Seeing the Taj: take one and two

That big, beautiful, white building that sits next to the pyramids on most travel posters. The one thing you can’t leave India without seeing. The Taj Mahal. I was very excited to see it but I did wonder if perhaps it might not be as grand as I’d imagined after seeing so many pictures of it before. But I was wrong.

A lot of people opt for long day trips from Delhi but I decided to stay in Agra itself for two nights to give myself a whole day in the city.

My brother had specifically told me NOT to rush to the Taj at sunrise even though that’s what everyone recommends because it wasn’t worth it. But when I arrived at the hostel the receptionist and the Lonely Planet guidebook both said sunrise was the best. Two other people were also planning their visit for sunrise the next morning so I thought I may as well go for it.

A 6am wake up call and I stepped outside to find a crisp, foggy winter morning,but I ignored that and the three of us stood in line until the gate was opened just after 7am. We walked through the East Gate, through the main courtyard and another gate towards the famous postcard shot spot, to find… a blanket of white. I couldn’t even see more than a couple of metres in front of me. Probably the only time in my life that I’ve thought, “damn I should have listened to my brother”. No wonder the only people who had lined up that early were all foreigners. I could imagine the ticket sellers thinking what dumb tourists we were, it was winter after all.

We waded through the fog towards what we assumed was this big white marble building and then we ran into a staircase which we climbed and then we found some sort of building rising up towards the sky and into the fog. We could only assume this was it. In fact, one tourist proclaimed, “Is that it? Are you fucking kidding me?”. I’m afraid not.

So we went inside to view the mausoleum which was the only thing not covered in fog. We wandered back to the gate and sat on the steps thinking the only option would be to wait it out. Soon enough other tourists came to join us and we had a whole band of us sitting on the steps looking pretty glum.

“It’s starting to clear I think I can see more of the trees now.” “Oh wait, no I think it’s getting worse”. “I wonder if they could get some big industrial fans to blow the fog way…” After an hour of sitting on the steps, it wasn’t looking much better and many people had already given up. So as much as my tightarse backpacker heart hated to do it, I figured I was the lucky one who had a whole day there and the ability to go back later. Of course, that meant buying a second ticket though. But a second Taj ticket was probably cheaper than another flight back to India. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

So I walked out and found a cafe for breakfast for a much needed chai. At 10.30am I met a German guy who told me it had completely cleared now and so I decided to go back to the ticket counter and pretend I hadn’t been there already that day.

This time the second I was heading towards the gate I could see part of it through the other side. And when I got there, that postcard view was so perfect. They’d even been kind enough to remove all the scaffolding for a perfect photo, although of course quite a few more tourists had arrived by now. The smarter ones obviously.

So I took my time around the grounds. It really was as impressive as it looks and not even a little bit disappointing now I could see it in its full glory.

I then went to see Agra Fort which I almost didn’t do because I was done seeing forts after Rajasthan but it was pretty impressive and I’m glad that I did. They gave a 50 rupee discount for anyone who presented a ticket from the Taj for the same day. I said, “Which ticket do you want? Can I get 100 rupees off?” The ticket seller didn’t find it very amusing.

Then in the late afternoon I got the best view of the Taj and one I soaked up for over an hour. It was a secret spot at the back of the complex on the banks of the river. There’s one man who is allowed to take a small wooden boat out onto the water and of course he is happy to take tourists for a price. I went just before sunset and I expected to find a few people there, but as it turned out I was alone. And only one small group of people turned up after me. For $3 the man took me out on the river for about 15mins to get some shots of the sun setting just over the top of the dome, perfect timing.

So after a long day, I was pretty tired that night. But I did stay up and sit around the fire at the hostel to warn every new backpacker that came through the door, “do NOT go to the Taj at sunrise!”. I think I saved a lot of people making my mistake. But hey, you have to laugh, that’s what travelling is all about.

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