Some people say that after you have been to India, no other journey will be the same, and I agree. Visiting this country not only changes your perceptions of how low can you go (hygiene and not only), but about life in general. My personal conclusion after India was a new appreciation for clean running water, central heating, windows with glass and rich meals. Many of these things are not there by default in India. But India also has various sides to it, and you can enjoy it differently. Some people walk across the country, others bike, yet others take organized tours. Each traveler has their own method and I am sure that organized tours are sometimes the only way how some people will agree to explore this country, since feedback about it is so different. One of classic tours of India is the golden triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Numerous bus & individual tours focus on it, and this time I will share my expressions about one tip of the triangle – Agra. We explored it on our own pace, but using the services of a local driver.
Agra is the homeland of the majestic Taj Mahal, the world wonder that celebrates undying love and attracts millions of tourists every year. Apart from this world famous building there are a few other locations well worth visiting. One of them is Fatehpur Sikri abandoned city (with less than abandoned mosque), Agra fort and I’timād-ud-Daulah tomb or Baby Taj. To enjoy these places and survive the heat and the crowds, the recommended length of visit should be two days.
Trains in India
Visiting Agra for me was also a way to try out the Indian rail system, which has almost as many tales around it as India itself. Trains are the primary means of transportation in India, starting from cars with no glass in the windows (but rails) up to first class. India also has various specialized trains that offer truly exceptional service and are only for luxury tourism purposes.
I first got worried when I couldn’t figure out how much in advance can I purchase the train tickets, as I had heard stories of tickets disappearing the second they become available. Others told me you can always get a ticket, just have to know how. There were also numerous ticket classes, I couldn’t understand the purpose of all of them right away, ladies tickets, tourist tickets and many others. If you are looking to buy tickets for the trains, there is a very good article on Indian trains and rails from fellow Latvian bloggers Kaspars & Una, who share their extensive experience on Indian trains after traveling in India for over six months.
I got lucky and a month before the planned journey I got tickets from Delhi Nizzamuddin to Agra in the morning, and back on the next days evening. When we enter the station we are surrounded by locals trying to sell us tickets, since they don’t know the fact that we already have them. We arrived way too early, but the display already shows the platform from which the train will depart. We watch the trains and wonder – how will we know which one is ours? They probably announce it on the loudspeaker, but in Hindi or in indistinguishable English. It’s clear that the train won’t stay long in the station and now I really get the episode from the Outsourced when everyone starts running as soon as the train stops. We also run, trying to understand where will the needed car stop. We have also heard stories that other people might already be sitting in our seats, so we run as crazy. There isn’t anyone in our seats just yet, as this is the departing station for the train, and the train does stay in the station for a bit longer. But still we are quite happy that we left the bulky luggage behind in the hotel, where we will retrieve it on the next day.
As the train continues on after Agra, it has sleeping places with sheets and pillows. We have two places on the first level and two on the second. I see people taking their places really up there next to the ceiling, and from my previous experience going to Russia and Ukraine by train, you only put luggage there. Our journey is supposed to last three and a half hours, and the train is scheduled to be on time (you can check online the statistics for average train delays, some are simply horrible). After a few moments a conductor arrives and checks our tickets, after that we spend the time watching tv series on a laptop, as window is dirty and we can barely see through it. Doesn’t open, as we are in a conditioned carriage.
The train stops in a few stations on the way and people come through to sell food – samosa, puri, roti, cold drinks in a bucket with ice. A few beggars move through as well, some are missing legs, so they walk using their arms. We have curtains in the compartment, so we close them not to be disturbed.
Arriving to Agra
We panic as we arrive closer to the station. Since we have navigation with us and we notice that any minute we should arrive to Agra, we are not sure where should we exit? There is one more station in Agra and it’s a good thing we don’t exit there. Finally, we reach main Agra station and look for pre-paid taxi kiosk. Pay the price, get the ticket and get a driver. He shows us his review notebooks – has a few of them with detailed feedback from tourists from all over the world!
He offers to drive us to Fatehpur Sikri in an hour and on the next day to another entrance at the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and the Baby Taj.
Since I booked the tickets to India eleven months before the actual trip, I had plenty of time to plan what we will be doing there. One evening I was reading about Taj Mahal and found out that it is possible to visit it at night, during the full moon! There are five nights like this every month, you can go in for thirty minutes in groups not more than fifty and enter up to the first gate. Where can I get the tickets?! They only start to sell them one month before the date in question, in a specific place and are sold out quickly. Luckily, I found out that a few of the more upscale hotels offer special Taj Mahal Full Moon package. It includes a better room, fruit and champagne on arrival and tickets for two to the Taj! Didn’t care so much about the other things, but the tickets made me agree to pay a bit more for the room, so we stayed in Radisson Agra Taj East Gate.
