Agra

I’ll start with the positive because this post is going to get a little graphic. You were warned.

The good: the Taj Mahal! It really is incredible. I had my doubts. Can it live up to the hype? Can it really be that impressive? Yeah, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. Can you imagine someone building something like this today? Let alone in the 1600s without the benefit of modern machinery? Wow. And to be able to start 2014 at such an iconic and remarkable site, I felt really lucky. Much of the rest of our time in Agra, we weren’t feeling quite as lucky.

We stayed at Hotel Siddhartha, which is a moderate improvement over Hotel Padmam (as you’ll recall reading about in my Madurai post). Here we were provided no toilet paper or soap, but we were provided one towel. For the two of us. But again, it’s an ask-only policy. If requested, they’ll provide you with the world’s smallest TP roll. I don’t understand this. Do most people not ask and this is how they save money? Is toilet paper really that expensive? (No, it’s not. We went out and bought our own supply). It is such a strange policy. The toilet again leaked, though this time I was more certain than not that it was not sewage (hooray!). And it was freezing cold in Agra! I had not realized or anticipated just how cold it would be, and while we were provided a sheet and a gnarly looking blanket, it was cold enough that we slept in fleece jackets, hats and socks. Also, the promised wifi was non-existent and no apology or accommodation was offered in this respect.

But the true downside of this hotel did not hit me until 2014. Do you know what my very first experience of 2014 was? Waking up at 4am to the devastating realization that you can hear in full stereo all the noises from the neighbor’s bathroom. You don’t know disappointment until you’ve listened to a man do his business and realize that that was just a courtesy flush. Does this mean 2014 is going to be a shitty year?

I learned my lesson and wore earplugs the last two nights. Which is not to say I was immune from hearing the plethora of other strange and loud noises. Oh, India and your hodgepodge of sound.

I don’t really understand the relative value of things in India. I’m constantly surprised by how cheap certain items/services are versus others. Our hotel in Delhi is no five-star, but in India’s capital city and at $30 a night it has crown molding, room service and a built in fish tank (that hasn’t been cleaned since probably 1982, but still, it’s a fish tank with a few living fish). In Agra, a city that offers little other than the Taj and a handful of other sites, we spent $20 a night for a complete shit hole.

We arrived in Agra in the early evening of New Years Eve. First impressions: it’s cold here! Holy winter hats batman. (So don’t be foolish like we were and pay extra for the room with A/C. Although I don’t think the non-A/C rooms had hot water. Not that it mattered; I couldn’t bring myself to shower at that place.) It would be really nice to have ever entered a building with heat. At least I could put down my now greyed white linen pants for a few days as I jaunted around in jeans, a fleece and scarf. After checking into our hotel, we wandered around Agra and checked out a few of the rooftop bars and restaurants where music was blaring, lights were strung, and buffets were set up in anticipation of the New Years Eve festivities. Some looked promising, but tired, weary and cold, we opted for the ground floor enclosed restaurant of Shankara Vegis, which practically became our second home for our stay in Agra. We ordered the Shahi Paneer with paratha and it was divine. In fact, we ordered it again the next day! Also, their banana lassis are top notch. And it’s all super cheap. Highly recommend this place – the owners are friendly and nice, it’s cheap and delicious, and it’s just about the only place in Taj Ganj where you can access wifi from a restaurant indoors (we found one other place that had wifi but only on the roof). What’s not to love?

