Mathura to Agra on a local bus, staying in a quaint guesthouse, visiting The Taj Mahal, Baby Taj and Agra Fort, plus a random bull ….
After a brief overnight stop in Mathura, a town much bigger and busier than I had expected (when will I learn to stop having expectations!) onwards my travels went, to the dubious city of Agra.
The only way I could reach Agra from Mathura (without hiring a driver) was to catch the bus. I was reassured I could just walk up to the bus and pay the driver’s assistant for a seat, and to get there early to bag a seat. Arriving half an hour before the scheduled departure I was directed to a bus that clearly wasn’t the luxury 2+2 AC Volvo I intended to take, but it was going to Agra, so I got on anyway and was helped by the locals arrange my seat and all my luggage as there was no underbus storage. My big case ended up between my legs!
For the first 15 minutes or so I wondered if I’d make the journey without bringing up my breakfast, but soon started to relax into it and found the whole thing quite entertaining watching the men jump on and off the bus while it was still moving and sharing seats to squeeze everyone on. I love how they just get on with it. I shared broken conversations with an older lady sat next to me who also offered me some snacks and a younger guy who had helped me navigate my way on seemed to be checking in on me every now and then, ensuring I was ok. Was nice.
It became clear however that we were not actually going into Agra… Watching the route unfold on GoogleMaps (saved my life again!) we seemed to be continuing on the main highway passing just north of the city so I asked the conductor where I should get off and he looked horrified and pointed back at the way we’d just come! So they urgently pulled the bus over and then commenced a hurried frenzy while I tried to grab all my bags and squeeze passed the other passengers to quickly get off the bus whilst the conductor shouted at some cheeky men who were trying to take advantage of the stopped bus to sneak on. Was quite a moment! And then I found myself on the side of a very busy road with a bunch of other locals also trying to catch buses.
Nevermind, no biggie.
Within minutes I was tucked into a tuktuk to meander for 30 minutes along dusty, bumpy roads to the guesthouse. The driver was quite young and rather good looking I must say! His English was quite good and after learning I’d been in India for two months and come from England, he said how much he loved England and proposed that I should take him there for two months hahahaha. I think he was actually quite serious. Still, I passed him up on that tempting suggestion (sarc). During this illuminating ride I also got my first glimpse of the Taj… the driver pulled over to I could get a quick pic. I was actually quite moved emotionally just from seeing it in the far distance, gleaming in the late afternoon sun.
Soon we arrived at the Guesthouse (Tourist Rest Hotel), a really pretty residency with a lovely courtyard restaurant to chill out in away from the busy streets. Acknowledging my hungry tummy I headed straight out to a nearby HappyCow listed restaurant, Zorba the Buddha, a 10 minute walk away, which would help me get a feel for my new surroundings. I was the only one dining but was soon joined by the owner who shared many stories and then met his wife and children. He invited me for (black) chai in his cafe next door (Hills Cafe) that had recently opened and to check out the rather cute rooftop terrace. It was so pretty with lots of coloured lights and lamps, a few swinging chairs and murals. It looked quite romantic! Was interesting to hear about their lives and how businesses have been suffering since Trip Advisor overtook the Lonely Planet guide and where one bad review can put off new customers.
As it was dark by the time I left, I decided against walking back to the guesthouse but two tuktuk drivers I approached both wanted Rs100 to basically take me around the corner. I walked on and came across an elderly man with tired but kind eyes who agreed to take me there for Rs30. However after seeing him struggle to push me on what became a double-the-time ride I gave him the Rs100 I would have otherwise given the tuktuk driver – I felt he deserved it so much more!
Then it was time to make a plan:
I wanted to see the Taj Mahal at both sunrise and sunset, to get all the photo opportunities I could manage all in one day. There seemed to be good reviews of getting photos in the evening from the river Yamuna that flows by the backside of the Taj, but there were also mentions of this being banned. Hmmmm. The next best place to watch the Taj in the sunset apparently was from a park over the river, Mehtab Bagh, so that became part of the plan. Rise early in the morning and go into the Taj complex for sunrise and then head over the river to the park for sunset. In the day I would visit Agra Fort and later, before the park visit the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, aka ‘Baby Taj’.
