Agra, India and the Taj Mahal
December 25, 2014 – December 28, 2014
The Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic and recognizable buildings in the world, and our next destination in India. And since we were going to be in India for the Christmas holiday we thought what better place to be than at the Taj Mahal. So we got our Santa hats ready and boarded a train for Agra, India!
Unfortunately our train was 18 hours late in arriving. Due to the dense fog, as mentioned in the previous article, our train arrived in Varanasi 15 hours late, and as we rode through the fog towards Agra our train continued its trend of tardiness until it was eventually 18 hours late. We arrived Christmas night local time, but what was still Christmas Eve back home. We celebrated the following day, treating ourselves to a nice hotel room and talking to family when it was still Christmas back home.
The Taj Mahal – or – The Worst Tour Guide We’ve Ever Had!
The Taj Mahal, built from 1632 – 1653 by Shah Jahan, the Emperor of the Mughal Empire, is a tomb for his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal who died during the birth of her 14th child. The building has been called the most easily recognized structure on the planet, as well as one of, if not the, most beautiful structures ever made.
The Taj Mahal is closed every single Friday (the Muslim holy day) to tourists, and since Christmas was on a Thursday in 2014, and we arrived that night, we could not visit the next day and had to wait until Saturday to visit. But we still brought our Santa hats!
The Taj Mahal is surrounded by a gauntlet of tourist shops and touts blocking all paths, trying to sell souvenirs or do anything they can to part tourists from their money. They know the Taj Mahal brings in thousands of tourists and they know right where to find you, and block your path. They can be quite aggressive and persistent on these narrow pedestrian streets leading up to the gates of the Taj. We had several follow us and continue their sales pitch regardless of how far we walked or how many times we said we were not interested, or even if we flat out ignored them.
Once we had purchased our tickets we got in line and were immediately sought out by the dozens of “guides” hanging around the entrance of the Taj Mahal. They each explain in exhaustive detail how you will be wasting your time if you don’t take them up on their services. They also each come with these official looking identification cards which they claim are issued by the government. The cards have a price listed for their services and they say it’s a fee that is set by the government, so no bargaining, they all get paid the same, or so they claim. Interestingly though each guides “official” card looked a bit different and had vastly different prices listed on them – so much for set prices.
One of the “guides” had a reasonable rate and promised to get us past the long line, so we took him up on his offer. He did indeed get us straight to the front of the line by essentially walking to the front and pushing other tourists out of the way so we could get by. We weren’t entirely sure if that was acceptable, but the guard checking tickets didn’t seem to care and just waived us through. So we walked in ahead of the long line.
Once inside we stopped to take some pictures from a distance and noticed that our guide was speed walking away from us. He eventually noticed we had stopped to take some pictures and he stopped to wait for us and impatiently waved at us to follow him. He wanted to rush straight to the Taj Mahal. We knew instantly that he wanted to rush through the entire tour so he could find other tourists, but we were determined to go at our own pace and not run. He even went as far as pushing people out of his way to get to the Taj faster. Along the way he finally figured out that we wanted to take some pictures from different places as we were getting closer and began asking for our camera so he could take some horrible photos, each time saying he knew the secret to taking the best photos of the Taj, and each time the pictures would be horrible, with people, or objects in the way of the Taj Mahal, or slanted at some odd angle and off center. Occasionally when we would stop to take a photo at a particularly good spot where there was a line to get a clear shot, he would just cut in front of everyone and try to wave us up.
At one point he asked us if we had any sunglasses and when we said we did not he turned and looked around for a moment before spotting two young European woman wearing sunglasses and strode right up to them and asked them for their sunglasses, practically grabbing them off one woman’s face. They looked horrified and confused by this stranger who was asking them for their stuff. He apparently wanted to take a strangers sunglasses and put them on Krista so he could take a photo of the reflection of the Taj in the lenses. We had to ask him to stop and apologized to the two women. It was quite embarrassing to have our spastic guide bothering other people.
Finally we reached the Taj Mahal itself after many repeated attempts by him to run ahead, then stopping to wait for us to catch up when he would realize we weren’t sprinting after him, then sprinting off again. To his small credit he did try to give us various facts about the Taj, since he was supposed to be a tour guide after all, but it was quite hard to understand his broken English, especially when he was always facing away from us and running ahead, or impatiently waving at us in an attempt to get us to sprint after him.
