Agra and the Taj Mahal
Saturday 7th August 2016, 7:20pm
Like the false preconceptions I had about the location of Niagra Falls (that I'd have to hike though natural wonders in order to reach it, only to find it juxtaposed against a backdrop of casinos and Planet Hollywood) my preconceptions of how we'd find the Taj Mahal were equally off the mark. Based on experience, we assumed we'd find this great monument nestled behind a string of chain restaurants and shopping malls, cafes and bars and overpriced souvenir shops.
We couldn't be more wrong. People had advised us of Agra to, "Get in, see the Taj Mahal and get out" but we thought that there must be more to this place, so we booked an overnight stay at the Taj Haveli and arrived in Agra yesterday afternoon ready to explore. The Taj Mahal is on the hotel's doorstep, but it's closed on a Friday, so we set off to see what else was in its neighbourhood. This was an ambitious task on foot and we hadn't got more than 100 yards down the road before bounds of rickshaw drivers came riding by on the promise of showing us the sites for a good price. They are nothing if not persuasive, so we agreed to hop in and asked the driver to take us to a restaurant where we could get something to eat.
He was right that there were no 'sights' for us to reach on foot, but it was enough for us to take in the sights (and smells) in another hair rising rickshaw ride across town. We raced though the dusty streets, (shared by hoards of other rickshaws, bikes, cars, trucks, pedestrians, goats, cows and dogs in equal measure) passing makeshift shops, open fires, people washing, children playing, cattle being herded and people everywhere doing something - pushing, pulling, cooking, chopping, building, trading, sweeping and shaving. Our driver pulled up at a restaurant that belonged to his friend, at the bottom of a dusty dirt track. We were hungry, so we trusted his choice and let him offer us inside where we had our whole pick of the restaurant, as their first guests of the evening. We ordered safely (veg thali x 2) and enjoyed a really tasty meal where we were dutifully tended to by their several staff throughout. Not quite the hustle and bustle of a tourist hot spot we expected though.
After that, we asked our driver to take us to a market, and after lots of confusing and fragmented conversations over what we were looking for, he agreed to take us to the local bazaar for a look around. The 'bazaar' wasn't quite what we were expecting either as it consisted of a few tarpaulin-covered shops selling bottled water, salwar kameez, spices, tabacco and a few packets of food. It was also getting dark, so we concluded that this was definitely not a market for us and politely asked the driver to drop us back to the hotel.
The best time to see the Taj Mahal is at sunrise or sunset, and the following morning, we made the uncharacteristic choice to get up at 5am in order to see it as the sun came up. The ticket hall was next to our hotel and then it was a 10 minute walk in the other direction to the monument itself. The street was much quieter compared with the evening before, and the dust had settled on the red track. A few locals were up taking showers outside and a few savvy rickshaw drivers circled the ticket hall in the hope of earning a fare up to the monument. We were the only ones who walked up the track and were overtaken by gypsy wagons pulled by horses and bus loads of tourists being shuttled in from various hotels near and far.
I have never in my life woken up to watch the sun rise (I've still been AWAKE from the night before, but I'm not sure that counts...) and I'm sorry to say that my first experience was not watching it rise over the Emperor's great palace. What we didn't anticipate was that the Taj Mahal only opens at 6am, and that we then had to go through their very elaborate queuing system (Indian men, foreign men, Indian women, foreign women....my queue, of course, ranked lowest in priority, whilst Rene was in straight away sneaking a peak) and I entered the palace at 7am. Sunrise was a 05:46!
It was hard to feel disheartened for long (I was at least up when the sun rose!) and as soon as we stepped inside the grounds, I was filled with this bubbling excitement that, just through the imposing arch at the main entrance, was the real-life version of a picture postcard. An image seen the world over on TV, travel brochures or on Google but so rarely in real life. And then suddenly there it was! Just existing. The real Taj Mahal in all its white marble glory. The pictures speak for themselves so I won't pretend that I can write about the Taj Mahal in a way that it's not been written about before by travelers the world over. Gazing up at this imposing beauty felt very surreal in the quiet still of the morning. A moment of pure calm in another city of crazy.
Best moment: That first glimpse of the palace itself
Low point: Buying two Kingfishers from a very angry vendor at a ridiculous price in a shady liquor shop.
Next stop: Jaipur!