Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An adventure to Agra to see the Taj Mahal

Our bus to Delhi

Having originally only planned just two full days in Delhi before moving to my work site in the north, I realized that Saturday would be my only day to see the Taj Mahal. I had hoped to find someone in my hostal that was also going and when I heard one guy chatting to another traveler about potentially going to the Taj the next  morning, I butting myself into the conversation excitedly and invited myself along. He seemed interested and we decided that that evening we would make plans. Well, I waited until about 9 pm for him to return and at that point I realized I had better start figuring out something as I had heard it was a 3 hour train ride away. Fortunately in the hostel there were two travel agents that I could talk to about figuring out the logistics of getting down there and back. They said that the train was a bit complicated, especially so late the night before, and similarly, there was a very efficient bus that takes the highway which is also just 3 hours form Agra, but I was also too late to sign up for this as well. The only option left was for me to talk a 5 hour bus ride which they told me might take even longer than 5 hours depending on traffic, fog, etc etc. I was hemming and hawing over this when the guy who said he would come with me came back and just said "What the hell, let's just go." So I did. 

The travel agents booked a place for us on the bus and it was to pick us up at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Delhi at 7:30/ "Do we have a ticket?" I asked, "No, he'll know you." was all he replied. Ok... so we rushed down to this gas station early in the morning suddenly realized that we had a little problem. Every single bus from Delhi going south stopped at this particular gas station to fill up, and every bus which arrived asked us if a) we wanted to go on their bus and when we said we had already made a reservation they asked b) "Do you know your bus number?" to which we had no response. "Dont' worry, bus is coming." they would reply as they drove off. Finally one man asked us if we had made a reservation and when we said yes, he made a call. "Ok, your bus number if 4329." Who did he call? How did he know? It's a mystery to us still today, but several minutes later 4329 rolled in and we were told to hop on.

We knew pretty quickly that we had made the right decision to take this bus when a vendor came on tried to sell an orange juicer. His sales pitch, which was mixed with Hindi and English was too hilarious and that was before the demonstrations started. He told us how good it was for "pregnant lady" and "newly- married lady" and then he pulled out a baby bottle nipple and stuck it on the top of the juicer showing that you could litterally use an orange as a baby bottle. Next thing some lucky (or unlucky) bus riders found themselves subject to the demonstrations where he would push the juicer inside the orange, then tip someone's head back and pour orange juice straight from the orange into their mouths. At least one guy looked like he was enjoying it a lot.


After about 2 hours of driving we stopped for breakfast at a little outdoor restaurant on the side of the road. This was my first proper meal in India, and we were both quite satisfied with our veg curry for 30 rupies each. We realized when we got the bill, however, that we had accidentally ordered the most expencive naan (it was filled with vegetables), so we still wound up paying a whopping $3USD each for this meal (one of my most expencive meals so far).

Finally, around 1pm we arrived in Agra and the bus driver announced that we would be going first to Agra Fort, then to the Taj Mahal, and would stop at each place for 1.25 hours. We were a bit dissapointed by this, as we wanted  time to just wonder the city after seeing the Taj Mahal. Just at that moment, the man pictured above came to us and told us that he would take us on our own directly to the Taj Mahal so that we could have more time there, and that this service was included in the price of our tour. So we hopped out and got in his tuk-tuk and he whisked us away to the Taj Mahal, giving us a leisurely 2 hours to see the site.

Before we even reached the Taj, we passed quite a few monkeys and camels....

And finally we got to the Taj Mahal. The crowds were enormous, but fortunately or unfortunately we were forced to buy a expencive tourist ticket to enter which let us through all the lines without waiting.

So in case you are wondering, yes, it is just as big as it looks in photos, if not bigger, and the reason why you never see photos of the inside is that there is no light inside and all you can see (and not well because of the crowds) are the two tombs for whom this structure was built: the tomb of Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal empire and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, his third wife and a Persian princess.

Before stepping foot on the marble of the Taj Mahal, one must put on shoe covers to protect the stone.

