Sunday, 6 October 2013

Incredibly India - Agra

I visited India when I was about 12 & I learned about the Taj Mahal and it has been my dream ever since to see it. I can't believe it has taken me so long to be honest. We had planned a few trips to India including Agra but they never worked out so as soon as we decided to go travelling Agra was number 1 on my list.

While doing my research I had read Agra is a shit hole, possibly worse than Delhi and you get a lot more hassle so although I was super excited to see the Taj Mahal I wasn't looking forward to Agra that much. The day before setting off I looked at restaurants on Trip Advisor and found an ace looking restaurant that was number 1 in Agra. It looked really modern, food looked good and and most of all it looked sparkly clean - in Delhi I survived on next to nothing because I was worried about getting Delhi belly. So the plan for Agra was hotel, the Taj Mahal  & nice restaurant. Again, doing what we want, not what we should. We should visit Agra Fort & the Baby Taj but we're really not bothered about seeing them so why spend time money & hassle on it?

The journey here should have been easy. 2 hours in an air conditioned car on the new 'expressway'. Our driver, for whatever reason, decided not to take the promised expressway and it took 6 hours. I realised after 1 hour 45 we were still in Delhi so we weren't going to be going express anything. Obviously the length of the journey was bad. We have been on much longer journeys with no problem but it's when you aren't expecting it, that's what makes it really annoying. 

The journey was interesting to say the least. The driver had to stop the car twice to get out & pay tax. When he stopped & left us 2 whiteys in the car we were surrounded by beggars bashing on the windows like zombies asking for money. 1 man even had a monkey doing flips. Now there is no way on earth we would ever give money to a man who keeps a monkey on a chain. I am sometimes tempted to give the people money but everywhere tells you not to because they work for gangs so it isn't really helping anyone, only the gang leaders. I don't know if that's true or not but with the amount of people surrounding us we didn't have enough money to give them all something anyway.

There were good bits about the journey though. It was like being on a safari (probably a crap safari but still..). We saw storks, kingfishers, camels, horses, donkeys, geese, goats, pigs, dogs, ox, cows, hawks, monkeys and an elephant! That was pretty cool. We also saw people doing crazy things and working super hard. We were going too fast to get many pictures but we got a couple.

Driving through Agra, it looked like we expected. More run down than Delhi. Most roads were rocks and dirt. There was rubbish everywhere. However, I had booked a really good looking hotel. The closest hotel to the Taj Mahal with a roof terrace with views of the Taj and it was only £7.50 a night for both of us. It is called The Taj Plaza. This hotel is on the road where you buy your Taj tickets then walk down to the Taj Mahal so this road is a nice road probably because this is where the tourists come. After checking in and trying to get an answer out of the driver for why the journey took 6 hours instead of 2 (we were unsuccessful) we went up to the roof. As you can imagine after that hellish journey all we wanted was a couple of cold beers. On the roof there was a French guy talking to an English guy & they were drinking Kingfisher so Russell asked where they got it from. The answer was music to our ears - from the shop. 110 rupees (£1.10), the hotel charge 220 rupees (£2.20) but they don't have a problem with you bringing your own beer up here. £1.10 for a 675ml bottle of beer. Ace. We sat on the roof watching the sun go down drinking Kingfisher & swapping travelling stories for a few hours.

Beer, sunset & Taj Mahal on the rooftop

After a few big beers on zero food it was time to go to the number 1 restaurant in Agra - Pinch of Spice. We asked for a taxi at reception and a guy showed up & told us 300 rupees (£3) and he will wait for us and bring us back. We told him no need to wait but he was more than happy to so fair enough. The restaurant looked just as good in real life as the pictures. Like an Indian restaurant at home. We played a new game - Russell orders the drinks & I order the food. Russell is pretty happy here as I am going veggie while in India - seems to make sense. Less chance of getting ill, Indian veggie food is ace and we can share everything which with super filling Indian food is always a good idea.

