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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Visiting the Taj Mahal is a magical experience right out of a fairy tale. That being said, it is not a trip for the faint of heart. This would apply to you, especially if you get nervous about head-on collisions, accidents and tight spaces.

The trip for Jonathan and I started out at 1:50am, just some 90 minutes since we arrived from Bangalore and had our New Delhi cab experience. We’re planning to meet his brother and some one he works with at the Taj Mahal since they are in Delhi as well – a nice coincidence. Our driver, Kamal’s car is a standard compact car, and there is a decent amount of the space in the back seats, but it is not luxurious by any means. Think Mitsubishi Mirage or comparable in size.

The reason that the car is somewhat important is that we’re going to be spending 8 of the next 10 hours in it. Agra, where the Taj Mahal resides is only about 200km (120 miles) south of Delhi, yet it takes 4 hours to get there. And the drive is crazy. Really crazy. You feel lucky to make it there and back without and accident and thankful drivers like Kamal are there to navigate it for yourself.

Driving in the cities is busy but it is generally at slow speeds, so a little more organized chaos. Once you get out of the city, all bets are off. Since you can generally drive faster, the risks are higher. Fortunately it is mainly a divided four-lane road with two lanes on each side. But as an example, think cruising along a highway at 100km/hr (~60mph) and out of nowhere a farm tractor towing a trailer full of bricks behinds it decides to cross the street in front of you, or perhaps a large semi (if you can call them that here) does similar. That’s pretty common place.

On top of that every little city has a “police” checkpoint where they have setup barriers that alternately block one of the two lanes on your side creating somewhat of a slalom course for the cars. It causes even the few cars along the road at this time in the morning to bunch up. In addition, a lot of the transport trucks line one side of a lane (1/2 a lane) in several sections along the way.

All of this makes it difficult to sleep, but we both manage a few hours of sleep between the all the chaos and commotion on the roadways. We pick-up our guide Manish around 5:50am and get to the Taj Mahal parking lot 10 minutes before the gates open up at 6:00am. Interestingly, you have to park about a mile from the entrance to the Taj Mahal as cars and other vehicles are not supposed to get any closer because of pollution. We take a little electric rickshaw / golf cart to the point where we have to walk.

Manish, our guide advises us to stick close to him and watch out for “hawkers” or basically people on the street trying to sell you little trinkets and such. No different if than if you have been to places closer to the United States. For example, Tijuana, Mexico would be similar. We walk a couple of blocks to the East Gate entrance. Manish buys our tickets what we wait in line at Rs. 750, or almost $20 for entrance. Surprisingly expensive for a wonder of the world, but worth it.

It’s really hard to describe the Taj Mahal, but it is breathtaking. After wading through the security lines, longer for the 6:00am opening you enter a vast courtyard. However, it is only a precursor to what you will find inside.

Wikipedia has excellent descriptions of the Taj Mahal, so I am not going to waste your time trying to repeat that. Rather, more of my impressions.

When you walk through the gateway, you can see the symmetry from a far. Then when you enter the courtyard, the Taj Mahal is there in the all of its splendor. Everyone takes a couple of shots in front of it, and then starts to walk towards it. The Taj Mahal is pretty darn tall. With base, it’s about as high as the length of a football field. However, you do not really notice it from a distance – as you approach it seems larger and larger until you realize just how impressive it is.

Approaching the podium, the shoes must be removed or covered – we put on some booties and proceed. Perhaps the most surprising part once we enter is the size of the main room. While all of the work and marble in-layings were impressive it was much smaller inside than I thought it would be.

Also, almost as impressive was the base for the “black” Taj Mahal that was across the river where Shah Jahan was going to build before his son imprisoned him. Just a few thoughts of what could have been.

The Taj is an amazing experience and should not be passed up should you be anywhere near it. That is of course, if you can handle the drive!