At this point we knew he was the worst tour guide ever and it was really just comical to see what ridiculousness he would do next. Once we had gone through the long line to the inside of theTaj Mahal he began shouting loudly something that I’m sure were supposed to be more facts, but all I could catch was something about how the inside was known to have an impressive echo, immediately followed by him yelling at the top of his lungs in the middle of a relatively quiet and crowded group of suddenly startled tourists. I began backing away from him, and looking the other way, playing the “I don’t know him” game. There was no echo.
Once we exited the Taj Mahal itself with only about 20% of the grounds and various buildings and rooms explored he promptly announced the tour was over and we should run with him to a certain souvenir shop where he knew the owner and would get us an extra special deal… We declined his generous offer and said we wanted to actually see everything we had paid to see (and get some proper photos) and that we would pay him and let him go. He happily announced we were now free to tip him whatever we saw fit, so we didn’t tip him.
There probably are some really good tour guides, but beware as there are also many terrible tour guides around the Taj Mahal. You are probably better off getting a recommendation for a guide or just reading a pamphlet or website about the Taj Mahal. We learned a couple facts, but already knew most of what our guide told us – at least the bits we could understand. After the embarrassment and annoyance was over we joked about the experience for awhile and decided our tour was so ridiculous that we actually kind of enjoyed it as it would make a great story.
Free of our ridiculous guide we wandered the rest of the complex and stopped several times just to marvel at the beautiful Taj Mahal.
After we left the Taj, we found a restaurant nearby with a rooftop view and sat for awhile to take in this truly impressive structure, and to watch monkeys walking around on the rooftops throwing peoples hanging laundry into the streets below.
Pollution and the Taj
Sadly pollution is turning this once brilliantly white marble structure yellow. You can visibly see the changes in many places, especially as you get closer. There have been numerous cleaning exercises performed to varying degrees of success, but the cleaning chemicals themselves provide their own kind of damage, and nothing it seems will prevent its slow and steady march to becoming yellow.
Perhaps the only other site in Agra worth visiting is the huge Agra Fort. Once a fort, then converted into an Emperor’s Palace, then back to a fort, Agra Fort has a history as extensive as its many visible transformations. Huge red sandstone walls rise up above the city behind a proper moat and drawbridge, and on a clear day the high walls offer great views of the Taj Mahal and the rest of Agra.
The fort is truly massive and even though you are only allowed to visit a small portion of its sprawling expanse you can easily spend hours wandering around taking in the palaces and fortifications and it is definitely worth a visit.
Strangely a common occurrence in both Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal is Indians wanting to have their picture taken with foreigners (with their camera of course) but it happened so often that we asked to have one taken with our camera as well.
The Taj Mahal, perhaps one of the most beautiful structures ever conceived of and built sits in the Indian city of Agra, which is perhaps one of the ugliest. There is very little to do in Agra, besides the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, and walking around the city is not recommended as there is nothing to see or do except get pestered for money.
Tuk-tuks (three wheeled taxis) will often stop and pester tourists, something we noticed often. One tuk-tuk with two people in it followed us for several blocks trying to get us to get inside, the driver driving along while the second man constantly asked us where we were going and offering ridiculous prices like only 10 rupees to hire them for the whole day (a legitimate taxi charges 100 rupees for a few minutes). He even went as far as telling us walking was not allowed in Agra and we had to go with him. They followed us for blocks no matter how much we said no, or flat out ignored them. We had heard about these aggressive taxis in Agra before we arrived, they will tell you anything to get you inside and then promptly take you not where you want to go but instead take you to some overpriced souvenir shop where they get a commission for dropping off tourists, or possibly to places even less inviting like a dark alley somewhere. As a rule you should never get into a cab that stops to talk to you or has more than one person in it. Always call for a taxi or flag one down off the street that is just driving by and not stopping to harass you.
We heard from one foreigner we met about a couple from the UK who were told by the tuk-tuk drivers that all the hotels were closed because it was Ghandi’s birthday. When they asked other drivers if this was true they all agreed. The tuk-tuk driver told them he alone knew a place he could take them and they agreed to go with him, he took them straight to a “tourist agency” which sold them a “tourist package” for a truly ridiculous amount ripping them off of hundreds of dollars.
Traveling in India we have been approached by countless scams and given ridiculous misleading information so many times that we learned how to recognize it and avoid it. The scams usually aren’t very sophisticated and are immediately suspect, in fact they are usually so ridiculous it is really just comical. As a rule if you hear something that sounds bogus it almost always is, especially from anyone who is in a position to try and get money from you.
While the city of Agra can be easily skipped the Taj Mahal is by far worth the visit. Few buildings are as truly impressive in their grandeur and as a testament to the capabilities of the craftsman who built it. It truly is one of the wonders of the world!