The Taj Mahal in India features on many a person’s travel bucket list. And I’ve done it, I’ve finally ticked the box and seen this beautiful structure up close and personal.
Leaving Jaipur very early one morning, we arrived at the train station, settled into our seats, and as the train pulled out of the station, we had a complete ‘OH SH*T’ moment as we thought we’d boarded the wrong train. OMG can you imagine! Thank goodness we WERE on the right train after all. Panic over, we relaxed and enjoyed the moment of quiet, which is always a rare treat in India.
We arrived in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, around midday, did our usual bartering with a tuk-tuk driver and jumped aboard to head towards our accommodation. I use the word ‘accommodation’ because I feel uncomfortable giving it the title of ‘hotel’. On first glance, the place we’d chosen to lay our head down for one night actually looked quite nice. It was surrounded by loads of greenery, and it was also spitting distance from the Taj Mahal.
Checking in at reception, we were informed that we’d actually booked a room that comes with a bucket of hot water, but if we’d like to upgrade to a superior room, then they would give us a special price and that would include running hot water whenever we liked. Ha! I just loved these moments. They’re so completely different to our first world lives. So we ‘upgraded’ from the bucket to the water running through an actual shower hose.
The cleanliness of the room was extremely questionable and a rock would’ve been softer than the pillows on offer, but we had more important issues to deal with. We needed coffee. And we’d seen a western looking take-out coffee shop just around the corner, so we walked in that direction.
It’s amazing the things that get you excited after a week or so in India. Placing our order for two cappuccinos, they passed them over to us in actual take-out coffee cups. I know it seems ridiculous, but when you’re used to the usual first world home comforts, and you’ve experienced none of them for a good while, getting coffee in a take-out cup (my favourite way to drink coffee) seems like a real treat.
We sat at a table outside, which faced out towards the line for Indian nationals to enter the Taj Mahal. Yes there is a separate line for the locals, where they pay a lesser price than tourists, but it means the line is a lot longer. The line was largely made up of males. Think hundreds and hundreds of males standing on the small street opposite us. Now keep in mind, two western girls stand out like a sore thumb. It was the largest audience I’ve ever had watching me drink my cappuccino! I loved these moments, where for once I was the minority, the one that others looked at with strange curiosity. It’s always good to be on the other side of the coin every so often!
After buying a street kid a huge piece of chocolate cake from the cafe, and watching him scuttle off wide eyed and happy, and then worrying immensely about the skinny dog that had settled down near my feet, we head back to our ‘accommodation’ to get sorted for our visit to the Taj Mahal.
Tickets bought, we entered through the tourist gate, which had no queue at all and made me feel a little uncomfortable and sad that I was lucky enough and ‘wealthy’ enough to pay for that ticket, where all the people from India who had likely travelled a long distance to see the Taj Mahal were stuck in a line that would take hours.
Our original plan had been to visit the following day at sunrise, when there are very few people on the grounds. However the weather was showing clouds and so we’d ended up getting our first sighting of the Taj Mahal at around 3pm when every man and his cousin, aunt and grandfather was there too. It was a bit of a battle getting to a spot where you could get a decent shot, and just when we managed to steady our camera, we were asked ‘Excuse me madam, could we have a photo with you?’. This was definitely the turning point for Jo and I, on how generous we were, obliging with selfies. We’d finally made it to the freakin’ Taj Mahal, we were staring straight at it, we had a good viewpoint for a lovely photo to take home for our own memories, and the selfie requests started. I sound bitter and twisted I knoooooow, but guys, I honestly obliged with hundreds of selfie requests, so this time I was standing my ground and saying no. I wanted to selfishly take in this moment for myself.
We wandered the grounds and snapped loads of our own selfies, commenting on how the Taj Mahal looked so much smaller in real life. This has been my experience with every famous monument or building I’ve ever seen up close. Buckingham Palace was much smaller than I ever expected, The White House was waaaaaay smaller than I’d imagined, and so I guess it should have come as no surprise that the Taj Mahal was also smaller too.
It is truly beautiful nonetheless, and I feel I should paste some Wikipedia text here so this post doesn’t just talk about hot water in buckets, take-out coffee cups and selfies! ;o) Wikipedia says: The Taj Mahal, meaning “Crown of the Palace” is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658), to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare (42-acre) complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall.
We spent a good couple of hours strolling the grounds, and taking it all in. Before we left, we wanted to get one good photo each of us standing in front of the water, with the Taj Mahal in the background. This was equal parts frustrating and total comedy. I mean, you’ve got thousands of people wandering the grounds, with the exact same thought. Everyone wants that photo! We took turns to make our way down the steps and to stand in the exact spot that would make for the perfect photo. Except the problem was, to our left and to our right, were other tourists trying to do the same thing and we didn’t want them in our photo.
Jo got lucky and snapped a handful of photos of me that were tourist free. We’d not had the same luck getting a photo of Jo, so I sent her back down the steps and instructed her not to move. I had a guy next to me with his camera pointed at his friend, and said friend was showing up in my view finder. Neither of us were willing to budge. Eventually a man appeared next to Jo, and to this day we’ve no idea if he actually worked at the Taj Mahal or not, but he ushered all the other tourists away so Jo could have her moment of glory and I could snap a tourist free photo of her. This still makes me laugh! One thing we discovered over and over was the helpfulness and kindness of locals, even if it meant it was slightly awkward and other tourists were pushed to the side! ;o)
Leaving the Taj Mahal, our thoughts turned to food and we bartered with some tuk-tuk drivers to take us to a restaurant. One tuk-tuk driver ended up pushing the other which was a bit of a shock to see, and also sad that there’s that amount of desperation to make a living. We told him off nonetheless! We ate a delicious dinner in a lovely restaurant, and as we returned that evening, and walked past the coffee shop we’d sat at earlier that day, I saw my skinny dog. I chatted to him in a baby voice, and for a short moment he looked happy and his tail wagged. My heart still breaks every time I think of that dog :o(
And as for the hot water. We returned to our ‘accommodation’, planning on a hot shower in our upgraded ‘superior room’. Alas, there was no hot water. Off to reception we went, to explain our situation. It was to be no problem, one of the guys just had to climb on the roof above our room and turn it on. HAHA! I heard him up on the roof, and then I turned on the basin taps. Out of the taps flowed brown water. I decided in that moment, that I’d yet again skip the luxury of a shower on this day. ;o)
Next stop: Varanasi on the Ganges River. To Be Continued.