Prior to leaving the country but following the booking of trains, I was advised that the best way to do Agra was as a day trip from Delhi. Feeling a little deflated about the idea of wasting two days in a town with next to nothing to do, I wished I had done more research.
Once we had disembarked from the chair carriage we were met at the station by our auto-rickshaw driver that had been organised on booking the Hotel Kamal. After a twenty minute ride we had arrived at our destination in Taj Ganj. It was still fairly early and our room was not quite ready, so we climbed the stairs and enjoyed the view of the Taj Mahal from the roof, avoiding the gargantuan, rabid monkeys.
We met the owner and were upgraded from our standard double to a deluxe room. The hotel was super clean and ridiculously cheap, if you are headed that way, I recommend the Kamal – https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g297683-d754720-Reviews-Hotel_Kamal-Agra_Uttar_Pradesh.html
We planned to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise the next morning so had the rest of the day to kill. After just a few minutes in Agra it was apparent how much cleaner and less polluted the air was, I felt like I could finally breathe again. We strolled down the cobbled streets away from our hotel, through the tangles of road sweepers and past the many-coloured horse drawn carriages before we stumbled upon the Taj Nature Walk. After paying the much inflated foreigner rate, we entered the reserve and climbed the rolling verges until we were met with the view.
We quickly discovered that this reserve was being utilised for more than just sight seeing, it was a veritable make-out hot spot for the local youths. Being ever so slightly off the beaten track, it was clear that not many tourists frequented these parts as each new corner we rounded we stumbled into a pair of entwined teens, giggling back at us after being caught in the act. I found this unexpected scene completely endearing and it actually made me feel closer to the culture, reminding me that we aren’t so different after all.
We awoke promptly at around 5am the next morning and headed to the West Gate, just a five minute walk away. It’s useful to note that not all gates are open at sunrise, I believe the South Gate opens later at 8am. We made our way in our separate queues for a quick frisking and into the gardens, the gate itself was a sight to behold and after making our way through we were met by the stunning Taj Mahal.
The entire experience surpassed my expectations. I have traveled much of Asia previously, visited countless temples and been slightly disappointed by Angkor Wat, so I was keeping my expectations realistic. I was prepared to be pushed and shoved, to fight for a shot, to queue in numerous locations and become agitated by the crowds. But that just didn’t happen. Sure, it was busy, but it wasn’t the chaos I had envisaged. People waited patiently while you got your shot rather than crowding in next to you, they offered to take your picture if you’d return the favour – dare I say, it was civilised!
Maybe it was the ungodly hour that kept the arseholes at bay, maybe it was the mausoleum that instilled a sense of tranquility, I have no idea, but it was peaceful and beautiful. As we got closer to the Taj, the intricacy of the marble and the tiles became clearer. I had never noticed how detailed and multifaceted it was, infused with burnt red and gold borders with floral carvings climbing the foot of the building. The Taj Mahal is truly one of the most stunning things I have ever seen, utterly deserving of it’s status of wonder of the modern world.
Following a good few hours marveling, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast. Later that day, we tracked down a tuk-tuk driver to take us across the river to watch the sun setting over the Taj from the Mehtab Bagh Gardens. Had we thought about this a little more carefully we would have realised that the sun doesn’t set behind the Taj from this location, despite it being advertised as the perfect viewpoint at this time of day. Regardless, it was still a great view and a lovely way to round off our trip to Agra.
On our way back to the hotel, our driver, who we’d taken a bit of a shine to after discovering his penchant for rickshaw racing and how he had put all three of his sons through university, began asking if we’d like to do some shopping. Our 5am starts had begun to catch up with us and we just wanted to grab dinner and go to bed ready for our early train the following day, but he became more insistent. We had grown wise to many of the auto-rickshaw drivers tricks of the trade and knew that he would receive a kickback from the tourist trade he brought to many of the local establishments. Regardless, we were tired and hungry and just wanted to go home, but he was relentless and eventually convinced us to check out one shop, that all we needed to do was step inside and he’d get his token. We obliged and were met with many other confused white faces inside the exorbitant precious gem shop. It is often laughable, the amount of money we are assumed to have when in reality, I could barely afford a new pair of flip flips, let alone a diamond encrusted elephant.
Once back at the hotel, we headed to a rooftop restaurant across the road where we were lead up three flights of steep, narrow stairs by an elderly man referred to, rather dubiously, by the owner as his ‘brother’. He showed us his notebooks full of praise for him from guests from around the globe and pocketed his tip with a tap on the nose before leading us back downstairs to pay the bill.
Agra was exactly what I needed after 3 hectic Delhi days. We breathed the fresh air and recharged ready for Jaipur. I urge anybody planning their trip to stay the night, at least one!