As all serious hotels in India, they scan your bags when you enter, and in a short while we are in line for check in. It’s quite early so we don’t hope for the rooms to be ready yet, but we get lucky and shortly we have the keys! A quick bite in the restaurant and we go to the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri!
This city was established in 1569, when emperor Akbar moved Mughal empire capital here. It was build as the return of the Persian architectural style, but unfortunately was not inhabited for long, as already in 1585 the lake that provided drinking water for the city, dried up. Also, turmoils increased in the area, so capital was moved to Lahore. The city wasn’t completely uninhabited afterwards, which helped to preserve it. The city has it’s own mosque, which is still actively used.
At the mosque we saw yet another way how locals will try to cheat you. A tourist goes into the mosque and immediately a local Muslim student will come with him, “just to practice his English”. He will come with you even if you don’t want a guide and even when you tell him so. But he will keep on dragging along, talking about the mosque, showing the prettiest places. Once you get to the exit, he will ask for a present. If you don’t give any, he will say – but didn’t you like how much I told you, don’t I deserve a present? If you still don’t give him a present, the guy watching over the students will start to beat him, right there in front of everyone.
We also saw numerous children begging for money here. They wouldn’t leave for a really long time, once they had selected their “victim”, even when we ignored them completely. We had nowhere to go, as we were waiting for our bus. The children kept on chanting – ten rupees, ten rupees, sir! After about fifteen minutes the song changed to – five rupees, sir? Five?
It’s the best to come to this city in winter or at least in the early morning, because in the afternoon, around 3 pm in September, it was no less than thirty eight degrees Celsius in the shadow and in that kind of heat architectural wonders start moving down the list of things you are very interested in. That pool in the hotel, on the other hand, suddenly becomes a priority!
Full Moon Tour
We had heard that you have to arrive well in advance to the full moon viewing tour. In the rush with abandoned city tour, we had to run to the gates, and it was already dark. We didn’t take any flashlight with us, as it is not allowed to take one with you to the Taj. It’s a good thing there was at least some light from the distance, as the road was dug up for changing the cables, then there were the cables to trip on, sewage drains opened up (not covered up by anything), dogs and the “presents” they leave. Finally we were there, ready for the most bureaucratic process!
I read online that getting a permission for tripod is nearly impossible, you have to apply for one a month in advance and even then it’s usually not granted. So we didn’t take a tripod. It was also said that you are allowed to bring in a camera. Nothing else. In the first check point they told us that we cannot bring in additional lens, only the one already on the camera. If I had a second camera, even not functional, I could have brought in the second lens. We did manage to persuade the guard in the end, but then he told us that there will be one more checkpoint on the way, but we shouldn’t worry, we can leave the lens to the bus driver! No, thanks, we immediately decided to leave it in the locker. Good thing, the lockers were still available, as when we returned, there were piles of smartphones stacked on top of each other, as all lockers were full.
The visit is exactly thirty minutes, as promised, and then everyone is kicked out. But those thirty minutes in almost perfect silence at the Taj are worth it. We also managed to take a few pictures, making an improvised tripod from the shoe.
Just seven hours later I see Taj Mahal again, at sunrise. The driver takes us to another entrance this time, as the one next to our hotel is always full of people. He also has found a guide for us, who will tell us more about the famous monument, apparently, included in the price, although we didn’t ask for him.
At least one good thing came out of that, the guide cut everyone in the long line for tickets, and then got us in the locals line. There were no ladies in the local line, so basically I was the first one in the complex that morning. I don’t enjoy cutting the lines, but seems that here it’s a usual thing. Same as during the night, it’s not allowed to bring in food. You can bring water, but not soda. The funniest thing was that the scanner they used to check the belongings, didn’t work. Conveyor belt just kept moving through, and screen was all black. If you have a chance, come to Taj Mahal without any belongings, it will make the process much faster.
As soon as the gate opens, hundreds of tourists run to the entrance, to take a picture on the famous bench where Princess Diana posed. Many come with a local photographer, who then pushes around other tourists for best shots. In such famous objects you can see how people lose any humanity in the crowds. Everyone running, pushing, just to take a blurry picture with a phone.
Early morning is a pleasant time to see the mausoleum. The moon sets at the gate, green parrots fly around and the river is so still! There is a moment about an hour or two after opening, when majority of tourists that went it with the first crowds, leave and it even seems peaceful here. We spend this time taking pictures with a timer, hoping that noone will steal it while we are not looking.
Then we want to take a picture of the parrots, that move around the territory, but a local boy, upon seeing as wanting to take a picture, claps, starts shouting and birds fly away.
The guide waits for us at the entrance, having understood that we have read all the history about the Taj in advance. Looks like he was hoping to leave sooner, as he didn’t expect us to walk around for so long, and take so many pictures.
Our next destination is Agra Fort. If you plan to visit it, keep the tickets from the other monuments, as you can get a small discount.
