The drive to Agra was fairly long. Our driver Ashwani showed remarkable skill at the wheel in what is clearly a very challenging driving environment.
I’ve travelled in some countries with bad driving standards, but India takes top spot from Vietnam for sure (honorable mention to Morocco and their special roundabout system). There are plenty of wide roads in Delhi. Some 4 or 5 lanes wide, and with clearly marked lanes. These lines are completely pointless as nobody takes a blind bit of notice of them. Instead drivers weave all over the place and straddle the lanes and they never use their indicators. Accidents should happen more than they do, but there is possibly a reason for that.
Most annoying of all is the constant and incessant sound of car and motorbike horns. It was bad enough in Vietnam where they use the horn to announce their presence. They do this in India too. The horn is used to convey things like “I’m behind you” and “I’m alongside you” and even “I’m now pulling out of this junction”. This all has some value in a country where driving standards are woeful.
But in India the horn has another much more important job. It is used to make cars disappear, to make long queues shrink and to make red lights change to green. In short, most Indian people seem to think that constantly sounding their horns which help them arrive at their destination more quickly. It can appear that the entire nation has gone mad at times.
Despite all this Ashwani negotiated the roads on the way out of Delhi with aplomb. He is in a very small minority of people in India who use their indicators, and instead of using his horn he preferred to flash his headlights. A more refined kind of impatient.
On the way we had our first stop at the tourist restaurants that sit between the major locations. They serve a vital role, as they are clean and they offer food choices to please tourists of various nationalities. They also cost 4 times as much as the local eateries, but on a short trip like ours that was a small price to pay to not spend the whole trip in the toilet.
By this point I had discovered the fantastic paneer (cheese) curries. Indian cheese is great and is also a far safer bet than eating meat. I’m a committed meat eater but I only ate meat outside of our hotels twice on the whole trip. The naan breads were also great. I tried the ever present butter naan (naan with butter melted on it), garlic naan (naan with butter and chopped garlic) and cheese naan (it had cheese in it). It seemed that every restaurant had a tandoor oven.
Agra is a frontier city really. Insofar as tourists are concerned it is a place to stay when you see the Taj Mahal. I had built up some preconceptions about the Taj Mahal prior to our arrival. It is but one building, you can’t help but have seen hundreds of photographs and as you may know I much prefer my ancient buildings in a state of ruin and preferably reclaimed by nature.
We arrived at the hotel just after lunch and checked in. We stayed at the Raddison Blu, which was nice and most notable for its excellent shower. But we only had 1 night in Agra so very soon we were back in the car to commence the sight seeing.
First up, and very much as a prelude to the Taj Mahal, was the Agra Fort. First impressions count for a lot when it comes to tourism. I still remember the feeling when I first saw Angkor Wat, and the moment I crested the mountain top to see Machu Picchu. Agra Fort doesn’t quite match those two experiences, but on the basis of size alone it pretty breathtaking. Whenever I first lay eyes on a construction such as this I am in awe of the amount of human effort, sacrifice and skill required to have built it. I honestly do think that in this modern age we really do underestimate how advanced previous civilizations were.
The Fort was built in the 16th century by the Mughal Dynasty. One could ask what need they had of such an imposing fort, but of course the British turned up not long after and at that point that probably realised they should have built a bigger and stronger fort.
The fort sits just up the river from the Taj Mahal. The fourth emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of one of his wives. Our guide told us that he had wanted to build a new tomb for himself across the river from the Taj Mahal. But his son thought this to be a frivolous waste of money and overthrew him. Shah Jahan spent the rest of his days incarcerated within the fort in (palatial) quarters overlooking the Taj Mahal.
We spent an hour or so exploring the fort. When the British arrived they quickly overran the fort and used it for their own purposes. Some incredibly out of place additions were made at that point in time. Once the British left, the Indian Army took it back. A large part of the fort is off limits as it used by the military still today.
One of the best parts of the Fort was the impressive views towards the Taj Mahal. This was a great build up as our second and final stop of the day, which of course was the Taj Mahal.
I am always a little wary of the really world famous attractions when I travel. One can’t help but feel some familiarity with The Colosseum, Buckingham Palace or Sydney Opera House without ever visiting, purely because they are so well publicised. This can often remove the initial excitement for me.
The Taj Mahal fell into this category and I wasn’t greatly excited as we arrived. I’d seen it endless times on the TV and the internet, and it is just one building. Not really my kind of tourist attraction really.
How wrong I was. Seeing it for the first time is a magical moment. One enters through a gate which is in itself worthy of the journey.
This adds to the magic once through the gate visitors immediately view the Taj Mahal from across the beautiful gardens. This is the typical view seen on the internet and television.
And though the moment of first seeing the Taj Mahal is impressive, the real shock was reserved for when we eventually reached it up close. It is much bigger than I expected. In fact it is immense.
As we worked our way through the gardens towards the Taj, our guide took us to the famous “Diana Bench”. This is the bench where Princess Diana sat to be photographed. You will have seen the picture. She’s dressed like an 80’s air stewardess, perched on the bench on a day when tourists were clearly not allowed in. This is what a normal day at the Taj Mahal looks like.
Our guide seemed quite put out when we declined the opportunity to queue up to have our photo taken on the Diana bench. We pressed on, keen to get up close to the main attraction.
It is in fact possible to go inside the Taj Mahal. Photographs are forbidden though, which is why you probably didn’t realise this. The inside didn’t greatly impress or interest me, despite some very impressive craftsmanship.
We plonked ourselves down on the edge of the mosque which sits alongside the Taj Mahal. The plan was probably to watch sunset. But in the meantime we took some photos and enjoyed watching non-Muslims get shouted at for not taking their shoes off as they walked onto the mosque “forecourt”. Whilst we were taking photos from within the mosque, with no shoes on, I noticed the “shouty” Muslim man approaching us. I suspected he wanted a camera fee or some such nonsense and as he approached I dodged him, and instead he collared Tom.
Tom returned a few minutes later having been force fed a history lesson for which he was expected to pay. Suffice to say he did not.
We both agreed that the Taj Mahal is worth the hype. It is truly awe inspiring, though not worthy of it’s place in the New 7 Wonders of the World. Which is a subject that really annoys me.
Check out the list here. I have a real issue with Chicin Itza firstly. I’ve not visited, but there is no way it should be on there ahead of Angkor Wat (no surprise me saying that) or Borobudur. Both are clearly much more impressive to the visitor, and also much more impressive feats of engineering and human achievement.
The same goes for Christ the Redeemer. It’s just a statue of a very unlikely looking Middle Eastern man. It isn’t even the only one. I can imagine the Pope getting his way on this inclusion.
But I won’t end this post on a rant. Despite my issues with that list I can say that the Taj Mahal is certainly worth coming to India to see.