Incredible India

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Yes, we did it. We took the exhaustingly long journey to India just to see the Taj Mahal! Granted, we were headed to Kathmandu, Nepal after, but I couldn’t justify going all the way to Nepal and NOT seeing the Taj Mahal in the neighboring country of India. I knew the chances were small that we would ever be that close again.

We landed in New Delhi at midnight on Monday morning (after leaving Atlanta on Saturday afternoon and having a 5-hour layover in Amsterdam). Even though I had already applied before we left and had our E-Tourist visas in hand (which I strongly recommend), we still had to wait in a long and slow line to get our passports stamped. Then, after all that time in line, we still had to wait on our bags from the carousel. Then, after that, we had to wait in another line to exchange our currency. India doesn’t allow foreigners to carry rupees into the country, so we were forced to wait until we got there to exchange. I wouldn’t advise doing this at the airport since commission fees are through the roof, but this was really the only option for us. Another fun fact, because of their recent money troubles, India will only allow foreign tourists to exchange up to 5,000 rupees per person. That meant we could only get about $120 total. I know that sounds like a lot for one day, but I can’t imagine visitors who are planning to stay for longer making that last very long.

After all was said and done, we arrived at our hotel a little before 3am. We took the fastest showers we had ever taken, and after an almost sleepless night, we woke up to catch our ride to the train station at 7am.

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Our train from New Delhi to Agra was less than two hours, and I wouldn’t advise traveling to Agra any other way. Your seats are assigned and the car is air conditioned with a bathroom, although we never visited it. The train serves breakfast (and dinner on the way back) and gave us each a liter of water both ways (bottled water became our best friend).

We arrived at the extremely chaotic train station in Agra, and this is where our guided tour began. I STRONGLY recommend booking with a tour company. Our driver was waiting at the station with our names on a sign, so we were able to quickly leave the loud, screaming line of taxi drivers behind. After explaining to our guide that I really felt we should wait until a little later to see the Taj, for fear of fog, he agreed we would see the Agra Fort first. This was an incredible structure that was built BEFORE the Taj Mahal and is still used by the military today. We walked around for over an hour marveling at the beautiful structure, and only 20% of the complex is open to the general public. This is a MUST-SEE if you are planning to visit Agra. It costs 550 rupees per person, or almost $12 for two people.

Then we made our way over to the Taj Mahal. Our driver let us out as close as he could, but in an effort to preserve the complex, the government won’t allow motorized vehicles within a certain radius. This was no problem, because the weather was in the 60s and breezy, and the walk is quite short. Our guide warned us of pickpocketers and scammers, and was able to shoo away people trying to sell us cheap goods. Once we were at the gate, he went and got our pre-paid tickets from the window. This is another great aspect of having a guide. He knows exactly where to go and who to talk to. If we would have done this on our own it would have been much more difficult. We breezed through the line and made it through “security”, a small walk-through metal detector and quick bag search, in less than two minutes. Based on everything I had read, I was expecting horrible crowds and long wait times. This was the first good surprise of the day for me.

As we walked through the gate, the red colored building above, and had our first, full view of the Taj, I cried. I had prepared myself to see a hazy, smoggy view of the Taj. I had read from countless bloggers that the site was overcrowded, overrated, and smelly. But after months of planning and worrying and thousands of dollars spent and miles traveled, we were finally here at one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and it was perfect. Our day couldn’t have been clearer, the crowds were lighter than a slow day at Disney World, and there were no offensive smells around. So, of course I cried! Our tour guide told me it was OK, and that a lot of people did, unsurprisingly. I’ve read a lot of people say that the scaffolding on the tower takes away from the beauty, but I found myself not even paying attention to that, anyway. I couldn’t take my eyes off the main tomb, which is where all of the beauty is, anyway.

Our guide was incredible. He knew how to take great, professional looking shots. However, he persuaded us to get our pictures taken by a “professional” there, which turned out to be his “uncle”. I’d read about this scheme, but we decided that, since he would give us a CD of the shots, it was worth the time and money. I’m glad we did, because there are several spots, namely the Diana Bench, that would have been impossible to get a picture without the photographer there. He took time to get several poses (although I felt a little awkward with everyone watching), and made sure people didn’t get in the frame. He spent maybe 15-20 minutes and then allowed us to walk around with our guide while he developed the pictures.

If you want to walk in the courtyard area of the Taj, they give you little slip ons to put over your shoes. We had no wait to get inside the tomb. I’ve read about long lines for this, but we walked right in. I kept marveling about how low the crowds were, but our guide didn’t seem to surprised. He said that weekends are usually busy, but coming on a Monday was one of the best days to be there. We walked around the outside of the tomb for a while just staring at the beautiful marble and jewel artwork. I’ve honestly never felt such an unrealistic feeling. The Taj Mahal is really a place that you only read about; you don’t actually think one day you’ll be touching it.

After we left the Taj, per our tour, we were taken to a pre-paid buffet lunch at a local hotel. The hotel was extremely nice and the food was good, too! We then were taken to several local shops where people claim to be 14th generation artisans and that the people who built the Taj Mahal are their ancestors. I’m pretty skeptical, so I didn’t really view these people as super authentic, but the things they made were beautiful. They really sell their stuff, but we walked away empty handed (save a magnet that I bought, after they took us through three other rooms with more expensive items).

Our train didn’t leave until 5:30, so we had almost two hours to kill when we were dropped back off at the train station. Luckily we spotted a sign for “quiet rooms”, rooms for rent while you wait on the train. They are located in an open area on the upper level of the station, far away from the hustle and bustle of the main area. We didn’t rent a room, but we did sit against a wall, unbothered, for a little over an hour before the room-keeper told us we needed to go downstairs if we weren’t renting a room. We didn’t mind, because we had passed most of our time anyway, so we headed down to the train platform.

If I had to give anyone one tip for visiting the Taj Mahal in one day, I would say this. Take a guided tour. If you only have one day in India that you are dedicating to seeing the Taj, try and make it as easy on yourself as possible. We found a tour for $200 total, including driver/guide, attraction tickets, train tickets, and all three meals for the day. It was truly a magical day, and I would advise anyone to take the adventure!

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