Agra: The Taj Mahal & a Handy Guide to Tout Management

Agra! What an adventure.

I had booked a train from Delhi to Agra at 7am, the Taj Express. I was waitlisted- 7th- but thought I’d go down to the railway station and give it a crack anyway, hope that some people had missed their train. On the platform, a friendly man told me to get on the train anyway and the TC (ticket collector) would find me a spot. The train arrived and the usual crush of people engulfed the train. I hopped on and wandered through a few carriages looking for empty seats. I was unsuccessful and getting in the way so I stood between the two carriages and waited for everyone to sit down.

There was a bunch of us there, standing in the carriage ends. Two older ladies, a Muslim couple, two old Sikh men, a 20-something year old woman, and about five boisterous young men. I got chatting to the men and younger woman, and they said that if we stood between the carriages, often the TC would let you stay. So, having made friends, I decided to risk it. The train left the station, and I stood there, no ticket, and hoped for the best.

Talked for a long time to the older ladies, using the young lady as an interpreter. Had a few laughs with the guys, and got stared at VERY closely by the Muslim couple. The Sikh men were lovely but no English was spoken but they waved and smiled and nodded at me a lot. About half an hour into the journey, the TC walked through. He ignored the lot of us and went straight through into the other carriage, Ladies and gentlemen, India life hack: If you stand between the carriages you get a free ride! (Disclaimer: I don’t recommend this and suspect it could end poorly).

My non-English speaking friends
The cheerful Sikh men

Towards the end of the journey, my new friends had all gotten off at the previous stop, and I was left with the glaring Muslim couple. The woman was wearing a niqab (Hijab that covers the face so you only see the eyes) and the man the traditional full-white outfit with white cap. They had watched me intently the whole journey and hadn’t smiled at me at all and I had been feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I turned and watched out the window and ignored them. A few minutes later, a gentle voice said ‘Excuse me, sister’. I turned, and the Muslim man said ‘You must be tired from standing. Please, come sit with my wife’. He led me to some recently-vacated chairs he had acquired, and motioned I should sit next to his wife, which I duly did. She spoke no English, so instead she shared her water and walnuts with me and we spent the remainder of the journey in companionable silence.

People can be so beautiful. Lesson for today; Don’t let the world harden your heart.

Agra, however, is not beautiful. I got an auto to my hotel. Halfway through the journey the driver stopped and swapped with some other guy, which sets off a series of alarm bells. However, I arrived intact. I ascertained that I wanted to spend as little time as possible in my hotel (no hot water, a door that didn’t lock properly, filthy, incredibly noisy, and over-run with monkeys) so I quickly dropped off my bag and headed off to the bus station. From there, I took the local bus to Fatehpur Sikri which Wikipedia says is ‘a city in the Agra District of Uttar Pradesh, India. The city was founded in 1569 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585, when it was abandoned.’

Fatehpur Sikri

The bus was the noisiest, joltiest, smelliest, ride ever. Jammed up next to a lady with her toddler in her lap, who quickly fell asleep and stuck his feet in my lap. There are no announcements of stops, the bus just grinds to a halt and people jump off and on with no discussion. I asked for clarification of my stop and the TC just waggled his head at me… I hoped for the best. After a long journey, we arrived in a dusty crowded town, and the bus stopped. Everyone got off so I presumed we were there. I asked a local where Fatehpur Sikri was. He pointed directly up the hill and said ‘short cut’. Ok… So up I wandered. I was dubious as I could see nothing but mounds of rubbish and local housing, until this loomed before me, perched high on the hill. My breath was literally taken away. Absolutely stunning.

Fatephur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri, immaculate gardens

Fatehpur Sikri – Amazing, colossal architecture

Fatehpur Sikri- Men playing cards on ancient monuments. This elephant tower, adorned with elephant tusks
Fatehpur Sikri This elephant tower
Fatehpur Sikri – The Elephant gate

I spent a few hours exploring the ruins. Then I had to head back to the bus as the last one leaves at 5.30pm. I got to the bus a little early and made friends. Played peek-a-boo with the toddler that had previously dozed with his feet on me. Chatted to the handsome Indian man who sat in front of me. Shared lotus root with the couple next to me and got an invitation to their home town. We were back in Agra far quicker than anticipated. Dinner, bed. Slept in my sleeping bag liner rather than risk the sheets…

6am the next morning I queued to see the Taj Mahal in the sunrise. After queuing, and queuing, and then queuing some more, I finally got in, walked quickly to get there before most people,.. and saw this. The smog obscured the Taj, obscuring its beauty and rendering it far less impressive than I had expected. Still beautiful, I explored thoroughly, then headed back to my hotel for a nap.

Me on the Diana Bench, the Taj shrouded in smog
Taj Mahal detail – so intricate
The Taj Mahal is immense.

I had formulated an agreement of sorts with an auto driver, and he took me to mini Taj, (the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, but known to the locals as the ‘Mini-Taj’) red fort, and the Taj gardens.

The red fort is the former imperial residence of the Mughal Dynasty located in Agra, India. It is also a World Heritage site. It was mentioned for the first time in history in 1080 AD… this place is seriously OLD. And huge, at 94 acres.

I could not recommend the Taj gardens the slightest. Scraggly plants and the view was not worth it. Skip this and spend more time at Fatehpur Sikri!

Back to the railway, where I read my book on the platform and chatted to a man who invited me to stay with him and his wife in Kashmir. Despite the dire warnings, I’m very inclined to do so, Kashmir sounds beautiful but I shall see if Pakistan behaves itself. The journey back I sat in my allocated seat and talked to Michael, from the US.

The Taj Mahal, with the glorious sunrise…

My one dire warning to anyone visiting Agra: The touts are horrendous. Selling you ‘hand crafted’ carvings, offering to be your guide, planning to be your auto driver, beggars. Children with deformities. Children telling you their father is dead. Children saying they are hungry. Stand your ground. Do not give them your money. I wandered on my own and I doubt that anyone who hired a guide gained anything from the experience. In fact, I discovered places that most tourists do not.

Learn this Hindi phrase: ‘Bhaiya aage chhodo’ (sounds like ‘Paya ar-gay churro’). Basically, means ‘Brother, fall behind’ or, ‘bugger off’, and said with enough venom, dissuades even the most irritating, insistent guide. Wave your hand dismissively at the same time. Ignore, ignore, ignore.

Overall, Agra was incredible but the pollution made the Taj less incredible than I expected. Things are run down, tired, and dirty. But. As always. People are beautiful.

And so endeth my adventures in Agra.

Red fort
Red fort
Red Fort- happiest day of my life- DOUBLE SQUIRREL! Cost me Rs. 20, worth every cent.
Red fort
Chain of justice- very interesting!
Red fort, Agra smog in the background
Red fort, a ‘Genuine parrot’, as I overheard a guide say (see the value they add!)
Red Fort
Red Fort- Cannon
Red Fort
Red Fort
Mini-Taj – Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah
Mini Taj – I love how the colours have faded from the ceiling
Me at the mini-Taj

3 thoughts on “Agra: The Taj Mahal & a Handy Guide to Tout Management

    1. Hi- the touts can be exhausting. Just ignore, ignore, ignore. Be strong and you’ll be OK- trust me, India is worth the stress!

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