No rest for the wicked so up early & on the road with our driver Sunil. To think that I did consider renting a car & driving around myself, now I am so glad that I didn’t. The traffic is chaotic, even on a Sunday, & the constant noise of the blasting horns as we weave through the constantly changing lanes of traffic is horrendous. No chance of a driver falling asleep at the wheel out here, the noise is constant. Although the horns are not used aggressively, rather they are for warning other drivers that you are there. There is a certain hierarchy amongst the various types of vehicle with the lorries & buses at the top followed by cars & such like, then the tuktuks, then the pedal rickshaws & finally the pedestrians. Apart from the traffic I find the road signs indecipherable so we would only get lost within minutes on our own.
Once we finally leave the outskirts of Delhi we see more & more cows in all the towns & villages that we pass through. The cow is still considered a sacred animal in India & seems to be allowed to roam at will wherever it fancies & this includes all over the road where drivers just avoid them without the normal horn blasting that any other road user would get. There also appears to be a cottage industry that revolves around cow pats as everywhere there are piles of neat round cow pats or at least I assume they are cow pats. Some are left out in rows to dry at the roadside & other are in tidy stacks. As far as I can see they are used as building bricks in some of the sheds & even houses in the poorer places. It looks like they are rendered on the outside with more cow dung. Must be nice for the flies.
We also see more & more monkeys as we travel around, they seem to roam at will also, but not on the roads, they are too smart. Then there are the camels which we are also starting to see along the road. They are used instead of horses or donkeys to pull carts with various loads. Mind you there are other weird looking vehicles mixed in the general melee, odd looking tractor type units, oversized tuktuks stuffed with people, normal tractors with trailers packed with colourful sari wearing women. People, people everywhere you look.
We stop after about three hours at a very touristy looking establishment with a couple of coaches outside & a couple of snake charmers & hawkers at the gate. The toilet break is welcome but every time we use a toilet here there is a man or woman waiting to hand you a tissue & collect a few rupees, which is a bit embarrassing if you don’t have any change. Inside the main building there are the usual stalls of hand crafts & souvenirs to go through before reaching the restaurant area where the prices are so inflated for the tourist that I throw a wobbly & walk out without partaking of any refreshment. That’s probably more commission that Sunil has lost but I refuse to be rooked, even if the inflated prices are only as much as you would pay back home.
We have our ever present bottles of water back in the car so we can at least have a drink. Anyway after about another hours driving Sunil spots a McDonalds beside the road & after asking us if we want to stop he makes a hasty left turn (they drive on the left out here which is nice) into the car park. This is the first Mcdonalds where we have been that doesn’t serve Big Macs, you just don’t see any beef on any of the restaurant menus, they don’t appear to eat the sacred cows. So no Big Macs, no beefburgers of any sort, just chicken & vegetarian burgers. So chicken burgers it was then & the prices were not inflated like the other place.
When we finally get to Agra it turns out to be very much like Delhi with comparable traffic & people numbers although the animals are a lot more abundant. The hotel is nice with a revolving restaurant at the top. We dump our cases & bags & off out straight away with our next guide to see the Taj Mahal before sunset. We are to see it for the first time from the gardens across the river at the back of the Taj. When we get our first glimpse of it as we drive nearer we are a little disappointed as it looks a lot smaller than we were expecting but then our guide tells us that what we are seeing is in fact the baby Taj, which is a lot smaller than the real Taj & which we will be visiting tomorrow.
When we do see the real thing it does not disappoint, even in the late afternoon mist. It stands across the river in all it’s majestic glory with the river flowing serenely past at it’s base. This is our taster before our dawn visit tomorrow when we will see it at close quarters.
Back in the car again & surprise, surprise we get to visit a craft store where we see how the beautiful marble & stone inlay that adorns the Taj Mahal is done, all by hand with authentic tools. Despite the inevitable cup of tea & all the chat we actually turn down the fantastic offer of a £2,000 marble inlay coffee table, even though the price included free delivery to our home. It was beautiful though.
We did get one bonus today though when as we were leaving the hotel for our late afternoon tour we stopped to watch a young newly wed Sikh couple come in for their wedding party in the hotel. Their wedding clothes were just so colourful & the bride was radiant, I just hope they last 47 years together as we have done.
We have dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel with views out over Agra. Can't see the Taj Mahal but can see a large yellow McDonald's sign.