Everyone told us to spend as little time as possible in Agra. They claimed there was nothing to do except for the Taj Mahal (and Agra Fort but we were really over forts). Turns out, everyone was right! We spent two nights in Agra, but only because we knew we would be spending one of the days driving two and a half hours to Ram’s (our driver's) hometown.
Now, everyone knows that India isn’t celebrated for its cleanliness. And Agra, well Agra is the worst culprit! It was the first time we checked into a hotel room and had to ask them to change the sheets. Not sure it made any difference but we did it anyway. The only bonus with our hotel choice was walking distance to the Taj Mahal.
Agra was the first city in India that had a distinct smell, and it wasn’t delicious curry. Really, all the chatter was true, at least for us. There didn't seem to be any other reason to visit Agra except for the fact that the Taj Mahal truly was magical.
I had actually considered skipping it all together figuring that we had seen the Taj in movies and pictures so many times, and that seeing it in person wouldn’t really be any different. Boy was I wrong!
Our plan was to wake up super early and win tourist of the year award by claiming the number one spot in line to see the Taj at sunrise. I desperately wanted the allusive picture of the majestic palace without crowds of tourist and selfie sticks. We were told the gates opened at 5am, and I wanted to be there at 4am which meant a 3am wake up call (only because I was attempting to wear a saree on my own. If anyone ever needs help, Brian is now an expert 😉 ).
Walking from our hotel to the gates, I started to get the feeling this was going to be harder than I had expected. I figured the streets would be empty and that somehow Brian and I had beat the system, with only the simple thought of being there an hour early. We were not alone. We arrived to the ticket counter and the line was already fifty people deep. Thankfully in India, they separate lines based on gender, and the female line was much shorter.
We got our tickets (1000 rupees or $15 each, but we worked ours into our car deal. Yippee!) and our shoe covers (you need to take them but you have the option to go barefoot in the palace which we both did) and headed to the next line where we stood (separately) for the following two hours. We watched in disbelief from behind the entry gate as the sun rose behind the hazy layer, painting the sky in blues and pinks with no picture to be had.
I’m not sure what the hold up was, but the gates didn’t open until after 6am, and once we finally reached them, Brian was sent back because he had a mini tripod hidden in the bottom of his GoPro selfie stick. (Note: No tripods of any sort are allowed). So, he left me the camera bag and ran back to the lockers. Well, once I got through security, they searched the camera bag and Brian still had his microphone connected to this camera. (Note: No microphones or video equipment of any sort are allowed). So, now I also had to leave the line and go back to the locker room, and we got to start the whole ridiculous thing over again.
When we finally made it through after two failed attempts and a missed sunrise, the place was packed with tourists. We overheard some photographers saying that the only time you can actually see the sunrise is during the summer months (this is due to the seasonal shift of the sunrise and not the actual hours of the Taj). Lesson learned!
Either way, it was still stunning. Brian and I were in awe the whole time. Seriously. I walked around with my mouth open in astonishment so long that a bug actually flew in. It is truly larger than life and seeing it up close took our breath away. We were starving and caffeine deprived but we didn’t let it take away from the experience as we most likely won't have the chance to visit again (meaning, we probably won't return to Agra).
We spent a couple hours walking the grounds before finally making our way inside (the least impressive part of the whole experience). I still can’t wrap my head around building something so spectacular, so grand as your tomb! Why not enjoy it while you are alive? Oh well. To each their own.
As we left, we were harassed by the most rickshaw drivers since we have been in India, almost pushing Brian to his limit (which is really hard to do. Trust me. I’ve tried). We went to the only other establishment Agra had to offer, Joney’s Place! It was the most cheap and delicious restaurant we had been to so far. We ate there three times during our two nights in Agra and even had them pack us a dinner for our first train ride of the trip!
We packed our bags and our vegetable cutlet wraps and headed off to the Tundla Junction train station, 23 km outside of Agra, to board our overnight train to Varanasi. I was so nervous. We read a lot about the trains but didn’t know what to expect. We waited while the mosquitos, rats, and cows took over the station (gross) and kept panicking thinking we were going to miss our train. The nicest Indian man said he was waiting for his daughter to get off on the same train we were waiting to board, so he stayed with us until we were safely on board (he even invited us to his home to celebrate Diwali! Seriously, I love India). We found our berths in our 2AC class, and the other people in our cabin were already fast asleep. Setting up your bed at 1:00am on a top bunk is not an easy task, but we managed to get situated, popped an Ambien, and woke up in Varanasi. We had heard a lot about this overwhelming city situated on the Ganges, but boy, we were not prepared for what was about to come. See you there!
PS. Everyone will want to take selfies with you. Be prepared.
Tips for Visiting the Taj
PPS. Here are a couple tips we wish we had before visiting the Taj Mahal:
- There are several different gateways into the Taj (Southern, Eastern, and Western). They are all similar and charge the same amount (1000 rupees for foreigners).
- Read up on the history prior to visiting (if touring without a guide). It makes everything all the more interesting.
- The Taj is closed on Fridays!
- A free water bottle (and shoe covers) are included in your ticket price. No need to lug around a giant bottle with you (unless you get really thirsty!).
- Divide and conquer. If you are visiting with more than two people, have one person wait in the ticket line and the other person wait in the line to actually get into the Taj. This should make things go much faster.
- Pack accordingly. If you think you may not be able to bring it inside, don’t. There are lockers you can leave things in or just leave it at your hotel. Don't make our mistake! Below is a list of items you cannot bring.
- Set your expectations. You will not be alone. There will be tourist. It will be crowded. But it is still worth it!
- Follow the road less traveled for better photos. To get a picture with less tourists, try taking it from the mosque which is on the west side. The
- Be patient. Wait for the picture you want or you will be disappointed when you leave. Remember, kindness will get you further. There will be pushy tourists.
Things NOT to Bring
Here is a list of things you cannot bring:
- Tripods. Tripods of any size are not permitted, even those tiny bendable ones. The guards weren’t born yesterday. They even know where the hidden ones are!
- No video equipment. Most cameras shoot video today anyways, so everyone is doing it, but don't be obvious! If your camera has a microphone attachment (like ours), do not bring it. They will send you away!
- Backpacks. Bring the smallest bag you can. If you are wearing a backpack, its a toss-up on whether or not you will be permitted inside. We saw some folks get away with it. We had to put ours in the locker (along with everything else) !
If you have any other tips on visiting the Taj, feel free to leave them in the comments and we will add them to the list! Thanks and happy travels!