The train is nothing fancy, we booked the cheaper class, Chair Car (CC) but the food served was good for the amount we paid. We were served with chocolate cookies, tea, vegetarian finger food (I can’t recall the name), bread with butter, lemon drinks and water bottles. We saved the bread and butter for later.
It was 2-hour journey from New Delhi (NDLS) to Agra (Agra Cantt. Station), we were passing by small houses, field, cornfield I supposed (I strongly believe it was a cornfield), with the sun rising, a gradient of yellow, orange and blue on the horizon. I was trying to capture the moment, but nahh, it wasn’t as beautiful as what my eyes witnessed, before everything went black and we woke up a few minutes before arrival.
Agra Cantt Station is quite clean compare to NDLS Railway Station, there were a group of family, school students and travelers filling up the stations. We took some photos before went out to get a rickshaw to Taj Mahal, our initial plan was, going to Taj Mahal, visit Agra Fort and hop on to the next train to Jaipur from Agra Fort Station. As simple as it can be done in a day.
We were then approached by a man as we were queuing to buy a ticket for the rickshaw and he convinced us by showing his ID (as an approval of legal rickshaw driver in Agra), I wouldn’t care much about that as long as they charged us the reasonable amount. He first convinced us to take a half day tour, starting from Agra Cantt, with Taj Mahal and other attraction including Yamuna River and Baby Taj Mahal but we politely declined, and he agreed. It was about INR500-INR600 for us both.
Another guy coming, claimed as his brother and he drove us to the Western Gate of Taj Mahal for INR100, please be sure which gate you’d like them to drop you off. Halfway, the rickshaw driver stopped, again trying to convince us to take the tour. I understand the necessity to earn more, but by forcing and ripping off peoples’ money isn’t the right solution, though I think the amount asked is reasonable but we’d like to stick to our plan. We started to tell a lie, or else we will helplessly stranded (metaphor) in the middle of nowhere for hours, we told him, we have more friends coming and waiting at Taj Mahal, and we took his number to convince him we will get in touch. We didn’t. I’m sorry.
I wasn’t sure if that was for a show or he is purely honest, although we strongly believe it’s some kind of trick, a psychological trick. Once we entered the Taj Mahal area, the driver pulled over and a lady hitchhiked our rickshaw and stopped a few meters away from the Western Gate, and the driver gave her a free ride, he then told us how good heart he is and how often he offered a free ride to the local. I don’t care.
We finally reached the Western Gate, feel so much relieved, before another guy came without our notice. He greeted us halfway, and claimed that he is registered as a free legal tourist guide hired by the Indian Tourism for Taj Mahal. We politely declined as we didn’t need one, but he keeps following us, from the gate to the storage room (few meters away to the north from the West Entrance) until we were about to enter Taj Mahal. The guard was also trying to convince us that the same shit. I then replied, ‘Will that be ok for us to get in without a guide?’ the guard said yes. ‘Great! We don’t need one,’ I replied. I wasn’t very sure if he is legal, but we wouldn’t bluntly take any chances.
The entrance fee is now increased from INR750 to INR1000 per person. We queued in a line for ladies which was shorter and faster, pass through the security screening and entered the Taj Mahal. It was a sunny day, hotter than it should be in October, and I was sweating like hell.
Taj Mahal is pretty, an arguably pretty, with the white marble stones, and iconic of irony, love, or lust, it’s a tomb of love. Tourists gather around at the same spot trying to take the perfect photo of Taj Mahal, I quickly scanned a bench where both Princess Diana, and Kate Middleton used to sit to get a perfect photo of them, and Taj Mahal. Later that day I realized that I was sitting on the wrong bench, they were sitting on the white bench right in front of the Taj Mahal, while I was sitting on a brown bench at the side of Taj Mahal (almost every brown bench we could find), that’s OK!
Another minor incident occurred that day. We were taking photos with a nice Indian couple and their son when I accidentally bump into a guy and his camera dropped and the battery popped loose on the floor, he looked at me, he was about to get mad, and I started to curse myself when then he looked at the aunty, he smiled and said that’s ok after I repeatedly said sorry. Our final deduction later that day was, the aunty was giving him some sign, perhaps a quick head shake (a small noticeable gesture) for him to let us go.
We left and went inside the Taj Mahal to see it up close, there’s a special entrance for foreigner, less busy, more privacy. We later met a group of Malaysian, I can’t tell you how happy we were, we took some photo exchange info, and giving each other a big hug, and encouraging words, I still remember their words, ‘be brave, stick to your plan, do not let anyone change your mind’ That encourages us throughout our 15-day adventure braving India. Hey, we still get in touch with each other until today.
