From Vrindavan, I took the same train I’d arrived on the night before, meaning I’d planned to stop there for 24 hours. That was a fair amount of time.
As soon as I arrived at the station, I saw the notice that my train was running 20 minutes late. No big deal. What I was concerned about, though, was the notice that they were going to try to cut the train stop down to only 2 minutes, to make up some time. The trains in India are HUGE/LONG. Like 30 cars, at least. This meant that I needed to be in the right spot for my assigned seat, or I’d be walking through the train still when it arrived in Agra.
I asked the ticket collectors’ office, and they seemed to not know. After a bunch of effort, and after me saying, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, if you can just tell me which end, or near the middle, etc.” they determined that my car would be the 4th one from the engine at the far end of the platform. When I walked there, I was extremely glad that I’d asked. It was far!
As the train was approaching, the guy who had given me the information came over to inform me that they’d made a mistake: 4thfrom the other end. Gee, thanks, dude. Your entire job is to know about the trains… He encouraged me to get on and walk through the train, which would be ridiculous. I power-walked and got to my train car as the train was moving out. They don’t really close the doors or monitor anything, so I grabbed it as it slowly trolled by, stepped in, and smiled to myself. “I’m a pro.”
The train car was half-empty, and my assigned seat was next to a group of 4 men, while the next bank of benches was completely empty, so I just sat there. On a 35-minute ride, there was about 0 or less-than-0 chance this could matter. I stretched out and got comfortable.
I should add that, this being my 2nd train ride now, I haven’t had to show my ticket to anyone. No one. Not to get on, not during the ride, not to get into the station—nothing. Super strange.
Upon arrival in Agra, I walked outside, past the first group of people trying to offer me tuktuk rides (this is my new strategy; the first people seem to be the worst) and found someone else. He offered 150 rupees, and I bartered for 120 to get to the area past the East Gate (we were in the Southwest part of town, and the hostel’s info said to aim for 100-120) to Big Brother Hostel. He accepted, we cantered off to his tuktuk, and I settled down inside. “Oh, one more thing,” he says, and my skin crawls. This is where things always turn shady. “There’s a 50 rupee surcharge at night.” I actually laughed. “No, there’s not. 120 rupees, or I find someone else.” I actually got my bags and got out. He chased me down to say 120 rupees would be fine. I made sure we were clearer than clear that I wouldn’t pay this made-up “night surcharge.” Let me know if you’re shocked that he tried to add the 50 to my charge, upon arrival. He claims I’m the first person to not pay it, and that may be true, but the people who fell for it are suckers.
I mentioned this when checking in at the hostel, and they said, “Oh, yeah, the info on the booking page is old. The official price now should be 150, but good for you. You got a deal.” However, they shook their heads at the attempt for a 50 rupee “night surcharge.”
It was definitely a “not busy” time at the hostel. There were 2 Spanish guys in the common room, a French couple who arrived about 30 seconds after me, plus me. The others had booked private rooms, and I was the only person in the 6-bed dorm. I got comfortable, pointed the fan straight at myself, and used multiple plugs to charge everything I had. That opportunity is rare. I set my alarm for 5:30am, to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal / get there before the crowds, and went to sleep after finishing some work shortly thereafter.
When I woke up to my alarm, I just couldn’t do it. I was too exhausted and hadn’t slept well. Everyone needs a down day, and I went back to sleep.
I’d only budgeted 24 hours in Agra, to see the Taj Mahal and the fort before an evening train back up to spend 24 hours in Delhi. That plan had just been turned upside-down, but I needed the extra rest. When I woke up a little after 9, I felt amazing. I showered, got dressed, and decided I’d have to stay another day and skip the 24 hours in Delhi idea. It wasn’t high on my priorities list, anyway, and was mostly just there as a hub to other things I wanted to see. That was easy, and I was out the door.
I started walking toward the East Gate to the Taj Mahal and figured I’d see the center/old city around there, then make it up as I went from there. The amount of tourist-geared hawkers around the gate was incredible but unsurprising. I was also glad to see the government trying to tell people that animal-based entertainment is cruel. This sign made me really happy.
From the East Gate, I turned south to go around the courtyard (north would put me into the river) and came across this ferris wheel that was either under construction or being demolished. It was curious in that “never seen this before” way.
I came across the Sankara Vegis vegetarian restaurant and decided that it was time for brunch. I was definitely the only person there at 10:30am, so the owner chatted with me for a while out of either sheer boredom or actual politeness. Either was OK with me, because I loved his laugh. One of those big, genuine, deep laughs that makes you laugh along. What a guy.
He introduced me to paratha which I’d describe as an Indian quesadilla. It’s awesome.
From here, I decided to continue walking westward, out to Agra Fort, the other major spot in the city. I made a wrong turn and wound up in an alleyway that dead-ends into the South Gate to the Taj Mahal, and the trinket-sellers there were intensely pushy. “Come see my shop,” isn’t very inviting when you’re blocking my path. I don’t think it was intentional malice, but it wasn’t welcoming, and I don’t want souvenirs, anyway.
