GUEST ARTICLE: After a 3-day visit to Delhi we began our 4-day road trip with our hired car and trusty driver Bunti. Our first stop was to Agra, the home of the famous Taj Mahal. As soon as we left the city we could already tell that this wasn’t going to be your typical road trip and we couldn’t have been more right. What should have taken us a few hours to drive a mere 200kms ended up taking us an exhausting ‘but’ interesting six hours!
As soon as we left Delhi the ever-present dust seemed to get a lot worse along with the congestion of people and traffic and non-stop honking. And to think we had thought we’d seen some pretty bad traffic jams in our time. All I can say is until you experience it in India thank your lucky stars baby! Along the way we would have to stop and pay small road toll fees. At every one of these stops we could count on our car being immediately flanked by either a cobra snake charmer, monkey handler or someone just trying to sell homemade goods. It was pretty amusing at first but I have to say after the 5th time or so it started to get on my last tired nerve. We soon learned the wave away gesture to take care of that!
The highway held many interesting sights of transportation. We saw elephants, camels, donkeys, goats, sheep, buffalo, man-made-trucks, overstuffed motor tuk tuks and of course plenty of cows and dogs. Fortunately it wasn’t long before we entered the countryside where we saw women dressed in beautiful brightly colored saris collecting firewood or swathing thick grasses in lush farm fields. Quite a dangerous job I thought with all the poisonous snakes and wild tigers about. Bunti told us these workers would only get about 100 rupee per day, that’s only $2.50AUD.
Our driver also told us that there were also some very poisonous lizards to watch out for. Unfortunately this is an untruth but fervently believed by quite a few Indian people. In reality there are only 2 poisonous lizards in the world and none that are found anywhere near India. These ‘mythical’ discussions would occur quite frequently but out of respect and to encourage a smooth ride we would just nod our heads and smile. To each his own?
During the trip we asked Bunti if we could stop at one of the little confectionary pit stops along the highway to grab a soda. He told us that for our own safety we probably should wait until we got to a more trustworthy establishment due to the amount of soda ‘fakes’ being sold out there. We weren’t sure if this was another fabrication but after hearing his passed on stories of people getting sick or finding cockroaches in their drink we decided to wait it out….?!
Although our roadie turned out to be long one it was very interesting to learn about Bunti’s views on life. In particular about his Indian culture, the strict caste system they abide by and their detestation towards other countries and some they even hold accountable for the way their society runs today. Religion is also held very dear and there are many of them but the main one practiced is Hinduism.
India is a secular republic and according to Bunti who is Christian but holds Hindu values? Says that people generally tolerate each other but never venture outside of their group-‘that could be deadly.’ And after reading the local paper every day I would agree. There wasn’t one day that went past when I didn’t read about an ‘honor’ killing or ‘caste’ killings. It would appear under all of the friendly head wagging and generous handshakes one really had to watch their back and try not to step out of their little circle, pretty scary if you ask me but the norm in India so it would seem.
So after 6 long hours we finally arrived in Agra. The streets didn’t seem as dusty as they were in Delhi but the traffic was just as thick and there seemed to be more wandering cows on the roads. The cows we found out are sacred and revered like gods. We asked Bunti what would happen if we were to accidentally hit one of them and he very bluntly said we would be in some serious public fist to cuffs trouble, yikers! And judging by the way the cows lounged around and took their sweet ass time on the roads I think they knew this too!
We checked into our little piece of quite calm paradise at the Gateway Hotel. Our room was excellent and we even had a great view of Agra and the Taj Mahal located not too far away. After a quick bite to eat we excitedly headed out to explore the infamous Taj Mahal.
The parking lot to the Taj is located about a kilometer away so we heard we would have to either walk or hire some transportation. As soon as we pulled into the parkade and turned off the car. We had a cart with a donkey, a tuk tuk and a man with a camel line up beside our car. They each tried a hard sell on us but we managed to squeeze by and get to the ticket office. But after buying our ticket we were immediately flocked by ‘official’ tour guides! Jeeze! Fortunately we didn’t fall for the transport scam because there was a free bus shuttle included in our ticket.
After a short shuttle ride we entered through the beautiful main gateway and before we knew it we were looking at one of the 7th Wonders of the World. The Taj is an exquisite marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved third wife who died when she was only 38 while giving birth to his 14th child. It is the finest piece of Mughal architecture ever built. Construction started in 1632 and took around 20 years to build. It is estimated to have cost $32 million rupees to build .. at that time!
The Mughal Gardens surrounding the place are beautifully done and the reflecting pools making the view even more picturesque. As we neared the Taj it just became even more extraordinary to look at. With little cloth booties on our feet to protect and help shine the marble floors we ascended the stairs to the main structure. The intricate carvings and incredible detail to every part of the Taj was just incredible. The time and effort to achieve something so exceptional really is just mind-boggling.
It was about 4 in the afternoon and the Taj was bathed in a warm glow of sunlight, this made the gems inlaid in the marble sparkle. We heard that it was a real sight to see at night under a clear sky and full moon. The inside wasn’t as big as we had thought but was filled with more exquisite inlaid gem artwork and marble carvings. Behind the Taj flows the Yamuna River, sister to the Ganges. And on either side are two giant red sandstone structures, one is a mosque and the other they think used to be a guesthouse.
Fortunately for us there weren’t that many people there that day. Maybe it could have had something to do with the +37C heat! Let me tell you when that marble heats up, wowsers! Luckily there were plenty of shady areas to take a breather. And plenty of opportunities to take some fantastic photos. In the end we did end up hiring a tour guide, although later we found out some of his story didn’t quite fit the facts…mmm.
Overall our Taj Mahal experience was a big two thumbs up! Definitely lives up to its reputation and then some. My only advice would be to stay in Agra if you want to visit the Taj. Back at our hotel in Delhi we had heard about day trips to the Taj Mahal that you could take. After that long arduous 6-hour journey I think you’d have to be crazy to do that twice in one day, no way!
We decided to stay just one night in Agra and the next day continued on to the infamous Pink City – Jaipur.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!