Here is the entrance into the mausoleum. I have no photos from inside to show because a) it was too dark, b) there were too many people and c) technically photography was not allowed, however that didn't seem to stop most people. I tried taking one or two shots in here quickly, however none came out well enough for me to show here.

Next we checked out the side building which is a mosque made of red sandstone, a very typical stone used for building in this area.

Here, too, we were expected to enter shoeless, and while it was not the Taj Mahal, I found it to be quite impressive as well.


After finishing with the Taj, we still had some time and decided to do a little wondering around the backstreets in the area. We were starving, so we stopped for some samosas first.

While wondering the backstreets in India (or even the main streets for that matter), you never know what you'll find.

We didn't have much time left before we were supposed to meet our driver, but we found a little rooftop restaurant with a view of the Taj. We were still full on samosas and we didn't have much time, but we ordered ourselves two beers (much bigger beers than we expected) and enjoyed them watching the rooftop scenery around us.

Imagine if this were your view every day...

But finally we had to go back and meet our driver and of course, we were next brought on the typical tourist shopping tour. First to a clothing store. Now, my friend who had been to India several years ago advised me, don't pack many clothes because clothes in India are unbelievably cheap. Well, I couldn't just pack no clothes, so I just packed about three warm outfits and figured I would take her advice and do the rest of my shopping in India. So, now I was brought to a store, where undoubtedly our tuk-tuk driver would receive a commission for anything purchased. upon asking the price for some clothing, I found it to be... cheap... but not unbelievably cheap as my friend had told me.  Finally after seeing that bargaining was going no where, I gave up and left the store. Our tuk-tuk driver was clearly not impressed that I had not bought anything. We told our tuk-tuk driver that we weren't really interested in shopping but he insisted that we go to see an inlayed marble seller. While I did find it to be fairly interesting (though not enough to buy one), my travel companion was at this point visibly pissed off that we were being dragged around like this and our tuk-tuk driver, perhaps still hoping to get a good tip offered to take us back to our bus so we could walk around there.

Our driver, guide and my travel companion (looking not so impressed at where the day was going)

Ah, yes, and how could I forget. As we were headed back to the bus, our guide pulled out a joint and tried to convinse my companion to buy it from him at just 300 rupees. Fortunately, my companion had the wits to say no, even when he offered to split it with him for half the cost. Ha, and while I had been inside the clothes shop trying on clothes, my companion was offered oral sex by another man, also for 300 rupees. It does not pay to be a male traveler in India (or basically anywhere for that matter) as you get solicited for all manner of terrible things.

Finally we were dropped off at the bus and it was time to tip our driver. In the end we agreed to give 100 rupees each, or the equivalent of just under $4 USD. Not sure whether or not we did the right thing, as we did basically get a free ride around town (although how much of our tour fee covered his expenses, we don't know), but feeling the victim of sales pitch after sales pitch doesn't put one in the mood for generosity at the end of the day. Not to mention $4USD can go quite far in this country as well.

But we thoroughly enjoyed our walk about while waiting for our bus...

Finally our bus departed and thought we would be back to Delhi before midnight, but oh no, they had more in store for us. Around 8pm we were awoken to visit a temple to Krishna. The temple complex was quite big and because they closed at 8:30, we didn't have much time to look around, but it was quite interesting watching the worship services in various small shrines about the complex.

Then we were back on the bus and off to another temple to Krishna, now at 10:00pm. We really had no idea what was going on, though one other tourist on the bus tried her best to explain, even though Hindi was not her native language and she also seemed to not understand completely what was going on.

Finally at 11:30pm the bus stopped for dinner at another roadside restaurant. This time I joined some of the other tourists (which turned out to be students from a university in the far east of India, explaining their very different, more South-east Asia appearance that I had been trying to figure out all day) and their professor bought my dinner, a delicious Dal Makani with naan.

We finally got back to Delhi at 1:30 am. We took a tuk-tuk back to our hostel and crashed. But, that was one unbelievable day!

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