Our room in the Hilton Garden Inn was very nice, with good internet and a big shower with a lot of water volume. After getting used to the low flow showers on the ship, the high flow shower in a hotel feels like you are standing under Niagara Falls.
We headed down to the $15 breakfast buffet which was excellent. It wasn’t really a breakfast buffet despite looking like a breakfast buffet. The food was all on display in the round silver serving containers, with the lids that lift up, but as soon as you grab a plate and start to look at some of the food, helpful staff will take your plate and insist on dishing up the food for you. There was a “eggs to order station” and I was unable to even speak with the cook myself as you normally do, the helpful waiter insisted on having me tell her what I wanted and she would take care of it. I surrendered to their service and at this point I simply told the waiter what I wanted, as if I was ordering off a menu, returned to my seat and waited. A few minutes later my food arrived and it was very, very good.
Today’s plan was to drive to Agra, arrive around 1pm, meet our guide – see the Agra Fort, dinner and then attend the full moon night viewing of the Taj Mahal.
A little after 9 am our bus and driver were waiting outside the hotel and we were off entering into the wacky world of New Delhi traffic. Traffic is busy and crazy, as we have come to expect, but in about 20 minutes we are on an expressway where the traffic was very light. The road to Agra is a 3 lane limited access highway all the way but since the speed limit for our class of bus was 60 KPH (37 mph) it was going to take us 4 hours to get there. If we were travelling in a sedan, we could get there in half the time. Motorbikes were going even slower, maybe 30 mph, and they were generally riding on the shoulder.
We would often see more than 2 people on a motorbike with 5 being the most we observed: The father was driving the bike with a 5 year old straddling the gas tank, his 3 year old right behind him and Mom behind him sitting sidesaddle while holding an infant. Only the father was wearing a helmet and the tike straddling the gas tank was not even wearing eye protection. At first we would scramble to photograph what we assumed was a rare event. We found out later it was quite common and we would see at least a dozen motor bikes with 5 people on the way to Agra. Small motorcycles are everywhere in Asia and the ability to load them up with a lot of people and cargo never ceases to amaze. India, however, is unique in how many people they can put on a motorbike, as we didn’t see more than 3 people per bike while in Indonesia, Cambodia or Vietnam.
Whenever we saw a sign prohibiting some activity, we would usually see someone doing exactly that in a few minutes. There was a sign on the highway prohibiting public urination. Well, a mile down the road, an intercity bus was parked on the side of the road with 8 men urinating into a ditch. There were rest stops every 20 miles so we didn’t really understand why this was necessary.
After 2 hours we stopped at a rest area, which had restrooms, a quick order restaurant and people selling ice cream and snacks. Pretty much what you would expect at any rest area on a limited access highway. There was a small girl dressed in a beautiful costume dancing energetically to the music being played by her father (we learned later). She was quite popular and was doing a pretty good business collecting tips from the tourists.
Two hours later we arrive in Agra, which is a bustling city of over 2 million. But without any skyline, it wasn’t obvious that the city was that large when we approached by the expressway. We made a brief stop along the side of the road and our Agra guide, Islam Ahmed, hopped on board. He has been a guide in Agra for over 15 years and we would come to appreciate just how good he was over the next 2 days.
Our first stop was the Agra Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 1.5 miles northwest of the Taj Mahal. While described as a fort, it is really more of a walled city as it contained many other structures within the large, red exterior walls. The Mughals built this fort around 1573 after 8 years of construction.
Admission to the fort is 250Rs ($4 USD) but since we bought our Taj Ticket at the same time the total price was 1000Rs ($15 USD) which saved us from waiting in the longer ticket lines at the Taj Mahal.
Here at Agra Fort we first encountered the security typical for most of the Indian historical sites. There was always a metal detector, that may or may not be turned on and there wasn’t any effort to have you remove any metal items so you were typically patted down or wanded depending on the site. If the site required more aggressive pat downs, there would be a separate line for women and they would be inspected behind a screen. Cigarettes were normally banned and you were prohibited from even carrying them inside most monuments. Your bag may or may not be inspected, but there is usually a table available for inspection if they are doing them. Cameras are always allowed, but video cameras required paying a 25Rs (50 cents) video fee at some sites. The Taj Mahal has the most restrictions, but more on that later.
We spend a little over 2 hours exploring Agra Fort with the help of our guide who accompanied us every step of the way. Our guide, Islam, was also an expert photographer and he knew the best spots to take pictures. He was able to handle multiple cameras with ease. The guides cost about 1500 Rs ($24 USD) per day and are worth every penny. Our guide was arranged thru our Tour Company with the price arranged in advance. Many guides were offering their services on the spot and I don’t have any idea about what they charged. I would recommend getting your guides in advance thru a tour company as they probably know the best ones and the ones that can’t get tour company business are probably the ones hanging around the entrances.
We were all surprised that we could see the Taj Mahal so clearly from the Agra Fort. I had this misconception that the Taj Mahal was further outside the city and was hidden from view except when much closer.
Our guide also knew a few of the workers who took us “behind the scenes” into the Queen’s bath where the ceiling and walls were covered with small mirrors. They turned off the lights and held up candles which created an amazing effect as the small mirrors appeared to dance about as the candle lights shimmered.
By now it was 3:45 pm and we headed off for a late lunch/early dinner at a restaurant called a Pinch of Spice This restaurant was chosen by our guide so I am sure he gets a referral fee and the place caters to tourist which is fine by us. Since we are tourists, we like places that cater to tourists. We also have no problem with the guide getting a commission as long as the restaurant is good and the Pinch of Spice was outstanding. We all ordered different items, but when the food arrived, we realized that the amount of food was easily double what we needed. If you go to this restaurant, order a variety of selections to share – you won’t be disappointed. Everything we ordered was outstanding. If you are in a hurry, you should probably go elsewhere, as the entire meal took 90 minutes. Since we weren’t in a hurry we took our time eating and drinking. You could probably go faster but make your schedule known when you enter.
