“How to save 1500 Rs on tickets for entering one of the wonders of the world” or Our biggest fail so far.
There is one place in India that is known by everyone. Most of the people traveling to India will include this place in their itinerary. So did we, but…Remember how I wrote, that reading in advance and making research is not the key concept of our traveling? Well, this time we got to taste our own medicine.
Let’s start from the beginning. On the same day we arrived in Rishikesh, we booked train tickets to our next destination – Agra. It was still possible to get tickets online, so we did not want to waste time. We just randomly picked a date a week ahead. The train was leaving from Haridwar at 6 am. Our plan was to go to Haridwar a day before. See the city, stay close to train station and leave early. As few days before leaving we got sick, we changed our plan by taking a taxi from Rishikesh early in the morning to catch the train in Haridwar.
On Thursday morning 10 December we got up before 4 am, as we had a taxi arranged at 4:30 am. We did our final packing, took our backpacks, left the key in the door, as the reception was sleeping, and went down the hill to get in the taxi. The only problem – the taxi was not there. We gave the taxi driver an Indian handicap – extra 5 minutes. As the taxi was still not there, we gave the driver a call. Luckily I had asked his number the day before. If we did not have the number, we were screwed. I think he was still asleep when I called… I was starting to get quite nervous. We knew that it should take about an hour to get to Haridrwar. Our train was leaving at 6 am. We were running out of time. 4:50 am. After 15 minutes of the call the taxi was still not there. We gave him another call. He promised to be there in 5 minutes. Really? Ok, 10 minutes… At 5:05 he was finally there, with some very lousy excuse for not being there on time. I placed my self in the front seat, prepared to have another crazy and fast hill road drive. At some point I just stopped hypnotising the clock in the front panel of the car. Driving on the opposite direction lane, almost crashing into a bunch of horses, that were freely running on the road – everything that you might expect from a rush ride to station. Even though the driver promised us to take us to Haridwar in 35 minutes, I was mentally preparing my self for a hysterical run after the train once we would reach the station. I was planing strategies of how not to pay the guy, unless he helps us to find the train etc.
But actually it was not necessary, because, surprisingly enough, the driver took us to the station almost in 35 minutes. Around 5:45 we got out of the car and within 5 minutes we were in the train to Agra.
It was the dirtiest train we had experience in India. Stijn spotted mice and cockroaches. We were happy that we didn’t have to spend the night in that train. Somewhere on the way train started to have a delay. By the time we were in Agra it was almost an hour late. We had to take a tuk-tuk to get to our guest house. The vehicle could not go very fast and the driver wasn’t really rushing. He was very talkative (they always are, when the want to sell you something). Only then we learned that tomorrow was Friday. On Fridays Taj Mahal is closed. Ahhh… Just few hours back we had booked our train tickets to Varanasi for the next day that were not exchangeable. So we were left with less than an hour to check in the guest house, drop our bags and maybe still see the Taj. It was pretty clear that we would not make it. Oh, well, at least we will save 1500 Rs on the entrance tickets (those could be 2 to 3 nights in a basic double room, in a low budget guest house, if you are lucky).
We still made an attempt to see Taj from close by, but might as well have not done it. The walls surround it completely, there are tons of kids trying to sell all kind of Taj-crap and guides offering their service no matter what. So we just left the site. We were tired after the early morning and long train ride, we were hungry, as we had had only a sandwich with yak cheese (jummmy) and few cookies on the train.
Finding a place to eat was another struggle. We found a place. It had the best rating (almost the only place with a good rating, except KFC…), but it also had Taj equivalent prices. Thanks, but no thanks. We were so tired, that we gave in to an offer of a very old and toothless tuk-tuk driver (we never do that), who took us to another place. But the prices were almost as high and the environment unpleasant. We decided to go back to our guest house, as there were good reviews on their kitchen.
Note by Stijn:
In Agra, all tuk-tuk drivers drive want to have a commission from the place they bring you. This is a very bad structural problem that makes it hard for places who don’t want to pay and of course, it’s the tourist that pays for it in the end. There are however a few flaws in the system. The old toothless tuk-tuk driver had first taken us to the first place with the good rating. It was only at the opposite side of the street. We did not have to pay him. And he would even wait for us. Next, he took us to his recommended place and here he was a little bit more smart: we first looked on the menu downstairs. At first sight, it looked OK so we went to the rooftop to realise prices were also high and the noise of the street was not very pleasant to say the least. So we find our way out of the restaurant but can’t see “our” tuk-tuk driver. So we just asked another driver waiting. Of course, you could see the despair and frustration from the people of the restaurant who did probably already pay the first driver. We also did not pay him.
We were the only ones on the rooftop, wanting to have a dinner. The cook had to go to shop to get some ingredients, but the food was good and much more reasonably priced than the rest we had seen in Agra. Exhausted after the challenging day, we had an early night. Ohh… But we did not know then, that had Agra had set another quest for us.
Worst night of India
We could fall asleep quite easily. The two Kingfishers – Indian popular beer – we had with our dinner were definitely a help. But then, around 2 am I woke up and realised that the room was filled with a horrible smell. A smell that reminded of trash and wastewater combined. I tried to cover my head with blanket, but that did not help. I tried to breath through my mouth, but that was not much of a success either. After an hour of suffering and trying to find the source of the bad smell, I decided to wake up Stijn. At least he could smell it too, it was not just hallucinations of my exhausted mind.
