Category Archives: Agra

Great Sights, Crappy City

If you come to India, chances are very high that you will visit Agra.  The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous attractions in the world, and deservedly so.  There is also Agra Fort plus a couple smaller local sights, and Fatehpur Sikri is about an hour away.

By all means, do come to Agra.  But get out quickly, or stay at one of the nicer hotels outside the Taj Ganj area.

I think 15 nights of independent travel in India and some marginal accommodation started to catch up with us, because the “h” word was uttered quite a few times during our stay in Agra.  If I had to summarize my non-sightseeing impression of this place, I would say Night of the Living Dead with zombies coming at me from obscured positions.  Other than that, it was awesome.

We arrived on New Year’s Eve and wandered around the alleys briefly, peeping some camels and a rat and endless touts.  Where are you going?  Um, I don’t know, but do you want my social security number, too?

We considered one of the rooftop buffets/parties but it was way colder than we realized (in the 40s, so do not pay extra for an air conditioned room this time of year!) and they didn’t look so great.  Instead we had delicious shahi paneer and an amazing banana lassi at Shankara Vegis restaurant, where we would end up spending most of our non-sightseeing time in Agra.

It was a sensationally undignified close to a momentous 2013 for us.  The highlight was that our room had a TV, and I found Predator.  Things deteriorated quickly though when I heard our neighbors grunting and dropping turds in the middle of the night since our lovely hotel room has a bathroom with a large square near the ceiling open to the next bathroom.  I would’ve complained to the manager, but by now I know it wouldn’t have done any good.  Like when you show up and the WiFi is out of service, there is no apology or recompense.

You are probably thinking what the #$@ am I doing staying in places like this?  And I am wondering that, too!  I think for most of the rest of the trip we’ll find better places.  We also could afford to spend more, but we set a budget and we’re trying to stick to it.  So it would be nice to make a few bucks while we travel and expand the expense-side guilt free.  If you have any consulting gigs let me know!

New Year’s Day was quite a lot better as we visited the Taj Mahal.  We woke early and were in line for the open.  Apparently the weather is frequently foggy this time of year, and we encountered some of that.  Travelers we met in Mumbai said they couldn’t even see the Taj until around 11 am.  We could see it fine the whole time, it just wasn’t sunny.  Hence all the flat light photos.  Nonetheless, it was definitely worthwhile to arrive first thing in the morning because it was not crowded and many times more visitors were there when we left around 10:15 am.

After clearing security we emerged into the Chowk-i-Jilo Khana which itself leads to the stunning main entrance to the gardens and Taj.  Once through the gateway you see the Taj at the end of the gardens, and if you come before the fountains start (around 10 am when we visited) and at the right time of year (?) you should see its reflection in the waterways.  Magnificent from afar, one does not appreciate the scale nor detail until much closer.  It really is an exquisite monument.

We admired it a while and then visited the onsite museum for several minutes.  Nearby is a tree loaded with lovely green birds with long tails.  The sun never did emerge and we left a few hours later.

Do you know about gulab jamun?  It is so freakin good.  It is basically a fried ball of dough soaked in rose water syrup.  We had one with our thali lunch at…Shankara Vegis.

Then we hit Agra Fort for a couple hours.  It features gorgeous carving and inlay work and some views of the Taj and river, plus a few more green birds.  At both the Taj and the Fort, Indian tourists greatly outnumbered foreigners.

From the Fort, we took a rickshaw across the river for sunset views of the Taj.  Good call, Kenny.  Ask to be taken to Mehtab Bagh, but you do not need to pay to enter the gardens if you just want to enjoy the view.  Instead, walk right past that entrance and down to the river.  The only discernible difference I noticed was that the free view comes without eye-level barbed wire.

This is a great vantage point not only for the view but the relative calm and silence.  You see thousands of tourists marching like ants around the mausoleum, but hear only birds and music.  Perhaps the water level was unusually low for our visit as we did not see the reflection that Kenny mentioned.

I also enjoyed the calmer and friendlier feel to this side of the river.  Much more peaceful, and of course additional goats wearing sweaters.

Instead of massive log-droppings and grunts, Thursday we were woken by some man incessantly making a karate kid “haayyaaaa” sound followed by loud banging.  I thought of Miyagi, of course, then Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

The sun came out and we enjoyed marvelous views of the Taj during breakfast on hotel Kamal’s rooftop.  And we saw more monkeys.  And an Indian man working on his roof who ran inside when he saw the monkeys running along the rooftops his way and shrieking.

Most people here seem fazed by nothing, but this man was terrified.  Which made us uneasy about these aggressive monkeys all around.  We escaped unscathed.  Oh, and Jenni named baby monkeys “bonkeys.”  That makes so much more sense than wasting two syllables.

In the afternoon we drove about an hour to Fatehpur Sikri, the former imperial capital (briefly) of the Mughal emperor Akbar.  As our cabbie from the airport said, seat belts are not allowed in Agra.  We think he meant required, but the effect is the same.

It is funny how often drivers do things like stop on the way to pick up a personal item, or just get out of the car to use the bathroom without saying a word.  And today’s guy sucked just like our Sri Lanka driver.  More on his dishonesty in Practical Info.

