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India: Agra and the Taj Mahal


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Friday, October 13, 2023

Friday the 13th…. Oooooh!

Today we left the national park behind and began making our way back towards Delhi – but first we had to overnight in Agra. The plan for today was packed full of activities, interspersed with lengthy drives in the bus. As we made our way towards Agra, we had to make a stop because Beverly was not feeling well. She and Lyn had been sitting in the rear of the bus the entire trip (everyone stuck to their original seats from the first day), and it was only now that we learned how miserable the back row was for them! There was no air-con vents in the bank, only a small fan, which wasn’t enough to truly cool them down on the hot days. We all resolved to rotate around the seats so Beverly and Lyn could have a better time on the bus for the last two days. I felt quite bad – had I know how awful it was for them, I would have offered to switch seats much earlier in the trip.

The first stop of the day was at the Chand Bawri Step Well. Anu purposely didn’t tell us anything about the place until we arrived – he wanted us to see it first, and he was right to do so. The step well was absolutely stunning: hundreds of interweaving stairs led down into a massive water well, which was used by the local people for centuries. The steps allowed for the water levels to rise and fall, while still providing access to the water. A royal palace was carved into one side of the step well, with intricate carvings showing off the wealth and power of the royal family. A scene from “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed at the step well: the scene where Bruce Wayne is climbing out of the pit. India has step wells located all over the country, but this is one of the most amazing examples.

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Next to the step well was a small temple which we didn’t get to go inside to explore. It was very pretty from the outside though. We then got back on the bus to complete the journey to Agra. We had lunch along the way and arrived into the city by mid-afternoon. It was a decent day of driving and we still had more to see once we arrived in the city.

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In the late afternoon, we drove to the Agra Fort, which was located quite close to the Taj Mahal (we caught a glimpse of the Taj Mahal during the drive – a teaser for our visit the next day!). Once at the fort, we were supposed to have a local guide, but Anu ended up taking around instead. He explained that he was able to provide better guidance through the fort than the local guides that work there.

Construction on the fort began in the mid-1500s by the Mughal rulers of the region. It served as the main residence of the royal family until the mid-1600s, when they transferred the capital to nearby Delhi. The fort is constructed in three main sections, corresponding to three different rulers who added onto the fort. The first rulers, Akbar, build the res sandstone section of the fort. His grandson, Shah Jahan, finished the construction of the fort using white marble. It was this ruler who built the Taj Mahal as well (more on him in the entry for tomorrow!).

The entrance to the fort is very imposing, with massive red walls and a curved pathway leading to the main gate (the curved route was to prevent elephants from being able to charge and ram the gate). Once through the gate, we walked up a long ramp to reach the main square of the fort. Along one side was the oldest part of the fort which served as the royal palace. It was beautiful in the afternoon sun, with the red bricks and tile work standing out along the building.

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Inside the palace, we stopped at in the main courtyard and had some time to wander around before Anu gave us the history of the building. The detail in the carvings along the wall was amazing! As we walked through one section, we got a whiff of an unpleasant, musty smell – the place definitely smelled as though it was hundreds of years old! The architects had built hallow walls to allow for heating and cooling during the winter and summer months, respectively.

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Going through to the next courtyard, there was a long wall with several windows look to the outside of the fort. Through these windows, I got my first proper glimpse of the Taj Mahal. It was absolutely gigantic! It stoof majestically along the banks of the river, nested amongst trees – truly beautiful. The sun was at just the right angle as well to properly illuminate it for us as well.

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The palace had many pretty buildings that we were able to explore, including a white marble pavilion. One of the pavilions just had the marble walls with the detailed carvings on display, but when it was originally built it was covered with previous stones. The floral designs were filled with emeralds and rubies, etc and the entire room would sparkle when the sun hit the stones. All that remains of some of the colorful décor are some painted columns that once contained many gems.

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Our tour around the fort concluded as the sun was setting and it was time to head to dinner. Anu took us to a nearby restaurant where we had yet more delicious food. I had thoroughly enjoyed all of the food in India, even though it was so heavy! The restaurant had the dessert Hello to the Queen on the menu, so I ordered one after I finished eating. It wasn’t nearly as good as the one we had enjoyed several days ago in Pushkar, but it was still delicious.

