Friday, November 24, 2006

The road to Taj Mahal

We leave Amritsar early to meet up with Tom and Peter who are riding ahead of us by one day. We meet them in McLeodGanj, a small town up the mountains home to the Tibetan refugees (the most famous of whose is the Dalaï-Lama himself). Quite a nice place, but unfortunately a bit spoiled by all the tourist shops and the hassling by the shop keepers and the beggars. But it is a touristic place, as well as a magnet for those people who are here in a quest of spiritualism. You easily spot them by the way they dress and behave.

As my bike is not running so well, we decide to go to Delhi to do some preventive maintenance; it seems the part that I changed in Mongolia is failing again.. We ride along Tom and Peter for that, on nice windy but busy mountain roads. Tom even has a close encounter with a truck.. ending up with a bent pannier (again). We're in no hurry so we stop in Kalka and take a narrow gauge train to visit Shimla, at 2000m it used to be the summer capital of British India. It's a very picturesque ride through more than 100 tunnels and bridges to get there.

When we arrive, indeed it looks very British as the rains pours down and blocks all views from up there! At least our fellow English riders feel home (uncomfortably so says Tom). We end up sipping drinks in the bar of the best hotel of the town, for the ultimate British experience.

Delhi is just a short ride away, so no big deal even in the pretty heavy traffic. The road and the general infrastructure is very good and modern, and we end up stopping over for lunch in a McDonald.. but really, what is the point of a McDonald if there is no BigMac ? Of course, beef is out of question in a hindu country! All you have are McChicken and VegMac.

New Delhi is quite modern and doesn't look like a big Indian city. Large avenues, modern infrastructure, western-style shops, etc.. but a short ride to old Delhi and you're back in the landmark "organized chaos". We find a nice workshop for our bikes, it seems the only one in India dealing with big japanese bikes. We leave them here and wait until Anders has figure out what part he wants to order as well for his.

In the mean time we do the obligatory visit to Agra, home of Taj Mahal and just 3 hours away y train. Well, that is, when the train is actually running, because it took us actually 7 hours waiting for - and in - the train. When we arrive we're told that the Taj has been closed the whole day to allow for the Chinese prime minister to visit it.. fine, we intend to visit it at dawn the next day anyway. As it turns out, 6AM is a good time to come to avoid the crowd of tourists. As the sun is raising at 7AM, everybody is lines up on the entrance terrace to take a good shot at the monument with the early sun hitting it, so it's a good time to walk around without too much hassle. As much as you've seen it in post cards and books, it is still a fantastic monument to look at, and I hardly got bored with it when I left 3 hours later, when the big crowd comes in. The other guys on the other hand had a bit of mixed feelings about it; maybe they expected something more, whereas I expected to be disappointed and I was definitely not.

Before returning to Delhi, we hire a taxi for a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, a very well preserved archaelogical site nearby (see the photo album). We get a good price from the owner by dealing only 2 visits to shops. The usual way to get extra money for a driver is to bring the tourists to various shops where the manager would pay them 100 or 200 ruppees for this. That's OK as long as the deal is open, but we didn't want to spend hours in those souvenir shops, so we quickly dashed in and out of the stores, much to the disappointment of the driver who wouldn't get his money for such a short visit. Too bad, but that's what we had agreed on.

We spend some time walking in the streets, filming as we try to dodge the constant hassling of the rickshaw drivers and shop keepers that jump out on you as soon as they spot you. It seems only the cows can walk quietly in the streets, stopping by the shops to ask (and get) some food. It's good for your karma to look after a cow, so they look pretty healthy and not too unhappy.


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