India Day 5: Getting Up Close and Personal With the Taj Mahal

Welcome back, everyone! As you may know from my previous post, today was a big day: my parents and I visited the glorious Taj Mahal!

We started our day at 5:20 AM because we wanted to beat the crowds and the heat. At 6:30, we met our new guide, Masood, who told us which items would be prohibited inside the Taj. Our driver, Rajesh, dropped us at the street entrance of the site around 6:45 AM and we could already feel the humidity. Families of grey monkeys hung out on pink pillars lining the dirt roads we walked up, their babies chasing each other and eating bananas.

Monkeys!

Our excitement mounted as we walked up to an archway of a building that gave us a glimpse of the Taj. I think my heart skipped a beat (that sounds dramatic, but you’ll understand if you’ve been there) when we finally feasted our eyes on this view:

Everyone stopped in their tracks to look!

But I soon realized that this view was nothing compared to what awaited us. I stepped under the archway and suddenly had this breathtaking and picture-perfect vista of the Taj Mahal:

Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

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India Day 4: Drive to Agra & First Glimpse of the Taj Mahal

I already miss Delhi’s thrilling and chaotic streets, rickshaws speeding alongside us! Note the lush greenery lining the road.

This morning, I woke up feeling really disappointed that we were leaving Delhi. It had been an awesome couple of days exploring the city (check out my recap of our final day in Delhi here) and I hadn’t expected to like it so much. However, on today’s schedule was the drive to Agra, which put us one step closer to visiting the Taj Mahal. I didn’t need much convincing to pack up and leave! 

Our time with Vikas, our tour guide in Delhi, was over, but thankfully we still had the same driver. Obviously we don’t know Rajesh well, but it’s been comforting to encounter the same person each time we get into the car; exploring a developing country is clearly much simpler when one has a reliable guide and driver and doesn’t have to worry about personal safety and taxi fares. 

After breakfast and a hassle-free check-out from the Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel in Delhi, Rajesh picked us up and we headed for Agra. I loved seeing Delhi streets on a weekday morning, where passengers in automated rickshaws furiously typed or talked on their iPhones and children in uniforms made their way to school. We passed the Supreme Court of India, where busy-looking men and women rushed down the street in black barrister gowns, arms loaded with papers and books. We shouldn’t have been so surprised to see an equal number of female barristers, but I think something like that is a rare sight in developing countries. Later, we took a bridge over Yamuna River, which had a lot of garbage floating in its murky water but looked like it was once beautiful. From a distance, we saw the majestic Swaminarayan Akshardham, one of the largest Hindu temples today  (see below), as well as the stunning Lotus Temple.

The third-largest Hindu temple in the world! What a splendid site.


We also noticed miles and miles of rice paddies surrounded by straw huts, neither of which I had seen before. About two hours into the drive, we came upon a roadblock where a large electrical wire had fallen onto the highway. It took workers about fifteen minutes to move it off the road safely, and while Rajesh used the time to stretch his legs, many of the other drivers stayed in their cars to continuously honk their horns. Definitely expect constant and aggressive honking if you’re ever in India!

After four hours, we had arrived at our destination: the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Agra. (We glimpsed the Taj Mahal from the main road, and we all fell silent for a moment as we realized exactly what we were looking at. The Taj has such a commanding presence, even from a few kilometres away.)  The hotel’s modern decor was a stark constrast from the city streets, which resembles the “dirty and smelly” part of India that people and guidebooks had warned us about. Cows and goats were everywhere (even on the roads), people in torn clothes rode in carts filled with household materials for them to re-sell, and skinny children sat on the ground with younger children in their laps, wild looks on their faces. Meanwhile, the hotel looks like this:

Beautiful lobby with intricate wall hangings and designs.


It felt wrong walking into such splendour after driving through what felt like slums, a feeling I’m sure many foreigners experience when they stay in Agra. We realized after seeing the city that there isn’t much shopping or eating to be done outside of the hotels, but tomorrow (Saturday) we’ll visit the Taj Mahal at 6:30 AM followed by certain historical sites nearby. Stay tuned for an account of our day!

India Day 3: Lotus Temple, Humayun’s Tomb & a Luxurious Ayurvedic Scalp Massage

I can’t believe it’s our third day in India already. We leave Delhi first thing Friday morning for a weekend in Agra. I’ll miss this loud, chaotic city!

If you’ve read my post from yesterday (find it here), you’ll understand why I was a little  nervous about what our tour guide, Vikas, had planned for us today. Luckily, there were no elephant rides or riding backwards on motorcycles (which I imagine would be as thrilling yet uncomfortable as yesterday’s rickshaw adventure)! On today’s itinerary was a historical tour of New Delhi, concluding with free time at a large mall nearby. Our first stop was a photo op at India Gate, a 1931 war memorial for Indian soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. The arched gate and long stretch of road in front of it took me back to Paris for a few minutes – it’s strikingly similar to the l’Arc de Triomphe and, in some ways, the Champs-Élysées.

Vikas gave us some history about the city’s politics and army, then we made a quick U-turn and parked on the same street in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan, or Presidential Residence. It’s a palatial estate where – you guessed it – the President of India resides. The country has a President and a Prime Minister, but apparently the Pres. has a lot more power and influence.

India Gate could be the little sister of Paris’ l’Arc de Triomphe…

We got a close-up look at the red sandstone of the buildings (such as army offices) surrounding the Presidential Residence. The construction for these structures began in 1911 and finished in 1931 – imagine taking 20 years to complete a set of buildings! It was mainly because the workers back then would have had very few tools to work with; they did almost everything by hand.  Continue reading