India Trip 2018 - Days 13 - 15, August 16 - 18, Agra

So this blog post will be a little different.  I am going to write a separate blog post entirely dedicated to our 3 'visits' to the Taj Mahal ( which you can find here: Taj Mahal blog ), and as they form a large chunk of the 3 days we spent in Agra I will condense the 'non-Taj' events of those days into this 1 blog post.

50R=NZ$1

 

Day 13 - Fine, thunderstorms, 33°C

We got up at 8m and had breakfast at the hotel.  The hotel is built around 2 sides of a courtyard, on 3 levels, with the restaurant in the courtyard itself.  We ordered our cornflakes and toast, and milk coffee and tea, and sat pretty much by ourselves.  I am not sure if the other guests were at the Taj Mahal for sunrise or sleeping in.

We headed out about 9:30am to find an ATM and also to find a doctor to give me my next Rabies vaccine ( the vaccines were being stored in the drinks fridge at our hotel, just behind the cans of Pepsi ).  We walked through the Taj Genj area and couldn't find a doctor even though everyone we asked said there was one, but no one knew exactly where.  In the end we found a doctor but it appeared to be a physiotherapist or something similar.  After waiting for a few minutes the doctor came out and when we said what we needed he said he couldn't do that for us as it wasn't his area of expertise.  I was actually glad to hear this as it gave me some confidence in the Health System over here, as I am sure there are some countries where for a few dollars he would have 'given it a go'.

Anyway we kept wandering around and finally made our way to the edge of Taj Genj where there is a roundabout with a gold statue of a man on horseback in the middle.  We found an ATM that worked ( we had passed a few that didn't already ) and drew 2 lots of 10,000R ( 10,000R is the limit per withdrawal, but there doesn't seem to be a limit on the number of withdrawals ).  As an aside ATM's in India are generally in a little 'lobby' with a door to the outside and with air conditioning.  The lobby is normally only big enough for the machine itself, a couple of people and the security guard who sits in a chair next to the machine.  I get the impression the security guard job doesn't pay well, but comes with a chair and air conditioning which makes it attractive.

So after getting some money I found a hospital nearby on google maps so we thought that would be a better bet for getting my injection than a doctor, so we grabbed an auto rickshaw ( AR ) and headed to Amit Jaggi Hospital, which was about 10 minutes away.  On the way we passed the road that had the Radison and those types of hotels, so we gathered we were heading to the good part of town.  We got to the hospital and were shown into a separate waiting area away from the locals and I explained to the doctor what I needed.  He looked like he knew what he was doing and a few minutes later we were done.  I assume this hospital was private as I had to pay 550R for the injection, but I didn't mind too much.

Our AR driver had waited for us ( he actually came in a tried to help explain what we needed, but we had it covered with sign language ) and so he took us back to the Hotel at about 11:30am and we paid him 500R.

We rested for a bit and headed out for lunch at 1:30pm to the Saniya Hotel which had a rooftop restaurant with the best view of the Taj Mahal, but is tucked down a side alley and was tricky to find.  After climbing the usual maze of stairs and corridors we arrived on an open roof with no shade, but as we were turning around to head back down to find somewhere for lunch with some shade we heard the waiting staff call to us from under the shadow of a covered piece of rooftop.  We grabbed a seat ( we were the only ones there ) looking across the rooftops to the Taj Mahal.  Even from this distance it looked pretty impressive shining in the sun, and we just sat and ate our curry and stared. We had a Malai Kofta from memory, which has become our go to curry.  It consists of balls of cottage cheese ( normally 2 ) with herbs in a cashew / tomato mild curry.  A point to note is that unless you are eating at a restaurant that is trying to 'westernise' it's menu you won't see the word curry anywhere, they are just sauces.

We headed back to the hotel after lunch to rest and cool down; the humidity seemed worse than normal today, and we could see that storm clouds were bubbling up over Agra.

We left the hotel at 3pm and walked the 150m to the ticket office at the West Gate of the Taj Mahal.  This gate is the one most used by tourists as the ticket office is near the entrance itself and there is a dedicated carpark for coaches etc.

I will cover this part of the day in a separate blog post ( along with the rest of our Taj Mahal experiences ) which you can find here: Taj Mahal blog
 

We arrived back at the hotel at 7pm and then went for tea in the central square of Taj Genj at Sankara Vegis, more curries and beers ( again these were 'special drinks' served in tea cups ) for 700R.  We asked the owner about not having a license to serve beer and he said it was very expensive to get a license ( and it seemed to require 'under the table' payments as well ) in the region of 10,000R per month, which would require a lot of sales to justify.

