Travel Tips 101: AGRA {tips} + my POV

AGRA {+ Fatehpur Sikri}
We were greeted by an eager young man – Gunddu – and decided to charter his car to Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO Heritage Site, 40 km west of Agra. Spluttering 200 metres from the Agra Cantt train station, the car came to a perpetual halt 1 km later. Reason? 
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.Photo © Penelope Gan – All Rights Reserved

Despite the false start, we arrived in Fatehpur Sikri slightly over an hour upon leaving  Hotel Amar Yatri Niwas, an over-priced business-hotel with basic amenities which decor must has been something back in the ’80s but is now painfully dated and tarnished over years of poor maintenance.

Passing acres and acres of yellow coloured rape seed (canola) fields, not once we came across dancing bears that would have greeted me with both mixed feelings of glee {of seeing a bear} and sorrow {bears in captivity dressed in hideous frills, lace and organza, forced to perform and humour senseless tourist!}.

Fatehpur Sikri in itself is a ghost city, even beyond the grounds of the ruins that spreads out as far as the eye can see. Constructed predominantly from red sandstones that was quarried from the same rocky hills in which it is built upon, the buildings fails to impress at first glance, blending in with the surroundings. However, on closer inspection the impressive restoration works, Fatehpur Sikri contains elements of Persian, Hindu, Jain and Islamic designs. It’s wide space, void of anyone, coupled with countless numbers of pillars, gave me a overcast feeling of insecurity – that of losing my travel partner in this huge fortified ghost city…   

Returning to Agra just before sunset, we had dinner at Jupiter’s (an overpriced place with the best naan we ever tasted) and was brought to a few tourist handicraft joints around Agra, where I naturally succumbed and bought silver, turquoise and ruby jewelry {gulp}.

Being geographically attuned, we quickly learned that Agra is a really small town, contrary to every single tourist tout’s claims. With that in mind, our brain storming session that night centered around  (1) “how do we get rid of Gunddu and compensate him?” since we had agreed to hire him for 2 full days, followed by (2) why did we need to tip 4 men to set up an extra bed which is expected in a triple room or rather why did it take 4 men to set-up the extra bed in the room which nobody ended up sleeping on as it was too flimsy. Anyways, we were too excited to be bothered – after all tomorrow we will be heading to the Taj Mahal – yes! another UNESCO Heritage Site to tick off my list of UNESCO Heritage Sites in the world to visit.
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You could be as kiasu (incomprehensible sense of overt competitiveness) as us…
First, we literally ran all the way from the Hotel Amar Yatri Niwas lobby to the ticket booth of Taj Mahal at 4:50 am – slight delayed since I am totally not a morning person and WT had some issues coaxing me out of my slumber. Note that 4:50 am on a January morning in Agra IS cold. Agra’s typography literally ‘opens’ it to all elements, making the wee hours of the morning and nights unbearably cold and the afternoon scorching hot.

Being at the ticket office at 5:00 am in the morning ensures that you are the first party to arrive, making depositing your belonging, getting your surgical shoe, bottled water and being thoroughly scan by armed guards a painless and speedy exercise. Oh, the surgical shoe and bottled water is included in the steep (by India’s standard) Rs 970 tickets. Prices may have soared further… please check rates.
.Photo © Penelope Gan – All Rights Reserved
As an early bird, this also translates to GREAT photo opportunities and angle … which till this day I regret not charging enthusiastic, over zealous and desperate tourist  (Japanese in particular) who asked me to step aside for a moment for them to take their shot!  

{To read more about me + my Taj photos click HERE for my previous blog entry.}
Second, we deliberately spent 5 hours in Taj Mahal to price down the per minute rate since the entrance fee was exorbitant by Indian standards. First one-and-a-half was waiting in anticipation to see the dome glow a pinkish hue as the sun rose – I highly suspect the observer wore pink tinted sunglasses or either the sun wasn’t in enough fury to cast red glows on the white marble dome.

This was followed by another hour-and-a-half wandering the grounds looking for the architectural details that have been written about and pondering over them – second guessing at the same time if we indeed found the correct architectural details.

The remaining two saw us loitering around, wearing a painful expression before we finally admitted that it was time to cut loses and attend to our rumbling tummies … so, down the hill we went imagining the hot croissants dripping with honey and fresh ground coffee in the Costa Coffee place tucked beside the hotel, that made our hotel choice by pure coincidence a GREAT choice!

Just when we thought we had gotten rid of Gunddu via the Hotel Manager with a hefty tip … oh boy were we wrong! There he was at the foot of the hill with a huge grin on his face.  WTH?!? Thank god for WT – my saviour – he took charge of the situation and confronted Gunddu … and renegotiated a new deal. It was clear we were stuck with him for the day and he had sneakily taken the generous tip.

Adamant not to spoil my Costa Coffee brunch, I went on with my croissant-coffee mission, marching at great speed.

{gulp}

Coffee is fine.
But do NOT consume the croissant regardless of any reason or urge. This warning is to be taken as seriously as the Radioactive signs in Chernobyl.

After more rounds of touristy shops where I was forced to look at hand woven carpets, wool carpets, hand sewn rugs … inlaid marble pieces, carved marble sculpture, silver trinkets, mirrored fabric artwork (why on earth in Agra when it’s a Rajasthani handicraft???) … we were finally dropped-off and freed from Gunddu at Agra Fort, yet another UNESCO Heritage Site.

Agra Fort was definitely the highlight of my Agra trip. I mean this is a walled palatial CITY!!! It’s size  is impressive. Period.

Despite the scorching Agra sun, I enjoyed every square inch of the place – walking through 4 generations of great builders. 4 great historical time lines with extremely diverse architectural style and influences.

In all, Agra Fort (I can not  emphasize enough) is definitely a MUST, even more so than the Taj Mahal if you were to ask my humble opinion. The Taj, like the Mona Lisa is merely a MUST see because it is the Taj Mahal (eyes rolling) … but really, read between the lines here … it ranks in the Mona Lisa league, whereby it fails miserably in meeting one’s expectation. So, keep your expectations, illusions, vision in check before running to the Taj gates like we did!

Oh, also if someone tells you if you’ve seen the Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Delhi, you can give the Agra Fort a missed, I’ll recommend the opposite unless you are really hard pressed with time. The Lal Qila is child’s play compared to the Agra Fort.

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