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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Taj Mahal 2.0 - My Second Visit to Agra

On my recent trip to India, I had another opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. One of my colleagues had never gone, really wanted to and I could not pass up another opportunity to see the Wonder of the World.

I had last visited the Taj Mahal back in July of 2007 and other than the drive, it was quite impressive. We left our hotel at about 1:30am in the morning for the 4 hour drive in order to get there for the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. It was in fact, the worst riding experience I had in my entire life and although the sunrise was impressive -- I vowed never to do the drive half-asleep ever again.

This time, our base in New Delhi was at the Trident Hotel which is actually in Gurgaon which is an impressive 5-star hotel just a few minutes south of the airport in New Delhi in the Gurgaon special economic zone. After a great night's rest at the Trident (which unfortunately is no longer associated with Hilton) our driver picked us up and we headed out at 7am for the Taj Mahal in Agra, about 120 miles away -- expecting a 2.5 hour trip to get there.

Trip via car to Agra and the Taj Mahal from the Trident Hotel in Gurgaon

The journey to the Taj Mahal in Agra from Gurgaon


We had heard that roads had continued to improve, making the journey to Agra quicker since the last time I had arrived. We headed down SH13 (State Highway 13) on our way to NH71B (National Highway 71B) to catch the main NH2 (National Highway 2) which will get you into Agra. Very quickly, I realized that we were in for a long drive. Both SH13 and NH71B were two lane roads going through towns with a good number of dirt roads. In fact, it took us almost two hours just to get the NH2 highway. In all, our trip there was about an hour and a half longer than we thought it would be.

As we arrived in Agra, we stopped to pick up our "guide" for the Taj Mahal at the side of the road. This is where it is important to understand how it works in Agra. Pretty much either the car / bus / van company or your driver has "contacts" in Agra -- and your "guide" will always be free. The reason? The guide is not only a guide; but they are a commissioned based salesperson. They will be more than happy to give you a free tour and tell you all the details of the beautiful Taj Mahal.

Of course, in exchange for something...

At the end of your tour undoubtedly be told as part of your tour, I will be taking you to place where they still carve marble and inlay the gemstones in the marble. The place I am taking you has 17 generations of family members that still practice the ancient tradition...and you can also purchase an "original" piece that was created here in Agra in that same tradition. Of course, there are hundreds of these places in town and likely the one you will be taken to will be 4-5 times the price that you can find at one of the stores on the outskirts of the city...with no difference in quality. Not to mention you guide gets a 20-25% commission on what you purchase.

More on this later...

So, we pick up our guide and head over to the Taj Mahal. There is a "ban" on non electric and battery powered vehicles as you approach the Taj Mahal as a pollution prevention zone to preserve the marble. We paid our fees of 750 rupees (about $15 US at the current exchange rate) for non-resident visitors and jumped in a golf cart transport to come up towards the entrance of the Taj.

As we entered the protected zone, I noticed a couple of things that were different from my previous trip. The first was that the number of people that came up to us to sell various post-cards and souvenirs was very few compared to the last time. Hardly anyone came up to use. Secondly, there were several more vehicles (mainly police and military) in the non-pollution zone.

We entered the Taj Mahal and it was just as I remembered it...although this time there were no monkeys climbing on the walls surrounding the Taj. The weather was also much more pleasant -- 85 degrees or so -- instead of the 100+ with high humidity I had experienced in July/August of 2007. It was great to experience it again amongst the crowds again.

I mainly wandered on my own since I knew much of the story and history from my first trip and let my colleague Mike get the scoop from the guide. From what I overheard early on, I knew the sales pitch was on. First, he started by checking how much time we had...when we said not a bunch, we saw his pace pickup to make sure we'd have time to "shop", but we kept our own pace and did not allow ourselves to be rushed. Secondly, when we looked at the marble and the inlayed gemstones -- I could just hear not only the history but the sense of...don't you wish you could have something like this...and creating that emotional response.

It helped for both of us to know this was the standard method of operating at the Taj; so we were able to ignore it and still enjoy the tour.

As expected, at the end of the tour it was recommended that we go with the guide in our car to a local shop to see this work. We obliged, knowing we would go for a short demo and then exit to go to a different place with much better pricing. Once we got to the store we were able to watch a couple of people working the marble and stones...whether they were actually working or it was an act we weren't sure...but it was fun.

Once we completed the demo, we were taken into the store and even I was astonished at the types of prices that were being thrown out. First off, if the pricing is in US Dollars you know that you will be paying too much...but in this case, I was amazed. $550 was the asking price for an 18" round table, about 5x what you would expected. I also asked about an 8' table...which I knew someone had picked one up for 1.5 Lakh (about $3,000) and the owner of the shop told me 250 lakh...I could not help but almost laugh...that was $500k. We were polite said no thanks and left the store; thanking our guide for his great tour and giving him a couple hundred rupees as a tip.

We went over to the ITC Sheraton, the ITC Mughal in Agra and had a great meal before hitting a recommended shop on the way out of town. The shop we went to was J.K. Cottage Industries at 45, Shamshabad Road in Agra, 282001 - voice +91 562 2226897. We found the identical items we had seen at the previous store, but for about $120 rather than $550. We picked up a couple of items, negotiated the price down (20% minimum is my usual guide) and were happy with what we got and the pricing.

We then headed back towards Gurgaon and our room at the Trident Hotel. The way back was equally as long and little more trying...ask dusk approached, it seemed that drivers going the other way became more aggressive. Thank goodness that we had a great driver, Sanjeev...but on a couple of occasions we came to a complete stop when a car passing a truck on the little two lane road failed to make it on time. By the time we got back to the hotel it was well after dark.

It was a great trip overall, but thinking about it...if I were to go to Agra in the future I would do either one of the following two things:

1. Fly to Agra from Delhi, it's an hour flight and you probably blow another hour and a half getting to the airport and security, but it would be worth it.

2. Don't stay in Gurgaon, rather stay in Noida and leave from there. The worst part of the drive was SH17 and NH71B. From the special economic zone of Noida, it's pretty much a straight shot down NH2 which is a much farther developed road. Still, according to Google Maps they are both about equal.

Here are a few photos from the trip to the Taj Mahal, which I think turned out much better than my ones from my last trip:

The Trident Hotel in Gurgaon is a great place to stay.  Quiet, peaceful, and relaxing.The Trident Hotel in Gurgaon is a great place to stay. Quiet, peaceful, and relaxing.
The main road in Gurgaon.  Huge developments going in there with massive luxury apartments and still the roadside vendors.The main road in Gurgaon. Huge developments going in there with massive luxury apartments and still the roadside vendors.
This was not a zoom photo.  About 1000 oxen or cows...whatever.  Right outside the window of the car...could have rolled down the windows and grabbed the horns.This was not a zoom photo. About 1000 oxen or cows...whatever. Right outside the window of the car...could have rolled down the windows and grabbed the horns.
Passing through a small town on the way to Agra.  What caught my eye was the advertisement in this show for Xenon headlights, even out here in the middle of nowhere.Passing through a small town on the way to Agra. What caught my eye was the advertisement in this show for Xenon headlights, even out here in the middle of nowhere.
A picture as we approach the Taj Mahal.A picture as we approach the Taj Mahal.
Just the Taj.Just the Taj.


One of the many typical poses people take.  Definitely a tourist.One of the many typical poses people take. Definitely a tourist.
Walking outside the Taj Mahal on the way back to the car, I'm practically run over by some sheep.Walking outside the Taj Mahal on the way back to the car, I'm practically run over by some sheep.

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