Agra. My god, Agra!
Let me start from the beginning. We got up pretty early at 5am in order to catch our bus around 7am at the Sarai Kale Khan bus terminal. Our cabbie got a tad overexcited and left us near the first bus he knew was bound to Agra, and even started unloading our backpacks directly from his cab to the bus! We had already told him we actually had our own tickets to our own bus and we needed to find that bus, but he sort of happily ignored us and we pretty much had to snatch Alex’s backpack before it disappeared into not-the-right-bus…
Our sole clue was that our bus was a blue Volvo, so we started asking around for the Volvo bus to Agra. Not many people spoke English and the entire area seemed a little shady, making it difficult, but we eventually managed some clear-enough directions and started walking… away from the bus terminal into some kind of deserted area with bus wrecks and bus carcasses all around. I had my doubts that we were going in the right direction, seeing that we were leaving the buses behind, but I was eventually proven wrong when we arrived… at the entrance of the “real” Sarai Kale Khan terminal! Realizing with some frustration that our cabbie had left us almost but not quite where we had expected him to, while pretending he had, we nevertheless found our famous Volvo bus there waiting for us.
The trip to Agra itself was nothing unusual. It was kind of monotonous, but in a nice way as the highway is really good. The bus only stopped once about halfway through. The arrival to Agra however, was met with some uncertainty as we had no idea where we should stop and where we would be in relation to our hotel. We crossed the Yamuna river but couldn’t see any landmark that could give us a clue…
Tourists left the bus but we stayed on, eventually riding it until the Agra terminal where everybody got off. That’s where we finally saw a map and realized to our dismay that the bus had first bypassed Agra, then entered it at its southern end, going all the way up to the northern part where the terminal was. This meant that we had to find a way to double back and cross the town all over again to get to the hotel’s neighborhood.
We quickly found that there were no taxis at the terminals, only auto-rickshaws (or tuk-tuks, as tourists call them) so we looked at each other with a mix of excitement and dread, and negotiated rates for our very first, but hopefully not last, tuk-tuk ride.
And a ride it was. The driver went all Fast and Furious on us, swiftly and insanely dodging traffic, honking left and right with a seemingly complete disregard for whatever surrounded him at any given time. The weather was hot and dry and the dust flew high, stinging the eyes and making it hard to breathe. While stopping at a traffic light, I glanced at a truck nearby and noticed its tires were worn to the thread, with no grip at all possibly left in them. I just absently thought that this guy would be in a bit of a pickle come the rainy season… But it was a brief respite, and the rollercoaster ride soon started again. Seeing some kind of traffic block ahead, our pilot deftly turned towards what served as the sidewalk and rode on that instead, but then there was a block on that side too while the road was clear, so without missing a beat, seeing a clearing in the ditch fit for that purpose he just drove into it and back up on the road again.
Long story short, the Dukes of Hazzard can go cry to their momma’s, ‘cause these guys have them beat for sure.
Oh, and we arrived to our hotel.
Let me start right away by saying that we had gone for one of the cheapest hotels we could find with good reviews. This one had two reviews: a good one from a German, and a bad one from a French. Never last to critique my fellow countrymen, we had agreed that the general fussiness of the French was of little importance compared to the legendary Teutonic affinity for quality, and we went for it. (Also, as I said, cheap.)
Well, it was… what we paid for, basically. We had four walls and a roof over our heads, for sure, but the general feel of the place was that of an unfinished building, probably because it was. It was only finished up to the second floor and the rest of the thing was, well, still under construction. (And had been for over 2 years…) We complained about moldy atmosphere (the windows didn’t open, even for ventilation), not-too-clean bed sheets and a distinct lack of towels, to get another room that was much better, as in less moldy and with slightly cleaner bed sheets (once we asked for them once more). We got the towels later that day, still wet. We had a lovely chat with the manager, a feisty, white-suit-clad mustachioed gentleman, where we discussed hotel management and the difficulty of pricing your products in the hard hospitality business. It was nice but I’m still not quite sold on the idea of prioritizing the 32” LED TVs over basic furnishings. While we were at it, we also talked to him regarding renting a cab for the following day, to visit Fatehpur Sikri and other sites.
Anyway, dont’t get me wrong, basic necessities were met with satisfaction, so we got some rest, then set out to find a tuk-tuk to go to the Taj Mahal, our first big visit, as well as a restaurant to satiate our hunger first. Priorities!
That’s how we met Sunil, a very cool cabbie who ended up being our go-to guy during our stay in Agra. We negotiated fares and even the trip to the bus station to Jaipur later this week, and started arrangements on cabs for Fatehpur Sikri with him too, to see who had the better deal.
We went for lunch to a restaurant called the Silk Route. We had read great reviews in our guide and were confused when our driver didn’t seem to recognize the name. Then we gave the address and he asked around and with a flash the answer came: it’s colloquially known as just “the SR”. The various tikka masala, butter chickens and biryanis were excellent again, as was the tea. We had the whole restaurant for ourselves, but it might have been due to the late hour. Not that it mattered. We had a great time.
Finally, we got out and went for the Taj Mahal. Sunil introduced us to a local (official) guide for us to discover the history of the place, and we expedited the entry formalities by going through the “High Value Visitor” channel. Being a High Value Visitor is nothing more than being a tourist: it means you paid 750 rupees for the privilege of visiting the Taj Mahal, instead of the 20 charged to Indian citizens. The only advantage is you get priority in the queue (that’s actually a neat bonus, as it’s pretty long).
Ah, the Taj. A magnificent and legendary building. Let’s pretend Wikipedia doesn’t exist and share a bit of history here.
In the early 1500’s, India was ruled by what would become known as the Mughal Empire. By the 1550’s, with Akbar the Great, it had stabilized into a full blown, unified empire, and it’s with Akbar’s grandson, the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, that it reached its Golden Age. Under his rule many great buildings, such as the Red Fort in Delhi, were built. Shah Jahan was madly in love with his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who gave him 13 children. Unfortunately she died giving birth to the 14th, and grief-stricken, Shah Jahan decided to give her the most magnificent mausoleum the world had ever seen.
The construction began in 1632 and ended in 1653. The complex is formed by three gates giving way to a plaza, where the main, majestic gateway is located. From there, you access the gardens with pathways to the Mausoleum itself, flanked by a mosque on its left (looking towards the river), and another “fake” mosque on the right, called “Jawab”. Everything in the construction of the buildings, of the gardens and of all the details, reflects the perfect symmetry of the place, a signature Mughal characteristic.
The mosque is still in use today, which is why it’s not recommended to plan your visit on a Friday as the complex will be closed to non-muslims.
We stayed there until closing time, enjoying the benefits of the golden hour. Perfect timing! 🙂
After that, we rejoined with Sunil and after some bargaining we managed a good price for the Fatehpur Sikri cab so we decided to go with his offer. Finally, exhausted by an overall intense day, we got back to the hotel and pretty much immediately went to sleep.