Let me tell you how much it blew everyone’s minds that I walked to Agra Fort. Their excuses for why I needed a ride (including it being “really far” at 1.2 mi/ 2 km) seem to be mostly based on the idea I keep encountering that people think white people don’t know how to walk. They were honestly stupefied that I wanted to walk. I had to start pretending to be deaf and/or incapable of speaking English, because rickshaw and tuktuk drivers wouldn’t leave me alone for the entire course of the journey.
I passed this overgrown area at the side of the road and heard a TON of birds. I couldn’t spot any of them, but the songs and sounds were everywhere.
As I got close to the fort, I saw this statue and then this amazing sight of a bunch of people riding standing up in the back of a cargo truck as a mode of paid transportation, simply holding onto the sides for balance. Incredible. You’d get pulled over by the police so fast for this in the US.
Agra Fort is bigger than I thought it would be. It’s massive and impressive. It has multiple different buildings for the residence, meeting place, queen’s chambers, who knows what else. It was incredible. I spent a lot of time here just wandering around.
There is even a view out toward the Taj Mahal, which is breathtaking.
I also saw this guy feeding squirrels from his hand. I’ve been reading “Shantaram” (interesting book written by a guy who escaped from prison in Australia, fled to Bombay, and then claims it’s an auto-biography from there, while others say he’s full of it), but one part recently sticks out in this event: things are irreversibly changed, after you get involved. If you teach an animal to feed from your hand, what happens when you’re gone, and the next person the animal approaches isn’t so kind? The same applies to kids or overly-naïve people, etc. I thought of that passage, while watching this.
Also, I saw another Green Lorikeet, to go with the 2 I’d seen above the entrance, when I first entered the fort. They’re gorgeous.
After exiting the Agra Fort, I took a tuktuk back to the hostel. The decorations inside were great. Unfortunately, the driver kept pressuring me to stop at stores and markets along the way. They get commissions for bringing in tourists, and I just wasn’t interested in his sales pitches. “No” didn’t mean “no” for this guy.
I took a nap back at the hostel and then inquired about trains for the next day back to Delhi. The employee talked me into trying a different train than what I’d taken on the way down. I’d been curious about “nice” rides on the trains, just to see the comparison with my other rides, and he mentioned this without me bringing it up. It’s the fastest train in India: the Gatiman Express. It goes Agra-Delhi in 100 minutes, which is less than half of what I spent doing Delhi-Mathura. It only has 1st and 2ndclass, not economy or non-A/C options like the standard trains, and includes a meal. At $11, I figured it was worth checking out, especially since the cost of dinner before the train makes this nearly even. Sign me up!
From here, I walked around on the streets again, around the walls surrounding the Taj Mahal gardens, and had a coffee at a street-side café.
Back at the hostel, they do a nightly vegetarian buffet, cooked by the owner’s “auntie.” They didn’t have it the night before, since there were so few people, but they were planning it for this night, since more people were due to arrive. We waited for this group, and they didn’t come, so the buffet was scrapped. I apparently had a sad look on my face, so auntie decided to make me some Indian dishes anyway. By “some,” I mean a ridiculous amount of food. She made ***, which I’d had at lunch, and forced 3 down my throat. Then, I had some chappati, and I was ridiculously full. I had to put down the plate and exit the common room, because she was trying to cook more food for me. It was delicious, it was free, and my stomach hated me.
A roommate showed up, who was a 50-ish Indian guy. He complained and made them bring in another fan, because the 2 in the room weren’t enough, then he was playing games on his phone (with sounds on), until I asked him to turn it off. Me laying in bed trying to sleep wasn’t clue enough; the manners/lack of on some people continues to astound me. Once he turned off the sounds, I was out like a light, and I’m sure I fell asleep with a smile on my face, thinking of the Taj Mahal.
I woke up to the Indian guy talking in his sleep at 3am and then woke up to his alarm (which didn’t wake him) at 5am and had to prod him awake. The alarm was a mistake; he didn’t need it and went back to sleep. Incredible. My own alarm went off at 5:30, I got ready, and I walked down to the Taj Mahal ticket office, which happens to be the opposite direction from the Taj Mahal when exiting the hostel.
Foreigners pay 1000 rupees (about $14), get a free bottle of water and shoe covers with the ticket, plus a free ride on an extended golf cart, which drops you off at the gate. Indians pay something much less, but they don’t get the ride/water/shoe covers.
There is a men’s & women’s line for security, with this curtain to shield women when being patted down.
After security, I was in the outer courtyard of the complex.
Despite having seen pictures of it and views in movies, the Taj Mahal still caught my breath after entering the inner courtyard. It really is one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
Some great signs. The second seems to imply that you should place your trash in the bin and then chuck the bin through the air. Interesting!
