Growing up whenever I read about India there was always a picture of the Taj Mahal and in reality no visit to India would be complete without a visit to see it in its magnificent glory. A few years back the Indian Government decided to clean up the Taj Mahal, whilst cleaning it up they realised that it was covered in dirt and grime as a result of pollution. All factories in Agra were shut down and a perimeter was established around the walls of the Taj Mahal whereby nothing that uses power can operate. So gone are the auto Rickshaws and in are the man powered ones and horses and cart. Expect half a million offers per minute, politely decline and even though they will follow you around, eventually they get the message.
Indian bearocracy is legendary. The Indians blame the British for leaving so much red tape behind they are still trying to remove it. I blame the Indians for failing to use a bit of common sense.
There are three gates to the Taj Mahal, East, West and South. East is the quietest and just happened to be where we were staying. Ok, so we turn up at the gate to get a ticket. Obviously the ticket office was not there but 1km away and naturally there are tonnes of Rickshaw drivers all waiting to take you. Decline them; walk about 100m past the police barrier and you will see official buses. Find out which goes to the ticket office and get on. The bus is free so when someone comes and asks for your fare refuse and they will walk off laughing. Of course the bus doesn’t go straight to the ticket office; it stops at a long line of markets first. Either stay on the bus or get off and ignore everyone and walk the further 100m yourself. If you do stay on the bus (we did) when it stops look for the signs to the ticket office and follow them yourself. When our bus pulled up there was an ‘official guide’ taking everyone to a different office, no doubt to scam them more than the actual ticket office. In the actual ticket office ignore half the population of India who are amazingly all official tour guides and walk into the office. Still in India men and women are segregated and this has been the norm since arriving into India. No one has had a problem with Abi queuing with me though.
For some reason all electronic equipment is banned inside the Taj Mahal grounds. There are lockers that say “we are not responsible for theft, leave no valuables” Cameras are not banned but Video cameras are, mobiles can be carried but must be switched off. Having a laptop this left us in the awkward position of trying to take it with us.
Tickets are an absolute disgrace and nothing short of a blatant rip off at 750 Rupees for Foreigners and 10 Rupees for Indians.
We made our way back to the East gate and sure enough got busted at the gate for not just the laptop but IPods’ and headphones. Right around the corner is the Yash Cafe; they will store your bags for 50 Rupees for the day but buy your own padlock.
Naturally India’s prime tourist attraction was very busy. I soon found out you cannot buy water inside the grounds but there is drinking water stations – basically a hose pipe on the floor watering the grass that you pick up and fill your bottle from – Though we did see one drinking station which looked dodgy.
When you walk into the grounds you have to walk through a huge gatehouse to the gardens and once through you get to see the Taj in all its glory. It is breathtaking. Set amongst beautiful gardens it is completely symmetrical, whichever side you look at it from, even the gardens. It is supposedly one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet and I have to agree. Was it not for the searing heat which again topped 47 degrees we could have sat and looked at it all day. Shade was sparse and so we went for a look inside. Again the kids kept getting asked to pose for photos and one in particular I also took, it was at the Taj Mahal with an Indian Family, there are about 30 in the photo, truly memorable.
You are supposed to take your shoes off but if you re soft like me and don’t fancy having your feet melt and stick to the marble grounds then ask for shoe coverings, I have no idea how much they cost, I just handed over 10 Rupees and made a quick exit.
Inside, the Taj is actually a letdown. It’s actually pretty bare, there are some tombs and some beautiful scriptures on the walls but if you go expecting Vatican like architecture and art you will be disappointed. Photos are not allowed.
At the back of the Taj you are about 50ft high with a river below and waste ground. In the river peasants wash their buffalo and children bathe; Quite a contrast in wealth separated by only metres.
The heat really got to us and after about 2 hours we left. We got lunch and rehydrated. Then we walked to the nature trail which I had spotted earlier en route to the ticket office. It is 50 Rupees per person but I refused to pay for Charlie and Abi, after a quick negotiation I bought a bottle of water for 15 Rupees and both got in free.
The nature trail is pretty much a path that meanders through tired trees and grounds that are actually well kept. More than just a walk for us it was an escape from all the hassle. We saw loads of animals including peacocks, wild pig and the famed kingfisher. Eventually we found a tree house; we climbed up and got amazing views of the Taj. We then found kids play area. Well, a slide, swings and seesaw. The slide was ceramic and so the kids broke the speed of sound on it and the swings were about as reliable as my DIY. But it was a real welcome retreat for us all.
After a long day we went back to the Yash Cafe, grabbed some tea and sat and watched Argentina beat Nigeria, that finished at about 9.30pm and then we left for the train journey to Varanasi for the 2330 direct service.