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During dinner, I talked with a few women in the group about a possible change of plans for the rest of my travels. I was thinking about flying home to Hanoi on Sunday, rather than continuing through Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Rather than canceling those portions, I would just postpone them until early next year: I would visit Bangladesh and Sri Lanka en route home from the States in February, and then fly to the Maldives for a visa run in early May.

I wanted to do this mainly because I was missing my boyfriend, Thinh, quite a bit. We had only been dating a few weeks before I left on this trip, so it had been difficult being away from him. I wanted to get back home to spend time with him and continue to see where our relationship would go. We’re still in the “honeymoon” phase of dating, so I didn’t want to miss any more time with Thinh.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that it would be a good idea – especially since I wasn’t cancelling the rest of the trip, just rescheduling it. Plus, living in Southeast Asia, it is very easy for me to visit these countries without paying for expensive flights. I decided to move ahead with my plans and I was instantly excited to fly home in a few days. I didn’t mention anything to Thinh though – I wanted it to be a surprise!

When I got back to the hotel, I spent some time getting all of my flights and plans shifted around and rebooked. I couldn’t find an affordable flight home on Sunday, but I did find a direct flight home late Monday night. After booking an extra night at our hotel in Delhi to stay overnight on Sunday into Monday, I booked the flight home.

I went to bed excited about both my updated travel plans… and also for visiting the Taj Mahal in the morning!


Saturday, October 14, 2023

Today was the big day – we were finally visiting the Taj Mahal!

This also happened to be our final day of the tour and there couldn’t be a more perfect way to conclude a tour of India than by visiting the most iconic building in the country. The group collectively agreed that this was the best schedule because, if we had started with the Taj Mahal, everything after that would have felt somewhat less exciting or anticlimactic.

We left the hotel at 07:00 for the short drive to the Taj Mahal. Once there, we had to queue for the entrance, which was thankfully moving rather fast – we went through metal detectors and had our bags checked, but it was a breeze. It was already very crowded as we made our way over to the location where we would take an electric cart to the entrance of the Taj Mahal itself. The cart was comfortable and the drive took only a couple of minutes – it is entirely walkable.

Outside the main gate, Anu gave us some information about what we would be seeing as we entered. The gate was massive, built of red sandstone with while brick and tile inlays. Atop the central arch were several small domes at the front and rear of the gate. Each dome represented one year of construction on the Taj Mahal – there are 22 domes in all!

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Passing through the entrance gate, we finally saw it – the Taj Mahal! There is a lot of hype about how amazing the place is and it did not disappoint. I stared in awe at the majesty of the place: the white marble mausoleum, flanked by four minarets, and the long pool stretching out before it. The symmetry of the building is instantly visible. The four minarets, while appearing to stand straight up at 90 degree angles to the ground, are actually slightly angled away from the main structure. This was done as an earthquake precaution: if the minarets were to crumble or fall, they would fall away from the building and thus not damage it.

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After giving us some time to take photos, Anu took the group to one side and gave us a history of the Taj Mahal. It was constructed between 1631 and 1653 by Shah Jahan, who was the fifth Mughal emperor. He built it as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whom he loved dearly. His own tomb is located next to hers inside the central structure. Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their 14th child and Shah Jahan was overcome with grief. The Taj Mahal was built to symbolize his undying love and devotion to his wife.

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Anu had arranged for a photographer to take a proper group photo in front of the Taj Mahal, and he then took some individual pictures of everyone. The group photo was given to us as a gift from Anu, while the individual photos could be purchased upon leaving later in the morning. We were then given 90 minutes of free time to walk around and explore the compound. The entire Taj Mahal complex covered a huge area, with large gardens surrounding the mausoleum, two large temples and palaces to either side. Our entry tickets granted us full access to the mausoleum, so Anu told us how to access it and where to meet when our free time was over.

