Monday, December 21, 2009

A Day in Agra: Visiting the Taj & Agra Fort

We successfully extracted ourselves from the Shanti Lodge by 6:30AM, and after an excellent breakfast at the nearby Joney's restaurant-cum-hole-in-the-wall, we were already queued up for the 750 Rs tickets with a considerable collection of foreign and domestic tourists when the Taj Mahal gates opened at 7.

The Taj is indeed magical at that hour, and if you sit still and just watch you can see its iconic visage evolve through an entire range of spectral and atmospheric transformations as the morning sun rises through the mist.  But we were slightly too type-A to for excessive contemplation at this hour, so we joined the majority of the tourists for the usual picture-snapping orgies and awed explorations throughout the well-maintained grounds.  One of our strategies for the early visit was to "beat the crowds", but in truth the Taj grounds are so vast that it would seem hard to ever feel crowded, at least on a weekday.

The cliché regarding "1000 words" well applies in the case of the Taj Mahal, so I will let our photo galleries speak for themselves regarding our visit.  

After a full morning strolling the Taj grounds we rode a tuk-tuk over to see the Agra Fort.  I remembered wandering somewhat aimlessly through here 20 years ago, and I knew we'd get a lot more out of seeing it this time with a knowledgeable guide.  So we walked ever-so-leisurely across the entrance drawbridge, "trolling" for a guide, and hooked one in about 30 seconds.  He approached us offering out his guide license, but with his thumb strategically placed over the ID photo.  I took it and held it up next to his face - obviously no match - and he chuckled sheepishly.  But he seemed like a nice young man, his English was good and he proposed a price somewhat below the official rate, so we agreed, and took off for a most enjoyable 3 hour walk around the fort.  With only a half-hour before closing we used our rave recommendations to snag him another group of tourists for a quick last-minute tour.

Having seen what we came for in Agra, we decided not to stay another day as we'd planned, but to just hit the road towards Jaipur bright and early the following morning.  We still had plenty of slack in our itinerary to get ourselves up to the city of Bikaner by December 30, the start of their big 3-day Camel Festival - especially since we were planning a public transport leg between Jaipur and Bikaner.  But Agra, and especially Taj Ganj, was so patently charmless that we were glad of the prospect of getting out of the city and back into some countryside again.