First taste of North India: Visiting Taj Mahal

Agra, 15-16 September

Sunday marks a big step in our 7 months on the road. We’re waking up at 5AM to travel 2,500km from Cochin in the south of India way up to Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. While the train to New Delhi takes 3 days (not including delays) our flight takes us there in just 3 hours, after which another 3 hours by train sees us to the home of the Taj Mahal!

While the south of India is known for being pretty easy-going, the north on the other hand is a lot more intense. The same way that Sri Lanka was a great introduction to South India, we figured South India would ease us into Rajasthan/Uttar Pradesh. Let’s hope it does!

Arriving at Delhi airport things already move at a much quicker pace. In less than half an hour we clear security, retrieve our luggage and get on board the metro to the train station. Delhi’s urban area is the second largest in the world and with over 26 million inhabitants it dwarfs Scotland and the Netherlands’ total combined! A milky white veil of smog covers the sky (it might be a nice day, we’re not quite sure?) but we’re not planning on hanging about.

In Alleppey, Yeti, our new friend from Delhi has shared some interesting stories about travelling in the north, which has prepared us at least a little for the scams, poverty and selfies we’re about to encounter at Delhi train station today.

We have already been asked to pose for a few selfies in India, but in the south it was usually families taking photos with us, and we both quite enjoy the idea of randomly ending up in the odd family album. In the north it’s an entirely different game: It’s almost always a guy on his own, or a group of guys, who essentially want to take a picture with Lauren so they can boast about it to others later. On the short walk between the metro and the train station we stupidly agree to one picture with a guy and seconds later we’re being pure fenced in by a crowd of men all waving their phones at us! Not sure where those pictures will end up, not in a family album I suspect. Ah the price you pay for being a famous blogger! 😉

The poverty is a bit more difficult to deal with. Though it’s only midday, being at Delhi train station is like being on the worst imaginable version of a night bus back home: People are lying sprawled out on the ground everywhere, drunks try to talk to you and ask for money, there’s no seats, it smells of raw sewage, and the floors are sticky. Now add to that some serious humidity, heavy bags, selfies, an entirely illogical station layout with severe lack of sign posting and kids following you around begging, that just about sums up the experience.

Similar to the selfies, we’ve been advised to ignore anyone asking for money. Begging is a big business in India, often run by cartels and it is said some beggars go as far as to maim themselves just to make more money, pretty gruesome stuff.. In Sri Lanka, by a local’s example, we’ve given money to the odd beggar, in North India begging is a lot more widespread. Between the time spent at the station and the train journey to Agra alone I’m asked for money by at least ten different people, but clearly it’s only tourists they engage.

Then finally there is scams. Just before the train arrives to Agra, we’re asked for our tickets by a random guy in a shirt, who’s clearly not the conductor. A friendly Sikh we’ve been sharing our carriage with quickly tells him what I assume is something along the lines of: Beat it, these two are with me, as he points to us and then himself, and the guy legs it. Scams are rife in the north so we better get wise to it quickly. The cheekiest one we’ve heard so far is from another tourist who was told to pay 1,000 rupees for a 20 rupee bottle of water!

When we arrive at the hostel we can conclude it’s been a successful day, we’re in Agra!

Taj Mahal

In Agra we’re visiting two major sights, both of them buildings from the Mughal era. First up on our list is the famous Taj Mahal on the banks of the river Yamuna, one of the big ticket items in India and voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Once again we get an early start to our day to arrive at the site before sunrise. Our hostel is a convenient 10 minute walk away from the Taj, which was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, also housing the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. At its height, the Mughal empire was one of the largest empires in the history of South Asia, and the Taj Mahal is definitely impressive!

Taj monkey, a second before it lunged itself at Lauren

Agra Fort

In the afternoon we visit Agra Fort. This was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638. Once in ruins, it was rebuilt in red sandstone by Mughal emperor Akbar by 1573, and later partly remodeled in white marble by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan to match the nearby Taj Mahal.

Tomorrow we’ll be travelling to our first of the three painted cities, Jaipur in Rajasthan!

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