Crown Jewel of India

Trip Start Aug 03, 2008
Trip End Aug 18, 2009

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Sunday, October 5, 2008

We took the train from Dehli to Agra, passing on the express tourist train that leaves at 6 in the morning so that you can buzz through all the highlights of Agra in a tuk tuk (called and auto rickshaw in india) and be back by dinner time to take the train back to Dehli. Since we were not going to do that circuit we opted for the standard express train that left at 10, a much more reasonable time.  That is if it actually left at 10, the train left closer to 11:30 but we had seats in the air condition compartment and two weeks later would be looking back at that trip thinking how simple was that.  Since I can promise that you will hear plenty about the transport in India in the upcoming posts, I will just leave it at that.

So when we arrived in Agra, we went to find the Auto Rickshaw stand, but quickly got steered to the taxi stand.  After paying the taxi to take us to the Taj Ganji (main budget hotel area, just outside the Taj Mahal) we hoped in the taxi.  As we approached this area, he said that there was a restriction on taxis entering this area because of pollution, so where would we like to be dropped off.  We picked the East Gate which was very close to the hotel we wanted to stay at, we got dropped off at the West Gate which was at least twice the walk.  So we started shopping for hotels and we finally found one, after having looked at about 6 or 7.  During our tour of the budget hotels in Agra, Michelle discovered the best way to deal with touts selling you the best room on the street then taking you up to see some dirty hole in the wall that they tripled the price on because they think we will pay it.  Just walk out not saying a word.  They want feedback on their room so they can argue, haggle or negotiate.  I know it is not being used as constructive critism to improve the rooms.  Because as I said we have seen the insides of a number of them.  This just drives the touts nuts, and had her desired effect on me of making me laugh and enjoy finding a room a little more.  After finding a room, we just had a easy night, walking to get some food and relaxing happy to be out of the hustle and bustle of Dehli.

When I returned Michelle was surrounded by a group of Indians posing with her like she was a rockstar.

I would like to tell you a little about the Indian hotels.  They have not heard of soft mattresses.  The mattresses are generally only two inches thick and they are laid on a solid board.  There is no such thing as a Double bed (Queen or King Size either), they simply push the twin beds together and make a large bed for you.  Which is not the best, but not that bad if they replace the sheets with a larger sheet.  In many cases that is not done at you simply have two twin beds pushed up against each other.  Another key point when hotel shopping in India, is the power issue.  You are almost guaranteed to have the power cut for 6 hours a day.  The problem is that it is not a fixed time, it is just random power cuts.  They can last 30 seconds they can last 2 hours.  So hotels generally have generators to try and compensate for the spotty power supply.  However, these generators are way overtaxed to supply the power needed for a hotel, so the chances are that your air conditioner that you just paid 2 times rate for a standard room, probably will not work.  Other things that are important to look at is the plumbing system.  Since there is generally not a shower stall where is the shower pointed, for example do you need to straddle the toilet to shower.  I think you are getting the picture of the rooms we have been staying at.  Also if there is hot water as a possibility, will the shower A) turn on and B) have hot water due to the electrical cuts.  Well we did pretty good on all of these departments, but we did not verify that the shower turned on, we consistentally had issues with the shower.  We would turn it on, a little water would come then nothing.  Go get the manager, 40 minutes later he says, "I don't know whats wrong it should be working." and leaves with the shower not working.  Ten minutes later the water will magically turn itself on and the race begins to get clean before the water decides it will  turn itself off again.

The next morning after a good nights rest, and somewhat cleaner we headed out for the Taj Mahal as soon as they open the doors.  We figure that we could get their while it is cooler and before the crowds come.  There is no line to buy tickets, but the security line.  A separate male and female line are backed up.  The security is interesting because you walk through a metal detector.  Then wether it goes off or not you are frisked by a man in the male's line, and a women behind a screen in the female's line.  Not that they were being that through as the person in front of me walked through with his knife hanging out of his pocket.

