Delhi to Agra – Dodging the Touts at the Taj Mahal

Day 2

So, 2nd day in India and we were up at 6.45am to be in time for our 7.30am car. Obviously this wasn’t taking into account the legendary organisational skills of the Hotel Ajanta though and it turned out that noone in the building knew anything about our booking and, oh, surprise of all surprises, the guy I talked to wasn’t anywhere to be seen. This is where my suspicions proved founded and useful though as I’d insisted on a detailed receipt the day

before. On production of this the receptionists suddenly turned around, “Aaaah, of course sir, no problem!” I’ve already found out in 2 days here that receipts are your best friends in India. Producing one of these little paper-pals will by-pass an hour of increasingly heated debate over what you have or have not paid for or booked. I don’t even think it’s deliberate or any attempt to scam you most of the time, they just don’t seem to have any concept of communication or record keeping. In any case, the car turned up 30 minutes later and off we went, on the road to Agra.

The road was long and pretty nasty, with some poor, poor looking little towns on the way. It took nearly 2 hours just to get out of Delhi and leave the worst of the poverty behind but there were plenty of mini versions on the way. If it makes the poor bastards feel any better though, at least this time I had a seatbelt, and I only saw about 246 crazy near death experiences and one recently tipped over lorry. We got to Agra with little incident and one stop at a decent little restaurant (the main tourist restaurant stop on the way, and totally overpriced, but pronounced by our driver as the only place which wont make us terribly and irrevocably sick. He didn’t make a commission on it though, honest.) We managed to get Cat a soup and some nan bread and I tucked into something pretty tasty which I can’t remember the name of in the slightest. It was good though, and not even very weird eating curry for lunch as I’d practised that very thing many a day on afternoons at home after failing to finish a drunken late takeaway.

Agra seemed on first sight vaguely less manky than Delhi, but our driver showed us a couple of hotels that brought that manky right back, properly damp sheets an all. We decided to up our budget slightly (£3 to 1000rp!) and this got us a decent wee place a really short walk from the Taj Mahal called the Tara palace. The dry bedsheets were probably worth the £1.50 extra and I chocked another mark up on the wussiness board. The next stress came in the form of an allocated ‘complimentary’ guide. Encouraged by our driver, who’d turned out to be pretty decent (so far at least!), we accepted his services and headed off Mahal-ward. The boy’s patter proved to be worse than horrendous, however, and the eventual sales pitch was no less annoying for the fact that it was pretty much inevitable. We were encouraged to get professional pictures, go to particular money changers, buy from this shop, etc, etc, all of which pay the guy a commission. All credit to the persistent little bugger though, my not-helping-the-scottish-reputation-at-all standard response of, ‘Not a chance pal, I’ve nae money’ didn’t phase him at all and he plowed on to the next place.

I eventually had a 5 minute argument with him outside of the Royal gate trying to force a tip into his hand and getting him to bugger off and he looked so hurt that in a moment of weakness, when he said,”Ok ok, I wait for you outside”, I reponsponded with “Ok, thanks” and walked off. ‘It’s ok, he’ll never wait,’ I thought, and walked into the Taj Mahal gardens.

The Taj Mahal was pretty awesome though I have to say, far bigger than I imagined and way too perfect. Noone should be able to build curved domes so smooth and precise or towers so perfect and straight. We walked around for a couple of hours just looking at the thing and then joined the queue to see inside. Over an hour later, and 30 minutes of dire chat from the boy in front – my dour scots expression and mono-syllabic answers dissuade noone here – and we gained entrance. Lucky for us though the sun had gone down and the thousand year old builder dude had neglected to install a strip light. It was basically an hour wait for entrance to a pitch black cave in which even more dirty bastards used it as en excuse to try to grab Cat. 5 minutes later we were out though, and 10 minutes after that and a little bit of actual running we actually managed to shake off the aforementioned bad-chat queue buddy.

Don’t worry though, on leaving the gate we had a replacement as the guide had actually waited close to 3 hours for us to come outside. Needless to say our walk home was another good ol sales pitch so more running ensued and we made it back to the hotel in one piece.

That evening we went out to quite a nice looking restaurant for dinner thinking that we’d pay a bit extra to get someone who could tell us about what meals have nuts and what don’t. We found a really good waiter who could speak excellent english and we chatted to him for a while about all the different foods. In the end we ordered a set menu with the assurance that there wouldn’t be a nut near it but after a little nibble Cat started to have a small reaction and had to take an anti-histamine. There weren’t nuts in it but obviously they used them enough that it got around the kitchen, so no more curries for Cat. I slightly cruelly polished off the rest of the meal though – hey, no point in wasting good food! – and Cat enjoyed her garlic Nan bread on it’s own.

More Indian idiosynchrasies crept in at the end when I tried to pay by credit card. Despite having been assured initially that plastic was fine it naturally turned into a huge trauma. First stop was their shop downstairs, but obviously that machine was broken. So, as you do, I was met by the manager and taken in his car to the nearest ATM. 3 ATMs later and I was still trying to make them understand that I needed one with a Mastercard or VISA sign outside… In the end they drove down some dodgy little back alley to a small souvenier shop where an even dodgier guy put my card through his swipe machine. I kept asking the restaurant guys what the connection between them was but didn’t really find out. We drove back to the restaurant with thought of cancelling my card racing through my mind!

With the day nearly over and a short drive to the hotel between us and blissful sleep you would imagine that India had thrown enough at us for the day, but no, one more surprise awaited us. We were stopped at a police roadblock on the road to the hotel and told, basically, to bugger off. 10 minutes of arguing later and our driver told us that he wasn’t allowed past – no entry to the Taj Mahal area was allowed at all for vehicles. Strange since we’d driven along this very road hours earlier… No option but to hoof it then along near pitch dark streets but no problems arose and we were in bed soon after, dreaming of Taj Mahal toting touts and limpet-like guides.

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