The Taj Mahal is, quite simply, outstanding. I am no wordsmith but the sheer size and beauty is quite breathtaking when you first see it. The only thing I personally can compare it to, is (what were) the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, their size was something I had never comprehended before seeing them. The Taj is different, it's the serenity and majesty that has the effect on you.
There are obviously, the standard issues that one has to deal with in India - Touts/Hawkers at every turn trying to liberate you of your cash, tour guides who will quite literally push you out the way so their guidees can get the perfect shot, and of course, the Indian bureaucracy that ensures you miss sunrise by checking every bag and classifying both playing cards and a hair brush as Weapons of Mass Destruction that are not allowed inside the Taj grounds. This is a true story. Playing cards...WTF????
After Agra, we jumped on an overnight train to Lucknow, where the famous Siege of Lucknow happened, which was pivotal, I am told, in the First War of Indian Independence. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why the British wanted to keep hold of Lucknow...it's a bit of a dive (again)! I won't dwell on the negatives here, instead I will tell you about the best kebab that has ever been created on this earth. Tunday Kebab has been rustling up Kebabs for a while, and these guys have got it down.
Our next stop was Varanasi, the holy city on the River Ganges, and a place that tends to divide people between love and hate. We loved our time in Varanasi. 5 days, including the famous Holi festival, was spent wandering the tiny alleys and avoiding cows that seem to get in everyone's way. We did a couple of boat trips along the river, a brilliant way to see all the different ghats and get a feel for how the locals live. They quite literally do everything in the Ganges...everything! Our morning boat trip was not without drama however, as we were floating along enjoying sunrise, a dead cow popped up about 20 feet from our boat and just floated down the river. It appears that this is not uncommon as our boat man gave it a cursory look and then just carried on rowing as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile we were in a state of mild panic watching the deceased cow slowly drift along the river emitting an unholy stench.
We'd heard a lot about the upcoming Holi festival, much of the advice we'd received was that we shouldn't go outside between 8am and 1pm as the locals tend to "target" foreigners and women especially. We'd planned to dined the morning on our guesthouse rooftop and then venture out later on to participate in a bit of revelry. Unfortunately, our guesthouse informed us at 10pm the night before Holi that we could not use the rooftop. No explanation was given, but we assumed that they didn't want to deal with any mess that could be created. Luckily, a couple in our guesthouse had met an Indian family the day before and we all journeyed to their house by the river with the necessary paint, water bombs, rum and mixers.
The family were so incredibly welcoming and friendly. They made us snacks throughout the day and looked after us brilliantly.
Indians really know how to party!! They danced and sung and threw colour until we were all far too tired and hungry! It was an amazing experience to "play Holi" in Varanasi and I must have hugged or shaken hands with about 1000 people. While my old white t-shirt now looks like a tie-dye dream that an A-level art student would be proud of.