You can’t go to India without going to Agra. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. Along the way, people told me that it’s not worth the travel to get there. There are so many other wonderful things to see in India, they said. Yet I couldn’t help but think there had to be some reason that it’s one of the wonders of the world. I sortof feel the same way about the Grand Canyon. It’s a big effort to get there for that single moment when you first see it and it takes your breath away. But you have to do it.
Granted, you spend the rest of your time basically sitting around and looking at the thing from various vantage points, but for that moment… I live for those moments.
You can do Agra in a day from New Delhi, via train or private car, but there’s something romantic about staying the night, watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal, and absorbing the vibe of the city. What surprised me most is that you never really hear about the Red Fort (aka Agra Fort; home of the Mogul Empire and, eventually, Taj visionary Shah Jahan). It is massively impressive and could easily overshadow the Taj itself if it wasn’t for that breathtaking first moment that the Taj offers.
I took an overnight train from Varanasi – another ridiculous train scenario where the guards kept turning on the light to keep me safe. Clearly they don’t know how much I value my sleep. And it was COLD, to say the least. So when I arrived in Agra just after dawn, I was eager to get to my hotel, the Tourists Rest House. Alas, they were booked and no rooms were prepared, so I settled into the garden restaurant for coffee and aloo paratha.
What I love about hostel-type accommodations is that you meet the most interesting people. For most of my time in India, I traveled the “mid-range” route, which left little opportunity to mix in common spaces. The Tourist Rest House received high ratings on all the travel sites but since it’s not at the Taj doorsteps, it’s cheap and has that adorable hostel-quality. And so, as I’m sitting there, sleep deprived, cold, and cranky, a nice Aussie asks if he can share my table. We get to talking and before I know it, I’ve agreed to a quick change and then off in his hired rickshaw to visit the Red Fort and the Taj. No rest for the weary, but it was well worth it.
January 30, 2011
- Chased by angry monkey – As we were walking through the area below the Taj, some guys were taunting a group of monkeys and I actually thought to myself that the monkey should really let them have it. At the same time, my Aussie friend was photographing some baby monkeys… apparently babies belonging to the taunted monkey, who immediately turned her aggression on a group of us and charged. Everyone ran, but the monkey was faster and I just knew that someone was going down. As if in some out-of-body experience, I instinctively turned and lunged at the monkey. It stopped, barred it’s teeth, and growled. I stood my ground and stared it down for what felt forever but was probably 10 seconds. Then it turned and ran. Thank god.
- Saw a camel – as we were leaving the Taj Ganj area after dark via rickshaw, I looked out the side and saw these really long, skinny legs next to us. Bending down lower, the full camel came into view. It felt like a scene from movie. There are lots of camels in India, but that’s the only one I saw.
- Famous at the Taj – Indians love to take photos of and with foreigners. Strange, I know. And it didn’t hurt that my Aussie friend was quite tall. So together we must have had 200 pictures taken during our time at the Taj – with couples, kids, groups of guys, even a school group. While we sat on benches and took in the view, people would literally gather around us and just stare. Super odd.
January 31, 2011
Second day in Agra and strangely missed my new mate. Makes me appreciate the benefits of traveling with others… and how much I miss my friends. We started at Agra Fort with a guide, then to lunch with a Taj view, a couple of hours at the Taj, drinks on a rooftop, and dinner. This is the kind of town where it’s nice to have someone to share it with.
Today I failed to get a bus ticket to Rishikesh after a morning of trying – via bike rickshaw no less (huge fail!). Checked out the bazaar, which was pretty chintzy. Strolled through the south gate area (known as Taj Ganj, where most of the builders lived way back when) and market, buying souvenirs (including naan rolling pins which were later confiscated at the New Delhi airport; jerks). Watched the sun set with a Taj view again. My camera battery died and I missed an awesome garden rooftop top. I guess that’s what memories are for…
*Note: I don’t have any photos from inside the mausoleum because there are signs everywhere asking you not to take photos and all the guards say “no photos” as you enter. And yet, EVERYONE was in there snapping away. A little respect, please! Geez.
More of my India diaries: