Thursday, February 08, 2007 India India


Taj Mahal [Enlarge]

On a cool, foggy morning, and after some more of the customary haggling, we took a tuk-tuk to New Delhi station before dawn to catch our train to Agra, the 06:15 Bhopal Shatabdi Express. At this time of morning the tuk-tuk ride was hassle-free and only took a few minutes. 'Shatabdi Express' is the name given to some of the trains serving popular routes in the north of India: they are newer, faster and more comfortable than the majority of the subcontinent's trains, and breakfast is included in the price. We were looking forward to our short journey to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

Shortly after we left New Delhi the steward handed out complimentary newspapers. We chose the English-language Times of India, and we settled down to catch up on the news from India and the rest of the world. Tucked away on page 10, there was an interesting article about the possible outsourcing of railway catering to the likes of McDonalds—apparently this will be an improvement. The article went on to describe the conditions inside the catering facilities on board India's trains, including the Shatabdis. You can read the full article here, but the relevant part is:

Citing instances, the PIL alleged that all prepared food stuffs instead of being kept in containers were directly placed on dirty floors of the kitchen, chapathis were rolled on the floor, the cooks never used gloves, nor was there any segregation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. What was more appalling was that body sweat from the cooks constantly spilled over the food material as there were no cooling facilities or exhaust fans in the kitchen, the petition alleged. According to the petitioners, while millions of passengers were taking the unhygienic food unwittingly, there were several other high society passengers travelling by the Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Jan-Shatabdi Express trains who were compelled to take the food as the fares are inclusive of the same.

We skipped breakfast.

Because of the fog, we got to Agra an hour late and took another tuk-tuk to our hotel, where we had a good shower and a bad breakfast. Hoping that the fog would lift later in the day, we decided to look round the Agra Fort first, then go to the Taj Mahal later. We walked across town to the fort, somewhat comically pursued by a stream of tuk-tuks and cycle rickshaws, whose drivers seemed incredulous that we didn't want to take a ride with them. During one of our bizarre walking-pace conversations with them, we did get a good gem of information, however: buy a combined ticket for the fort and the Taj and save 100 Rupees.

At Agra Fort we parted with 1500 Rupees (GBP 17.48 / USD 34.09) in return for two combined tickets to the fort and the Taj. This is surely one of the most extreme cases of two-tier pricing—if we had been Indian, we would have paid around 40 Rupees (GBP 0.47/ USD 0.91). Fair enough, it's their country. We spent a while looking round the fort, which is impressive, and similar to the Topkapı Sarayı in İstanbul. It's a shame that it is neglected by many tourists who only come to Agra for the Taj Mahal. Wild(ish) parrots were flying around overhead and nesting in the trees, and Glenn was very pleased with his photo of one of the tame striped squirrels in the grounds. It seemed that our trip was finally back on track after our bad experience of Delhi.

Striped squirrel at Agra Fort [Enlarge]

Sure enough the fog began to clear and so we crossed town again, parallel with the river to the Taj Mahal. This has to be one of the highlights of any trip to India. We approached the outer wall and walked through the south gate. A man asked us for our tickets and we duly produced our combined Agra Fort and Taj Mahal tickets bought a few hours previously. "This does not allow you to enter the Taj Mahal sir, you need to buy another ticket: 250 Rupees each." He pointed to a window back outside the gate. We argued with him for a while as to why a ticket marked "Visit Taj Mahal along with Agra Fort, Itimadud-Daula, Sikandra & Fatehpur Sikri" should not be valid for doing just that, but it was to no avail. He muttered something about our combined ticket being issued by the Agra Development Authority, and us needing to supplement it with one issued by the Taj Mahal Tourist Scam Corporation, or something similar. [Actually, it's in the small print: "Excluding A.S.I. ticket"—oh, that clears that one up then.] Isla suggested that we forget the whole thing and leave Agra, but we both knew that having come so far we were just going to have to stump up another 500 Rupees (GBP 5.83 / USD 11.36). So we went back to the window and allowed ourselves to be robbed legally, again. And back to the gate, armed with the correct tickets. Now we had to pass through security. As has become the norm for Isla in both the middle east and India, she was shepherded into a special curtained off 'ladies only' booth to be searched, lest any passing gentlemen be overcome by lust at the sight of her with her arms held out. She was carrying the small daybag, and its contents aroused great interest. Our mobile phone, camera and set of eight high-capacity rechargeable AA batteries were fine, but the GPS, mini tripod and wind-up torch were going to have to stay behind. Again arguing proved to be a futile exercise in the face of unfliching bureaucracy and unquestioning application of rules, and we were forced to deposit our illegal items in a dodgy-looking locker room in return for a slip of paper marked "3 items". Calling it a locker room is to overstate the situation, since the lockers didn't lock. We noted the opening times of the locker room: it closed at 5 pm, some two hours before the Taj itself closed. So that put paid to any thoughts we might have had of seeing the Taj at sunset.

Us at the Taj [Enlarge]

The Taj Mahal is truly stunning [see our photos]. We think it is best from a distance, as seeing the tiny people-shaped specks walking round the bottom shows you just how big it is. It is raised up on a huge platform so that it has a clean skyline behind it. We took the obligatory photos from the viewpoint at the end of the central watercourse—luckily we had come on a day when the fountains were turned off so as to leave the reflections of the Taj undisturbed.

We slowly ambled towards the Taj, taking in the view and the majestic atmosphere. When we got to the base, we randomly chose to turn right to walk around the side. We were accosted by a man who pulled us to the edge of the path and made us take another photo of the Taj, and then demanded money from us for his trouble. We continued round the back of the building and then climbed some steps to the large raised platform on which the actual mausoleum sits. As we came back round to the front of the building, we saw a sign saying "Please do not take off your shoes here". So we didn't, and we walked on towards the mausoleum entrance. As we did so, we gradually became aware that nobody else around us was wearing shoes. Hmmmm. We paused for a moment, and as we did so we were shouted at by a couple of zealous Australian backpackers: "Mate, no shoes!"

We were genuinely confused at this point, and we gestured helplessly at the sign that clearly instructed us not to remove our footwear. "Yeah—you should have already taken them off! Down there!" They pointed down to a huge crowd of people removing their shoes, which we had completely missed owing to our earlier, random, 50–50 decision to turn right instead of left. We tip-toed back downstairs and took our shoes off before returning. How it is possible for a society to have such strict rules and regulations and yet implement them so badly?

And so it was. Our experience of arguably the finest building in the world was tainted by a catalogue of frustrations punctuated by episodes of incredulity, with a bit of confusion on the side. This seems to be an emerging theme for our whole experience of India.

Tomorrow we will complete the bottom leg of the Golden Triangle, taking the train to Jaipur—the pink city, the ancient capital of Rajasthan.

Map of Day 076

Day 076
New Delhi to Agra

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Shrinidhi Hande said...

The hygiene issue about food preparation is very much true.

Also I find it quite unfair to collect 50 times higher amount from foreign nationals.

What I loved the most in the fort is the squirrels...


Anonymous said...
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