After dinner we shared a chocolate bar at the hotel and fell asleep before midnight to crappy (I should be careful with this word now..) movies on TV. Not the best New Years Eve of my life, but I got to wake up and see the Taj Mahal first thing in 2014 (well, second after hearing a man strenuously pass stool). Here, forget I said that and look at this picture of me at the Taj enjoying the less jarring noises of India:

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The intensity level in Agra is high. We stayed in the Taj Ganj area, adjacent to the Taj. Here the streets are quite narrow and also crowded, which means lots of narrowly missed accidents. It’s also full of hawkers, cows, dogs, monkeys (though mostly they stay on the rooftops) and rats. As we were paying for a bottle of water and a chocolate bar on New Years Eve we noticed a rat at the shop owner’s foot. My biggest pet peeve was that you have to walk single file to even attempt to not get hit by bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, cows, dogs, push carts, people etc, and so I’d follow behind Alan and someone would cut me off to have some version of the following conversation with Alan: “where you going? You need tuk-tuk? Money exchange? Battery?” [Alan walks away after saying no thank you the first time and then ignoring him] “Yes? OK” Meanwhile I have to pass around the guy, which is not an easy task on those roads. It got serious. I may have been throwing some ‘bows to block these guys out by the end of our time in Agra.

On New Years Day, after the traumatic events of 4am, we dragged ourselves out of bed to get to the Taj at sunrise. While we’d read that it opens at 6am, I think that refers only to the ticket counter, because they didn’t open the doors to start passing people through security until a little bit after 7am. Note that there are separate lines for Indians and foreigners (though they call it the high-value ticket holders line, because we pay about 10 times as much), and each is separated by sex. The Indian men’s line was by far the longest, so you wouldn’t want to get stuck in there and miss the good views before it gets super crowded. It’s one of India’s pricier attractions, but for good reason, and it’s still quite cheap (around $12 a person, and you are provided a bottle of water and shoe covers). There are also a bunch of rules about what you can and can’t take in, guidebooks and mobile phones being among the things you’re not supposed to have. So being the good, square rule-followers that we are, we left these things behind and of course saw tons of people carrying them around and using them. Also, you’re not supposed to take pictures inside the mausoleum, but I saw a handful of people doing just that with no consequence.

The sunrise itself was not worth coming early for as it was quite foggy and the lighting was sadly not the best, but it was definitely worth it to see the Taj before the crowds really amass. There is quite a big difference in the number of people there at 7am versus 10am. We stuck around for about three hours hoping the sun would come out and we’d get some shots in better light, but it didn’t change all that much. Still, it was really enjoyable to walk around the grounds, explore the museum for a little bit, and watch these beautiful green birds darting in and out of the trees.

After a late breakfast, which then turned into lunch at Shankara Vegis we ventured out to see Agra Fort. We’d asked our friends at Shankara how much a tuk-tuk should cost, and they said Rs 50. Getting a tuk-tuk driver to negotiate on price or come below Rs 100, however, was an impossible feat. It’s a bit weird that people don’t even counter; they’ll just drive off. While the case is not so extreme when its Rs 100 vs. 50, it has become a constant theme in our attempts to obtain transport. So many drivers just try to blatantly rip you off. Even when it’s clear you know how much it should cost they don’t try to save face. They don’t need the money that bad? Think they can find someone else to make it worth their while? Highly doubt it. Another thing that confuses me about India. Also, when you finally find a driver, they surprisingly often stop to do things of their own accord while you’re paying for their service. We’ve had numerous drivers pull over with no explanation, until we deduce that they’ve stopped to use a loo (OK on that one, I get it), or pick up a painting from a shop, or go out of the way to get gas on a short ride, or – the best – stop to wash you car! With a bottle of water and a rag! While we sat in the car looking confused for twenty minutes. I will never understand why this struck him as the appropriate time to do such a task.

Anyway, I digress. The Agra Fort was pretty cool to see. The carvings are intricate and beautiful, and you get to see the inlaid precious stone work up close, which is rather difficult to do at the Taj, so I really appreciated that aspect. (Most of the inlaid work at the Taj is inside the Mausoleum which is not well-lit (though maybe if you visit later in the day/on a sunny day).

