For our first taste of the Indian railways, the train to Agra in executive class was great, breakfast was served at our comfortable seats while we read the complimentary paper (but not for long because it was all doom and gloom and bad news).
Before long we had arrived in Agra and then onwards via yet another Tuk Tuk to our slightly grubby guesthouse. It’s really friendly though so it’s ok. From the roof we got our first view of the Taj Mahal about a mile away.
That afternoon we went to Agra Fort, which we much preferred to the one in Delhi. It was bigger and just generally more impressive, with views down the river to the waiting Taj Mahal.
From there we popped into the affectionately titled Baby Taj (the real name is Itimad-ud-Daulah). Believe it or not, the Baby Taj is a bit like the real Taj, but smaller. It was also more colourfully decorated on the inside and there were more monkeys in the grounds.
Following that we headed to the bank on the opposite side of the river to the Taj to watch the sunset. It was a lovely view with the Taj being bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. To the right of the Taj, just along the river there were several funeral pyres burning with plumes of yellowy smoke twisting in front of the orange sunset. Complain all you like about the pollution in India, but it does make for stunning sunsets.
Katy spent some time painting the view (soon to be seen on the ‘Katy’s Sketchbook’ page) which attracted the attention of the police who later each looked through all the paintings in her book and said nice things.
The following morning we were up at 5.30 (again) to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal. There was quite a queue to get in through the airport scanners and we had to go back out to put our head torches into a locker. Why on earth are torches banned?
Once inside we found the familiar postcard view of the Taj and proceeded to take far too many pictures. The low level mist made it look like the huge white Taj was floating on a carpet of cloud. The Taj is made of translucent white marble, and when you get close the detail is staggering. The carvings all over and the precious stones embedded into patterns make you realise why they claim this to be the world’s most beautiful building.
It was built by an Emperor as a mausoleum for his favourite wife who died giving birth to their 14th child. We don’t know what is more interesting there -that it was his “favourite wife” or that it was her 14th child! Anyways, the Emperor was soon overthrown by his son who imprisoned him for the rest of his life in Agra Fort – which incidentally has a great view of the Taj Mahal.
As foreigners we were given shoe covers to walk around inside the building. The Indians had to go barefoot on the freezing marble floors – though entry tickets for foreigners are 30 times the price of a ticket for an Indian.
At one point we were pondering photo bombing a group photo taking place, then they asked us to be in the photo. For the next 10 minutes we posed for photos with the group, parts of the group and individuals. It turned out they were a college group travelling together, and in the end our faces hurt from smiling for so many pictures.
In fact, it all came to an end because we were told to move on by one of the guards. It was the third time this guy had told us off. First time it was because Katy got out her art book to paint the Taj. That’s not allowed apparently. He then checked her art book to make sure she hadn’t already done any illegal artwork – to be fair, he was very complimentary about the paintings (all can be seen on the “Katy’s sketchbook”).
Our second telling off wasn’t our fault at all. We had been chatting to an American guy and discussing the 5000 rupee fine for taking videos (photos are fine though). He took some sneaky videos of the scene (with our encouragement) and then handed us the camera to take a photo of him (video cameras nowadays take photos too don’t you know?). Of course as soon as Jason picked up the camera, our favourite guard popped up to try to drag our American friend off to see his Senior officer for a fine. We denied we had been taking video and instead took a picture for the American on our camera. He gave us his card to email him the picture – turns out he’s a CEO. He managed to sneak away and avoid the fine.
One thing that rarely appears in pictures of the Taj Mahal is the huge buildings either side made of red sandstone. To the west is a huge mosque, one of the most important in India. The mirrored one to the east was just built for symmetry – but we did read that in the Lonely Planet so it’s probably a lie. That’s a bit harsh, the Lonely Planet guides have been useful, but the accommodation listed tends to be best avoided – being mentioned in the Lonely Planet pretty much guarantees guests will come, so the quality tends to nosedive. Recent online reviews provide much better information, it’s especially fun reading the negative reviews which can be really funny. Along with the reasonable gripes like ‘no hot water’, ‘bad wifi’ and ‘the owner stole my phone’ are the comedy ones like ‘I paid an extra $2 for a deluxe room and there was a bat in the room’ or ‘hotel was perfect but there were poor people who looked suspicious in the town’.
After exhausting ourselves looking around and taking photos for 3 hours we returned to the guesthouse for an Indian breakfast (stuffed paratha and masala tea) and a well earned nap. We spent the rest of the day at the guesthouse, what was the point in sightseeing other places the same day as the Taj? Jason had a go at fixing the failing wifi at the guesthouse and had some success but there is only so much you can do when the power keeps going off.
That evening the guesthouse owners lit a BBQ on the roof for us. We had BBQ chicken tikka which tasted great with Naan and Parathas which they showed us how to make in the small but less than spotless kitchen.
– Mix white flour and water into stretchy dough.
– Roll out about 4 inch circumference in lots of flour to stop it sticking
– Put either grated paneer or grated potato and onion into the middle and fold up the edges to make a parcel
– roll is out to about 8 inches across (again with lots of flour)
– coat both sides in more flour to stop it sticking
– for Naan – heat without oil on a pan, flipping it often until it inflates slightly
– for Paratha – as above but use oil to cook.
On our last day in Agra we decided to hit the local bazaars. As we climbed out of the Tuk Tuk the driver warned us firmly “Be very careful of your belongings, many pickpockets, many people. Not many tourist come here – local bazaar”. So we climbed out a bit sheepishly to start looking around. It was a sea of colour, smells and people. Katy bought a load of sarees and material after we had some fun haggling down the prices.
We stumbled across a huge mosque surrounded by bazaars and were shown around by the elderly caretaker who of course asked for a donation to the mosque at the end, but the mosque was interesting. Probably nearly as big as Delhi’s Jama Masjid but it much worse condition and with very few people inside. There was a small Muslim school there though. The caretaker claimed they got no money because Muslims were marginalised by the government, but that clearly didn’t ring true as the Jama Masjid in Delhi was clearly well funded (they charged for entry in Delhi which could explain the funding disparity between the two).
After the bazaars and mosque we headed to Taj Ganj to sit in a rooftop cafe for a last look at the Taj Mahal. We didn’t choose the cafe that wisely because the view was a bit obstructed but it didn’t really matter. After eating more curry with masala tea we made our way back to the guest house.
We had to get up at 4am the next day to make an early train towards Jaipur…