The 18-hour bus trip from Manali to Delhi on Tuesday/Wednesday was uncomfortable and uneventful. Once we arrived in Delhi, and felt a bit more confident this time than the last, we had a cup of chai and found an internet café to plan our next move. We had decided that it made sense to head straight to Agra rather than try to find accommodation in Delhi for one night. We soon discovered that there were many trains to Agra each day, but
we had to use the Foreign Tourist Office at the station to book tickets, as all the local seats were apparently already sold. So off we went to this little piece of A/C heaven in the New Delhi Train Station, first floor to be exact. It was a simple task, fill out a form detailing where and when you would like to go, and wait in a queue to speak to a consultant. About an hour later, we had a ticket to Agra and were on our way to find a spot of lunch. The Connaught Place area of Delhi is vibey and full of shops selling everything from bracelets to mangoes. We found a good, clean restaurant and even had our hands hennaed while we waited for our food. Outside the glass doors of the restaurant we watched massive bulls pulling carts full of all sorts of goodies trundle by. By just after 5:30pm we were ready to board the train, and after a brief panic seeing the condition of the train, we found our 2nd class A/C cabin and settled in for the 4-hour journey.
We arrived in Agra around 10pm, and found a taxi to take us straight to the Taj Plaza Hotel. Look out for the prepaid taxis, they have certification and can give you a fixed price according to where you are going. According to Solomon, our taxi driver, in Agra there’s “No hurry, no worry, no chicken curry” and in order to drive, what you need is a good horn, good brakes and a bit of good luck. This is definitely the theme throughout India, where you hoot to say you’re passing somebody, you hoot to say you’re behind someone, you hoot to say you’re in front of someone…you get the point. Solomon also informed us that we had come to Agra at the perfect time, as the Taj Mahal was free to enter all day (normally Rs750/$17/R115 each) on Thursday to commemorate the death day of the the commissioner of the palace, Shar Jehan. Once we got there, the Taj Plaza Hotel was pretty clean, and the staff were friendly, average by our backpacker standards. We couldn’t expect much for Rs400 per night ($9/R60). We even had a view of the Taj from the terrace upstairs, considering the hotel was only 600m from the East Gate, we were quite happy with our online booking, even if it was only available for the first two nights of our stay in Agra.
The view of the Taj from the Taj Plaza hotel...not bad for Rs400 per night!
The following morning we woke up at 5:30am to head to the Taj Mahal when we were told there would be minimal people. Already by 6am, there were rickshaw wallas milling around the streets trying to get us to take a ride down the road to the East Gate. It was a fresh morning, a light sprinkle of rain, and we were excited to see the Taj so we took a brisk walk to wake ourselves up. We arrived at the first gate to be searched and then walked through the courtyard to the main gate. There we had our first sight of the spectacular marble building through the archways of red sandstone.
First view of the Taj
My first impression of the Taj was just as you would expect, it took my breath away. From the sweeping gardens in front, to the long thin ponds reflecting the Taj in their surfaces, the sight is one to behold. Even the many pictures I have seen of this icon throughout my life cannot convey the beauty of it in real life. There were already people there by the time we got in, and joined by the many tour guides and people willing to take your photo on the bench where Lady Di sat (for a fee), the crowd was growing, even at this early hour. We wandered around the gardens, having a look and a photo from every angle, and even had few (obligatory) photos with the locals. From up close, the translucent white marble of the tomb is
The jewel encrusted entrance to the Taj Mahal
encrusted with millions of semi-precious stones arranged in flower decorations (called Pachi Kari) over the doorways and around the walls. Inside, although pretty dark at this time of the morning, you can run your fingers over the walls and feel the stones under your fingers. Marble latticed (called Jaali) screens surround the two replica coffin-shaped structures, one smaller, for Mumtaz Mahal and one larger, for Shar Jehan himself. Whereas downstairs, lie the actual cenotaphs (coffins) sweating with condensation from the heat of the summer. After a good few hours, we left the Taj, ready for breakfast and to catch up on some much needed sleep.