Back to the hotel at 8:30pm after a satisfying day having visited one of the wonders of the world.  Another early start in the morning as we had arranged a driver to take use to Mehtab Bagh for sunrise as the Taj Mahal was closed on Fridays.

 

Day 14 - fine, 31°C

The alarm went off at 4:45am ( after a poor sleep due to the air conditioning unit developing a sudden loud rattle ) and we got ready and left the hotel at 5am. Again we had to wake the staff guarding the door / asleep on the lobby couches to let us out the door to meet our driver.  We had arranged him with the guy on reception last night, and it turns out the same guy was actually our driver ( he also runs a gift shop and a couple of AR's as well ).  For 1100R he was going to drive us to Mehtab Bagh and wait for us, and then bring us back.  So we headed off through the quiet streets and across the Yamuna River, through some areas where people were living under plastic sheets and right next to them were nice looking 2 storey houses, and arrived at the gates to Mehtab Bagh at 5:30am.  We had originally hoped to shoot from the river bank ( and avoid having to pay to enter Mehtab Bagh ) but the river was quite high and we couldn't get along the bank. So we waited for the gates to open.

I will cover the next hour in my blog about the Taj Mahal, which can read here: Taj Mahal blog

We got back to the hotel at 6:45am and on the way back we arranged for our driver to take us to Delhi in a couple of days time ( Sunday ) for 4500R.

We rested in the room for a while then grabbed some breakfast at 8am.  We booked another night at the hotel ( we originally booked 3 but we now wanted to stay 4, and at the same time the hotel staff said they wanted to move our room as the air conditioning unit had become very noisy.  So we moved our bags into a different ground floor room that was much the same as our original one but without the noisy AC ( but it was still very breezy with it running ).

Rest time again.

At 9:00am we grabbed an AR to Agra Fort and battled the hawkers and guides on the way to the ticket booth.  I had to stand in the way of someone who was constantly bothering Liz in the effort to sell her a trinket of some sort, but surprisingly when I stood in his way he stopped.

We bought entry tickets ( 550R each ) and went through the security line.  I was told I couldn't take in my little mini tripod ( all tripods are banned from a lot of sites in India ) but I just buried it deeper in my bag and made it through the next line of security with no problems.  

We walked around the Fort, which is a mix of an older style defensive fort and a newer palace, and a mix of red sandstone and white marble.  It is laid out on the familiar pattern of courtyards with small pavilions and buildings in them, and the main living area looked out over the Yamuna River and to the Taj Mahal in the distance.  It is sad to say but we are a bit over forts at the moment as we have seen so many amazing ones in the last week and a half, and Agra Fort wasn't anything special for us at this stage, even though it is still pretty impressive.  We left the Fort at 10:30am and back to the hotel by AR.

We went to Joneys Place for lunch of pakora, cheese cutlets and mango juice ( more about mango juice later ). Joneys Place is a small 15 seat restaurant which uses the smallest kitchen I have ever seen.  It is about the size of a wardrobe, and at times they have 2 chefs in it working together.

Taj Genj was a very quiet place with the Taj Mahal being closed, so it was nice just walking around without many tourists around.  And most of the locals were dressing in their prayer outfits going about their business, which overall gave the place a very calm feeling.

After lunch it was back to the hotel for a bit then out again; this time we headed to Subhash Bazaar which is located near Agra Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque.  This bazaar ( and the other bazaars that have different names but seem to overlap ) was a proper 'working bazaar' and did not have any tourist shops, nor did we have many shop owners trying to lure us into their stores which is normally the case in the areas that tourists go.

After walking up and down various streets, watching donkey's carrying rocks and gravel, having children follow us because they were curious about what we were doing and experiencing the busyness of a market on a Friday we walked back towards where we started and passed by the Jama Masjid mosque.  As we were looking at the mosque from the outside one of the 'caretakers' signalled for us to come in.  So we took off our shoes ( not good for the feet on the hot red sandstone ) and I donned a wrap around skirt as I had shorts on, and we were given a 20 minute tour of the mosque and what goes on inside.  The guide was very friendly and open about Islam and was happy for us to ask questions and take photos.  Of course he subtly asked for a 500R donation to go towards the upkeep of the mosque which we were happy to pay.

We left the mosque ( after ditching the skirt and putting on shoes ) and grabbed an AR back to the hotel, arriving at 4pm.

At about 6pm we went for a walk down past the West Gate of the Taj Mahal and we were checking out the signboard for the ticket counter opening times for the next day when a man told us it was closed today, and offered to show us somewhere to take photos for the sunset.  I knew there would be a fee involved but he was very polite and seemed genuine about wanting to show us some things so we followed.