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I set off towards the main building, walking with Christina. We continually marveled at how utterly amazing the Taj Mahal truly is – we had seen so many buildings in the same architectural style throughout our trip, but nothing was this grandiose or awe-inspiring. We walked along the path next to the long pools (unfortunately the fountains were either turned off or not working).

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The famous photo of Princess Diana sitting alone at the Taj Mahal was taken on a raised platform that contained two benches on either side. Due to the popularity of the image, as well as the spectacular views from the platform, it was overcrowded with visitors. Christina and I went up there and watched as dozens upon dozens of people queued up to take a photo on “Diana’s bench”. Continuing further along, we came across a narrow pathway that crossed over one of the long pools. Again, people were queueing up to have their photos taken because this view had no crowds in the background. I waited for several minutes and people kept jumping ahead of me, so I just walked out after someone finished so I could take my photos. I could hear someone behind me shouting that I should move, but I took my time to get the photos I wanted. The pictures turned out even better than I could have expected.

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Christina and I then reached the main building itself and we proceeded up some stairs so we could go inside. We had to wait in a long and disorganize queue to have our tickets scanned. Proper queuing is no something that is done much in India, so this wasn’t anything new to us by this point. Once through the security check, we were able to make our way around the exterior and get a proper close-up look at the building. All of the while marble looked so perfectly and meticulously placed – it was very pleasing to the eye. We could also see the carvings along the top of the various archways in the building as well. Interwoven, colorful floral designs covered these parts of the building.

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When we entered the Taj Mahal, signs were posted stating that photography was prohibited. The interior was smaller than I had expected. In the center of the domed interior were the two tombs, surrounded by a meticulously carved white marble fence. It was crowded inside and the guards kept visitors moving along clockwise around the tombs. To exit the building, we were led along an interior corridor that had some more amazing marble carvings. Various flowers designs were carved on the walls in such amazing detail. Christina and I both snapped a few quick photos!

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Once we exited at the rear of the building, we were able to admire the views overlooking the nearby Yamuna River. There is a legend that Shah Jahan planned to build a second Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river, but this one built of black stone, with the two connected by a bridge. This is merely a myth, but I could help but speculate how beautiful it would have been had he actually constructed such a building.

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Christina and I slowly made our way back around the Taj Mahal, taking our time to continuously admire the beauty of the site. There were so many opportunities for great photos, but one of the best was outside a large nook to the eastside of the building. The sun was bearing down on this side of the Taj by this point and, while making it very warm, it also gave us better lighting to see some of the details in the monument.

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We then began making our way towards the gate where we would be meeting Anu. The time had flown by during our visit and we only had 20 minutes remaining. Despite this, we took our time and stopped at various places to snap some more photos. When we reached the main entrance gate, the crowd size had markedly increased and I was glad that we had arrived so early this morning to avoid the surge of visitors. I had Christina take a few final photos of myself in front of the Taj Mahal and then it was time to leave.

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Outside, we met up with Anu along the busy street and waited for the others to join us. There were small shops all along the street and the vendors kept approaching us to buy their products. It was getting exhausting to constantly be bothered by the sellers – I will always walk away from a store if the seller is too pushy, even if there is something that I truly want. Christina went in search of some postcards and I grabbed a cold drink.

When everyone regrouped, we went to get in line to take the electric carts back to the bus. The “queue” for the carts was utter madness. Again, queueing appears to be unheard of in India. When an empty cart would arrive, people would swarm it, pushing anyone in front of them out of the way so they could get on board. Several carts came by before we managed to rush aboard two empty carts. I pushed several people out of my way and I just barely got aboard. Fred had to sit on the very edge, squished in as we drove back to the bus. It was ridiculous.

We returned to the hotel so we could have breakfast, shower and pack up before leaving. Once again, I skipped the breakfast and spend the time lounging in my room. When it was time to go, we got our bags loaded onto the bus for the final time and prepared to return to Delhi.

Prior to leaving Agra, we stopped off at a local carpet store where we were given a short demonstration on how they make the carpets by hand. The shopkeepers then escorted us to the second floor and displayed several dozen carpets for us. Then the shopping spree began. Quite a few women in the group ended up buying carpets – more than I had expected! I quite fancied a few of the carpets as well, but it would have been too much of a hassle to have one shipped to Vietnam. Besides, I didn’t really need a carpet. We spent about 90 minutes at the carpet shop during which I spent time chatting with Anu. Each of the shops we had visited during the trip gave out free masala chi (tea), but Anu had this shop bring me a beer to enjoy (just like at the jewelry store several days prior).