After the Fort we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the river to watch the sunset from behind the Taj. Seeing the visitors at the Taj move in opposite directions of the two levels around the Taj was pretty neat. They looked like swift currents of ants from our vantage point. The sunset itself was not super exciting, again because of the fog (there is a lot of fog in the area this time of year, so maybe plan your visit to the Taj sometime when it’s warmer and clearer out!). But we did discover this metallic green version of a ladybug. The drive into this area was fun too. Lots of monkeys, a cool little village, and lots of goats in sweaters. I’m so obsessed. The goats wear nicer sweaters than many of the people here! So sweet. I wish I could have captured a snapshot of some of the goats in knit Cosby-type sweaters. Alas, these were the best shots we got. You still get the idea.

Guess where we went for dinner? Shankara vegis! 🙂 But we did switch it up for breakfast the next morning. We checked out “Stuff-Maker” (yes, that’s the name of the restaurant) on the rooftop of Hotel Kamal. The Taj had been completely socked in when we checked out the rooftops on New Years Eve, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see the stunning views on a clear morning. Plus, you get to watch the monkeys run and jump around the rooftops while you eat. These are some badass monkeys though. I’ve seen a lot of Indian people get nearly hit by moving vehicles, yet I’d never seen an Indian person express fear. Until today. When I saw a man run in absolute terror down the stairs from his roof at the sight of two of those monkeys shrieking and running towards him. Oh and guys, can we all agree that baby monkeys should be called bonkeys?

Later we arranged a car to take us to Fatehpur Sikri (about an hour away from Agra). Of course, rather than taking us to the entrance, our driver took us to a tour guide place where they show us their “official government ID cards” and proceed to try and charge us more than twice the rate of the actual official government tour guides. After arguing with them and the driver for a minute, we walked ourselves up to the entrance and hired a proper guide. I know there’s a lot of venting in this post, but seriously it gets so tiring. Everything is more difficult than it needs to be! Why can’t anyone just be honest and not solely interested in getting a commission off of us? Why can’t anything just work as expected!? Gah. Three weeks of trying to navigate our way through India has started to take its toll on us. (I know, I know, call the WAHmbulance. But I’m giving it to you real, guys… the good, the bad and the ugly. Lord knows we hit all three on this stop.)

The place itself is awesome. The first part – Fatehpur Sikri – is a palace where the king and his three wives lived. The Turk in me was pretty stoked to see the Turkish wife’s palace in comparison to the others. It may have been the smallest, but it was closest to the King’s, and the most expensive and beautiful – full of jewels in its heyday. You go girl. The Christian wife’s was mid-sized and the Hindu wife who bore him a child was massive. All three, and the common areas, had impressive carvings. There was also a giant Chinese Checkers board that the King used to play with naked women as the playing pieces. This guy was a character.

Not far away is Jama Masjid, which is an impressive mosque with some really extraordinary gates, and an all white marble tomb where people give tapestries and tie a string to the walls while making three wishes. Cute. But be forewarned that they’ll try to sell you tapestries for a “charitable donation” of Rs 500-1500. It was after we refused this and the other tchotchkes for sale that we noticed our guide’s service declined and our tour quickly wrapped up.

The drive to and from Fatehpur Sikri is long, but I think worth it. Mostly because of the site itself, but also party because you get to see a lot of peacocks and really cute piglets on the way (I find it amusing how pigs really do flock to piles of trash). You also see lots of men peeing. But this is true all over Agra.  I saw more men peeing in Agra than I ever thought I’d see in a lifetime.

Back in Taj Ganj we checked out Joney’s for dinner, which is highly reviewed on TripAdvisor, and tourists seem to love it, as evidenced by the guest book they place in front of you when you wait for your food. Their star dishes are the malai kofta and banana lassis, both of which underwhelmed me (and Shankara’s banana lassis are way better!). The banana and honey paratha though? Mmmm, dessert paratha. Need I say more?

Overall, I’d say Agra is worth it because the Taj Mahal is so spectacular, and it’s nice to go see the fort and Fatehpur Sikri as well, but the city itself is most certainly not a highlight and I wouldn’t stay more than two nights. I’d also suggest paying up for a driver so you don’t have to negotiate constantly with tuk-tuk drivers or tourist agencies (which are essentially men with storefronts, a mobile phone and a few friends who drive cars).

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