Fatehpur Sikri, though, was quite lovely.  The palace has some alluring sandstone buildings with splendid carvings.  Apparently Akbar was religiously tolerant but he sounds like quite a dirty bird.  Rumor has it he used to play pachisi in the courtyard with slave girls in costumes for live pieces.  And his harem was legendary.  We’re talking Wilt numbers.  He had a super wide bed raised about 7 feet off the ground with no attached stairs, i.e. his servants had to bring the stairs as necessary.  Yeah.

The palace contains three different areas, one each for his Turkish wife, his Christian wife (?) and the Hindu wife who bore his first child as prophesied by Sheikh Salim Chishti, which sheikh got a white marble tomb inside the Jama Masjid that we visited right after the palace.  Jenni beamed with Turkish pride at the fact that such wife did not care about a big house but got the finest carvings, gems and art work.

The Jama Masjid (mosque) might have been even more impressive than the palace.  We initially entered the square a different way, but the Buland Darwaza (great gate) is breathtaking.  The square itself is bustling with activity.  The prayer hall facing Mecca has its own grand gateway and Sheik Salim’s white tomb marks a brilliant contrast against its sandstone surroundings.

Inside the tomb there is a steady stream of visitors making wishes and tying cloth around the lattice marble screen window.  Check out the insane bee clusters on the gateway ceiling in one of the photos below.

We were hustled a while by this adorable kid who said he spoke five languages, and his introductory Francais, Deutsch and Espanol were solid.  Another of those kids who might be a star in the US, as I mentioned in my Mumbai post.

Back in Taj Ganj we had dinner at Joney’s but I was hit with something like a 24-hour virus so I could barely eat and spent the rest of the night shivering.  And we watched Wild Things 2 which only made it worse.

Practical Info

Transportation: A pre-paid taxi from the airport cost Rs 400 but it could be 600 depending on your destination.  A rickshaw from Taj Ganj to Agra Fort cost Rs 100.  From Agra Fort to Mehtab Bagh and back to Taj Ganj we paid Rs 250 in a rickshaw.  Our return trip by car to Fatehpur Sikri cost Rs 1100.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Siddhartha near the West Gate of the Taj Mahal.  It is conveniently located for Taj visits and some of the cheap food options on Chowk Kagzi, and at least slightly removed from the noise and hassle of Chowk Kagzi.  I could almost have recommended it as a budget option, but hearing so clearly your neighbor shitting is an offense I cannot forgive.

There are a bunch of other budget options in the Taj Ganj area and some nicer places outside.  Being in Taj Ganj was not a fraction as appealing as I thought it would be, so if you can afford it I would probably stay elsewhere.  Unless there is some home stay with excellent reviews.  If you stay in Taj Ganj, I cannot speak to any other qualities but Kamal’s rooftop has amazing views of the Taj.  While many multiples of our budget on this trip, I hear the Oberoi Amarvilas is worth a splurge.

Food: A number of the restaurants recommended in my guidebook are outside Taj Ganj, and it was generally just not that nice around Agra and dealing with the touts was unpleasant so we did not venture out.  Shankara Vegis on Chowk Kagzi was tasty and cozy with nice owners and reasonably good WiFi.  We also ate at Joney’s one night and it is very cheap and good, but I was sick that night so I can’t fully judge it.  Jenni didn’t love the malai kafta which is one of their signature dishes, but the banana and honey paratha was mighty tasty.  We had breakfast at The Stuff Maker atop Kamal (hotel) and the food was OK but the views of the Taj are stupendous.  The best rooftop views we saw.

Sights: The Taj Mahal opens at sunrise and closes at sunset, I believe.  It is CLOSED ON FRIDAYS.  Someone told us it opened at 6 am, so we showed up around 6:40 am but in fact they didn’t let in anyone until sunrise.  Perhaps it is the ticket window that opens at 6 am.  Foreigners pay Rs 750 and you get a 0.5 liter water bottle and some shoe covers to use when in/around the actual mausoleum.  Keep your ticket stub as it will give you a Rs 50 discount on admission to Agra Fort the same day, and I think some other same-day sights/discounts.  There are separate lines for men and women and for Indians and foreigners.  They will pat you down and search bags, but the rules for what you can bring were not clear to me.  We were told that neither phones nor guidebooks are allowed, but we saw plenty of each.  I did see someone forced to get rid of their cigarettes and lighter to enter.  The museum opens at 9 am.

Agra Fort is the second most famous attraction in the area.  We spent a couple hours there and I recommend you do the same.  Admission is Rs 300, or 250 with a same-day Taj ticket stub.  There is a sound and light show after sunset.

Fatehpur Sikri is about an hour’s drive from Agra.  Beware the guide scam.  Our driver brought us to a parking lot where guides produced official department of tourism I.D. cards and insisted we must pay Rs 600 for a guide and that cars are not allowed any farther etc.  In fact, official guides are available at the entrance to the palace (we used the Diwan-i-Am entrance) for Rs 250 and cars are allowed to continue a little farther.  It is true that cars are not allowed to drive up to the entrance, so you can either walk from the car park as we did or take a CNG bus for Rs 5/each.  If you walk, either retrace and take the paved road up or continue down the same road and opposite the UPTDC Gulistan Tourist Complex turn right up a dirt path.  Entry tickets cost Rs 260.  Visiting the Jama Masjid is free though you are expected to tip the shoe guard and can expect pitches on buying cloth and flowers for an offering at the Tomb of Islam Khan.

December 31, 2013 – Jaunary 3, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

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:

P1040616

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).