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We had one final stop in town: a marble shop. Again, we were given a demonstration on how they make the marble objects and inlay precious stones. The store itself was nice and a few people bought some items there. We had only a limited time at this store, thankfully, because we had to get on the road to Delhi.

Lunch today was a long-teased and joked about treat: McDonalds! Yes, the group collectively wanted to try an Indian McDonalds to see what different items were on the menu, especially since beef isn’t served in the country. Anu had Uber Eats deliver him McDonalds several days previously and I had been eager to give it a try myself. Only Susie (from Scotland) wasn’t enthused about having this for lunch – she kept declaring that she’d never eaten at McDonalds in her entire life, like it was some badge of honor or something. It was annoying because it was almost trying to detract from the fun that myself and others were having at going to McDonalds.

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We all had to get our food for take-away and eat on the bus. I ordered a double chicken Big Mac, as well as some India-inspired chicken burger that was styled after a curry. The Big Mac was good, but the curry burger was far too spicy for me to eat. I had a McFlurry for dessert, which was perfect for the hot afternoon.

Christina and I were sitting at the rear of the bus for today’s journey, enduring the heat with the small fan as best we could. I had sat in the rear a few times since we began rotating around and I was still shocked that Beverly and Lyn suffered for so long! The only person who refused to take a turn in the back was Julie (from the UK). She was the most high maintenance person in the group and paranoid about everything. Oblivious to anyone else, she would just focus on her needs and concerns, constantly asking pointless or ridiculous questions of Anu. For example, on the first day when we visited a mosque in Delhi and had to leave our shoes outside the entrance, Julie was worried that her shoes would be stolen. At meals, she would take ages to decide on a dish and ask Anu what was in every single item on the menu. It was irritating and nearly everyone in the group was fed up with her antics by this point. I wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t had a rotation in the rear of the bus either. Susie had told her it was her turn, but Julie got quite uppity about it – her selfishness was on full display.

Nevertheless, we arrived back to Delhi in the later afternoon and made good time getting through the traffic to reach our hotel. We were staying at the same hotel where we began our trip two weeks ago, and no one was excited about staying there again – myself included. I was given a room in the adjoining building and was pleasantly surprised by how much nicer the new room was compared to the one I had the first night! The main thing was that the room was clean!

After a short rest at the hotel, we went out for our farewell dinner. We followed Anu as he led us through the streets, including some busy shopping areas, to a nice restaurant for dinner. The place was small, but very nice! They didn’t have any Indian Kingfisher beer available for dinner, so I ordered a Tuborg instead. Anu had cocktails tonight, rather than joining me in a beer as we usually did (he didn’t like Tuborg beer – and I didn’t blame him!). As we ate, several other tour groups arrived for their welcome or farewell dinners as well.

Towards the end of dinner, Mandy presented Anu with the envelope containing our tip money and a thank you card. He was such an amazing tour guide and he really made the trip special. I was glad to have lucked out and had him as our guide on this tour.

When we left the restaurant, we walked back to the hotel where we had to say goodbye to Christina. Her flight was at 02:00 and her transfer arrived at 21:30 to take her to the airport. After seeing her off, the rest of the group mulled around in the lobby for a few minutes. Everyone except Fred and me were leaving in the early morning, either flying home or on to further travels in the region. Fred and I were both leaving late Monday night, so we made plans to go around town together the next two days.

We all said goodnight to one another and planned to meet up in the morning when everyone would leave for the airport. It was crazy how quickly the past two weeks had flown by! The tour had exceeded my expectations and my initial reservations about India were fully dispersed by this point. As I reflected on the tour in me hotel room, I was amazed by how much we were able to fit into a 15-day timespan!

I had two full days left in Delhi though and I planned to make the most of them.

Posted by Glichez 00:22 Archived in India

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