Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chasing A Taj Mahal Dream 1 - From Delhi to Taj Ganj (Agra)

Taj Mahal was a pipe dream. I didn't think it would happen. When it did, it took a lot of planning, and reading. But getting there was a different matter altogether.

Getting an Indian visa from Manila was a tedious process (though the requirements are relatively few): it involves several flight connections (which isn’t cheap) and applying for a visa in Manila is a pain (you have to process your visa in Dasmarinas Village which is time-consuming and painstakingly controlled). From the EDSA gate, a required shuttle ride that takes you to the Embassy will cost P150 ($3.50) - when, in reality, the embassy is just 2 blocks away. You can't take your car either since it's a residential complex of the well heeled. Why the embassy chose to make a posh village as their base is beyond me. The place is relatively inaccessible. Travel companies refuse to accept Indian Visa processing. The ones that did (for a horrendous fee) have stopped accepting.

There are no flights that directly fly to Agra. The main and most popular entry point by air is Delhi, although I chose the cantankerous land border crossing from Bangladesh to Kolkata. The essence of Delhi initially intimidated me, and reading other people’s experiences in Agra only stoked my fear. This makes planning a little tingly - and exciting. It's like jumping into the lion's den to capture a chest full of treasures.

The Taj Mahal stands in the heart of a polluted and industrial city called Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). To put this entry in proper perspective, I have to underline some salient facts about the place.

India is a federal conglomeration of states – 28 states and 7 union territories (the capital Delhi belongs to the National Capital Territory), to be exact. Uttar Pradesh lies at the Ganges Plains which is an agricultural haven in northern India, populated by about 200 million people; majority of whom are Hindus. In fact, UP is not just the Cow Belt of the nation, but the Hindu Belt as well. It is India’s most populous state. Another claim to fame is that it has produced more than 50% of the country’s Prime Ministers. Unfortunately, UP hasn’t made leaps and bounds in terms of progress. Power outage (which I’ve experienced twice) is frequent. Most places in UP still struggle with squalor. This includes the city of Agra whereYamuna River (the nation’s second most sacred river), flows through.

More importantly, for tourists, Agra hosts 3 World Heritage Sites: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri.


Agra is just 203 kilometers from Delhi, making day trips more than possible. I wanted to soak in the atmosphere of a dream. Despite my earlier reservations, I ventured on spending a few days in Agra. There were several options to get there. The easiest was the trains. But after having endured a protracted train ride from Kolkata to Delhi, I was ready to try their buses. My friend, Junaid advised me against it because taking the train was convenient and faster. Moreover, a lot of things could happen on a bus. I was, of course, pretty sad to say goodbye to my friend whom I met in Dhaka, but I had to move on.

The 2 most common train rides were the Shatabdi Express (which leaves Delhi at 6:15 AM, 2 hours) and the cheaper Taj Express (departs at 6:55 AM, 3 hours). Since it was already past 8, taking the train was out of the question. Junaid saw me off my CNG (an auto-rickshaw that runs on bio-friendly gas). This took me to the Inter State Bus Terminal (ISBT) which turned out to be the wrong terminal. I had to walk out of the complex bearing my heavy backpack, unsure where to go. Where the heck was I anyway?

Thirty minutes and a gallonful of sweat later, I found a taxi that would take me to another terminal that services buses bound for Agra. I had doubts. What I saw was a dirt parcel of land near Nizamuddin Train Station. It didn’t look like a terminal at all. But as I retrieved my backpack from the trunk of my taxi, I saw a craggy, non-AC bus that was about to leave. I ran and asked: “Agra? Agra?” Using complete English sentences tend to complicate matters, from my experience. Every one inside nodded. I was the odd man out. I hopped inside and the “sea parted”. They cleared the way for the bus’ only vacant seat.

I looked at my watch – 2:30 PM! I had wasted a lot of time just to get this ride! I purchased my ticket and handed 200 rupees to the bus assistant. The old man beside me signaled that I still have a change. My fare was 117 rupees ($2.55 or PhP109), which is a far cry from the 400 or 800 rupee fare had I taken a Shatabdi Express train. We would travel for 5 long hours (instead of the train’s 2 hours). But I didn’t mind. It was exciting!


We left there after. I was, once again, in a sea of locals, many of them giving perplexed gazes. But I knew I was in good hands. My seatmate – the old guy – was chummy. He kept offering me stuff, like peanuts (remember never to take food from strangers?). I accepted then pretended to consume them (they were lodged conveniently at the side pocket of my backpack). It’s bad manners to refuse when they are earnestly offered. He said he was an employee at the Radisson Hotel, this was relayed in hand signs. Later, he called the bus assistant and demanded for my change – 83 rupees. I was in good hands, didn’t I say?

The ride was a vibrant movement of people coming and going, people mostly standing along the aisle. At 4:15, we passed by Palwal; 4:40 – Haryana; 5:48 – Mathura which looked like a bustling city. Mathura (Matra) is a destination in itself. By then the sun had gradually ebbed into the horizon, creating a dramatic gleam over a dust bowl of shrubs. As darkness slowly enveloped this corner of India, I was gripped with a dash of anxiety.

Sun setting on northern Indian plain of dust bowl.

Mathura. This photo only courtesy of's vibhu rashmi.


