Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Saturday 21st – Monday 23rd April: Agra

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Agra is not really a place one wants to linger – it’s hassle-y and doesn’t have much to recommend it except the standard tourist sights, so we planned to get in and out in two days.

We arrived on the train in the morning, checked in to our hotel, and headed out for breakfast at a nearby rooftop restaurant with views of the Taj:

After a hearty breakfast and showers we headed out to tourist item the first: Agra Fort.

Randall near the entrance to the Agra fort.

Looking over at the Taj Mahal from the fort

A baoli or step-well, also used for chilling out (literally) in the summer – note the little cubbies for sitting in. Goes down 25 metres.

Courtyard in the Agra Fort

More courtyard

Carved stone detailing

Looking over at the Taj Mahal

Looking over at the Taj Mahal

Looking down from the marble pavilion to the Char bagh (Persian-style formal garden)

Char Bagh

Marble pavilions and gold domes.

The Char Bagh again (Char = 4, Bagh = Garden)

Time to go – it’s getting a bit hot now!

The audio guide was very good – recommended if you find yourself there; also if you go to the Taj first and keep your ticket you get Rs50 off the price of the entry to the fort.

Then it was back to the rooftop cafe for late lunch and a spot of blog writing and Skypage before watching the sunset from the top terrace:

The top terrace at the Hotel Saniya


The South Gate of the Taj, taken from the rooftop cafe, looking over the rooftops of Taj Ganj.


Looking down at the main roof terrace from our VIP top terrace.

Looking across to the next roof terrace restaurant.


The terrace at nightfall

The next day we got up early to be at the Taj for opening time at 6am (not ‘dawn’ as stated on all the published information!). We tried to go to the South gate, but it doesn’t open until 8am so we had to traipse back past our hotel to the West gate. Still, there were no queues at that time of the morning so we were straight in, and here is the main entrance to the Taj Mahal gardens:

Looking through the main gate.

The beautiful Taj Mahal

Looking back up at the main gate – beautiful calligraphy in stone inlay.

The classic reflection shot!

The main gate from inside the gardens.


So beautiful.

Looking at the Taj from inside the ‘dummy’ mosque built to be symmetrical to the real mosque.

Unbelievably, loads of graffiti by Indians

Inside the mausoleum.

The mosque.

Back in Taj Ganj we were curious about these strange huts, which we think were stalls / sleeping spaces but we never really found out!

The Fatehpur Sikri (by Randall):

We planned a trip out to the now derelict (but ‘Archaeological Survey Of India’ protected) palace of one of the Mogul Emperors which is an hour’s drive outside of Agra. We negotiated with 3 different drivers to find the cheapest. The price started at 1500 rupees (approx. £20) and we got the all-inclusive trip for 1000 rupees. This is cheap if you work in £s and UK costs which is what most tourist are still doing when they make their very first stop at Agra to visit the Taj Mahal; and what the tourist industry are banking on. To recap, this deal was supposed to be all-inclusive but I’ll first explain what would have happened to a first-timer tourist.
After an hour’s drive the car would stop at a café owned by a friend of the driver who would significantly overcharge for fizzy drinks and the driver would get a kick-back. There is a toll road to the palace complex and the tourist would be expected to hand over 100 rupees for the toll although the toll is actually 20 rupees (the driver would expect the tourist not to notice and to keep the change). At 2Kms out from the palace the car parks are situated (understandably no parking at the palace). The road would be blocked by car park attendants competing to direct the car into their lot, and the tourist would have to pay the parking charge which is higher for foreigners. The tourist would then have to hire a rickshaw (again at inflated costs) to take them the final 2Kms. If the unofficial blockages by the car park attendants didn’t stop the tourist’s car, the Rickshaw union roadblock attended by police would.

