After an intense few days in Delhi and our introduction to India over it was time for our next challenge. We left the comfort of Hotel Su Shree and its delicious food and walked laden with our bags to the train station, luckily just 15 minutes away. Our destination was Agra, home to the Taj Mahal one of the New Wonders of The World and probably India's most famous landmark.
With the help of seasoned India traveller Lee our friend from home we managed to book tickets in advance online, we'd learned how quickly trains book up and knew we needed to make sure we planned the travel aspects of our trip in advance to avoid being stranded in one place for too long. Unfortunately and for a reason I'm not sure of, we booked ourselves into the non air conditioned sleeper. Standing in the carriage, on the left was a line of beds alongside the window, one on the bottom and one above. On the right was a line of cabins of sorts, no doors but six beds in each, three on one side and three on the other. Doorless cabins filled the carriage and a lank little fan provided air to the eight beds in each. I climbed to the top tier with my bags and laid down as much as I could. It was stiflingly hot, the fan was pushing hot air around and I could feel beads of sweat dripping from my head and chest. I drifted in and out of sleep, wondering when the hellish journey would end. After over four hours of travel in 40+ degree heat we arrived in Agra feeling drained. We took a tuk tuk to our accommodation, this time we'd be staying in a room in a hostel. We passed the fancy hotels with guards and sweeping driveways and thought about the tourists that visit the site on a luxury holiday. We arrived at our hostel. Oh dear. It had definitely seen better days. It was hidden down an alleyway, inside it was dark, hot and the walls were covered in graffiti, peeling posters and pen scribbles. Our room was just off reception, the rock hard bed didn't have a blanket, not that we needed one, there was no air conditioning here either. We went to sleep, excited for the new day to start as we would finally get to visit the majestic Taj Mahal.
We woke before sunrise, the Taj Mahal was just a short walk away and we were keen to get there as early as possible to get a good photograph. The site would mark our fifth 'New Wonder of the World' out of seven, the last wonder that we would get to see on this trip. We walked to the ticket booth and bought our tickets for 1000 RS each which worked out at around £11-12, nearly all of our daily budget. Already we could see groups of tourists out and about and we kicked ourselves for not getting up even earlier. We walked to the entrance which was 10 minutes away and queued up to be frisked. Craig wasn't allowed to take his GoPro stick in for some reason so he had to find a shop willing to hold it for him.
We walked into the complex, towards the huge arched doorway and saw the magnificent mausoleum domes, when you've seen something in photographs and on film so many times you think you'll know what to expect but in real life it is always more magical. We stopped at the fence to take some photographs, already there were people everywhere but we tried not to let the crowds get to us. One of the pillars was encased in scaffolding which was a shame. We walked alongside the decorative water pool closer the the building, admiring the shimmering white marble stone. We saw the bench made famous by Lady Diana and sat in the spot for a photo too. As we walked I started to notice bits of litter, a pile of discarded flip flops, bright blue plastic shoe covers strewn across the floor, bits of old building material. I had hoped that with the relatively high ticket price the site would be a little more looked after.
We wandered around toward the back of the building and saw the river and far in the distance red Agra Fort. As the sun was rising the heat was intensifying and the white stone started to dazzle. We sat for a time on the steps of one of the great four pillars that surround the main domed mausoleum and people-watched before going inside to see the imitation tomb, the real one is hidden on a floor below. As we walked back through the arched doorway to the entrance we watched some mischievous monkeys before leaving to pick up Craig's GoPro stick from a shop locker. After an awkward few minutes where the shopkeeper insisted we buy some souvenirs as he had lent us a locker we left and walked around the corner to a cafe. We sat at a table under a fan by the window on the first floor where we could watch the cows dawdle by and the mopeds weave around the animals. After a refreshing drink we took a tuk tuk to Agra Fort. Inside the grounds were much cleaner than the grounds at the Taj Mahal, it felt calmer too and more serene. We enjoyed sitting on a bench with the wild chipmunks before a huge family approached us to have their photograph taken with us. We must have had pictures taken with 10-15 people including elderly relatives and children. It's such a bizarre thing that I can't really understand. Once we'd been suitably photographed we walked around the gardens and fort some more, looking out over the view back to the Taj Mahal which sparkled in the sun. Another couple of boys started following me presumably for a picture but I kept on walking, Craig had his photo taken with them. Now that we've been in India for nearly a week I've noticed that boys and men do seem to stare at me which is a little disconcerting. I had heard stories about it before which is why each day I've dressed modestly, covered all over with a head scarf to wear at times too. It seemed like since arriving in Agra the staring had intensified and as a shy person, I personally find it very uncomfortable.
After leaving Agra Fort we took a tuk tuk back to the main Agra strip and had lunch at Jony's which thankfully had perfect air conditioning. A German family came in for lunch too, they had two young girls. I thought about how great it would be to bring children to India, how educational and eye opening it must be. After chilling out in our room to recover from the early start we headed out to catch a tuk tuk to a viewpoint across the water for sunset. The viewpoint itself wasn't far away but as the bridge was it took a while which meant we got to see a lot more of the sights of Agra itself. We arrived and paid a small fee to enter a garden where you can get close to the river and see a perfect view of the Taj Mahal. We sat on a bank and watched as the light slowly faded although we couldn't stay for actual sunset as guards started telling people to leave. Still, we'd enjoyed seeing the wonder from another perspective and although the park was teeming wth tourists it was still a calming and enjoyable experience. Our driver waited for us so we hopped back in for the ride back to town and agreed to meet him in the morning to take us back to the train station. We had him take us to a restaurant with good TripAdvisor reviews, we were the only diners but the food was lovely and we had a long chat with the owner, all about his life and business.
Our stop in Agra, like Delhi had been a bit whistle stop thanks to the pricey accommodation but we were happy with what we'd seen and looked forward to our next destination, the last stop of the Golden Triangle, Jaipur.
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Have you been to the Taj Mahal? If so, what did you think? Maybe you're planning a trip? I've got tonnes of advice and tips I can share. Let me know in the comments below.
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