It’s never an easy thing arriving in a strange distant land in the throes of darkness. It conjures the sinister ministrations of the less appealing side of humanity. By 7:30 PM, we passed by Idgah Bus Station (Agra’s major bus terminal). My seatmate and everyone else told me to stay put. "Pay only 20 rupees ($0.50) to your CNG", everyone reminded as though they knew something would transpire. They all knew I was on my way to Taj Ganj, a community that sprouted directly at the southern end of the Taj Mahal. This was a community that initially consisted of artisans, builders and workers making house at the gate of this bulbous mausoleum. It has since become a sinewy, albeit lively and dusty district cramped with guesthouses and narrow alleyways – Agra’s main backpacker joint! If you wanted to stay close to the Taj Mahal, this was the place to be in. The other backpacker’s area is Sadar Bazaar.

Ten minutes from Idgah, I was the lone bus occupant. I kept anxiously looking at the bus assistant and the driver for further instructions, but they kept telling me to stay put. We turned right from Ajmer Road to a narrow street that lead to what I knew later was the Agra Cantonment. I was instructed to get off and wait for a CNG (their yellow-and green tuktuk). I was starting to worry. The Cantonment was almost deserted and I was the sole living being in a dark and deserted intersection. Ten minutes later, a CNG (compressed natural gas) transporting 3 other guys stopped for me. I asked how much. “Twenty rupees,” he said. So far, so good. My LP mentioned that it should cost me15 rupees for short rides within the town. I was supposed to be in Taj Ganj already – or was I?

Destination: Shanti Lodge, a guesthouse recommended by both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. The driver knew the place. He suddenly blurted, “Fifty rupees.” Did I have a choice? I was in the middle of nowhere. I nodded, knowing fully well I could get mugged by my driver and his friends. In less than 10 minutes, I was deposited in front of Shanti. I retrieved my backpack, then the driver demanded, “100 rupees! ($2.19)” From the agreed 20 to 50 to 100! Had I stayed a minute longer, it would have exponentially multiplied. I was too tired to disagree. Somehow I expected this to happen.

View of Taj Ganj from Shanti Lodge's roof deck.

Night scene in Agra's Taj Ganj: brimming with local color.

This photo only courtesy of travelpod's nax.

This beautifully composed photo only courtesy of QT Luong. Please visit for more of the artist's splendid work.

Vegetable Fried Rice (40 rupees), Sweet and Sour Chicken (80 rupees) and a bottle of coke (15 rupees).

Shanti Lodge

My comfortable bed at Shanti Lodge.

It was already 8 PM when I checked in for a room. I was tired after a 5 hour journey and a bit frustrated from my CNG ride. I saw grime under my nails, coating nastily like a scourge. Shanti Lodge has been recommended for several things: it’s cheap (“you can’t beat the price,” says LP), it’s close to the south gate, and it has a serviceable restaurant at the roof deck with a great view overlooking the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. In fact, LP mentioned it twice for the accommodation and the restaurant. The foyer was small but inviting. Since it was November, and Delhi had been chilly, I opted for a non-AC. Why pay for something I won’t use, right? At 400 rupees, it was indeed hard to beat!

My room was located at the third floor. My bed could accommodate two. It looked comfortable and clean. Even the duvet was beckoning me to rest. The tiled floor was spotless. However, when I checked out the bathroom, I had the nastiest case of chill, like a synapse suddenly running current through my spine. (see photos below) I wasn't pleased with the bathroom. It didn't have toilet paper or a garbage bin, but then what do I expect from a room worth 400 rupees ($8.80 or PhP373), right? I contented myself with the fact that I won’t be spending most of my time in the bathroom, heaven forbid.


Later that night, since I saw the other beds supplied with towel (I peeped), I asked the minder for one. But instead of waiting for him, he took me with him and we navigated through the guest house’s intricate hallways I was almost breathless. The guy escorted me to the laundry room and handed me my precious towel. This was either a lesson of some sort (never to ask for a towel) or he was just being hospitable by touring me around the hotel at 9 PM. Three days later, the guy would joyously greet me with a “my friend” every time he’d see me. It was a frustrating time, to be honest about it. But mostly, I was also hungry.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, where do I throw my trash?

This is what 400 rupees ($8.80 or PhP373) will get you: mildewy shower head (left) and stained sink (right) and I don't even have the heart to describe the toilet bowl and walls down below.

After a quick visit at the internet shop (40 rupees or $0.88 an hour), I went up the roof deck where the restaurant was located. True enough, it boasted of a magnificent view of Taj Ganj and from a distance, the majestic slumbering Taj Mahal. Every morsel of regret evaporated. This was worth all the trouble and anxiety.

I ordered sweet and sour chicken (“not spicy please”), vegetable fried rice and a bottle of coke. Both were beautifully served on big silver cups. While waiting for food, I gazed at the dimly-lit moon. And suddenly felt a presence beside me! “Ohmygod!” I shouted! A macaque monkey, hairy and ravenous, was standing on my table - inches from my face, ready to secure the early arrival of my chicken meal! Agra has hundreds of stray monkeys. A waiter shooed it away while I gathered my wits back to propriety. Late dinner was jittery.

I had been welcomed in Agra in the most peculiar ways than I would have expected. I’ll get my vengeance tomorrow, I vowed.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The view from Shanti's roof deck restaurant.

Delhi to Agra

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Our last Indian post before the Taj Mahal visit:


Ola said...

The interiors of the hotel looks awful but the dish you ordered in the town must be good, even if you had to eat it with a monkey on your table:)

eye in the sky said...

Looking back, the monkey gave my meal a little zing! LOL

Siddhartha Joshi said...

Superb post man...really enjoyed reading it :) The view from your Lodge is superb man...that a lot of value for money :)

eye in the sky said...

Others say there are plenty other lodges with roof decks in Taj Ganji, but yes, it doesn't diminish the amazing view to be had from my lodge. For that view alone, it is almost a Mastercard moment.