This view is looking back toward the entryway from the pool half-way between. Then looking forward.
Looking back from the front entrance of the Taj Mahal.
Once you go up the steps and onto the white marble around the Taj Mahal itself, that’s where you are required to use the shoe covers. I was only wearing flip-flops, so it was easier to just take them off an carry them. Shoe covers on flip-flops seems like a recipe for falling down (this is me, we’re talking about).
Looking at the Taj Mahal, you’re facing north. The sun was coming up to my right, behind one of the two identical buildings flanking the Taj Mahal.
After going inside (no pictures allowed) and around the perimeter of the Taj Mahal, I could see Agra Fort down the river and a groomed courtyard across the river.
I also noticed that, of the two identical buildings to the sides, the one to the right didn’t have any water in its pool. The one on the left did, and taking pictures was much simpler, with the sun lighting it, rather than being behind it.
I walked around through the courtyard and just looked at everything from different angles. It’s an amazing building, and I kept telling myself that I wasn’t spending enough time here, even though it’s not huge, and I’d seen everything. I felt guilty. It was strange.
Back at the hostel, I took a short nap.
I woke up to auntie bringing me coffee. “Black coffee, for you,” since she remembered that I don’t consume dairy. She then brought me a bowl of chenna—a typical Indian breakfast of beans, chickpeas, onions & spices. It was really delicious and quite simple. I loved it. The hostel employees were baffled, after they found out I’d had a free breakfast, because they hadn’t been offered any food. Auntie took a liking to me, because I love her food so much and ate so much of it. Pro tip: always be nice to the cook!
At this point, the Indian guy in my room was awake and decided to light up a cigarette. In the room. He was completely surprised, when I told him he couldn’t smoke in the room. I didn’t want it, plus I was sure that it was against the rules. I was baffled. Later, when I decided to go out, I realized that the guy had used my flip-flops to go outside the smoke. It’s just amazing what life throws at you sometimes. I had to laugh.
I paid my bill and asked about checking out. Since the hostel wasn’t busy, and they knew my train wasn’t until dinner time, the employees said not to worry about clearing out of my bed or emptying the locker, since they didn’t really need it. The “you’re family here” atmosphere at Big Brother Hostel was one of the best experiences in India so far.
I asked for some tips on peculiar-to-Agra foods that I should try, and one of the employees said that their sweets shops have a lot of unique things, so I decided to look for that after lunch. He said I could find a bunch in the center, which meant walking past Sankara Vegis again, so I wasn’t put-off in the least!
Sankara was actually busy this time, and I shared a table with a Belgian guy, since he was sitting alone, and the other tables were full. He was doing the typical “be vegetarian in India” thing, since the hygiene standards aren’t great, and a bad bit of meat can mess you up much worse than a bad bit of vegetables.
I tried another new food: masala dal. It’s seasoned lentils in gravy. Another successful meal in India. It was delicious and only cost $1.40. Add bread and a soda for another 75 cents.
When leaving, I asked one of the employees to recommend a good sweets shop. He pointed me down some side alleyway that barely looked like a street, and I already knew this was going to be a great sweet shop.
After going through some twists and turns, stepping over sleeping animals, and arriving at the sweets shop, I asked them about dairy products and made some selections. However, I forgot that I hadn’t put any cash in my wallet, and I had about 50 cents left after lunch. Oops.
I promised to return and set off to grab some of the cash from my locker at the hostel. I thought I could shortcut through the alleyways, if I kept going northeast, and that turned out to be a really terrible idea. I got completely lost in the vegetable market.
After finally making it to my hostel and getting cash, I decided to go the long way around, since I didn’t even know the name of the street where the sweets shop is located. When I returned, covered in sweat, they wanted to know what had happened. “Lost in the vegetable market” produced some laughs and made a lot of sense to them. Hey, I’m a firungi (foreigner); I should’ve known better than to attempt a shortcut through nameless streets, but I saw some new things. Silver lining.
Sweets in hand, I walked the long way back to the hostel and sat down to try them out. The owner’s son was around (who had declared himself the “new manager” the night before), and I let him pick one to try. I had gotten 3 each of 4 different things, so we tried his choice at the same time. It was a ball made of dates, raisins, and seeds. It was really delicious, though crumbly and messy. We both enjoyed it.
Since I’d been sweating a bunch and would be traveling that night, I took a shower and then played around killing time, until it was time to take a tuktuk to the train station for my “fancypants” train to Delhi.
Agra was great to me. The hostel, the employees there, the food, and the sights were all awesome and provided some unforgettable memories. I’ve seen 5 out of 7 Wonders of the World now, and each one has been filled with amazing experiences and memories. Agra packed them in all the way through the end; I passed a parade of dancing Vishnu devotees going down the street, en route to the train station.
Next up: to Delhi for a flight to Bombay.
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