The Taj Mahal At Last!

Trip Start Mar 29, 2007
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Trip End Sep 30, 2009


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Where I stayed

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Saturday, October 18, 2008

After 19 months in India, I have yet to visit the Taj Mahal.  That's like visiting the U.S. and never seeing the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, Disney World or Tuttle, Oklahoma.  Well, Tanya and I are off on a 9 day vacation and our first stop is the the city of Agra so I can finally, check the Taj-box off my list.  After Agra, we're training to Jaipur for a couple nights...and then flying up to Rishikesh for 5 nights at the Ananda Spa...but we'll save those cities for separate blog entries.

We left Hyderabad on a late night flight to Delhi where we knew we'd have to spend one night.  It sucks, but if you want to take the morning train to Agra from Delhi, you really have no choice but to fly to Delhi the night before and spend $100 for a crap room for a few hours of sleep.  Fortunately we knew a decent hotel from a previous trip to Delhi so our overnight stay there wasn't so bad.  However...we did notice a funky mirror in our room that looked like something out of a police lineup...meaning we thought it looked like a one-way mirror and people could be on the other side checking us out.  Needless to say we slept fully clothed and I spent a lot of time making rude gestures to the mirror "just in case" someone was on the other side.

Saturday morning we're up at 5AM to catch our 6:30 AM train to Agra.  Believe it or not, this would be my first train ride in India which is somewhat amazing because India's train network is huge and goes everywhere for very little money.  I read on seat61.com that the India rail network has over 39,000 miles (63,000 km) of rail routes and 6,800 stations making it the third largest network in the world after Russia and China, and the biggest in the world in terms of passenger kilometers.  Indian Railways are also the world's biggest employer, with over 1.5 million staff on the payroll...wow..  And in the upper classes, the trains are actually pretty comfortable.  The early morning train from Delhi to Agra is a popular tourist trains full of people just making the day trip to Agra to spend a day at the Taj.  We however are overnighting in Agra so we're also towing along a couple bags of luggage as we get dropped off at the central train station around 6AM.  The train station is "interesting"...imagine hundreds of locals camped out and pretty much sleeping in every piece of floor space outside the station.  It's so full of people who have obviously been there all night sleeping, that we have to pick up our roller bags to get through to the station platform.  Once we're inside, things are a bit better and we're able to grab a bench while we wait for our train (The Shatibadi Express).  Several tourists come up to us multiple times asking if their train is departing from this platform...Tanya and I felt like locals helping them out.  Just as the sun starts to rise we board our train and find our seats which were at the back of a car.  The train carriage is basic, but comfortable.  As we start our journey, the stewards deliver a cold bottle of water and then a hot breakfast (omelet and potatoes).  As we roll down the tracks for our 2.5 hour journey, we pass many small villages and slum areas...and I notice that many of the locals are sitting down by the train tracks and seem to be just chillin'...watching the trains roll by.  Upon closer inspection, these people are actually out for their morning constitutional (read: crapping).  I kid you not...we passed HUNDREDS of people...men, women, kids...all pooping on the tracks.  My friend Deanne warned me about this so I sort of expected it (she called it the "billion bum salute")....but Tanya wasn't expecting it and I think it's safe to say she spent little time looking out the window for the rest of the journey (where I was of course fascinated and even tried to take photos...sicko that I am).  After a little over 2 hours of rambling along we finally reached Agra at 9AM, disembarked the train, located the taxi stand and booked a taxi to our hotel...the ITC Mughal Sheraton (gotta love Starwood points...free place to stay...woo hoo!).  Our taxi driver gave us some prices if we wanted to hire him and a guide for the day...the price was right so we booked it.  First we wanted to check in the hotel and refresh.  The hotel was awesome and not only gave us an early-check in...but upgraded us to one of the best rooms I've ever had.  We had a living room, dining room, bedroom and a bathroom bigger than some New York City apartments.  Included in the room were two flat panel TV's, a rain shower, massage chair, fishbowl with fishies and lot's of other amenities...it was great.

