Moving from Delhi onto Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) was a welcome break indeed. Delhi is a great place to get your head around India – as it’s really got it all (the madness, the chaotic roads & some interesting sights too). And from what I’ve read it’s the worst of the bunch…from Delhi out, it gets that little bit easier.
The train journey to Agra was pretty good going. I was extremely nervous about travelling by train – not knowing what to expect and after being bombarded with people in Delhi, it was a bit of a concern as to how our fellow passengers would react to us.
It was nerve-wracking and naturally the train was late (remember I mentioned Indian Stretchable Time), but it wasn’t too bad really (45 mins). We got on, sorted our bags and asked people to move to allow us in our seats. We had picked Sleeper Class (which is so so cheap) but a lot of the guidebooks and websites discourage you from going for that option (because, quite snobbily, they inform you that’s how the poorest people travel). If you’re travelling in the day it is completely fine (I havent travelled at night yet so can’t comment on that). The middle sleeper bed is folded down so there is a lower seat and an upper bunk. They are comfy enough but after a while you will need a cushion for your achey bum – I used a blanket I’d pinched from my first Jet Airways flight (another great reason for always stealing the pillow and blanket provided on flights).
We booked 2 lower berths which meant we had window seats facing each other (which we found ideal really).
Travelling by rail is a pretty excellent way to learn more about Indian life. You will pass through many different villages and see lots of different accommodations and people’s everyday routines. For instance you will see a lot (and I mean a lot) of poop on the railway lines. Then as you past people’s homes you will see people brushing their teeth and having a poop either right on the railway line itself or along its pebbled stretch. The squat position in itself, that everyone seems to do, looks like a uncomfortable yoga position but really it must be very comfortable to be able to do that like it. But after a while you won’t even bat an eyelid to it – it’s just part of everyday life.
We also went past huts made from cowpats, shanty towns & rundown blocks of flats and not once did a flutter of guilt or feeling of sympathy cross my brain – everyone genuinely seems so, so happy. I think it’s wonderful – everyone has smiling, healthy, happy children – it really makes me smile. And of course it gets you realising, do children in western countries really need all the stuff they have?
On our journey we were also blessed to have a wonderful group of friendly locals sitting with us. We befriended the young English-speaking man of the group and it really made the 5 hour journey fly by. Seriously, you will want to make friends and meet unique lovely people on your travels and all you have to do is the kind thing and offer some of your food to your fellow passengers – it worked for us! Wonderful interactions with local people is what travel is all about in my opinion.
Arriving in Agra our new friends helped us with our bags and even arranged our taxi ride for us with a driver, so we didn’t get ripped off. Without him I think we would have been bombarded (as always) by drivers – as soon as they see westerners, that’s it, they’re all over you like flies. It’s a shame but it’s the way it is.
We arrived at our second hostel – The Friends Paying Guesthouse to be greeted by welcoming children next door and from the hostel itself. After a long journey, smiling faces really do make a difference.
This place was very different to our first place, much more basic, definitely in need of some major cleaning and redecoration but homely nonetheless. The owner was the nicest guy – he literally would do anything to help you and very kindly showed us around the upstairs levels to show us he was currently structuring some new rooms and a rooftop restaurant. They looked very nice so it clearly is going to change there very soon.
The guesthouse is the family home too which we really liked, all of the family were involved of the running of the place and the food was really out of this world! They also offered beer (you will find no place includes alcohol on the menu but if you ask most can provide you with some – usually by popping out to their local shop! And they will ask you to keep your bottle/can out of sight – this is very common). We’ve only been offered Kingfisher beer so far but it’s very light and drinkable so it’s been fine. But you will probably pay that little bit more (there are some off-licences especially in tourist areas which is usually much cheaper).
The only thing about the guesthouse that bothered us really, was the placement of our room (it backed right on to the main communal balcony chill-out area – which meant it was always noisy). Apart from that it was great because the family who run it really make it great!
I must admit you don’t need very long in Agra, we had 3 nights (but you probably only really need 2) but after the train journey it’s nice to be able to just chill out for a day and not have to rush around. I think before we left England, we expected we would want to go to ALL of the tourist attractions in these cities – but we haven’t because we have unfortunately been a little put off by some of the prices. Now I bet you’re thinking – are you really moaning about prices in rupees?! I know it’s cheap, it’s ALL so cheap but it’s quite a slap in the face when you see the massive hike in price for foreigners compared to the Indian prices. It is insane!
I would have paid anything to see the Taj Mahal but seeing that Indians paid 20R and we had to pay a massive 750R – it really does bite!
At times the people make you feel a bit unwelcome with the stares and bad looks but seeing these price differences really made us feel even more exploited and unwanted. It was very unexpected. No guidebook had prepared us for that.
We agree our price should be higher than local prices but not so dramatically high. Indeed we paid a great deal to get here yet as a result of that we don’t have loads upon arrival, but that is definitely what is thought by everyone else :/
As a result of price hikes we decided to walk to the famous Red Fort and take external pictures but decided not to go inside. The price was 300R for foreigners 20R for Indians. Maybe we were being tight but we decided to save that money for an awesome meal or an attraction in another town. What you do, however, my loves, is up to you.
Another thing to expect is to deal with segregated queues to get into the Taj Mahal (at the very beginning it’s fine – it’s just to allow female/male officers body search the appropriate sex) but when you get into the complex itself, Indians have one queue in and foreigners have another. If you go into their queue accidentally you’ll be asked to go back – even though the two separate queues both lead to the same main entrance inside the Taj. Hmmm?
Do not let it bother you too much though -if the price hikes bother you too, when you arrive, just do what we did and pick out the things you REALLY want to see and maybe just don’t sweat the rest.
In Agra, you will still walk along the street & have people endlessly asking if you want a cycle/auto rickshaw ride but it is so so much quieter than Delhi. That in itself is just such a joy! The noise in Delhi is overwhelming, endless horns, endless traffic – Agra doesn’t have half of it
We couldn’t really hang out at our guesthouse until after 5pm because of the building work going on, so we made sure we were out most of the time. Our first stop was to the Taj Nature Walk – a beautiful garden full of gorgeous flowers, wild birds (it really is an amazing thing to see lime-green parakeets in the wild), and awesome views of the Taj.
When I was writing my first post I was sitting (above) in a viewing point in there staring at the Taj in amazement (seemed a good place to start hehe). It seemed like work was still going on in the gardens but it really is lovely and so so quiet and relaxing so definitely check it out.
But after all, this is what we REALLY came to see:
We decided on visiting the Taj before sunset (it is only open to visitors until sunset anyway so going an hour and a half before seemed pretty good going). Enter via the East Gate, it’s much quieter than the main West Gate. Take lots of pictures and just enjoy that view, it really is amazing.
It really is the most romantic monument ever built. The great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the marble beauty to symbolise his undying love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child.
In the heart of the Taj, you will see the two marble tombs of the couple – somehow I was not expecting to see them right there but it really was quite a beautiful and unexpected sight. It really put their love into perspective.
So go there, wonder at one of the most amazing wonders of the world, eat good food and relax.
Love and happiness Em xoxo