He took us down the side of the Taj Mahal outer wall and through a gate into a large garden area.  He explained that this was where he and 2 other gardeners lived / worked to raise plants for the Taj Mahal complex, and that this was originally part of the Taj Mahal and was open to the public, and in fact he showed us a gate that used to be one of the public access points into the Taj Mahal which is now closed ( but I presume that he uses it to get in ).  The outer wall of the Taj Mahal complex is also the rear wall of the mosque on this western side, and we had a nice view of the domes of the mosque and the Taj Mahal shining in the sun.  We walked through the gardens to a building by the river which was used to house the body of Mumtaz Mahal ( who the Taj Mahal was built for ) while they were building her final resting place.

As we walked down to the river there was a troop of monkeys roaming around and our guide shooed them away and they didn't really seem that bothered by us being there.  At one stage while I was taking photos on the edge of the river 3 monkeys walked between me and where Liz and our guide were standing ( about 3m away ) without appearing to be interested in me at all.

Our guide also showed is the raised aqueduct that was built to take water from the river into a large storage tank and then into the Taj Mahal complex to feed the fountains and water features.

We took some photos then walked back up to the gate, gave our guide 300R which is all we had in small change and we left the garden.

As we walked back up towards the West Gate there was a group of monkeys on one of the adjoining roofs and there seemed to be a bit of a fight going on.  Then the lead male of the troop chased another monkey across our path, so to avoid getting involved in their scrap we waited and stayed back a bit.  Once things had settled down we started to slowly walk up the road with the monkeys on either side, but out of our way.   Then for no particular reason one of the females and one of the juveniles decided that they didn't like us and ran toward us screeching.  This then started the rest of the group getting aggressive including the lead male.  Given that we had nothing in our hands with which to defend ourselves, and we both had bags with our camera gear in them which we really didn't want the monkeys to get, the best I could do was yell at them to try and scare them off.  This made them stop and think, and thankfully none of them decided it was worth the risk of attacking.   Eventually after a bit of a stand off we managed to slowly retreat away from them and they didn't follow us any more.  Then one of the guards from the Taj Mahal, who was on the wall above us, called out to us to see if we were ok, and then started throwing stones to get the monkeys moving away.

This was one of the scariest experiences of the trip, and whilst we had seen a lot of monkeys around ( more in Agra than anywhere else ) they had always kept their distance and we had never had any bother.  That said we had seen people attacked by monkeys in Angkor Wat, normally because they were carrying food, so we knew that they could be pretty aggressive, unpredictable and very fast.

We finally managed to get back up to the West Gate and headed back to the hotel.  On the way we passed an English couple heading down the way we had come and they asked if there was anything to see down there,  We told them that the area down there wan't accessible to the public without a guide like we had, and that there were some aggressive monkey's down there as well.  They decided to head down the path to see what they could see and we went back to the hotel.

We headed out for tea at Joinus rooftop restaurant ( up another 4 flights of steep stairs, and almost through the kitchen ) and sat and watched the light fade after sunset.  Curries and 'sneaky' beers were ordered, and then the couple we had seen earlier joined us on the roof.  We were talking to them about their trip; they had just started a 6 month trip ( 6 weeks in India then to SE Asia and through to Australia ), and I said that if they could handle 6 weeks in India then SE Asia would be easy.  We also talked about where we had been, and the flooding that was currently happening in Kerala ( where they were hoping to go soon ) and the joys of being scammed in India.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel at 8:30pm, ready for another early start.

 

Day 15 - fine, hot, 33°C

Another 4:45am alarm, left the hotel at 5:15am and walked to the West Gate ticket office for our sunrise session at the Taj Mahal. Again I will cover this visit in this separate Taj Mahal blog post:  Taj Mahal blog
 

We got back to the hotel at about 7am, chilled had breakfast at 8am.

We caught an AR at 10am to the "Baby Taj" ( properly called Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula ), 300R each for entry ( our AR driver was waiting for us for a 400R round trip ), and we walked in through the tomb and around the grounds.  The Tomb sits in the middle of an area of paths and gardens which backs onto the Yamuna River, and looks across to downtown Agra on the other side. We had a brief chat with some of the maintenance crew when they asked where we were from, and then started talking about famous cricketers they new from NZ.   All in all it is a pretty impressive tomb with some stunning exterior panelling.  We headed back to the AR and back to the hotel at 11:15am

We were pretty worn out after a couple of early mornings so we snoozed for the rest of the morning and headed out to Joneys Place for lunch at 2pm.  We had some pancakes and more of the fresh mango juice.  The mango juice was very nice, but both of us felt a little queasy after drinking them, and we think this was the source of what was to come for both of over the next couple of days.  

We had a wander around some of the back streets of the Taj Genj area, and headed back to the hotel at 3:30pm and rested.

And we finished the day by have dinner at Sakara Vegis again ( 750R ) then back to the hotel.