I've seen both Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal with no tourists around
The great wonders of the world, it seems to me, are best seen in a state of, well, great wonder. It’s hard to be witness to the majesty of Machu Picchu or the pyramids if you are shoving your way through ice cream vendors or, for that matter, elbowing your passage through a madding crowd of fellow wonderers. Better, surely, to leave these gems of civilisation to one’s imagination – give them a miss entirely and just buy a nice poster instead.
Or so I used to think. But then, several decades ago, I found myself passing through Peru with a week to spare. This was back in 1990 or thereabouts, during a time of political instability – the Shining Path movement was at its zenith and after various terrorist atrocities, all but the hardiest of travellers were giving the country a swerve.
I too might have been put off, if it wasn’t for the forlorn bloke I saw proffering brochures fronted by Machu Picchu in all its Andean magnificence. The temptation was just too great.
Before I knew it I had caught a flight to Cusco – utterly deserted – and then an empty train that zigzagged up to the site. And there in front of me it was – not just the historic ruins, nor the resplendent amphitheatre of cloud-forest that is the backdrop to the place, but the smiles of locals who greeted me with gratitude. I had made the effort – and though the little rank of lady hawkers must have been desperate for me to buy a trinket, it seemed to be enough that I had placed my faith in them, the ordinary people of Peru, and risked the trip here.
There was no ungainly disgorging from a tour bus. I was spared the pickpockets, and that agonising moment when one is forced to consider, at the end of the tour, just how much to tip the waiting guide. I was alone with the fifteenth citadel of the Incas, standing among the ancient stones and everything was veiled in silent mist.
Part of the value to us of Machu Picchu, of course, has always been that this particular icon fits so snugly into our imagination as a Lost City. Machu Picchu was never really lost – certainly not to the Incas - but it looked like that to archaeologist Hiram Bingham when he excavated it.
The trouble is, not being able to enjoy an undisturbed relationship with this place takes away from that illusion we’ve come to see – not when there are 20 people ahead, each wanting their moment too; queuing to smooth their fingers over the joints of the Sun Temple’s meticulously configured walls.
Such marvels, if they are to resonate through the ages, should ideally radiate their pre-eminence by standing aloof from the everyday – and it’s hard for them to do this when trampled by the seething hordes.
But I had been immensely fortunate, and the experience was so enriching, that I decided to redouble my efforts should I ever be passing within reach of any other such world wonder again. And so, when a year later I was passing through New Delhi and spotted a bargain day trip to the Taj Mahal, I booked my bus ticket with alacrity.
In the event, I was put on the wrong bus – depending on how you look at it given what later transpired. Instead of boarding the advertised ‘air conditioned splendour,’ all-meals-provided bus, I trundled to Agra on a local version, through the hot, dusty night, along with a great many chickens and carousers. I was deposited at a lonely bus stop on a dirty stretch of the Yamuna River. We must have been a good two miles away from the main spectacle.
But what a sight! I had arrived just before sun-up, and as it rose, red and molten, casting a dusty Martian light over the ivory white mausoleum, I was transfixed. Here was beauty without distraction – an experience gained without compromise.
My relationship with this subject of so many well-thumbed, familiar images suddenly felt very intimate. For a while, the Taj and I faced each other undisturbed across the slick water flow. Even once I had slogged the two miles to the monument I found myself alone there except for a leaf sweeper.
Again I was able to believe that I had a private audience; an intense, uninterrupted conversation with an object of near perfection. Nothing could have been more wonderful.