India - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 206 (16)
Thursday 30th September
Even though we are drawing our time here in India to a close, one remaining major attraction awaited us today. We were off to see India’s most precious jewel, the world famous Taj Mahal. This would mark one of those very few major geographical milestones that we have on our overall list of objectives for this grand tour. The Taj Mahal stands probably at or very near the top of a very exclusive list of must see monuments and landmarks that the world possesses.
The day started, however, with more humble proportions and we woke up at sometime around absolutely stupid o’clock. Since we are not staying in Agra over night (oh what could have been if only our Alwar to Agra train had not been delayed a few days ago), our trip to the Taj Mahal would be completed in a day trip back and forth by train. Agra is only a few hours away but for some reason the clerk at the train station insisted that we would need to take the six o’clock morning train there and the eight o’clock evening train back. This would mean that we would have to spend an awful lot of hours in Agra with just a couple of sites of interest to keep us occupied. The big logistical problem of the day was going to be the fact that you cannot leave and re-enter the Taj Mahal grounds. This is significant as it means that as soon as we leave to grab a bite to eat, which would certainly be necessary if we aren’t going to be back before eleven at night, this would then signify the end of our Taj visit.
Full of anticipation of what was to come, we left the hotel this morning in the dead of night, and immediately got into an argument about which way to walk to the station. My early morning mood was in full swing. Arguments aside, we did manage to make it all the way to the station by foot. Even at this ungodly hour, there were plenty of rickshaw drivers offering their services, right up to the station entrance.
Our class of carriage for today was A/C chair. The carriage itself was really very roomy and certainly seemed a lot wider that the trains we’ve previously travelled on. We didn’t get off to a very good start on the train either, however. We found our seats and made ourselves comfortable just in time to be told that we were in the correct seats but in the wrong carriage. Although it was technically the same class, our carriage didn’t seem quite as nice as the one we originally found, but at least the seats were softer and more comfortable.
During the trip, catering staff was walking up and down the isles handing out mineral water and even breakfast trays. It was not too dissimilar from the catering service you might expect on a flight. This was quite unexpected but we were both very glad to at least have something for breakfast. Our pre-packed meal contained a couple of slices of bread, some apple juice and an omelette with some undecipherable green stuff in it. It tasted OK.
Signs dotted around the carriage warned passengers of a whopping R100 ($2) fine for anyone caught smoking. I had to chuckle at this. Indeed we’ve seen some of the most ridiculously low penalties for all manner of things. For the average Indian, though, I suppose this is more than just a slap on the wrist
Agra train station was a lot smaller than I imagined it to be and there were actually less touts than I had expected too. Perhaps it was the early morning arrival or something but once again we found it relatively easy to fend off the first wave of rickshaw and taxi drivers at the immediate vicinity of the station. I think we are getting much better at handling the situation now. What we tend to do is to ignore the main throng at the station itself and wander out into town a little to flag a passing rickshaw down. We’ve found this tactic to be quite effective.
There weren’t too many auto-rickshaws on the street so we decided to try a cycle rickshaw for the first time. I sensed that we had agreed on a slightly higher price than was the going rate but it was still only R20 ($0,45) and the poor guy peddled like made for several Kilometres before we reached the motor vehicle exclusion zone where he dropped us off. Sandy gave the poor, exhausted chap an additional R5 and handed him one of our mineral water bottles. He seemed to appreciate this, as it was a horrendously hot day. Giving away half of our water supply was to turn out to be a bad idea.
We walked the remaining few hundred metres to one of the ticket booths and were immediately besieged by several men in bright white uniforms with large red numbers embroidered on them. They were official guides, all offering their services but we weren’t particularly interested in a guide today so we did our best to fend them off, one after the other.
The sticker shock of the whopping R750 ($16,50) per person to get in was only briefly starting to wear off when it became apparent that our bags were going to be thoroughly searched at a couple of metal detectors by nice men in military uniforms with guns. They were looking for the usual non-starters such as knives, matches, cigarette lighters and so on but what was also surprising was that no cell phones were allowed in either. Fortunately, Sandy had the foresight to hide our very small cell phone deep inside the part of her day-pack that houses the water bladder. I didn’t much fancy leaving it behind in a locker somewhere. Sandy also has a miniature tripod and our guard was quite keen to confiscate this also. Apparently, tripods are not allowed in either. After a bit of pleading that we would not use it, he finally agreed to turn a blind eye and let us through.
A short walk around the corner and we were treated to our first sight of the majestic Taj Mahal. I knew it was big but I had no idea it was so enormously huge. It is absolutely stunning and made entirely of the most brilliantly dazzling white marble. Topped with an enormous white dome, the main building also has several other smaller domes. Detached by several metres, there are four huge minarets that stand guard on all four corners. Huge arched recesses with intricate decorations on all sides of the roughly square building frame doorways to the chamber inside. A long but narrow fountain stretches down towards the main building and draws the eye in. It’s almost mesmerising. Pristine manicured lawns lay either side of the fountain and complement the overall effect quite nicely. We stood there for a while simply in awe of this magnificent sight. After taking full advantage of the mandatory photo opportunities, we walked slowly down the path towards the main building. After several minutes of walking, we noticed that we could hardly keep our eyes off this huge white building glistening in the distance. The building just kept getting bigger and we didn’t seem to be getting any closer either. About half way down the path, the long and narrow fountain stops and another equally long and narrow fountain continues the journey but a couple of metres lower. From the head of the path, this deceptive illusion makes it look like there’s just one fountain and seeing the second only adds to the overall grandeur of the place.
Up close, the Taj Mahal is no less impressive and the marble structure is exquisitely detailed. There are intricacies everywhere and the overall architecture of the building is very symmetrical on all sides, yet it has a simplicity to it that exudes class. It’s almost like the building is saying that it doesn’t need to have a lot of very fine detail because it is already so very impressive.
