After a long but smooth train journey from Varanasi, we arrived at Agra around mid-morning. Like our previous experience when arriving at new railways stations, getting an Ola proved hard. So, we agreed on a price with a rickshaw driver and headed towards our homestay.
The rickshaw journey
The rickshaw driver was full of the joys of spring and happily chatted to us for the whole journey. A father of 5 adult kids, all educated and one to be married, he was proud to talk about his life. He shared with us about his beautiful wife of 26 years and their big house with a view of the Taj Mahal. Agra is ‘his place’ and he loves it deeply.
He told us about his 3 rules; being good to his guests, inviting good karma, and making sure he thanks the God Shiva every day. Simple but effective, he reckons.
Coral Court Guest House
Having been a rickshaw driver in Agra for 20 years, he instantly knew the guest house we were staying in and complimented us on our choice. He wasn’t wrong. Coral Court Guest House is a stunning little jewel hidden just 800 or so meters away from the Taj Mahal. While at the top end of our budget, the decor, room, chat and food all made it worthwhile.
When we booked our time in Agra we ignored the advice to get in and out in 24-36 hours. We didn’t want to rush, and since it’s off-season for tourists, we were looking forward to enjoying a slightly slower pace than our time in Varanasi and that is just what we got.
Once we settled in at Coral Court we headed across town to the Agra Fort. This massive sandstone fort was built on the banks of the Yamuna River in 1565 by Akbar, the first Mughal emperor in India.
Shaped in a semicircle with its flat edge against the river, much of the fort is used by the military and so is off-limits to the general public. There was still a winding and complex arrangement of halls, courtyards, and galleries for us to explore and enjoy. It was surprisingly clean and tidy, a theme we saw across Agra, which we were able to appreciate after the big cities.
Getting ripped off and negotiating a ride
Once out of the fort we were back to being target customers again. Taxi and rickshaw drivers bickered about prices and we were ripped off by a kid selling cold drinks who charged us too much for drinks. We could have argued but we’re too hot and thirsty to care. And for context, we paid around 1NZD more than we should have.
‘Baby Taj’ – Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah
After some conversation with a driver, (these conversations often include words like “my friend!” and “First customer of the day, very lucky”) we agreed on a price for a ride to the ‘Baby Taj’, a tomb that is in a similar style to the Taj only on a much smaller scale. It is rumoured that it was the practice run for the Taj, but who knows?! Again, we are surprised by how clean, tidy and quiet it is. The locals have really made an effort to make the city as tourist friendly as possible.
A cheeky walk to the Mehtag Bagh
We emerge from the Baby Taj after about an hour and decide to take a walk. There is a park called the Mehtag Bagh, about 30 minutes down the road. It is across the river from the Taj but is a good place for photos. Our former driver gets pretty upset at us when we choose to walk instead of choosing him to drive us again. He follows us down the road for a distance calling out to us before finally leaving us alone.
During the walk, we realise that not many tourists around here must walk anywhere. On the road to the park, we got many stares and waves from the locals and even a few laughs when a dust storm picked up out of nowhere and caught us off guard.
Even the park had an entry cost (we expected that on the sites, but parks?!). We’re really noticing in the Northern states that there is a distinct difference in the entry price for attractions dependent on where you come from. If you’re a local it may be five rupees, but if you’re a foreigner it’s more like 500!
While at the park we got an awesome view of the Taj and took some sweet photos. We even ran into a group of guys who were staying at Coral Court with us. They had so many nice things to say about NZ and we had some good banter going. They were even kind enough to give us a seat in their car to the house free of charge. We were grateful for the lift, as rain had just started falling and we would have been soaked.
Today is the day… The Taj Mahal!
The main purpose of our visit, and everyone else’s is to see the Taj Mahal and it did not disappoint. We got up early to ensure we were there for sunrise (along with about 3000 other people). We had a smooth trip through the ticket office, on the golf cart to the gate and through the rigorous security checks.
The Taj was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor at the time, Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–1658), to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Mughal empire was heavily influenced by Persian architecture. Alongside the tomb, there is a large mosque and a guest house and huge sunken gardens and fountains.
We spent at least 90 minutes wandering the (extremely tidy) grounds, taking (about 1 million) photos and entering the mausoleum. It was pretty breathtaking and well worth the 1000 rupee entry fee (each!).
Sarah’s first henna tattoo
After a busy time walking around the sights, Sarah just wanted to relax and tick one more thing off her bucket list – a mehndi tattoo! The guest house called in a favour and in about 30 minutes there was a knock on the door. The artist was ready to go. We sat at the kitchen table while she did some free-hand designs.
It dried quickly, thanks to the heat and the lack of humidity, but to ensure results the advice was to kept the paste on overnight. After scraping off the dried paste in the morning the results were awesome.
Having a weekend
With the sights out of the way, and Sarah’s henna complete, we took the rest of the weekend off. We napped, ate, took walks (where we learned that telling rickshaw drivers we were out for some exercise is an effective way of being left alone), read our books and generally hung out until we got good news. We had confirmation of a spot on the Monday morning train to Jaipur. Now our third Indian railways adventure and despite the admin that goes into booking a ticket, it’s been pretty great.
So, all in all, you probably only need two days to enjoy Agra. However, if you’re after somewhere that is cleaner, tidier and generally a little more chill than the rest of India, treat yourself to an extra night.