We considered our options. We could try to get a new room (that would most likely not happen) or find a new place to stay. As it was the middle of the night and we knew already that Agra does not have great accommodation offers, we went with the first plan. We went down to find a manager, but all we found was the cook (a young 20 years old guy), who was sleeping on an uncomfortable couch, with no blanket on. It almost felt uncomfortable to complain to him. He had been in a deep sleep and it took him a while to understand my request. There was no-one else from the staff, so he did the best he could without the owner being there. He offered us a room next door. Unfortunately the room had the terrible smell too. So we decided to stay in our room and put good smelling items around our pillows. We had a plan to get up at 6 am to see the back side of Taj from a park across the river. The rest of the night I spent half awake, half asleep with my nose in the jar of Tiger Balm and eucalyptus essential oil.
Eventually the morning came and we were “saved by the bell”. This time I was happy to get up so early and get out of the smell chamber as fast as possible. It had been the worst night in India (even the crazy mini-bus drive to Rishikesh seemed not to be able to compete).
The Taj Mahal
We had arranged a tuk-tuk from our guest house to take us to the park Mehtab Bagh. It is located just across the river of Taj Mahal and gives a view to the back side of it. As we had missed our chance to see Taj from inside, we hoped to at least see it from distance. We arrived there about the time the sun was rising. The whole area was foggy. I did not hope to see much. Once we got at the entrance of the park our driver suggested to take a look down the road that was running along the park. You have to pay an entrance fee of 100 Rs to get in the park, but the view down the street was for free. We first got a chai from the local stall, to warm us up after freezing tuk-tuk drive, and then went down the road. We were pleasantly surprised to see Taj so close by and sitting on top of a foggy river. After spending an hour close by the river (it is not possible to get to the river, but the place next to the park is as close as you can get), we decided to see the park too. The dew was covering the grass and the plants, as it was a quite chilly morning. We wondered between the plants and the trees, enjoying the early morning silence with almost no-one around. We also met some puppies, who were hoping to beg a piece of food from us, but unfortunately we had nothing to give them. Even though we did not see Taj from inside, the beautiful morning in the park seemed like an oasis for our eyes and minds. For few hours we could forget the bad road and guest house experience.
Note by Stijn:
Making THE most iconic Taj Mahal photo was not possible, so at first moment I was of course a little bit disappointed. Question though is if I could have done something different or tell a visual more original story when we would visit this very iconic location. In the end, our bad planning made use view the Taj Mahal from a different angle at the best light of the day. Must admit: getting up early to make photos was so far not a great success. But every time we do, it is very rewarding.
This time not different and to my surprise, we were not the only ones. A group of female Arab girls were already present long time before us, following a photography workshop by a leading photographer. All equipped with tripods, I’d had to go for a different story because as usual, I left the small gorilla pod in the room. Not in the photos, because not really appreciated is the military camp that is next to the viewing point. The barbed wire and the look-out post our supposedly there to protect against attacks, terrorists acts and to protect the building and the tourists. Making a photo of the underwear drying on the washing line was immediately questioned and stopped by one of the guards – though in a still friendly way.
To tell our Taj Mahal story, I did look out for the details that made sense for me: the barbed wire keeping us from a distance of the building. The fading fog (and smog) blocking a clear view thus bringing attention to small details in the foreground.
Back to the guest house
When we got back, we finally met the manager. We did not spare our complains this time (mostly we are very European – do not complain directly. By the way Indians complain, they complain on the spot, right away. They complain a lot and they do it nasty – at least the intonations are always very strict. I can not comment the content, though, as my Hindi does not go further than few items on restaurant menu). The owner accepted my complains, but did not believe us. He gave us a whole speech on how he has been a backpacker once, and that he knows what traveling on budget means. That does not really solve the smell problem, does it? I asked, if before the check out time at noon, I can have a nap in another room. He gave another room on the same floor. It had been heavily sprayed with air freshener. Needless to say that my nap did not really work out.
We spent the rest of the day hanging around the guest house. Even tough we did not really like the place, we liked Agra even less. We did not want to see another fort, nor we wanted to spend more money in Agra. Our train was leaving at 8 pm. I had a short nap on the rooftop terrace and walk around the block, but that’s about it. Stijn was doing some work until there was an electricity cut in the whole city. We also got to know more about the owners marital status and his opinion about kids and tv. We still had early dinner in the guest house. About 2 hours before we left there was an electricity cut – all city in darkness. As power cuts are quite common in India, most of the places have generators and batteries to keep the most important machines running. By the time we got to train station the electricity supply was still not reestablished. Station was still working, some screens did not, but without any difficulty we found out that our train was about an hour late. Agra Fort station is not the most pleasant place where to spend 2 extra hours (we got there way too early), but as it was dark and the station area was even less pleasant, we just somehow killed the time until our train showed up. We embarked our night train to Varanasi with a hope to have better days there.
A tip: if you go to Agra and want to see the Taj Mahal from inside, do not go there on Friday. I you stay there for a night, pick a good rated hostel or spare money for a good hotel. The suffering of budget guest house in Agra is not worth it.
Agra will be remembered in our heads by our own made up synonym: Kakgra