We arrived in Agra with a great deal of anticipation. We were finally going to see the Taj Mahal.
Despite our excitement, we were managing out expectations. Usually, attractions with this degree of hype surrounding them can never live up to their reputation.
We arrived at our accommodation, having left Jaipur by train at the ungodly hour of 7am. The train was amazing though - they even served us breakfast - so we were chipper despite the early start.
Our check in was an interesting affair. As we walked in, we could hear chanting and singing. Soon, a face popped around the doorway, and the guesthouse owner came out to greet us. In very broken english, he told us to go up to our room, and we could check in later. We were lead through a nearby room, which was filled to the brim with smiling family members. It seems we had arrived just in time for some kind of religious celebration, and had to barge right through the middle of it to get to our room.
Once we were in there, we spent a bit of time unpacking and relaxing, deciding to wait until the ceremony downstairs had finished before we headed out for lunch. TWO HOURS later, we gave up on waiting, and 'snuck' back out through the cluster of family... And we kept on sneaking, all the way to McDonalds... I'm not even ashamed, it was delicious.
We spent the rest of the afternoon dealing with logistics for our upcoming time in Delhi. With so many accommodation options, this was an absolute nightmare, and took us FOREVER! As the evening wore on, we headed up to the roof to check out the full moon. We'd tried to get tickets for a full moon viewing of the Taj Mahal, because we'd lucked out timing-wise, but tickets are only available for 24 hours before the viewings, you can't buy them online, and the ticket office is 20Km out of town, so we gave up on that idea.
We found ourselves on the roof surrounded by the extended family of the guesthouse owner, and before long, we were sipping chai and chatting with them all.
The Taj Mahal
At 6.15am (UGH) we climbed into a tuk tuk as the sun rose over Agra. A short cruise through the streets later, we paid our extortionate entry fee (1000r/$20NZDpp - obscene by Indian standards), collected our bottle of water and shoe covers, and joined the queue to enter. Naturally, we were separated into a men’s and women’s queue to enter the grounds. It's fine to be near each other at all other hours of the day, but in queues, men and women must be separated.
We joined the queues at 6.45am. At 6.47am, Zev was through. At 7.20am, I made it through. Sigh.
But all the irritation washed away as we walked in to the beautiful grounds.
Our first sight as we entered was the main gateway, a stunning red marble archway that framed the Taj Mahal in the background beautifully. This was where we had our first view of the Taj, and it was everything we'd hoped for and more.
Walking through the main gateway to see the full majesty of the huge, white marble Taj Mahal in front of us was a surreal experience. Commissioned in 1632, and completed in 1645, the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife (yes, you read that correctly, favourite wife) Mumtaz Mahal. I'm not going to bore you with any more details than that. The reality is that it's indescribable. You've all seen the pictures, so you get the idea, but it really has to be seen to be believed.
Despite the huge number of people visiting, even at this early hour of the morning, it was remarkably peaceful. Everyone was wandering around snapping photos, and there was a bit of a scrum to get a photo on 'the' bench, where Princess Di had her famous photo, but otherwise, everyone was on their best behaviour.
We walked through the manicured gardens, taking in the perfect symmetry and magnificent calligraphy on the outside. We put on our shoe covers and climbed the stairs onto the marble plinth to enter the upper level of the tomb. This was by far the least enjoyable part of the Taj experience. A narrow pathway leads around the inside, crammed to the brim with tourists and guides, all shouting to be heard, creating an echoing, deafening hell.
The upper level of the tomb, which is accessible by visitors, contains the false sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Their real sarcophagi are on the lower level, which is now closed to the public.
After about an hour and a half in the complex, taking in the peaceful atmosphere and chasing squirrels. We stopped for a decidedly average breakfast just outside the gates, before returning to our accommodation, having done a full day's sightseeing by 10am.
Everyone we spoke to said that one day wasn't enough in Agra - we had to spend a second day to make sure we saw the fort.
Everyone was wrong. We could easily have seen the Taj and the fort in one day, and given that there is almost nothing else to do in Agra, and Agra is probably the WORST city we've been to in India, it would have been great to get out of there ASAP.
So on our second day in Agra, we opted to spend most of the day at the guesthouse, heading out in the late afternoon to spend dusk at the fort.
We caught a tuk tuk to the fort, and thought we'd grab a late lunch nearby. After walking 20 minutes from the fort down streets covered in garbage, and through a mini-slum, while being followed by a girl begging the entire time, we finally managed to find an excellent test for our gastrointestinal fortitude at the side of the road. After ordering, the staff kindly kept popping out to spit right next to our table, and we enjoyed 15 minutes of brushing flies off our bare skin while ignoring yet more beggars.