Our driver and guide showed up around 11 and we were off to the Taj Mahal.  About 3 blocks before the Taj, all vehicles are banned and we had to take a horse and buggy the rest of way.  Because I'm an Indian resident and Tanya speaks a bit of Hindi, we got in on the Resident rate of 20 rupees (less than 50 cents) vs. the foreigner rate of 750 rupees (close to $20)...it's good to be a resident. :)  Our guide start explaining more about the Taj, how it was built by a former emperor in honor of his favorite wife (read more about the Taj here)...many of the stories I've already heard.  To be honest I was expecting a bit of a let down from the Taj just because over the past 20 months people have gone on-and-on about it and I guess I felt it would be hard to live up to such large expectations.  As you enter the main grounds and enter thru a gate, the Taj really doesn't disappoint.  It's indeed beautiful and it might even be worth a second visit sometime before I leave India.  We spent a good two hours just checking this place out including the tomb chamber where you can see some amazing semi-precious stone inlay work.  There are so many places to take your obligatory Taj photos and we definitely did our fair share of photo-taking.

After the Taj we heading off to Agra Fort (which you can read more about here).  If not for the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort would be the highlight of a trip to Agra...and it's impressive in it's own right.  The fort is huge (much larger than the Red Fort in Delhi) and you could easily spend several hours here exploring all the various rooms, gates, decor, etc.  Our guide gave us the 90 minute tour of the highlights which was great...and the views of the Taj from a distance were great as well.  After Agra Fort we had lunch and a cold beer which was definitely needed.  Our final stop of the day was Itmad-Ud-Daulah's tomb...sometimes called the "baby Taj".  One of the few temples built by a woman (an empress)...this was built for an empress' father and is sometimes described as a jewel box because of it's garden layout and use of white marble, semi-previous jewel inlays and latticework...which the Taj Mahal also has but on a grander scale.

After our full day of touring we headed back to the hotel for some rest and relaxation (read: nap time).  I have to say again...Kudo's to the ITC Mugal Sheraton for giving us a suite...it was an amazing room and we both thoroughly enjoyed everything the room had to offer (including lot's of free amenities).  Dinner was in the hotel and was a bit of a let down.  Living in South India for nearly 20 months has really changed my palette and I need a bit of spice in my food in order to enjoy it.  The buffet at the hotel had to be the blandest food I have ever tasted.  When we asked the restaurant manager about it he agreed with us and said they purposely make it that way as the overwhelming majority of the tourists who stay at the hotel are Westerners and will complain if the food is too spicy.  Memo to all Westerners visiting India - If you want to visit a destination with bland food, go somewhere else because we like it spicy here....end of rant. 

The next day was departure day from India, but out train to Jaipur didn't leave until 7PM that evening...so we decided this would be our lazy day and we basically did nothing.  After sleeping in, we took a stroll around the hotel property which was beautiful and huge.  We had a big breakfast then went back up to our rooms to pack.  We went ahead and checked out but decided to spend the entire day at the hotel spa and pool.  The hotel's spa is called the Kaya Kalp is was recently voted as the best "City Spa" in the world...and it was definitely nice.  First stop was the pool where we had a light lunch (I had a great salmon sandwich).  After digesting for a bit we went into the spa for our massages.  As is typical,  I slept through most of mine while Tanya laughed thru most of hers (she's a bit ticklish).  The men and women's dressing rooms were huge and both had large hot tubs, lounge areas, cold plunge pools, showers and lockers.  We both took our time getting ready and met in the spa lobby to settle the bill.  A quick cab ride later we were at the Agra train station trying to figure out which platform our train to Jaipur would be departing from.  After asking 4 people and getting 4 different answers we finally started to receive some consistent responses and went over to our platform.  The homeless-kid-begging-mafia was in full force and Tanya bought them off with some food and treats.  Our train arrived as the sun set and Tanya and I made our way to our AC-Sleeper 2nd class cabin which was fine for our 4 hour journey.  The ride was uneventful except when Tanya and I tried to learn how to play chess.  In our first game I beat her in like 7 moves and she decided we shouldn't play anymore. :-)   Next stop Jaipur!
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