Taj Mahal is the most famous attraction of India, it goes without saying. I just couldn't miss it during my hectic stay in this country. After visiting the tropical south: Visakhapatnam, Kerala and the paradise Lakshadweep Islands, I arrived in New Delhi. Now I had to get to Agra, where the famous Taj Mahal is located, so quite a long ride in a pre-booked taxi was awaiting me. I traveled with an Indian family throughout this vast country and it was a really good chance to meet the culture, customs and habits from the inside. The taxi was a mini van, really comfortable and air conditioned (which helped to endure the heat).
From New Delhi to Agra
New Delhi was a really modern city, there was still contrast between old and new, but not as strong as in other parts of south-eastern India. You can read more about my visit to New Delhi here. Also, the landscape was much drier and not as lush green as in Kerala, for example. The drive from New Delhi to Agra takes around 3 hours, the highway is a bit bumpy as it is composed of some sort of concrete panels and you feel exactly where one ends and the other starts, just like on a train. Along the way, when we left the urban area, the countryside emerged. It was mainly flat and extremely dusty with a few trees here and there. During a short break, I tried some local grilled chicken, although the surroundings weren't very encouraging to eat, as long as the food is high-temperature treated it should be safe.
What's interesting, while my nearly 3-week stay in India, I never got sick or poisoned. I observed a few interesting things when traveling through Indian roads, first, most of the cars, at the back, have signs saying: Blow horn. And, believe me, the drivers really do! As the driving rules are 'a bit' crazy for someone from the west, this helps to warn others when one approaches a turn. I also noticed many trailers carrying dozens of people and even children who were sometimes waving at us. In the west, you would surely lose your license and ended up prosecuted.
If you don't have a taxi or a car, you can travel using the frequent train services. And, travel by train in India is fun! I spent 36 hours on a train from Visakhapatnam to Trivandrum. More info on Wikitravel: http://www.wikitravel.org/en/Agra
Upon arrival in Agra, the contrast became more obvious again. Brand new hotels made of glass, cafes and restaurants among enormous chaos, mess, cows, crowds and poverty. Our hotel was middle range, with a view over a busy road, literally covered with billboards and all kinds of advertisements. It was dark already and we ordered dinner. The Indian family didn't eat meat or even meat products but I ordered chicken. It turned out that, although beautifully served, it wasn't even half as good as that one made locally at a street stand. I got basically 90 percent bones and 10 percent chicken.
The next morning, we were driving around. There's not much to see in Agra except Taj Mahal. However I was excited by the sheer fact that I was in India. On the first day in Agra we visited some craft shops selling real hand made items and souvenirs. The prices of carpets were astronomical but I managed to buy very cheaply (because of my friend's ability to bargain in Hindi) wonderful little marble elephants decorated with colorful gems. The amount of work to create those pieces of art is unbelievable. All the micro details are cut and attached separately. It requires enormous skills and precision.
Taj Mahal is India's most famous monument. It's really impressive, its beautiful design carved into white marble makes it contrast even more with the chaotic surroundings. The mausoleum, among the heavy traffic roads, noise and pollution seems so quiet and majestic. Its perfection will strike you at first sight. The preciseness of the details is astounding. Every flower, every little element either carved or made of colorful gems is flawless. And this doesn't only apply to the main Taj Mahal tomb but also to all surrounding building palaces and gates of the complex.
Taj Mahal was erected in the seventeenth century by the emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It combines many styles (Persian, Indian, Turkish and Islamic) and is a true jewel among Muslim architecture. There is a story about Taj Mahal that the emperor had planned to built the exact same replica of the tomb on the other side of the river, but in black marble. However it turned out to be a myth.
Tickets are available for purchase from sunrise to sunset and the prices vary depending on where one is from:
Indian citizens: 20 INR (0.30 USD/0.25 EUR)
Foreign tourists: 750 INR (12 USD/9 EUR)
For more information visit the official website: http://www.tajmahal.gov.in/ticketing.html
Mathura was one of the craziest places I visited in India. It's an hour drive from Agra. I went there to visit a few ancient temples where my friend's family wanted to take part in some religious ceremonies. I also participated. Although I had no idea what was going on, I followed "the priest" and I received some kind of blessings and a flower garland.
Everything in Mathura was so different than in Agra or New Delhi, it was so local and I was really happy to see everything the way it is for myself. There was only one disadvantage of this place. It was extremely dirty. Before coming to India I had imagines some messy places, but you really must see it to believe it. You must feel it, hear it and sense it with all your senses. Photos and stories are surely not enough. Monkeys, cows, dung, all kind of bugs and thousands of flies literally everywhere, even between stalls with food. Not to mention little streams of gray thick liquid waste flowing slowly on both sides of the streets. And, what's more interesting, to enter a temple you must walk barefoot.
Anyway, if this didn't scare you, you will be fine in India. I heard some comments from people who chose to visit India as a destination for their honeymoon. They said they hadn't left their hotel because they couldn't have stood the poverty, crippled beggars and the dirt. Why go to India then? I was extremely happy to see everything the way it was, especially the local things. And I think this is why you should travel.
You can either love India or hate it. But it won't leave you indifferent. It took a few days for me to adapt to the climate, the scorching heat, the chaos, the mess, the cows in the streets, the ubiquitous noise of the rickshaws and the unbelievable crowds of people. However, while departing from India, I felt sad and had already started missing it. That must mean I fell in love with it...
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