19.11.2012 - 20.12.2012
After a great last day in Delhi, during which I finally made it to Humayun's tomb (with the help of a friendly rickshaw driver called Puneet) and had a wander around the completely tourist free street market in Karol Bagh, I met up with a tour group to travel to Goa, making various stops along the way. After 4 days in Delhi, the terrified feeling and very much subsided, I'd even started to enjoy the city. I was however still grateful to be travelling with people, particularly for the first attempt at travelling on India's trains.
After dinner together we headed to bed early in preparation for an early start. Our train was at 6am, we were to leave the hotel at 5am and my roommate set her alarm for 4am! I hoped that at least this may finally sort out my jet lag.
Arriving at the train station, it was less chaotic than expected helped by the fact that Zahir our guide had already arranged tickets. It was a 2 hour journey to Agra that passed relatively quickly helped along after sunrise by various entertaining sights along the way - monkeys ran freely across the tracks, an extremely stationary cow stood ignored by passengers on one platform we passed through and small children squatted on railway lines in the distance to do their morning business (I'm not sure why they chose railway tracks as a location - perhaps the thrill of potentially having to leap out of the way of trains? Or to give the tourists something to comment on?).
Zahir warned us that we could be swarmed by beggars, children and offers of rickshaws and taxis upon leaving the station but it was relatively calm. Perhaps a group if 15 foreigners with oversized bags was enough to deter the rickshaw drivers at least. After checking in to the hotel (and drinking a Costa coffee) we headed to the Red Fort with a local guide who gave us an extensive commentary on the Fort and the various people who had lived there including the Emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal who was later imprisoned there for the final 8 years of his life by his own son. It was also from there that we got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal towering mysteriously in the hazy distance. I'd assumed the haze would lessen as we left the smog of the capital for a much smaller city however here apparently it was more to do with the changing seasons.
After lunch at a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant (which I seemed to enjoy more than most) we headed finally to the Taj Mahal. Again warnings from Zahir proved largely unnecessary, we were hassled only by a few photographers. Our foreigners entry fee was 750R (about £8.50) compared with the 20R (about 25pence) for Indian nationals. For his highly inflated price we were privileged to skip the much longer queues suffered by the Indian nationals. The entrance is into a red stone fort and it's not until you've turned a corner and passed through an archway that you catch the first glimpse of the marble building shimmering magically in the distance. I don't know much about Indian history (in fact every time the Mughal dynasty is mentioned I hear Muggle...) but the Taj Mahal, even on a hazy day, is probably the most impressive site I've laid eyes on. We were told a bit about the history of the building and the various rumours surrounding it (e.g. that after completion the emperor ordered that the hands of all the craftsmen be chopped off to prevent them ever creating anything so beautiful again), took the obligatory photographs of the building reflected in the water (which was disappointingly dirty), and unsuccessfully tried to avoid the many camera lenses that came in our direction before making our way inside.
After removing our shoes and again joining the barely there foreigners queue (whilst the Indian nationals queue snaked twice around the building - incidentally the first time I've seen an orderly queue in India) we were herded into the dark interior of the Mausoleum where we jostled a circuit admiring the intricate engravings before emerging again into the fading sunlight.
Sunset is recommended as one of the best times to visit the Taj Mahal however the Mausoleum faces due south and the sun sets behind the mosque to the left. Whilst watching the sun go down, we were both entertained and slightly troubled to watch a seemingly parent-less little boy drop his pants and take a wee on the marble floor in front of us. We walked back towards the entrance/exit where I sat again for a while and concluded that despite the detailing that's only visible close up, from a distance it shimmers mysteriously in the distance almost as if an illusion.
After being 'accidentally' caught in a few more photographs, we made our way back to the bus (motorised vehicles are not allowed close by), back out in the 'real India' where there was a distinct smell of camel shit and children selling Taj Mahal snow globes. I bought a book of postcards to send to my Grandpa (as India doesn't yet seem to have invented the tourist-tat shop) that on closer inspection appear to have been printed in the 80s).
That evening we headed for the group's second evening meal. Whilst it's certainly helpful to have a guide organising your transport and giving suggestions of what to do, our evening meals have so far been slightly disappointing perhaps as it is only touristy restaurants that can accommodate a group of 16? Still I'm grateful that there's been no Delhi Belly to date!