My second weekend in India was spent journeying to and from my first wonder of the world (which apparently is considered by some not to be wonderful enough for that title anymore). Like everyone else from the West who thinks of India, one of the first images to come to my mind has been the Taj Mahal, looming grand and white over a long reflecting pool. This image is the reason several of my classmates and I found ourselves on a last-minute, crowded train trip to Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
Cold is not something I expected to be in India. Chilly, perhaps, but not cold. On this train to Agra, though, with the wind blowing at me through the leaky window, I was pulling my thin sweater and my thinner dupatta (long, light scarf) close. I tried to sleep, but sleep comes slowly when punctuated by the nasally call of the chaiiiiiiii-wallah selling his tea.
Much smaller than the train station in New Delhi, the one in Agra was easy enough to navigate, unlike its parking lot. With our bags and cameras strapped across our chests, even in our salwar qameez, we looked like tourists. In India, looking like a tourist and trying to find transportation is like bathing in blood then jumping into a shark tank. Upon exiting the train station we were surrounded by a barrage of men shouting numbers and destinations at us, most of which were laughably high. After unsuccessfully negotiating with some belligerent auto-wallahs, six of us decided to abandon ship and swim to the Taj. Though we left foot, however, we did not make it on foot. On our trek, while being chased by the pushiest of the auto-wallahs, we came across a sign: “Taj Mahal – 10 km”.
Now don’t get me wrong: 10 kilometers is totally walk-able. Usually. Not, however, when the streets look like this:
After getting stuck in the neutral ground in the middle of the highway, we decided (reluctantly) to hail an auto. Two pulled up nearly immediately, smelling blood in the water. With the goal of stuffing the six of us into an auto made for two (sorry, Mama) we let them start the bidding. The first offered us the ridiculous sum of Rs. 200. The second, after I spoke to him in Hindi, offered to get us to the Taj for half that. We crammed ourselves into his auto and, luckily, he was friendly and honest. After some chatter we wound up right where we wanted to be. This was lucky because another group was taken to the Taj Mall, then charged extra for their real destination.
We arrived in one piece at the south gate, but were delayed in buying our tickets because some lucky EU official was getting a private tour. As the long line grew behind us we waited patiently, then were finally allowed to enter into the area in front of the south gate, for 10 times the price of Indian citizens. Later, I would be glad for that. Finally after walking across the lawn and through the south gate, we got our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, the lovely memorial to Mumtaz Mahal. Frankly, I think this building is the least Shah Jahan could do for the woman who bore him 14 children.
It is every bit as beautiful as it’s supposed to be. A lovely white jewel in the dusty, pushy city of Agra. It is a pearly white, with verses from the Quran written across it’s face around engraved marble flowers. The building is surrounded by four tall minarets, tilted away from the Taj to protect it should they fall. The mosques on either side of it are perfectly symmetrical, the gardens are lush, the reflecting pool is stunning, and the Yamuna river behind it is wide and serene. It truly is wondrous.
Wandering across the lawns it is impossible not to stop and take pictures every few minutes. Eventually, as we climb onto the white marble barefoot, we are ushered into the line for tourists, which is probably 5% of the length of the Indian line. Though taking pictures is not allowed in the tomb area, I was probably the only person to obey that particular rule. Exiting out the back we took more pictures, then made our way back out, excited to eat. With the help of Lonely Planet we found a lovely rooftop cafe that looked out over Agra, with a stunning view of the Taj Mahal. My fatty, creamy Paneer Butter Masala was fantastic, and the chai was sweet and delicious.
Left with only two hours until our train departed, we finally decided to wander toward the Agra Fort. We walked through streets straight out of Aladdin, and down a highway, and finally came to the Agra Fort, hassled by rickshaw-wallahs all the while. We took some pictures of the exterior but, unable to find the entrance and left without time, we departed for the train station. Finding an auto-wallah to take us home was another adventure. After turning down more outlandish offers, we clambered into a full-to-the-brim rickshaw again. This one, we were pleased to find, was the party rickshaw, apparently. With bhangra music blasting in the background we returned to the train station, ready for a late-night trip back to Delhi.