The next day I overslept by an hour but still forced myself out of my comfy bed by 5:30am and out into the dark by 6am. Luckily there was a driver waiting in the reception area, which saved me from flagging one down in the dark road, and we agreed he would be on call all day to take me to the other places I wanted to see, whenever I was ready, for a small fee. On arrival, he pulled over to a side street and directed me down the darkened alley to where the ticket office was. I kept my ‘positive head’ on and strolled purposefully down ignoring the randoms hanging around and, with the help from a kind man, found the right queue to get my ticket. Then onto another queue to get into the Taj complex. As we waited for the gates to open the sun started to rise and we all new we had missed the glorious colours of first light, but luckily, not many people had turned up that morning and I found myself in only a small crowd vying for the best position for the best photo opportunity.
One thing that made me laugh as I entered the complex was being asked by one of a group of ‘professional photographers’ if I wanted to hire a photographer. One of his colleagues laughed out loud and shouted ‘why are you asking her, she has a good camera with her, she doesn’t need us, stupid!’ Oh how I laughed!
Seeing the Taj for the first time really was quite surreal. I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t a painting! It was really there, right in front of me. The rising sun was starting to make it’s facade glow and against the hazy blue morning sky was really quite a sight. I took numerous photos and began walking towards it. I silently prayed and thanked my late Grandad for making this possible for me. I felt his presence, and his pride that, like him, I had been born with a deep wanderlust and love for travelling to different places and experiencing different cultures. Tears fell as I both missed him and appreciated all that he was and will always be in my mind and heart.
After taking as many pictures as I could I made my way back to the tuktuk driver and as I waited for him to arrive said hello to many passing schoolgirls and had a little chat with a man from Nepal. I am loving how friendly and curious the people of India are. Back at the guesthouse I processed the images over breakfast and was pleased with the results. The incredible architecture and near perfect light provided just what I wanted. If I hadn’t managed to capture it in the way I hoped to, I would have been very disappointed!
Then back out to Agra Fort. After walking around the courtyard I went to sit on a bench and think about why the tuktuk driver had said I’d need about an hour and a half as I seemed to have done the surprisingly small fort quite quickly. On the next bench a girl sat in the sun and it turns out she was also thinking the same thing. We decided that we had only seen a small part of it and went off to seek the other parts of the complex, which through a small, unsignposted doorway we found! Was nice having someone to chat to and experience a place with. She also loved photography and was good at finding some creative viewpoints. Coincidentally we both had to return to our tuktuks at the same time so we walked together and said our goodbyes, knowing that despite having a similar plan for the next town or two the timings would be off and we’d be unlikely to cross paths again. But as I say, you never know!
Later on I visited the Baby Taj and then went to the park to watch the big Taj during the sunset. The sun sets to the right of the building and didn’t therefore reflect the back side that we could see so it wasn’t quite as grand as I’d hoped (so glad I had made it out that morning!) but the sunset itself was a proper Indian one, with a huge bright deep red-orange sun lowering itself in the distance. So not great for photos in the end, but what made the visit was getting to chat to a couple of college girls who swapped stories and recommended places for me to visit, especially in Goa, where one of them had recently undertaken an internship. They were part of a group and I noticed the rest of them were listening in and looked quite intrigued and humoured by our ongoing conversation. Then it was time to go.
That night I ate in the guesthouse restaurant. It gets cold in the evenings now so I wrapped up well and finished the meal (vegetable biryani) with a hot ginger tea before heading back to my room for a good night’s sleep – and a lie in!
I have to say that I think Agra is nowhere near as bad as some people have said. I didn’t have any hassles at the Taj, even though I went alone – something I keep reading you shouldn’t do as a woman – and I have met many, many helpful people; from the hotel staff to the drivers, vendors, strangers etc. This morning, for instance, I popped out of the guesthouse and on my return found a huge bull standing in the doorway blocking the entrance…. I took a photo (of course) and laughed as I considered whether trying to get past him was such a good idea. Within seconds a guy who had been sat nearby raced over and stood between me and the bull so I could get by and into the safety of the guesthouse. See, how kind! Thank you Agra, it has been a pleasure.
Am looking forward to the next stop on my adventure: Jaipur!