The departure from Jagdalpur was the beginning of one of my longest legs of transit of my trip in India. The bus to Raipur took 7h and someone was possessed enough to equip it with a horn that could emit five different ring-tones, always at around 80db. Reaching Raipur was also terribly far behind on its list of priorities next to filling the bus with as much people as possible - tactics to achieve included sitting 3-4 people per sleeper seat, shouting and throwing one's arm at the people in the aisle to get them to bunch up more towards the back of the vehicle, yelling at you to make you change seats to match the order of stops.
Then the auto-rickshaw from the bus station ran out of fuel half-way to the railway station during the hour I had to make my train and I got into a grand shouting match with the driver in the middle of 6 o'clock traffic when I refused to pay more than half of the initial set price.
After 15 minutes of running, I made the train and thankfully, my wait-listed reservation had been matched with a reserved sleeper berth.
19h later I reached Bhopal (site of the 1984 industrial catastrophe, said to be the world's worst). Not more than 5 rupees left in my wallet, I opted to look for a guesthouse to drop my bag off before searching for a bank to exchange some travelers' checks, but was met with the stupid but typical central-Indian grumble, no eye-contact and dust-off gesture by several lodge receptionists who either claimed to not have free rooms or none of their least-expensive rooms available. Banks did practically the same. The slightly-friendlier State Bank referred me to their main branch 2.5km away, because they also could not accept the checks. Frustrated and unimpressed with dusty, noisy and unwelcoming Bhopal, I checked my bag in at the cloak room of the train station, trekked out to the main branch of the State Bank of India, ate, and took the first bus out to the village of Sanchi, 60km north.
I arrived in Sanchi at around 7 at night and just as I tightened my pack, a cool and articulate 11-year-old young guy on a brand new bike stopped to ask me if I needed a room and led me 100m further to his manager's guest house. After I took the room, he showed me the third-floor rooftop with sunset swallow chirps surrounding us. "There is the stupa!" he exclaimed, pointing towards the UNESCO-listed Buddhist monument at the top of the nearby hill.
Emperor Ashoka had Sanchi's first stupa and beautifully engraved entrance gates built in the 3rd century BC when he turned to Buddhism in search of repentance for atrocities committed at war. Sanchi's stupa is deemed classic for is period: a circular domed stone structure inside of which religious relics and the bodies of important monks have been enclosed. It has also a double stairway to a raised platform that forms the second base of the stupa from which one enters and exits to navigate clockwise around the dome. Unlike more contemporary Buddhist structures at the site from the 12th century, Ashoka's stupa was built following a Buddhist iconography still very uninfluenced by Hinduism. Buddha never appears in person - he appears as a horse when he has not yet reached enlightenment and is about to ride young and restlessly from his home into the wide world, as a Bodhi tree when he has reached enlightenment.
I enjoyed walking through the site, seeing the different eras of Buddhism represented at Sanchi and also trying to decipher the stories told in the stupa's gateways. Afterwards outside, I was met by a group of boys whom I had challenged to a mango collection competition before visiting the Stupa. I stayed there a good hour conversing with them. Tarun, the leader, was quite interested when I told him I was going to study geography again and he knew of every site which I had visited in India when I recounted my itinerary. I rented a bike in the afternoon to explore the surrounding countryside, including the Udaigiri caves, a set of 20 Hindu and Jain Buddhist meditation caves dug out of Udai hill in the middle of cattle grazing and wheat fields. I ended the day in the market eating fried doughy things with sweet red pepper chutney, buying some mangoes and visiting the shop of a talented young tailor whom I had met at the chai stand.
Sanchi set me on good foot to make my way north to Agra with a stopover in Gwalior the next day. I would imagine that most people skip Gwalior's fort on their way to the Taj Mahal in Agra or Jaipur, but it's 3km fortress complex towering above the bustling old town below is incredible. The fort was built and expanded under different dynasties, always under heavy Rajput influence (cf. Rajasthan) but aside from the main palace residence, the majority of the site is dilapidated and one is completely free to roam in and out of the myriad structures, to every edge of the elevated plateau aside from the section now occupied by a private school for Indian nobility.
I fell asleep and missed my stop to Agra after that. I awoke around 23:30 in the holy town of Mathura 50km north, on the sacred Yamuna River, and to get back to Agra, I had to wait for a 00:30 train (but really 1:50). "Are you a journalist?" asked the young man sitting next to me, next to a column on platform 1. When I replied that I was not, that I was a student, I asked him what he was. "I am in business" he replied. What kind of business? "Drugs" he said. The conversation that followed revealed that he was an opium grower from Rajasthan. He was registered to sell his production to the government, but once in a while he delivered some surplus to a buyer in Uttar Pradesh. An interesting lead on a future story perhaps.
My first day in Agra was spent walking along the banks of the Yamuna River to visit two important tombs just north of the Taj Mahal. The first tomb was similar in style to the Taj Mahal with a lot of engraved and gemstone-set white marble and also built to honour a deceased wife. The second of the two further north on the Yamuna, Chini Ka Rauza, housed the body of the Taj Mahal's Persian architect. A perfect and pure example of Persian architecture, it was the most breathtaking site I had come to in India - people sleeping inside, muddy trash-strewn Yamuna outside, wise and eloquent guardian only contributed.
With a few hours left in the afternoon I visited the town of Fatehpur Sikri, 40km away. If you are in Agra, you really should make time to visit this site. Fatehpur Sikri includes a palace complex, mosque and fort built by the Mughals in the 16th century but abandoned shortly after completion due to regional water shortages. The site is enormous, completely and beautifully intact and was virtually bereft of people. Alone, walking through enormous squares, feeling intricate wall carvings and blinking through shaded colonnades, it amplified and contrasted my experience in Gwalior the previous evening with visual inspiration and equal solitary introspection.
Enjoying my guesthouse and conversations with my new friend Paul, I stayed and extra day and as you have seen, made it to the Taj Mahal at first light. Paul has been traveling around India on motorcycle almost every year of the past 15. He took my interest for a trip to eastern Himachal Pradesh and with his suggestions and enthusiasm, turned it into a another jump-starting bed of coals to push me onwards in my northbound journey. Thank you Paul, Spiti has me flying!