Russell made quite a drinks order. 2 large beers, 1 double whiskey and a kamikaze for me. Wowzers! I love kamikazes, didn't think I'd get 1 in India, and it was a good one. As for the food, I ordered veggie sheesh kebabs for starter (to share), 1 black lentil buttered daal, 1 creamy sweetcorn curry, 1 veg pilau rice, 1 pineapple raita & 1 buttered naan. Before all this came they bring nuts, I didn't like them but Russell is a nut freak and he reckons they were the best nuts he has ever had. They also bring cucumber, carrot & beetroot sticks in a marie rose sauce & onions with a selection of dips. Fair to say we didn't finish it all, Russell almost rolled out of the place. It was delicious though & we decided to go back the next night even though for Indian standards it was really expensive - £26 including 10% service charge. 

The below pictures are a selection from both our meals at Pinch of Spice. Both meals were excellent.

Being driven to a really nice restaurant, spending 2 hours in there and having your driver wait for you and take you back to your nice hotel. It's like being a celebrity & we're on a travellers budget. Incredible India!

Taj Mahal

So the day had finally arrived, I get to see the Taj Mahal. I had set my alarm for 5.15am. I had read it opens at sunrise and that is the best time to go, mainly because it is much quieter than any other time. 5.15 seemed really early, it was pitch black. I couldn't believe the sun would be up in 45 minutes so I called reception and they confirmed the sunrise was at 5.45. We got dressed and asked reception best way to walk. Although the Taj Mahal is down the street to the left you have to walk about 100m to the right to get a ticket and then walk back. We walked to the ticket office all the way followed by a young lad on a cycle rickshaw, he followed us all the way there & waited for us outside. His persistence paid off and we got in his rickshaw to the Taj Mahal. We were glad we did in the end, it was definitely quicker than walking as all downhill, it only cost 60p and we got in the queue earlier. 

We queued for about 10 minutes before the gates opened and then it was time. I was super excited by the time the gates opened but when I was in the queue I started worrying in true Cat fashion. It's just a building, what if I'm disappointed after all these years. I was so so wrong. From the moment I saw it through the archway I was spellbound. It is just a building, a tomb. Why is it so special? Maybe you can feel the love.

In 1631 Emperor Shah Jahan was grief stricken when his 3rd wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to their 14th child so he commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal. He invited craftsmen from places like Italy & Persia. It took 20,000 workmen 22 years to complete the building, the gardens were finished 5 years later.  As well as being a wonder of the modern world it is also a UNESCO site. UNESCO say it is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement in the world. The Emperor himself described the Taj Mahal as - 

 Should guilty seek asylum here 
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin. 
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, 
All his past sins are to be washed away. 
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs; 
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes. 
In this world this edifice has been made; 
To display thereby the creator's glory.

Mumtaz Mahal
The Taj Mahal was built from lots of different materials. Mostly marble but it also has lost of precious and semi precious stones like emeralds, onyx, jade & mother of pearl. I never knew it had such an intricate design. All around were flowers and inscriptions. The calligraphy around the doors gets slightly larger as it gets lower so it all looks the same size. Just like Georgian windows. 

Inside is really small & dark. No photography allowed but we did try and it was too dark to work. There are 2 marble coffins inside - I don't know if there is anyone inside them. The internet doesn't seem to know either.

Getting up at 5.20am was definitely worth it. There were a lot of people there but nothing compared to a few hours later. The benches where Princess Diana sat were available and you could get photographs without the hordes of tourists in them as you normally see. 

As we walked around the gardens we were watching the chipmunks, birds and monkeys but it was impossible not to look at the Taj & take so many pictures. As you look at it from the roof in the mid afternoon sun it looks different to how it did yesterday morning & yesterday evening. Spectacular is the only word that can describe it.

Incredible India!

Animals aren't stupid, if I could live in the Taj Mahal grounds I would too