We awoke that afternoon to the sound of a parade winding its way to the Taj, so we headed out to join the celebrations. Loudspeakers filled the air with singing and young children held reams of coloured material above their heads forming a multi-coloured line snaking along the road. Heading back into the East Gate, we were this time surrounded by thousands of people in stark contrast to the peacefulness of the early morning, but just as enjoyable. The Taj itself had changed colour only slightly to match the midday haze, but the bright colours of the womens saris filled the gardens and made the sight even more spectacular than before. However, before long we had had enough of being jostled around, and T, having had a baby thrust into his arms to have a photograph taken, was ready to leave!
The Taj during the festival
On the way back to the hotel, we popped into the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel which was right next door to ours, to see if we could say hi to the GM and his wife, who are long lost family of mine. We managed to chat to them for a few minutes but they were, of course, busy so we left our number and headed back to our hotel. After watching the most spectacular storm roll in, we showered and had dinner in the restaurant downstairs. After dinner we got a call from Ali, to ask if we would like to join her for breakfast and catch up. Of course, we accepted and the next morning, headed next door to the Amarvilas to a hearty English breakfast and some freshly squeezed orange juice…heavenly! After a quick tour of the Amarvilas, it was time to go as we had to check out of our hotel and take a rickshaw down to the next hotel we had booked. We settled into the Sai Palace Hotel, this one even closer to the Taj, and organised a tour to Agra Fort for the late afternoon. While we were waiting and enjoying a cold drink in our room, we got another call from Ali this time explaining that their spare room had become available and would we please come and stay with them for the next two nights.
The Oberoi Amarvilas
I was so taken aback at their generosity that at first I said that we would stay at the Sai Palace that night as we had already paid and that if it was okay we would come to them the following evening. However, after coming to my senses I realised that this was an opportunity not to be missed, so I phoned Ali back and accepted their kind invitation. Soon after that we got in an auto-rickshaw headed for the Agra Fort.
The auto-rickshaw bound for Agra Fort
The fort is located on a site that has been occupied by some form of fortification since the mid 12th century but when King Babar conquered the existing ruler he built an extension to the fortifications. Eventually when his son Akbar took over the throne of the Mughal Empire in he 1500s he started construction of the red sandstone fort that is located on the banks of the Yamuna today. It is really more of a walled city than a military fort and contains all of the imperial residences as well as the Hareem and various other important buildings like the treasury. It is the detail that really catches the eye though and it is something to behold, every wall has detailing on top of it and every pillar and internal area is carved with patterns and murals that makes this place one of the most impressive we have seen in India.
Detailed sculpture at the Agra Fort
After the fort, we picked up our bags again and headed back to the Amarvilas. We were met at every door by welcoming, friendly staff and cool, air-conned rooms, a far cut above our previous standard of living, and a welcome break from the budget lifestyle of the previous month. We spent the evening catching up with Ali over drinks, and eating divine food, all while admiring the Taj from above. After dinner I relaxed in a hot bubble bath – my indulgence – and T watched the Wimbledon while sipping a whiskey.
The bathroom at the Sai Palace
The bathroom at the Oberoi Amarvilas
Today was another fantastic day… From the delicious room-service breakfast this morning, to a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, to an afternoon lazing by the pool. We are being thoroughly spoilt, so much so that I worry that going back to living on a budget will be harder than before! Getting used to this kind of luxury is pretty easy!
Club Sandwich for lunch...yummy!
Trist chilling in the pool
Fatehpur Sikri was built by the Mughal King Akbar in 1571, when he moved the capital of his empire to a new walled city just outside of Agra. It is an incredible architectural wonder, with enormous public spaces, beautifully carved private areas and enormous imposing walls and gateways. It is certainly worth a visit!
This evening we were treated to another fantastic dinner, this time at the Trident hotel, a sister hotel to the Oberoi Amarvilas. I must just say a big thank you to Nigel and Ali Badminton who took us in and spoilt us rotten these past two days. Tomorrow its back to reality, a train to Delhi and a very budget backpackers…but that’s half the adventure right?