At this point temperature is around thirty five degrees Celsius, bottled water disappears quickly and we go inside. We are swarmed by guides offering their service. These are especially obtrusive, and just wouldn’t leave us alone. Finally we find a trick to play them. To all their questions we answer in horrible, broken English – you-have-tours-Russian? Of course, they don’t. Some try to persuade us that they will speak very slowly. We laugh inside and keep up the charade, saying that we don’t understand. Soon the news of that stupid European group not speaking any English, spreads, and we are left alone. Will have to remember this one, as sometimes you just cannot persuade these guides to leave.
There is a view to the Taj and the river, but from a distance both seem quite small. We walk around the beautiful complex, yet another masterpiece of the Mughals. When we already plan to leave, we see the small squirrel up close, one of those that look like a chipmunk. This one is tamed by the guard, who profits from giving food to tourists who feed the squirrel. But we are so excited when we feed it! Finally we feel alive again, as the heat is just so tiring!
The Baby Taj or I’timād-ud-Daulah tomb is considered to be “the draft version” of the Taj, build for the grandfather of one of the emperor’s wives.
It’s quite empty, doesn’t seem to be visited much, and there was a lot of activity going on in the garden. A group of extremely thin Indian people digging holes in the ground in full sun, thirty eight degrees Celsius… They use very basic tools and I feel sorry for them.
The building is quite beautiful, but we start to miss the air conditioning of the car. We watch the water buffaloes on the opposite side of the river and think that we have seen so many cows, but haven’t really taken any pictures of them, as most of the times we saw them through the car windows, eating rubbish from the ground or wandering about. Another sight to remember, watched from the car window, was how to guys on a scooter ride with a dozens of egg pallets, the flat kind, with eggs inside. Watching the intensive traffic, as everywhere in India, seems unreal they can deliver the load unharmed.
Going back to Delhi
It’s late afternoon, we have seen most of the sights and want to spend some time in the pool. We have agreed with the hotel administration (the nice Czech girl working there) that we can use the pool and changing area after check out. The water is very warm, but at least lets us hide from the mosquitoes. Full of chlorine, but birds drink it at the side of the pool. We spend a few hours like this and at last it’s the time to go to the train station. There we find out that our train is delayed. First it’s fifteen minutes, then, an hour, then, two.
We already start thinking about alternative means of transportation to get back. If we had know about the delay, we would have found a driver to go back by car. Finally the train comes, once we have spent three hours in the company of monkeys, watching stray dogs, rat running around, and people coming from the super-long Punjabi Mail train. A bright red moon rises and finally we are in the train. This time, another class, conditioned chair, no more sleeping places or curtains. Luckily, there isn’t anyone sitting in our places, and we do manage to get inside the train, although just barely, as the whole time the train is in the station, people keep getting out.
The stop device in the train looks like a grenade and the chairs look so dirty, we are afraid to sit down. After a few moments I notice that there are more passengers on the train than expected, cockroaches wander around.
Sleepy and exhausted we get to Delhi, and encounter the next problem. All rickshaws ask unimaginable amount of money for driving us to the hotel. It’s midnight but I am not ready to pay three times more than the way here cost! And, there is four of us, which can be a problem squeezing-in in one ride. The prepaid taxi booth only offers rickshaws. We walk away, looking for a cab. When we get one, of course, he hasn’t got the slightest idea where we need to go. We try to show him, as we have navigation on the phone, but he doesn’t speak English and doesn’t know how to read a map. All the passers-by he asks, tell him complete rubbish. This is not a myth – people who don’t have the faintest idea where is the location you need to get to, will tell the driver some random directions.
Finally we are at the hotel! Exhausted, sweaty, missing the bed. It’s the last night in India. The Park Hotel Delhi surprises us with a nice treat – upgrade to the luxury suite with two enormous rooms and a bathroom (the size of a regular room at home). The last morning with Indian breakfast, a quick run to the shop for soda and some walking around the block. We also check out the local McDonald’s that has veggie burgers, but the rest seems the same, just more people inside.
The great journey to India has finished. I miss home a bit, but it’s pleasant to remember everything we did and saw. At home, how often do you have days full of so many impressions? Two and a half weeks and I have seen so much, been to so many places, eaten the weirdest things and have been so happy about warm shower and AC!
After visiting India I feel that I can go wherever, because I survived India. The muddy Sundarbans park with spartan accommodation, the peppers & more peppers in Bengali food, the snowy peaks of Darjeeling, markets, rickshaws, noise and smell. India saturates you with impression. It’s been quite a while since we came back, but not a day passes that I wouldn’t say – “when we were in India…” or “in comparison to India”. The journey to India is a check point that you look back to. It’s experience after which no other journey will be the same. You feel brave, you are hardened, you have experience and you can appreciate. Every person should come to India, be that even as in an organized tour, even if just peeking through the bus window and never leaving the comfort of AC!
Check out the gallery at the top of the page! All pictures by Jekabs Andrusaitis.