Now Helen has been to India several times and doesn’t take kindly to being ripped-off or bossed around. What actually happened is this: As usual when the taxi came to collect us it wasn’t the person with whom we had negotiated. I have yet to understand why these trips are always outsourced and what the original driver is doing instead. The new driver messed about a lot as we left Agra – taking phone calls and stopping to pick-up personal stuff. Helen made her displeasure keenly felt and we were soon zipping along. We got to the restaurant of the driver’s friend and he turned off the engine and got out; we sat in and insisted we didn’t require any refreshments. The driver looked quite confused as this was not in his script but got back in and off we went with a wave to his equally confused looking friend.
We got to the toll booth and 100 rupees were demanded but Helen insisted forcefully that the price we paid was ‘all-inclusive’ and got on the phone to the original driver with whom we made the arrangement. Needless to say the 20 rupees toll was included. I think the driver was getting the idea about us by now but still when the car was flagged down by early car parking attendants he was a little surprised at the forcefulness with which Helen insisted he drive on. We passed several of these groups who were surprised that aggressively touting of their parking scam was failing, until finally we were stopped by a group of men standing in the road. They remonstrated with our driver but we both intervened from the back seat that the driver was going to drop us and come back to park (at his cost, not ours). Once through this we were stopped again by the Rickshaw driver’s mobile roadblock. There was a very aggressive guy threatening to ram with his barrier on wheels, any unauthorised vehicle that tried to pass. At this point the police office came to see what the shouting and swearing (in Hindi – Helen’s contribution) was all about.

(Helen’s note – thanks to all the books I have read set in India and my Indian friends for the tips on how to…errr…tell people somewhat forcefully to go away and engage in congress with members of their family or indeed animals. Or words to that effect.)

 We explained that the car was going to drop us off and then come back and park, which he accepted but we still needed his police escort to make it through the barrier. One further attempt to misdirect us failed when we got to the fork that leads off to the main palace gate, which is still some way away. A bunch of rickshaw drivers attempted to intimidate our driver into dropping us there so we could pay them for a rickshaw. From the back seat we engaged another police officer to give us directions and thus inadvertently confirm that we were fine to go to the gate in the car.
Finally – at the main gate!
Arrival at the palace means being mobbed by ‘guides’ offering to take us round. These take several forms – those who are just locals chancing their arm; those who have some official status (e.g. driver) and are ‘moonlighting’ as a guide for extra money; and those who have a scrap of photocopied paper which they believe entitles them to insist you have to employ them. Also at the palace are huge numbers of hawkers attempting to sell you random stuff. There are a number of beggars (as everywhere) but these suffer from the crowds of guides/hawkers who both throng so much as to trample their patches, and also crowd the tourists so much as to obscure begging access. The form of begging that has evolved involves small children running up and demand chocolate in varyingly unsuccessful imperatives of broken English. These crowds abate once you enter the fee paying part of the palace and it is a real relief. Once you’ve finished looking round the fee paying part of the palace these same small children come and demand your used ticket. We realised that this was so they can get in (or they sell the ticket to a hawker) to do their begging/hawking in that otherwise hassle free environment. Needless to say we decided our tickets were important souvenirs of our visit. One small begging child made his demands in such good English that we spoke to him for a few moments. “Your English is really good. Why are you doing this when you could get a much better job?”. He didn’t say as much but we suspect that he regarded begging as a good business.
The palace complex (it’s actually multiple palaces within a walled complex) sits on top of a hill in a wide flat plain. The centre of India is hot and dry; actually semi-desert. The Moguls had planted lots of trees around the complex to provide shade and greenery. There are gardens dotted throughout which are still maintained, mostly growing vegetables and herbs. Like much Indian heritage, the palace is bare inside. What you see is the architecture unadorned and the remains of the original mosaics and inlay work. This is beautiful and certainly beats the sometimes gaudy adornments that we saw added to some South East Asian heritage sites. What is missing is information about the buildings and/or any indication of what they would have looked like or how they would have been used. There were little plaques with info – mostly describing the types of architectural detail – against most of the buildings. The info about the building’s purpose frequently did not accord with the info in Lonely Planet so we’re not sure what to believe. The palace is built out of sandstone and features lots of pavilions which we imagine would have been covered in rich fabrics and scattered with cushions. There is a very impressive 5 tier pavilion with ‘secret’ tunnels leading from the Harem. There are drained fountains everywhere and channels that would have carried water as the Moguls knew the cooling benefits of running water. It is a fantastically impressive undertaking to have raised this complex from scratch in the 1500’s. We had a lovely visit and I’d thoroughly recommend it if you have a handy Helen to deal with the scams.

View from the Buland Darwaza gate.

The rest of the photos are here.



Written by helenbcn

April 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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