Being a place of worship, we had to remove our shoes before climbing the steps up to the main courtyard that surrounds the building on all four sides. Even the walls and floors of this courtyard are the same white marble as the building itself and the two elements blend in to each other perfectly.
The Taj Mahal is constructed very near to the river. The view out over the river is like looking back through time. Fishermen were throwing their circular nets whilst buffalo waded across from one side to the other between the mudflats. With the haze of the rising sun creating rippling effects over the river, there was a sense of timelessness, as if the world around had progressed yet this place was frozen in history. It was almost eerie.
By now, the intensity of the summer heat together with moist humidity made the simple act of walking around a chore. Foolishly, I had left my large brimmed hat back at the hotel and just a few seconds of direct sunlight was enough to induce reams of sweat all over. We tried desperately to keep to the shade everywhere we went but the main building being set in the middle of this white courtyard made it difficult for much of the time. It didn’t take long for us to exhaust our water supply and we later learned that there was no means of replenishing it within the grounds. We would have to continue our Taj Mahal visit with no more water to keep us topped up. It would turn out to be quite a gruelling day as a result but we couldn’t leave until we had taken the whole thing well and truly in.
We strolled around the outside of the building first, slowly taking it in from all side. Even though each façade is pretty much the same as the other three sides, it is no less impressive with the way that the light and shadows play tricks on the archways and recesses. We still keep attracting attention left right and centre and we now find it hard to visit anywhere without a few groups of people wanting for us to either take their picture of to be in one of theirs. We still find this endearing and are always happy to oblige with a friendly smile and the exchange of a few pleasantries.
The white marble architecture extends to the inside of the main building, where a huge atrium opens up above a simple marble monument. Detailed marble carvings on the walls are inlaid with brilliantly coloured stonework in the form of flowers and decorative designs. There really isn’t much else to see inside and the same simplicity statement that is made by the outside of the building is echoed from within. The same guides in white coats are here too and are all too willing to hook you into a dialogue. Again, we ignored them in favour of simply allowing ourselves to be engulfed by the atmosphere of the building itself.
It took us a good hour to fully take in the Taj Mahal from inside and out. For the remainder of the morning, we wandered around the paths, under the welcome shade of the various trees all around the gardens’ perimeters. The trees and paths play host to a colony of at least a hundred or more very small squirrels. These squirrels can be found all over this region of India and are extremely cute but still just a bushy tail away from being rats. Smaller than rats but only slightly larger than mice, they scurry around picking up seeds and things that have clearly been scattered around the paths by either the grounds men or some other animal worshippers. So tame are they that they are quite content to tiptoe around our feet. The slightest movement causes them to run for cover but they quickly return to their feeding.
Just as endearing as the squirrels are the many lush green parrots that fly around the grounds. These in particular make for some fantastic photographic opportunities and they compliment the surroundings just perfectly, adding an air of the tropics to the place.
Using our smuggled in cell phone, we found a secluded spot away from prying eyes to try to call the airlines again. We are still trying to arrange an earlier flight out to Hong Kong but the Taj Mahal must be just outside of the cellular network and the lack of signal strength made it impossible to get a connection. Our departure from India remains an open issue at this time.
After a couple of hours, we had eventually exhausted our appetite for awe and were desperately trying to kill time just relaxing in the grounds with the animals. We still had many more hours to kill before our train left later this evening but it didn’t make sense to just sit here for the remainder of the day so we decided that we’d seen enough of the majestic Taj Mahal and left the grounds in search of a bite to eat. Even if the rest of the day was a write-off, the trip today was definitely worth it.
We didn’t bring the guidebook with us today but I had read the chapter on Agra thoroughly a couple of times and by all accounts, Agra can be a bit of a minefield for travellers such as ourselves. The guidebook tells of scams involving unscrupulous doctors in league with equally unscrupulous restaurant owners to poison unsuspecting tourist just so that they can then con you into buying medicines at extremely inflated prices. Charming! There was just one restaurant in the immediate vicinity of the Taj Mahal itself that the guidebook suggests visiting so we headed there for some brunch. A simply couple of poached eggs and some toast seemed like the safest option and this was enough for us to take our malaria tablets.
The one other attraction in Agra is the Amber Fort. Quite an impressive fort as forts go, this one covers quite a wide area and has an intricate layout of courtyards and various buildings of worship within the grounds. A ten-minute rickshaw ride from the Taj, it sits at a higher elevation than the Taj Mahal and makes for a nice view out over the river to the huge white building that graces its banks. Still very much lethargic from the blistering mid-day sun, we found a cool spot in the shade with a gentle cool breeze wafting around us to sit and admire the view. I even managed for catch forty winks whilst Sandy went in search of water.
When she returned a half hour later, she had learned from a fellow traveller that there would be an earlier train bound for Delhi after all. With the oppressive heat, this was by now music to my ears and we immediately made a beeline for the train station. It cost us R200 ($4,50) in cancellation fees but we were able to change our ticket to the earlier departure. We’ve now learned that the most expedient way to buy a ticket at stations without foreigner ticket booths is to simply by a regular ticket from the second-class window and upgrade once inside the train. This goes a long way to cutting out all the queues. Everyone we spoke to gave us a different platform to depart from but we did eventually find our way onto a Delhi-bound train. The air-conditioned environment of the carriage was exceedingly welcome, even if stopping several times made this train slower than the express train that brought us to Agra to begin with.
Upon our arrival, we made immediately for MacDonald’s again. We’re now practically living out of the place as we’ve still yet to find a restaurant that serves food that is more interesting than the Indian fare that we’ve been eating over the past few weeks.