The requisite “Taj at sunrise” photo. But we succeeded in beating 99% of the other tourists!

Just as we expected, the Oberoi staff (beardless young men in robes and turbans and attractive women in fake saris) were a bit confused when we trundled up the long driveway towards the imposing tan structure of the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel. “Are you staying here?” we were politely asked three or four times at various intervals as we made the long walk, dragging our luggage. When we got off the train, we figured that it would help our bargaining power with the rickshaw drivers if we didn’t tell them that we wanted to be dropped off at the most expensive hotel in the city, so we had our driver drop us off at the Taj Mahal’s eastern gate, about a kilometer from the Oberoi, and walked the rest of the way.

The touts and sellers are thick in this city, as you would imagine, and nowhere thicker than in that kilometer. To cut back on the pollution that is slowly staining the Taj from its magnificent white to a sludgy grey, only bicycle rickshaws and electric golf carts are allowed in that zone. Every few feet there was another bikeshaw driver grinning at us, or an ice cream cart, or a restaurant, or a jewelry salesman, or a kid selling postcards with the Taj on it. And we finally did tell one driver where we were going when he followed us for a hundred meters – “where you go? where your hotel?” – we replied, “the Oberoi, it’s very nearby” his eyebrows danced like black caterpillars and he said “ahhhh very nice!”

The Oberoi could be summed up as a perfect example of form over function. Everything about it was perfectly set – perfect volumes of music, perfect softness of bed, perfect temperature of the pool (Christine, reading this over my shoulder as I type, points out that it was astounding how the pool was attuned to the right level for the day’s heat) – and of course, the reason why it commands the highest price in the city – a perfect view of the southeastern corner of the mausoleum itself, visible over the tops of the trees on the private land that the hotel owns behind the building (that land itself, with no hiking access on it, must have cost the hotel an insane amount of money, but they have to keep it clear in order to guarantee that every room in the building can see the Taj, which is part of their brochure).

The window is a bit foggy from the fact that the A/C runs full blast all the time in here, but that cleared up by early afternoon

Of course, it seems to the fashion that any hotel that costs more than $150 in third world country charges outrageous amounts for internet access. I speculate that this is because they were probably some of the first businesses to have the internet, and their infrastructure is still set up to require it (versus just having a series of routers strung out throughout the floors like any American mid-range hotels might have). My parents and I found the same thing while staying on the banks of the Dead Sea in Jordan, too. For 400 rupees for an hour of access, it was flabbergasting – but they did have a free option: one half hour free, every 24 hours of your stay (when we checked out, I was 10 minutes into our 2nd 24 hour period, and it promptly logged me out and cancelled the rest of my 20 minutes because we were no longer in their system).

Ooh, the pillow menu! However, we were fine with the “default” goose down set of six our bed came with

But besides the the price on Internet and the extraordinarily high price of the minibar items (like the bottled water, which was selling for 75 rupees the same size bottle of water that would have cost 5 rupees in the city) the place was perfect. The pool area in particular was a multi-level series of terraces, trickling fountains that fed into waterfalls, and perfectly manicured turf. As we arrived at 7am, I watched numerous Indian employees in nondescript brown trousers and shirts painstakingly cutting the grass and bushes, practically blade by blade. They never spoke to us though – only the turbaned men and saried women did, smiling brilliantly and making perfect eye contact whenever we passed by. At the pool, if I would even so much as take a step in the direction of one of them, they would immediately stop whatever they were doing (except if they were serving someone else a drink or interacting with another customer) and wait to see if I was walking towards them or pass them, before they would resume their activities.

They had to be some of the nicest hotel staff I’ve ever seen. Vikram, the main email concierge that I interacted with back in Bikaner, was more than happy to change our check-in time from the default noon to 7am so that we wouldn’t have to wait around, and when we left the hotel for our ride to Delhi, a half dozen men carried our bags out to our private car, then stood on the steps waving farewell to us, with those same brilliant smiles, while calling out “farewell, and we hope to see you again soon!” in perfect English. I was slightly surprised to see that not a single man had facial hair – either mustaches or beards. Perhaps management thought that brown skinned people with facial hair might be found vaguely, subconsciously threatening to Westerners.

But of course we weren’t just in Agra for the hotel (although that was a large part of it) – the Taj Mahal was there, beckoning us from our window that first day, and when we arose at 5 in the morning the next day (to be sold our tickets directly at the concierge desk, so we wouldn’t need to wait in line at the regular tourist office at the gate), we were whisked right to the foot of the east gate by an electric golf cart, and told that all we needed to do when we wanted to come back was return to this spot and another concierge would radio for the cart to pick us up again.

Christine and I had to enter in separate lines, so that as usual she could be frisked behind a privacy screen. We were there as the checkpoints opened for business, too, so we knew we had a rare shot to see the Taj without any people in front of it. When we made it through security, already we could see our fellow tourists pouring in from the south and west gates….to the north though, the imposing entry gate to the Taj gardens was waiting, and we made a beeline for it. The structure vaguely reminded me of the mosques and madrasas that I’d seen in Uzbekistan, in Samarkand and Bukhara – large and rectangular, with motifs around the edges. Pushing our way past the Indians who’d come in with the tourists to offer guide services for 100-300 rupees (Indians only have to pay 20 rupees to enter the compound, while foreigners pay 750, so it’s a good deal for them if they can hook a foreigner or two) we entered the complex almost at the head of the crowd.

