Continued from a previous post:
Saturday was another early morning – waking up around 5:00 AM so that we could catch the Bhopal Shatadbi train to Agra at 6:15 AM. We rode First Class AC Chair Car and let me tell you, it put Amtrak to shame. We got free bottled water, coffee/tea, biscuits – not bad for a ticket that cost about $12.50. We finally arrived in Agra at around 9:00 AM and found yet another prepaid taxi (a lot of taxis in India are prepay only – which can be good because a lot of drivers don’t like to turn on their meters/will take you the long way). We hopped in the sturdy Hindustan Motors Ambassador and headed for the Taj Mahal.
We were dropped at the beginning of a 1/4 mile path that led to the entrance – lots of overpriced touristy crap for sale, plus quite a few beggars. We finally got to the ticket booth/security entrance and were greeted with a pretty egregious case of price discrimination based on nationality/skin color. Indian nationals had to pay 20 INR (about 50 cents US), everyone else (Pathkars, or foreigners) had to pay 750 INR (about $20). My well reasoned argument about the fact that we pay (a lot of) Indian income tax, so therefore we should be allowed to get the lower price fell on deaf ears. We finally resigned ourselves and paid the obscene charge and got a color “pass”, a tiny bottle of water, and shoe covers – what a deal!
Government price-gouging aside, the Taj was amazing. It was breathtaking to see it in person – I can definitely see why it was selected as one of the new Seven Wonders Of The World.
They even had a post office there, so you could get your postcard stamped at the Taj Mahal. On the way back to the cab, I saw a beggar with legs gnarled from polio – it really made me realize how miniscule the fact that I had to pay extra to see the Taj Mahal really was. I gave him my free bottle of water, hopefully the gift of clean water was a good one. We then made our way to Agra Fort. There was some amazing architecture and breathtaking views – the most notable being the view of the Taj Mahal that Shah Jahan saw while he was imprisoned there for many years.
After enjoying some lovely Chicken Tikka at a restaurant called “Indiana”, we were forced to go to a handicrafts store – yet again. It was interesting to see how they hand-make carpets (that cost upwards of $10,000!), but all the stuff they were selling was at least double the price of the exact same thing back in Mysore. Being the unfunny person I am, I asked the guy if they had a painting of Elvis Presley or Jesus Christ on crushed velvet. Unfortunately, sarcasm doesn’t translate well in Indian culture and he told me no, but they could have it commissioned. His assistant pointed to the velvet painting of Ganesha – close, but no cigar. When we left without buying anything, our cab driver became sassy with us – guess we aren’t the dumb tourists that he usually drops off (and that got dropped off one cab after another while we were in there). We didn’t want to pay his ridiculous fee for 3 more hours, so we told him to drop us back at the train station.
We made our way to the prepaid taxi stand to find another driver, all the while being aggressively harassed by auto rickshaw drivers. We got to the government run stand to find that the police officer manning it spoke no English. The taxi drivers were basically operating it as they pleased – the inmates were running the asylum so to speak. We finally got a good fare (and almost prompted a fight over who got the drop) and we went to the person’s cab.
It was by far the worst car I have ever ridden inside in my entire life. It required a full bottle of water poured into the coolant reservoir to even turn over and rode like the springs had been cut. Multiple doors were broken, which was another comforting sign.
We made our way across a 1.5 lane bridge, almost hitting numerous things while crossing over to Itmad-Ud-Daulah’s Tomb – aka “The Baby Taj”. It was very peaceful and beautiful – a lot less tourists there than at the other attractions.As Jen and myself walked along the outside of the tomb, we had rocks thrown at us by the beggar children on the beach below because we wouldn’t give them money. It was darling – really.
We also made a stop at the Chini Ka Rauza – another Mughal tomb. As we walked along the wooded path, we realized that no other tourists were there. Turns out we were right – it has been basically abandoned by the government and left to rot. Most of the beautiful blue Persian tile is gone, the only visitors there were the local hustlers – hence why our cab drivers followed us. It was a shame that such a beautiful place has been abandoned – I’m sure it was amazing in its prime.
After talking the driver out of taking us back to Indiana (I think they pay a pretty good kickback), we realized that most of the sights were closed – so we foolishly agreed to check out another handicrafts store (we were tired of fighting at that point). We walked in and found – surprise – more excessively overpriced art and gifts. The highlights of that trip were the fact that I found a table top that cost as much as I owe to the US Dept. Of Education in student loans – aka it was pricey – as well as finding a velvet embroidery of Jesus Christ himself (remember my request earlier in the day?) – totally out of the blue.
We finally made our way back to the train station in our trusty cab – which we found out had no working headlights or turn signals, and was being driven by the cab driver’s brother who may or may not have known how to drive – and began the process of waiting for the train to show up – turns out it got delayed, by over 45 minutes. It gave us even more time to experience the chaos that is an Indian train station. There is the obligatory metal detector that no one is watching/cares about when it goes off, pallets full of goods, families sleeping on the concrete as well as the overzealous shoe shiners who thought that they could convince me to get a leather shoe shine on my non-leather Merrell trail running shoes.
We finally were able to board our train and make our way back to New Delhi. We walked outside expecting to find a prepaid taxi stand – turns out that it was a misnomer, as they only dealt with auto rickshaws. We had to make a hasty deal with the menacing cab drivers and finally found someone not wanting to rip us off totally and got a ride back to our hotel in a Maruti van that had the worst transmission I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. Hopefully our 200 INR will be invested into a new clutch.
Thankfully, the locals had run low on Diwali “crackers”, so we were able to drift off to sleep in relative peace.
To be continued…