After getting through security we were in a large courtyard just outside the main gate to the Taj Mahal.  The courtyard had some gardens, but mostly was a collection of "tour guides" looking to pick people up and show them around.  As you walked towards the Taj, you entered through a large ornate gate, and see the view that you visualize when I say Taj Mahal.  There is the Taj with its white marble shining in the sun, with 2 refection pools in front of it, perfectly manicured lawns, and they perfect backdrop of blue sky.  That is the wow moment of the Taj Mahal, when you realize how nice it looks.

As you walk down the reflection pools you see that they are only about 3 inches deep and have a green algae growing on them.  People have written there names and various things in the algae and it sits there in all its bathroom wall glory.  The corners of the pools are a collection of empty water bottles floating, and you notice many more biscuit wrappers than should be found in the bushes.  Overall it is clean for India, but not the level of clean that you think of when you think of the symbol of a nation and one of the New Seven Wonders of the world (mostly because of the billion proud Indians who voted for it).

Once you are up to the large base of the Taj where the four minarets sit you can start to see the amazing level of detail that has gone into its design.  The building itself is white marble, but there are many carved images and reliefs decorating its surface.  There is also a large amount of colored stones inlayed into the marble to form patterns of flowers, verses for the Koran, and intricate geometric shapes.  It really is an amazing piece of architecture.

Since it was a tomb there is very little inside, only one of the four symmetrical doors is open.  The rest are covered with an intricately carved marble screens that allows light to come through.  Where to tomb once stood in the center is another row of marble screens this time inlayed with semi precious stones to provide an amazing floral pattern.

Back outside the Taj, as you head towards the river, there are two mosques one on either side along the river.  these are build from red sandstone, but have similar onion shaped domes.  They really help to make the white of the Taj stand out.  The river also provides a view of the red walls of Agra Fort, which sits along the river just North of the Taj Mahal.

That afternoon we headed to Agra Fort.  The red outer wall is what all good castles should have a place that can be used to run along and repel invadors.  However, this is not a European castle where only one building could be inside.  This is more like a royal town inside, with palaces and temples for worship, along with a vast open area where wood structures once stood to house the troops.  Today instead of soldiers guarding the gate there is a troupe of red assed monkeys doing that job.  They scale the castle walls, jump across in front of unsuspecting tourists, and while we where there even taught some young Indian women about the birds and the bees (sorry no picture).

Of the numerous palaces, the one that stands out is the white marble palace built overlooking the river and the Taj Mahal.  This unique octagon shaped building overlooks a large garden on the inside and has two attached mosques for prayer.  It is also decorated with intricate carvings and inlayed semi precious stones.  The part that may be the most interesting about it is, that this is where the king who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his favorite wife, lived out his days under house arrest after being locked away by his son.   However, the big story here was while I was out exploring all the corners of the fort and palace.  Michelle found a quiet place to sit in the shade and enjoy the view.  When I returned Michelle was surrounded by a group of Indians posing with her like she was a rockstar.  Michelle had a very embarassed look on her face as she said they just asked to take a picture then people kept coming and the group got bigger.  Two girls turned into a virtual tour bus full of people with five camereas all pointing and clicking at her.  See the picture I tried to get of the scene while I was laughing.

The next morning we slept in wrestled with the shower, then eventually had to change rooms to get one that worked somewhat better.  After straightening that out, we went to the Itimad-Ud-Daulah (better know as Baby Taj).  This is a tomb for an important noble, build just before the Taj Mahal in a similar Moghul style.  This is much smaller than the Taj, but it is much more decorated on the outside.  All of the walls are covered in white marble inlayed with black marble.  The outside does not have that solid white shiny look of the Taj Mahal, but as you walk closer to the Baby Taj, you realize how much work went into the decoration and just how elaborate the decorations are.  So whereas the best view of the Taj Mahal is from a distance, the best view of this one is up close at the detail.

We had a decision we could turn West and head out on the tourist route through India or we could head East and into the spiritual heart of India.  We decided to head east, but that is a different story.

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