If you don’t want to go to a tourist restaurant then you need to research where you want to go in advance. Getting a local recommendation that isn’t influenced by commissions is impossible. If you select your own restaurant, make your choice clear up front to your guide and tour agency.
We were staying at the Doubletree Hotel and checked in around 5:30. Once again the hotel was isolated from the street by a massive wall and gate, security guards inspected all the vehicles. We entered the hotel through airport style metal detectors and X-ray machines. Every floor had a security guard roving around constantly.
The hotel is less than 2 years old with all suite rooms so it was very modern and comfortable. They advertise that some rooms have a view of the Taj Mahal, our room was one of them, but was fairly distant and as we learned later, the Taj Mahal is not illuminated at night, so after sunset, the Taj Mahal disappears.
We were off to do some shopping at 6:30 pm but again we were not specific about what type of shopping we were looking for so we went to a marble “factory” selling very nice items made from marble and then a rug shop which included a demonstration of their rug making technique. A few sales were made in the marble factory and nothing in the rug factory. We did get some complementary beverages and watching their sales pitches is entertaining and oh so predictable, but it was only an hour and the stores were air-conditioned. If you absolutely, positively don’t want to go to places like this, you need to make it clear to the tour company in advance and to your guide. Whether or not this lost commission opportunity affects their pricing is unknown to me. After these two shops we insisted to go to a tourist shop so we could get some post cards, T shirts and other things emblazoned with the image of the Taj Mahal for souvenirs.
We were back in our rooms around 8:45 and had a chance to rest and freshen up before our 11:30 pm pickup to see the Taj Mahal during the full moon. The Taj is only open for viewing at night 5 days a month – on the date of the full moon, 2 days before and 2 days after. We didn’t realize untill that evening that the Taj Mahal is not illuminated at night so without a full moon there wouldn’t be much to see.
Seeing the Taj Mahal for these night viewings requires purchasing a ticket 24 hours in advance. Tickets for the next evening go on sale at 10am the day before and you can only buy them in person in Agra. So unless you will be in Agra the day before, you really need to have a tour company involved who can arrange for you guide to pick up the tickets and then you will reimburse him when you finally meet. They only have eight 30 minute viewing times each evening with a limit of 50 people per viewing slot. Our viewing time was 12 midnight to 12:30 AM which is the last viewing of the evening. Your guide will need a copy of your passport (or maybe some other acceptable ID) in order to purchase night viewing tickets on your behalf. The tickets will have your named printed on them so they can’t be used by someone else and yes, they do verify the name – carefully. Be sure to bring your passport or some other form of government issued ID to the night viewing.
The security for a night viewing is extreme. No video cameras are allowed, no mobile phones are allowed – only cameras – and they mean – only cameras (not the cameras on the iPads). After a short ride from our hotel to the Taj Mahal entry point we entered a small building with x-ray machines and metal detectors. We were advised to leave everything on the bus and we were glad we did, since everything, purses, bags, you name it were not allowed and would have to be checked. Once past the metal detectors guards patted us down, having us empty our pockets and scrutinize everything. There is a long list of banned items and even things not on the list – lipstick – were not allowed. To make it simple – only bring a still camera and leave EVERYTHING else on the bus or back in your room. These restrictions are only for the night viewing, the day time view still has plenty of restrictions, but not as many as the night viewing – lipstick is OK in the daytime. Flags and banners are always banned as I suspect they don’t want people protesting or taking protest pictures on the Taj Mahal Grounds.
After we cleared security, we boarded a Taj Mahal Shuttle bus and were transported about ¾ of a mile to the entrance to the Taj Mahal. At this point, the Taj remains hidden by another building called the darwaza which is a monumental structure, built primarily of marble, and is the official entrance to the Taj Mahal which is still 500 meters away on the other side of the reflecting pool. There are dim lights marking our path as well as inside the Main Gate building. After passing thru this Gate we were on the viewing platform facing the Taj Mahal which was almost invisible at this point until they turned off all the lights in the area. To our surprise, the Taj Mahal is not illuminated and the moon appeared behind us over our shoulder and not behind the Taj Mahal.
Once the lights are off, and our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, the Taj Mahal appears more and more prominent under the light of the full moon. It was a little more smoky around Agra than normal because tonight was the evening they burn the bonfires (intended to destroy evil spirits) celebrating the Holi – which is a holiday in India where they celebrate colours and spring. .
This is not the time to try and figure out how to take night shots with long exposures with your camera. If you plan on doing a night viewing, play with all your settings during a full moon at home to figure out what works best for you. Have your spouse practice being a tripod so you can stabilize your camera on their shoulder for an exposure up to 1 minute or longer. A few people tried a flash to no effect and others tried selfies with equally poor results. There are techniques were you can use a flash followed by a long exposure, but without tripods these are difficult to pull off. Practice your technique at home so you will know what does and doesn’t work with your camera.
Judy took a few shots with her steady hand, one of which is shown here:
Seeing the Taj Mahal under these conditions is eerie as it appears to glow in the distance and is very quiet with only 50 people in the area. After a few minutes taking photos, the crowd grew silent and everyone simply stared at this magnificent building absorbing the majesty of the moment.
The lights on the main building were turned back on to signal our time was up. We headed back to the small Taj Mahal busses and were driven back to the security point where we retrieved our checked items (lipsticks) and boarded our own tour bus.
At 12:45 am we were are back on our bus and by 1 am we were back in our rooms. We will meet our driver again at 6AM for our daytime viewing of the Taj Mahal. Time to get some sleep!
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