However. The process of actually getting to Agra to lay one’s eyes can be so unbelievably taxing that it may effectively ruin the experience for some. Okay, for me.
Agra is a pretty putrid place aside from the Taj and a few other historically significant spots, so it’s key to spend as little time there as possible (I’m being almost-serious.) For your convenience, you’ll find below a summary of the steps to be taken should you wish to visit the Taj the crazy way we did:
- Get yourself to Agra (depending on one’s location and willingness to drop some cash, this can be a feat in itself)
- Secure half-decent accommodation (this can also be a mission and a half, since Agra is a real wasteland unless you’ve got money to burn)
- Carefully plan your visit to the Taj (thick smog reduces visibility early in the morning, and crowds are in full force the rest of the time – take your pick!)
- Make your way from the hotel to one of the four poorly-identified gates (in our case, the west gate, which was a few steps from our hotel)
- Discover that the chosen gate happens, unfortunately, to be the busiest gate ever (as evidenced by the queue of Indian tourists snaking haphazardly into the street)
- Cleverly realize that the east gate will be less busy, since it’s off the package tour circuit (brilliant, right?)
- Before departing for east gate, buy ticket at ticket-counter, which consists of one surly man sitting inside a dilapidated cupboard-like structure (notice in passing that Indian tourists pay Rs 20 while foreigner price is Rs 750; fees cover site maintenance, which apparently does not include picking up litter or erecting directional signs of any kind)
- Ticket in hand, accept one of dozens of offers from persistent tuk-tuk drivers; ask to be taken to east gate, please! (after standard haggling session, proceed at breakneck speed without slowing down once)
- Arrive at east gate, hand over agreed-upon fare; realize tuk-tuk driver has simply taken you to the south gate before speeding off into the crowd Damn!
- Try unsuccessfully to find the way to the east gate on foot (realize with dismay that despite 250 years of British rule in India, few (if any) residents of Agra, from police offers to hotel staff, can communicate in English.)
- Attempt to use iPhone to find route on Google Maps (give up after 5 minutes of waiting for crappy Indian internet to come through)
- Politely decline thirtieth offer from small child attempting to guilt you into buying Taj Mahal snow globe
- Make your way to the east gate whilst physically fending off hordes of other disturbingly savvy child vendors, more unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers, so-called “guides” offering misleading information, and scores of Indian tourists taking inappropriate photos of you with their cell phones. (take turns calming each other down when one partner notices with some amusement that the other has resorted to snapping at people.)
- Give up and decide to stay at the damn south gate; grit teeth; get in the queue.
- Arrive at front of ladies’ queue (yes, ladies’ queue) and safely clear metal detector and pat-down; wait for boyfriend who is held up in the significantly longer gents’ queue.
- Greet boyfriend as he arrives at front of gents’ queue; drop jaw upon hearing that laptops are not allowed into the site (no explanation, no assistance, not even a smile).
- Somehow joyfully remember from guidebook that lockers are available for just such an occasion! This is a major international tourist attraction after all, isn’t it? Yay!
- Drop jaw once again again upon discovering (thanks to a helpful stranger) that lockers are not, in fact, available at the south gate… only at the east gate, if you please.
- Breathe deeply. Briefly consider abandoning Taj Mahal visit altogether.
- Trudge back to the east gate to drop off the offending laptop; head back to the south gate.
- Clear the queues and metal detectors once again, inch past the teeming crowds, and at last – behold the glorious sight of the Taj Mahal. Try not to be too distracted by the delighted cries of tourists swarming around you. Concede that it is really quite wonderful.
- Don the paper shoe covers provided in order to enter the inner sanctuary, which is dark and packed with fellow Taj enthusiasts and therefore cannot possibly be viewed with any degree of comfort. Feel sorry for the Indian tourists who have not been given shoe covers and are asked to remove their shoes instead.
- Wonder what Shahjahan, the doomed emperor who built the Taj as a monument to his second wife, would have thought about the gongshow his magnificent creation has become.
- Exit the Taj Mahal site. Agree unanimously to forgo all further sightseeing for the day and devote the rest of the afternoon to banana lassis and malai koftas.
There you have it. I promise you that each point mentioned is painfully true. There are probably ways to get around each of the challenges detailed, but I found myself feeling irritated that these challenges even exist in the first place. How can the government of one of the world’s fastest growing economies not provide a more hospitable atmosphere for visitors to one of the most well-known tourist destinations in the world? Pondering that idea, sadly, distracted me from enjoying the Taj Mahal to the fullest. Yes, I am an idiot!
View more amazing India photos on the fantastic web site of Montreal photographer Riccardo Cellere