Having polished off our culinary delights (actually, the food was pretty good), we headed back to the fort.
Having spent the better part of the last month in Rajasthan, home of some of the biggest and most impressive forts in India, Agra Fort was a bit of a let down. While the actual fort was pretty impressive, there wasn't much in the way of signage, and the fort really needed a good spruce up. Nonetheless, we enjoyed exploring in the soft evening light, chasing (with more success) lots of squirrels and taking in the views of the Taj across the river.
An unnecessary third day in Agra
Due to my lack of research, we ended up with an extra day in Agra, because we couldn't book a train out until 5.45pm. We spent the day hanging out at the accommodation, and headed to the train station late in the afternoon.
We were a little concerned when we looked on the noticeboard to find our train, and it wasn't on there. Zev went in one direction to check at a helpdesk, and I went in to a tourist office to see if they could help. No one was even in the tourist office, and Zev came back with a grim face. Apparently the train had been cancelled, so we needed to get a refund, and find some other way to get to Delhi.
Something didn't seem right. There was a notice on the board about another train being cancelled, but nothing saying that ours was - our train just wasn't on the board. Following our instincts, we went into the stationmasters office to see what was going on. In halting English, the stationmaster managed to explain that the train wasn't cancelled, just very delayed, but would be arriving later and we should just wait.
We went outside to try to decide what to do. Originally, we were due to arrive in Delhi at 7.30pm. We were pretty anxious about arriving into Delhi late at night. Delhi is meant to be a chaotic and overwhelming city, and when looking for accommodation we'd read reviews from people saying that they hoped they'd never have to go back.
We looked at the price of an Uber from Agra to Delhi. While it was only 2500r (about $50NZD), it was listing the drive time as 6 hours. No thank you. While we were deciding, some 'nice' men from a nearby waiting lounge came out to usher us in. I foolishly agreed, before Zev pointed out that it was going to cost us. In the end, it cost us 500r ($10NZD) to spend two hours sitting in the air conditioned lounge, so it wasn't the end of the world.
We discovered that the new expected departure time for our train was 8.50pm, which would have us to Delhi at 10.30pm. Not ideal, but not the end of the world.
After two hours in the lounge, we were kicked out to sit on the platform. Periodically, we'd hear announcements in Hindi, but had no idea what they meant. We both have apps on our phones where you can track your train and see where it is, and both of our apps were saying that the train hadn't left its start point yet (1.5 - 2 hours away). UGGGGHHHHH....
Finally we started chatting to a family who told us that the train would be arriving on platform 2, and leaving at 8.30pm. It was about 8.10pm at that point, so we made our way over and were surprised to see a train already on the platform. I asked a local where the train was going, and they said Delhi. But the train was already PACKED. We made our way up and down the platform, desperately searching for our carriage, and couldn't find it. We couldn't find any staff to ask, and were becoming increasingly worried and pissed off.
As we walked around looking frazzled, a russian guy nabbed us and asked if we wanted to share a taxi to Delhi with him and his friend. We weren't quite ready to give up on the train yet (and they also quoted us significantly more than what we had seen on Uber), so we politely declined and started to head back to the main platform to see if we could find someone to help us.
Finally, FINALLY, there was an announcement in English. Our train would be departing from platform 5. Assuming that it was still due to leave at 8.30pm, we started running - it was 8.26pm. We ran down the length of the train, looking everywhere for our carriage but unable to find it. We reached the end of the train, and asked some people if it was the right train. It was not. We finally managed to find someone who could tell us what was going on - our train would be arriving to this platform, but this wasn't it, and no one knew what time it was going to arrive.
We sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. at 10pm, a train pulled up, but the train number didn't match ours. People started scrambling to get on, with lots of families running. Zev made tracks over to ask the staff on the train whether it was our train, and it was. Naturally, our carriage was at the other end of the train, so yet again we found ourselves sprinting to get on.
We made it on the train! We stashed our luggage, and waited for it to take off. 25 minutes later (lucky we sprinted to get on), it took off... After the delay from hell, we were on our way! Again, the train was nice, and they fed us dinner on our 1.5 hour journey to Delhi.
Despite the craziness of our train journey, and our anxiety (okay, more MY anxiety than OUR anxiety) about arriving to Delhi, everything from the train journey onwards went smoothly. We arrived, managed to get an Uber, and checked into our accommodation without any more drama.
Finally, at 1.30am, we hit the hay, excited to see what Delhi was going to bring.
Lots of love,
S & Z