Tall Man, Tall Taj

Of course, no words can really do the Taj justice. It’s the most famous building in India bar none, and libraries have been written about its appearance and the feelings it can inspire. For me, I enjoyed watching the blueish tinge of night fade from the alabaster surface, to be replaced by the glow of the sun, rising above the smaller prayer hall to the east, striking the marble and reflecting within the translucent stone. But then again, if you’ve read anything about the Taj before, you probably already knew that one of the reasons it’s famous is for the morning and evening color changes the stone undergoes. You really do just have to see it for yourself.

The Oberoi had provided little booties for us to put over our shoes, which I thought at first I might not use but when I realized that the alternative was to carry my sandals by hand (no bags are allowed into the compound for security reasons) I gratefully put them on once we reached the marble plinth that mandates their use. All of us tourists were constantly being asked by the Indian “guides” if we wanted photos taken of us, be it standard couple shots, or jumping into the air, or having the Taj reflected in our sunglasses (once we reached the east side of it). I didn’t hear a single person accept the “offers” which I’m sure were not offered without any goal of compensation. But of course all of us tourists were more than happy to help each other out with the very shots and angles that we had been hassled for a moment earlier!

Not pictured: Indian “tour guide” shouting that this was his idea

I was interested to see that one of the towers of the mosque on the east side of the Taj had been outfitted with a large weather and pollution monitor, with a scrolling marquee of LEDs over its door telling us what the current humidity level and particulate pollution levels for the day were. Behind the masjid, the huge Yamuna river flowed east, continuing its long journey from Delhi towards the coast, hundreds of miles away. It was a wide river; it looked about half a kilometer or more in width, and there was a large garden perfectly opposite the mausoleum building. We had been told that until a few years ago, tourists could cross the river to the east or west and then view the Taj majestically from the far side, but the government has been rapidly buying up as much land as possible in all directions, including on the far side of the Yamuna, to make that more difficult.

We would have liked to have seen the Taj museum, but the downside of arriving as early as we had was that it wouldn’t be opening for another hour or two, and we wanted to see the Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj” before catching our taxi. According to my guidebook, it was supposed to cost 5 rupees admission, but the sign at the building itself said that it was free – I suppose that the Taj administrators realized it was kind of amusing/insulting to charge a paltry 5 rupees after already getting 750 out of us.

It was nice to see you at last!

But after making the pass through the Taj (there’s really not much too it, just the large, echoing center space with the false tombs of Mahal herself and her devoted husband Shah Jahan who had built it for her (his false tomb throws off the perfect symmetry of the complex by being stuck on the left side of hers, which is perfectly centered)) and then walking around the whole building, we lingered a bit, people watching the hundreds of tourists, and then headed out. We had become particularly fond of a restaurant with a rooftop view of the Taj yesterday, the Shankara Vegis, and we ended up eating there three times in our two days in Agra. Christine even had a length of fabric that she’d bought in Kerala finished and made into a full sari and blouse for her by the owner’s sister.

After breakfast we took a bicycle rickshaw to the Agra Fort, piloted by an ancient man who practically had to stand up in his seat the entire trip in order to make the 1km trip. We sympathetically offered him the rest of our bottled water as we paid him, but he refused – “I only like money!” he grinned, then pedaled off.

The fort was…well, it was a bit of a strain for us both. It had become an extremely hot day, and the place was just packed with Indian tourists or locals, who apparently use the place as a local hangout or a place to watch foreigners. Or more than watch – we must have been asked for photographs at least forty to fifty times during the two hours we wandered through the massive maze-like structure. I finally snapped and refused to pose with anyone, but Christine, ever the gentle lady, told me that she would rather any Indian remember the foreigners as friendly and easy-going people instead of brusque and rude, and she continued to agree to their photo requests (even after some kid might have intentionally grazed her rump after a arm-over-the-shoulder photograph). Finally, a Sikh and his friends gave us an idea as to why we were getting so many requests – Christine was wearing a “punjab” style koorta dress, and he suggested that the reason why he wanted a photograph with her, and maybe why everyone else did, was because they’d never seen a Westerner wearing Indian-style clothing. “Maybe I’ll go back to jeans and a t-shirt in Delhi” Christine murmured to me later.

Now repeat this process every ten minutes, for two hours.

In the end, we couldn’t stand the heat well enough to bother haggling with another rickshaw driver to go to the Baby Taj – we were both tired and ready to move onto Delhi and after that, back to the USA. It’s been a long vacation, and neither of us have ever been stared at so much while traveling internationally – not in Jordan for me, or Chile for her, or southeast Asia earlier this year for us…it does get tiresome to constantly feel like we’re on display and to be enthusiastically photographed (or surreptiously, particularly to Christine’s displeasure) and interrogated about where we’re from, why we’re here, and where we’re going next.

We retreated to Shankara Vegis for their A/C and a few beers for an hour, then back to the luxurious Oberoi where we checked out, found our private car waiting for us, and left Agra and the Taj to the southeast – onward to Delhi for our last couple of days.

Balancing the camera on several items, setting infinite focal length, and then a timer got me this shot, and even then it took about 15 takes to line it up properly. I really should have just summoned a smiling concierge to do it for me but that would have felt awkward.