India Day 13: Agra: The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Taj Mahal

This was our last full day in India, and was supposed to be our grand finale. We had hoped to see the sun rise gloriously over the Taj Mahal in the morning.

Unfortunately, we woke up to fog, severe fog, and the weather indicated it would not clear up until late afternoon or evening, at which point we would be well on our way to Delhi.  We were super glad that we had managed to capture some grainy shots of the Taj Mahal on Friday night.  For us, those photos were the best we were going to be able to do:

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Our plan was to arrive at the Taj Mahal just before dawn – and to see the sun rise there when it’s also relatively uncrowded. We were up and ready by 6am, when it felt pitch dark outside, especially with the thick fog.

Our hotel was supposedly only a five minute walk to the Taj Mahal, but that particular gate was closed, so we ended up having to take an incredibly slow and scary drive to another entrance, given the dense fog and the darkness.  I do not know how our driver didn’t manage to kill someone.  The value of incessant honking suddenly became more reassuring.  We could only see a few yards in front of the car, so we prayed that there weren’t any deaf people wandering the foggy streets.

On arrival, we were surrounded in fog and our driver put us on a couple of bicycle taxis, called a rickshaws, and we started praying that we would make it to where we were going without getting run over, separated, or worse separated and mugged.  With the fog, the danger of the latter seemed somewhat probable.  Luckily, we made it to the ticket booth and got in the very short “foreigners” line.  There couldn’t have been more than 20 people in front of us.

After waiting for the gates to open, we were greeted by fog, lots of fog.  We hoped we were heading in the right direction.

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All of a sudden, we were able to get our first sighting of the Taj Mahal.  We were a bit closer than we expected, but we found it!

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It was really more awe inspiring than you might imagine from the pictures.  The fog added tons of mystery.

We enjoyed examining the detail on the outside.  At this point, the site was fairly empty and we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.

Eventually we made it to the inside.  Beautiful!   And the love story was really quite amazing to learn about. Alas, photos weren’t allowed inside.  We enjoyed our first wander through the mausoleum so much that since there still weren’t any crowds to speak of (it’s often supposed to be jam-packed inside), we decided to go through a second time.  The boys rolled their eyes a bit.

The crowds were picking up, so we decided to wander the grounds a bit.  We went back to the reflecting pool, and while we couldn’t take some of the super cool pictures that you could get on a clear day, we still had fun pretending like we could see the Taj Mahal in the background.

By 8:30am, the boys were expiring, so we decided to take them back to the hotel for breakfast.  Afterwards, we packed up, checked out, and headed towards Agra Fort.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort was definitely the best fort of the trip.  Even though the day was a bit spoiled by fog, we were glad that we experienced our tour days in the order that we did.  Starting at the lesser sights, and working up to the best is definitely the way to go.  I can’t imagine how I would have felt if each place would have gotten less and less grand.

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By this time, the fog was clearing up.  Maybe we should have held out a little longer for the Taj Mahal, but then again, it was really cool being there at dawn with minimal crowds.

On the other hand, the fort was really cool too and we spent several hours wandering.  We really should have taken more photos, but we were exhausted from almost two weeks of non-stop travel.

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Baby Taj

Our last stop in Agra was the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, better known as the Baby Taj.

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It was pretty, but we didn’t spend long there since we were all exhausted, hungry, and grouchy.

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At this point, our driver suggested waiting a while and getting lunch at a rest stop. But given our exhaustion, we insisted on eating in Agra.  He ended up taking us to a fairly mediocre restaurant – the one the night before would have been much better.  We were a bit disappointed, but at least our blood sugar was back in balance.

Last Moments

On the drive back to Delhi, we spent some time listening to some Dangal songs, napping off and on, and enjoying the scenery.  On arrival, we were reminded of the horrendous smog that is normal for the city.  Fortunately, we avoided the smog during the vast majority of the trip, since most of our trip was way outside of Delhi.

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We briefly stopped at the edge of town, and we met again with the owner of Ashok’s Taxi Tours, where he asked for feedback about our driver. We let him know that we were very pleased with his service.  He pointed out another temple nearby that we could visit, but we decided we would rather just head to our hotel.

On the way to the hotel, we stopped at Connaught Place in Delhi – a grand downtown area, where we wandered a bit and picked up some sweets. This was a good last stop and reminded us that that there are a lot of very nice areas scattered throughout India.

Our flight home was at roughly 3am, and at this point it was roughly 7pm. We booked a hotel room that was somewhat of a dive, since we were only going to be there for about five hours until our driver took us to the airport. The main hope was to try to get a bit of real sleep before 20 hours in airplanes. The room we booked had two bedrooms, was quite large, and only cost $35.

The blankets were on the dirty side, and the sheets were stained/ripped, but looked clean. Luckily the blankets were folded in a pile, and not on the beds, so we elected to put on our Munich sweaters and leave the blankets where they were at.  I inspected the beds closely for bed bugs, but even though I didn’t see any signs of them, I was still a bit paranoid about the price of the room.  We left the suitcases sealed, spread some towels over the sheets for the kids to sleep on, and tried not to think about it.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Heading Home

Our driver met us at the hotel at midnight and we had a pleasant drive to the airport.  The last few days he started to seem a bit more agitated about what kind of tip he was going to get.  This was where pictures of his kids, stories about sick relatives, and other such information started to surface.  Given that we were only paying about $60 per day for the car, driver, gas, and whatever goes to the company he works for, I can’t imagine that he was making much.  The tip is really what makes the difference in his pay.  Anyway, despite a few minor problems over the course of the trip, he really did an excellent job and was a fun companion, so we gave him (by India standards) a somewhat generous tip.

On arrival at the airport, we went through the various layers of security, got our bags checked in, and spent some time relaxing in the very smoggy airport.  It was so smoggy that not only could we not see the plane, but we also couldn’t see from one side of the indoor terminal to the other side of the indoor terminal.

One thing Jeremy noticed – we realized that we missed our opportunity to eat at McDonald’s in three continents in one day.  We saw one in Delhi airport, another in Munich, and when we arrived home and saw the third, the lost opportunity hit us.

All in all, it was an amazing vacation, a hard one, but still amazing.  There is so much history from this rich culture, a very foreign feel, and great food.  On the other hand, the stark poverty tugs at our heart strings.

2 comments

  1. I really enjoy reading about all of your travels! I would be interested in a post about how you handle finances on your trips. Where do you exchange your money, how do you decide how much to bring along, etc. Just the thought of having to figure in for all the little tips and what-not stresses me out!

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    • That’s an interesting idea – let’s see if we can write something up. There are plenty of systems that can work reasonably, but for us:
      – We usually just use ATMs in most places to get local cash, with maybe a few [sketchy] exceptions.
      – And overseas, we typically prefer cash to credit (except for hotels usually, but sometimes those), because often the cheaper providers don’t accept credit. But also, to avoid fraud issues.
      – We do typically have an expenses spreadsheet and a rough idea of budget for $/day in a location, but since we usually use ATMs, it’s not like we need to plan to physically carry the funds the whole trip.
      – That said, we do keep a decent-sized US$ reserve split between us that we don’t intend to exchange in case the ATM card fails. In very clean, crisp bills (this can matter). We’ve had ATM cards get cut off overseas before, and it’s important for us to have breathing room in this case.

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