Surprisingly, my train #12190 headed to Agra was on time and my spot was waiting for me, despite countless rumors on the lack of train efficiency I had heard prior to my time in India. I was pleased upon seeing the conditions of my 2AC train class in person – cool (almost too cold) from the beaming A/C, clean enough, and charming. I had my own upper “berth” – a bunk bed, which offered decent privacy and perfect comfort. After the quick three and a half hour trip, I was sad to leave my little bunk.
Relieved to see I had exited at the proper town, I had arrived in Agra Cantt Train Station just past nine at night. I was a bit flustered and nervous being somewhere totally new after dark, but confidently marched out of the tracks and turned down the many tuk-tuk drivers hoping for my fare so I could get my bearings. The second I put my luggage down, which I had stupidly tied a fresh sack of berries to from the market, it was suddenly attacked! My first thought as I looked up from my map was theft – until I saw the predators… two full-sized, hungry and mean monkeys! Yes, monkeys. Within minutes of my arrival in town, it was safe to say I failed in blending in as the mammals took turns pouncing on my luggage and ripping at the bag of berries until it broke open, fruit flying everywhere. Seconds later they had snatched up as many as they could hold, ran to a nearby stoop, and dug in – giving me evil glances from afar which I read as “you dumb American, we WILL take your food”.
I tried my best to laugh off the incident and mask my total shock and fright, negotiated a price with an auto-rickshaw driver to get me into town, and clenched my mace the entirety of the ride. The ride consisted of seeing a
few more wild monkeys flying from car to car on the street, along with a lot more goats and cows walking in the roads. I had clearly left Delhi for a more rural experience. One auto rickshaw and one cycle rickshaw later (no engines are allowed around the Taj Mahal, only bicycles to prevent pollution fumes tinting the masterpiece), I was brought to my Hotel Sheela – a comforting little oasis just a few steps from the gates of the Taj. I settled in and enjoyed a late night snack of cheese pakora (glorified mozzarella sticks) with a tangy Indian sauce, and a couple of Kingfisher beers outside in the garden. I set my alarm clock for 5am the next morning so I could see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal…
Sound asleep in my pitch black room at the hotel, I am suddenly awaken by a noise. I check my clock: 4am. Only one more hour until I get ready and go to the beckoning gates of the Taj Mahal to see the much-anticipated
sunrise. Naturally, I can’t catch a minute more sleep. I rise and jump in the shower, taking my time. I check the clock again: 5:45am. What?! Now I’m in panic mode. I throw my things together and jog to the East Gate of the monument and am told – no pre-paid ticket, no entry. Shit. No one speaks English.
Suddenly, an angel in the form of a teenage local boy on a moped comes zooming my way – offering to speed me into town to purchase my ticket at the offices and get me back in time for my sunrise… There is no time to ponder – I jump on (side-saddle in a flowing blue dress), gripping my sunhat with one hand and the waist of the stranger with the other… putting my trust in mankind. Even though I felt like I was going to die as we whisked through town at lightening speeds,
I was endlessly grateful for the offer as I arrived back at the Gate just minutes later with
my 750 Rupee ticket in hand.
The sunset was almost indescribable – but I’ll do my best. Being one of the first of a following slew of tourists to arrive, I got to see the Taj Mahal in pure silence, the serene atmosphere feeling almost otherworldly. The Taj appears to be a pink hue in the early morning light, and as the sun rises it becomes bright white. It took my breath away. As I wandered the neatly groomed gardens and reflection pools of the grounds, it felt as if I was the only person there, experiencing this wonder of the world solo.
The slight narcissism in me was begging for a photo shoot – and
one of the Taj workers turned out to be my savior. He followed me around for about an hour, showing me the best view points and spots for photo opportunities, all the while snapping away. He was amazing and the photos are irreplaceable. I later spent about four hours just touring the grounds and staring in amazement at the gorgeous monument… perfectly polished white marble
walls, stoic and grand, executed in perfect symmetry to convey excellence and flawlessness. I replaced my shoes for slippers and walked the terraces of the Taj, amazed at how few people were there. I saw the tombs laying inside and photographed the intricately placed patterns of stones lining the walls. After admiring the ethereal masterpiece from just about every angle, I noticed tourists beginning to pour in. The locals began hounding me, and it got sufficiently out of hand once a line of about twenty began to form, waiting for a picture with the tall American with blonde locks. So I called it quits, deciding I had gotten my fill of the Taj Mahal.
The rest of my day was spent driving around the rural town of Agra with my hardworking cycle-rickshaw driver. As the hours passed, the sun strengthened. The heat in India is ever-present, and nearly unbearable at times. It does not relent or apologize – only the strongest survive. At one point my driver and I had to find respite in a man-made hut with some farming locals, sipping cold water until we had the courage to step into the sun yet again. I felt like amongst the farming locals as they milked their goats and their children played cricket outside with a tree branch.
I saw Agra Fort from a distance, ventured across a river to see the Taj from the back side, saw the Baby Taj, watched men hand-make rugs on a threaded loom, and eventually settled in a restaurant for over two hours, desperate for the air conditioning it provided. I spent my time journaling while enjoying the chicken khori, rice, tea, and the after-meal sweet called “peitha”. With nothing else to do or see, I ventured back to my hotel where I no longer had a room (I would be departing that evening so had to check out), but had 3 hours to kill. I tried reading in a hammock in the gardens but couldn’t take the heat – so sat in front of a fan in the kitchen where I met a fellow traveler named Mora, from Germany. We exchanged stories, (she on the first leg of a gap year from school), and our lovely 2 hour chat made the time fly. It is
one of the unfortunate things with backpacking that often times you start to make a new friend, but then off you go on your separate ways. But off I went, and I was glad to see my A/C bunker on an overnight train headed to the next city. I was happy to have my own door, electric outlet, and an extra blanket. The thirteen hours would fly by in what felt like two, and I would wake up in a
new place the next morning at 6am – excited to explore the city on the lake, Udaipur.
To view all of the photos from Agra, visit the Photos Page or click here.