We went inside Taj Mahal to see both, Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan tomb in the main chamber, but no photos are allowed although some people sneakily took some photo. People throw coins, making a wish, as if it is a magic pond or lake. One of the minarets was under construction (it can be seen clearly on the picture of us and the Indian aunty and her son), and some area is closed due to it. The place itself is huge, the details on the wall, the carving are amusing.
After sparing hours in Taj Mahal, we decided to go to Agra Fort, find some food for lunch and to the train station, we walked a few meters away before hiring a rickshaw to Agra Fort. Once we get there, I don’t know was it our fault or if the system has changed, we cannot get any discount to get into the Agra Fort using the Taj Mahal ticket. I did read about the ADA ticket, but the ticketing person gave me a clueless reaction when I asked, so did the ticketing girl at the Taj Mahal. We had to pay another INR550 (before was INR300), we looked at each other and decided to call it off. We saw another tourist facing the same problem as us, distress in their face. They call it off too. There will be more fort to see at the other places in India, we are planning to visit.
Another bad news, there’s no restaurant around the Agra Fort, we should have our lunch while we were at Taj Mahal, there were quite a number of restaurants at the Southern Gate, so we walk to the Agra Fort Station hoping to get something to eat. It was already passed noon, and still hot and we walked with our backpack under the blaring sun, as we reached the station (cleanliness level, zero) everything went black, my eyes went blurry so we sat outside to get some fresh air before went inside, still no sign of food except for the mini stall selling snacks. No fruits either.
We found a waiting room, pretty much ok for us, and empty and Ichie was about to get a heat stroke, we pour water on her head, put some wet tissue to cool it off, it took an hour before she slowly recovered. We still have a few hours to spare at the station, both of us decided to stay there, had our bread for lunch and wait for the train. There were a group of Indian ladies walk into the room and put the thin clothes on the floor and lie down, so we took off our sleeping bags, and disguise as local, they smiled and speak some Hindi words we can barely understand, she might be quite impressed with our sleeping bag or not.
An hour before our train scheduled to arrive we walked around the train station, get some coke and entertained ourselves watching the local get off and into the train. Some were illegally crossing the railway with their kids, and oversized luggage without bothering how wet and dirty it is, even though there’s a bridge that linked two platforms, from our side to the other side. We witnessed a group of worker transferring ice between platforms, some cleaning the railway and some selling food with the moveable cart.
Our train arrived on time, we get in and trying to get some sleep. We were already exhausted, and again the food was great. Served three times from tea time, to appetizer to the main meal. The first two meals weren’t impressive much, but the main meal was delightful, we pre-booked a vegetarian meal when later the staff came over and asked us (also a Chinese mother and son sat next to us) if we’d like to have extra roti (bread) and Masala Chicken, we (four of us) said yes, with excitement although I was sleeping minutes before they served the last meal and still sleepy. It was appetizing. Maybe it was because we didn’t finish our second meal, or because they still have some left over, but they didn’t charge us for the extra food.
After the meal, as usual, they will walk around to collect some donation, we didn’t donate anything in the morning so we decided to fork out some money this time, for the sake of the Masala Chicken. Happy tummy.
We arrived late, 2 hours late then scheduled, was supposed to reach Jaipur at 9pm but it was already 11pm. The guesthouse was supposed to pick us up, but the other rickshaw driver told us he went back without knowing that our train was delayed. Scam alerted, we said we will wait for a while, it was 1km away, but we wouldn’t bother to walk in the middle of the night, with no GPS or clue which way should we head so we decided to take that guy’s offers. We arrived safely, and as usual, they will convince you to hire them for a tour, it’s pretty standard. I was already exhausted for this so we took his number and said we will call. Again, we didn’t. But the rate is pretty much the same, he seems like a nice guy, genuinely kind and helpful, but we couldn’t spare more money for tour.
We checked in, the rickshaw driver was right, the guy who was supposed to pick us up was there and he went back when he couldn’t find us, he was later scolded by the owner, but it’s understandable. We had a nice big room for ourselves, and an A/C that blow right onto our head, we had a good sleep and I can’t wait for tomorrow.
Life in India is hard, for those who are poor, they fight and they survived some are not, yet they still smile with their warm and big heart. They welcome you as a family, sister and brother. I wouldn’t blame them for becoming such a scammer or touts, if they were given options, a better option, a better living, and opportunity, they wouldn’t go that far, ripping off people’s money. For the sake of living. If I were them, I might end up doing the same shit, or not.