The Jaipur-Agra Shatabdi Express train is a bit more expensive then your standard Indian train, costing around 700 Rupees (£8.40), but for me it really was worth it. The journey from Jaipur to Agra took 3 and a half hours, had comfortable reclining seats with tea, biscuits, water, a vegetarian breakfast and a newspaper included. I had my doubts about Agra from what I had heard from other travellers, but for me it was a very pleasant experience. I don’t think people give it the amount of time it deserves.
We decided to stay about a 15 minute walk from the East Gate of the Taj Mahal, down a road full of a range of different hostels. We went very cheap at 300 Rupees (£3.60) a night in Namastey Hostel, which had a comfortableish bed, a squat toilet and a hot, yet very weak shower. We could have spent 800-1000 Rupees (£10-12) a night and stayed across the road at either Moustache Hostel or Backpacker Panda but I didn’t think it was worth spending the extra money. We spent a total of 2 nights and went out to explore on the first day after a short rest because of our early train. We walked down the road that approaches the East Gate and found the Taj Nature Walk on the right hand side. It cost 100 Rupees (£1.20) to enter the grounds but was incredibly peaceful inside. You can see a large variety of rare birds, peacocks weave in and out of the trees and confident chipmunks scurry around, not paying you the slightest bit of attention. You also get a fantastic view of the Taj Mahal from atop a hill with nobody else around and it offers some fantastic photo opportunities.
The following day we woke up at 05:30 to try and beat the crowds for the Taj Mahal. We left our hostel at 06:00 and made our way towards the Taj. The ticket office is on the left hand side, around 500 metres from the entrance. It opens at 06:45 and when we arrived around 06:15 there was already a quickly forming queue. There is a separate queue for foreigners and for locals and also a hefty price difference, 10 Rupees (£0.12) for a local, 1000 Rupees (£12) for a foreigner… crazy. After grabbing your ticket don’t forget to pick up your free map, shoe covers (for inside the mausoleum) and bottle of water from just outside the ticket booth. If you can’t be bothered to walk the 500m or so to the gate entrance you can jump in a cycle rickshaw, but we weren’t that lazy. Once reaching the gate I was expecting swarms of beggars but I didn’t see one, perhaps it was the time of morning or the government has cracked down. You then join another queue to have your ticket checked, men and women queue separately, and then you have a pat down and your bags searched if you have one. The Taj was as amazing as I was expecting, yet I was slightly disappointed in the scaffolding that was on one of the pillars. It was built in 1631 by Emperor Shahjahan as a memorial for his beloved wife Arjumand Bano Begumn, who died during her 14th pregnancy. There is a mosque on one side and an identical building on the other, which isn’t a mosque, it is simply there to keep the symmetry. The pillars all slant slightly away from the main building, in case of an earthquake, where they would crumble away from the Taj Mahal so not to damage the main building. The gardens are equally as fantastic with the design taken from the Qur’ans description of paradise.
We decided to leave the Taj Mahal via the South Gate, so we could grab a Costa Coffee for the first time in over 8 months. This was a little bit silly and more expensive then we could really afford, perhaps that’s because I had 2 lattes and 2 chocolate brownies, however a diabetic has to treat himself once in a while! From Costa we walked over to Agra Fort, something which is often missed by visitors as they are only interested in seeing the Taj and then leaving. The Fort cost 500 Rupees (£6) to enter but was brilliant, built in 1565 in a striking red sandstone. It is absolutely huge and you can easily lose a couple of hours exploring this fantastic old building. From the fort we took a walk back to our hostel, through a beautiful quiet park leading up to the West Gate of the Taj Mahal. This is the way I would recommend walking to the Fort from the Taj if you’d don’t want a cheeky Costa! In all fairness it was quite a long walk, around 35 minutes but it was nice, quiet and very relaxing.
The following day we caught a night train to Amritsar, leaving at 16:20 and arriving in Amritsar at 08:10 the next morning. Of course the train didn’t leave and arrive at these times, there are always delays, but it was close enough! We were travelling by Sleeper Class for the final time and it was by far the busiest it had been for us, due to the fact the train was passing through Delhi. It seemed like every person in India was squeezing on the train which was quite an experience, but I eventually got my bed around 23:00!We arrived in Amritsar just before 09:00 and caught a 100 Rupee rickshaw to our hotel. We were only staying about a mile away from the train station but didn’t fancy the walk due to me messing up the dates of the trains and having under 24 hours in Amritsar. We checked in at 10:00, had a shower and some breakfast and set out to explore, our first and only taste of the Punjab. It is a predominately Sikh state and for me it felt different from the other areas of India I had been, which are Hindu. It was busy, chaotic and noisy (nothing new there) but the rickshaw drivers took no for an answer, everyone appeared happy and there were not any beggars on the streets. We walked over to the Golden Temple and after depositing our shoes for free, washing our feet for free, covering our heads for free and entering the Golden Temple complex… for free, we were greeted with the magnificent temple glowing in the morning sunlight. Everywhere you go in India there is a tourist price for everything, hence why I was so surprised that everything was free. Inside the temple complex there was a fantastic atmosphere with thousands of colourful people who flock there each day to wash in the Holy Water or accept a free meal. The queue to enter the temple itself was humongous so we decided not to go in, the wait was over four hours. We took our time strolling around, taking photos with beaming school children and soaking up the fantastic atmosphere, it was one of my favourite experiences in India. After we walked for 20 minutes over to the Hanuman Mandir Temple, which looks pretty much identical, however it is a Hindu Temple not a Sikh Temple and there were about 4 people inside. Clearly nobody knows, or perhaps cares about this one, however for me it was definitely worth the walk. We then headed back over towards the Golden Temple and visited Jallianwala Bagh, a memorial for the hundreds of innocent people killed by the British when they were peacefully protesting for independence. It was a nice area to visit and interesting to see and read about, there are bullet holes still visible in a couple of places where the shootings took place. We then grabbed some food in Neelam’s, which I would highly recommend, especially the Punjab thali, before we went back to our hotel ready for our 05:00 train to our last stop in India, Delhi.