Agra – Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014
We arrived in Agra at 9:30 on Saturday morning. When we pulled into the train station it was the culmination of our longest single journey across India, our transition from south to north.
After one night in a less than luxurious room at the Amax Inn in the Paharganj district of Delhi, we boarded at train 5:30 a.m., which took us 210 km southeast to the city of Agra – home to 1.2 million people and of course, the iconic Taj Mahal.
From the train station we took a rickshaw about 8 kms to the pollution barricade near the east gate of the Taj Mahal. You see, in a feeble attempt to protect the Taj, barricades have been put up in the streets to prevent motorized traffic from brining their pollution too close to the historic mausoleum.
Apparently the geniuses who came up with this barricade concept didn’t account for the fact that the wind easily carries the car and rickshaw filth the extra 200 meters into the grounds of the Taj. But I suppose at least they are trying — that in itself is a hell of a lot more than the rest of the country can say.
From the barricade we walked the remaining few hundred meters to our new digs, Hotel Sheela, located only about a 45 second walk from the east gate of the Taj Mahal.
By the time we checked in to the hotel we were beginning to get worried because a thick fog had been hanging in the air since we arrived at the train station and although it was already 10:30, it didn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Fortunately, we had afforded ourselves three full days in Agra to (hopefully) ensure we would see the Taj on a clear, sunny day.
As all the guide books and websites will tell you, the best time to see the Taj is at sunrise. Since it was already late morning we decided we would spend the day exploring Agra and then actually visit the Taj the following morning at sunrise when the gates opened.
For the record, despite the fact Agra is home to the largest tourist attraction in all of India, the town itself is complete dump. Luckily, there are some fantastic rooftop restaurants where you can easily escape the chaos below, relax with a beer, coffee or cup of chai, and take in panoramic views of the Taj Mahal.
With a little help from Lonely Planet, we were able to find one of our favorite spots in all of India, the Saniya Palace Hotel rooftop restaurant.
To be honest, we spent about 90 percent of our time in Agra sitting on this rooftop drinking coffee, beers and eating curry.
We spent the rest of our first day in the home of the Taj wandering around, shouting at shop owners because their prices were a good 50 percent higher than the rest of India, and sitting on the roof admiring the Taj Mahal from afar.
Before heading back to the hotel for the evening we made out way to the ticket office to by our entry tickets for the following morning.
TRAVELERS NOTE: The ticket office for the east gate of the Taj Mahal is actually located about 1 km away from the gate itself.
This means that when you wake up at 5:30 in the morning to be first in line to see the Taj at sunrise, you actually have to walk 1 km to the ticket office, which opens at 6:30 a.m., and then 1 km back to get in line at the gate, which opens at 6:55 a.m.
Most other travelers didn’t seem to realize the tickets don’t have a date on them, so you can buy a ticket the day before and then walk straight to the gate when you wake up the following morning.
The other gates to the Taj (south gate and west gate) have their respective ticket offices located right next to the gate, but because of this convenience those lines are significantly longer.
Your best bet to a quick early morning entry into the Taj Mahal is through the east gate, buying your tickets the day before.
After obtaining our tickets we headed back to Hotel Sheela and went to bed early, praying for clear skies the next morning.
Taj Mahal – Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014
Well, if there’s one thing we have learned during the last few of this trip it’s that staying in a place for only one day and hoping it all works out as planned is a terrible idea.
We woke up on Sunday at 5:30 in the morning and the weather sucked. It was cold, damp and a heavy fog hung over the entire city.
We decided of course that despite the fog we had to go see the Taj anyway, because the weather could be equally as terrible the following day.
So at 6 a.m. we were in line and ready to see one of the most famous buildings in the world.
When the gates finally opened about an hour later the weather had not improved. Moments later when we strode through the grounds, turned right and walked through the main archway, rather than seeing the iconic Taj Mahal looming before us, all we saw was a dense sheet of grey fog.
Not quite the introduction to the Taj Mahal we had dreamed of, but hey, at least we were there.
We spent the next few hours roaming around the grounds snapping some photos and hoping the fog would lift. When it didn’t we decided we should head inside the mausoleum and hope that when we came back out the sun would be shining.
To be completely honest the inside of the Taj Mahal is completely underwhelming. It’s one room no bigger than the shoeboxes we have been sleeping in and smells like a mixture of sweaty feet and pigeon shit.
You can’t wear shoes inside and the building is full of pigeons, so go figure.
When we came out of the mausoleum the sun was starting to shine through the fog, so we were able to see the Taj a little bit better.
It was also starting to get extremely crowded, so defeated by the poor visibility and herds of moronic tourists we headed for the exit.
With an entry fee of only Rs.750 ($13), we decided it would be ignorant to not go again the following morning and hope for better weather.
With our plans set for the following morning we continued to explore Agra and spent the rest of the day and well into the evening relaxing on the roof of the Saniya Palace Hotel.
Round Two – Monday, Feb. 24, 2013
To much excitement and jubilation we woke up on Monday morning to clear star-lit skies and an almost guaranteed beautiful sunrise over the Taj Mahal.
After another wait in line at the east gate, lets just say we were not let down.
Since the weather was so nice and we had already seen the inside of the building, we spent the entire morning roaming the grounds, snapping photos and taking in the wonder of the massive building before us.
After much disappointment the day before, we finally realized what all the fuss over the Taj Mahal is all about. The building is truly magnificent and despite the fact Agra is nothing to call home about, a trip to India is not complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal.
If there is any travel lesson learned from our experience in Agra, it’s that some variables are out of your control and it pays to give yourself adequate time to ensure your experience in any given place is the best it can be.
TRAVELERS NOTE: It’s also worth noting that the Taj was significantly less crowded on Monday than it was on Sunday. Although the guide books cleverly tell you to avoid visiting the Taj on a Friday because it’s closed, they fail to mention that the weekend is also an inopportune time to visit, as it’s extra crowded with Indian families on weekend excursions.
After a successful morning inside the grounds of the Taj, we once again retreated to our rooftop escape to enjoy our last afternoon in Agra.
After lunch we took one more stroll around Agra before packing our bags and making our way back to the train station.
Of course when we arrived at the train station it turned out our train was delayed five and a half hours. Needless to say, it was a long, tiring and stinky wait on the platform.