Traveling to the Taj Mahal
But seriously, what did you do for your favorite wife?
Voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal is the grandest gesture of love you may ever stumble upon. Commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan, this huge and majestic mausoleum houses the tomb of his favorite wife. It took over 22 years to build, the labor of 1,000 elephants and over 20,000 men, using no modern technology (obviously). It was completely hand carved in ivory-white marble and broke ground around 1632, and completed entirely in 1653.
I flew into Delhi, and therefore getting to the Taj Mahal meant taking a train down to the city of Agra, where the famed palace resides. Agra is definitely a day trip, as the small city doesn't have much to offer outside of the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and the Mughal markets. Filled with handicrafts, the markets include carpets, marble, jewelry, and fabrics. These are great places to go, as you'll be able to escape the heat by going inside air-conditioned buildings, but you will also be pressured into buying items from each location.
Getting a train down from Delhi to Agra sounds simple enough, right? Well, let me just say, nothing is simple in India! At the train station, you will run into a busy frenzy of people traveling to all kinds of locations (India's railways are extensive and highly utilized to get around the massive country.) Most trains in India are packed and over-flowing without AC. Thankfully that's not the case with the express train.
Heading to the ticket counter, you'll find that "cues" don't exist, and instead it's a fight to get to the small round window. Cutting in front of each other and huddling around the window is common practice and you will have to come prepared to be aggressive in your stance. Once you finally get to the window, you'll have to work to understand the person, as English will not be their first language, and the others that are loudly pushing and jarring around you will not make it any easier.
Once you fill out the necessary paperwork and get your ticket, then you can go to the train terminal listed. The express train from Delhi to Agra is air-conditioned (which is a luxury in India.) You'll be assigned a seat that will slightly recline, and you will also receive a meal with your ticket purchase (breakfast on the way there, dinner on the way back.) The food is safe, and pretty good, and you get a huge bottle of water to carry around as well.
Arriving in Agra, if you look up when exiting the train, you may spot families of monkeys running around the rafters above you. Tuk Tuk drivers will seek you out, trying their best to talk you into hiring them at higher than necessary prices. Instead, say "no, thank you" and make your way to the exit. This will not stop them, as they are very persistent, so ignore them afterwards and walk forward, confidently. Once you exit the building, you will run into dozens more (seriously) who will fight over one another to get your business. Walk straight to the fixed-price booth outside, and there you can get a driver for a minimal set price, with no bargaining needed.
Vikram was the driver that I got assigned, and he did a great job telling me about everything; where to go, what to be weary of, and the history behind it all. You can choose to hire a driver one way, but know that it is much easier (and cheaper) to just hire a driver for the full day. That way you can go to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, the markets, etc. without having to find a new driver and hassle with debating prices all day. They will wait for you while you visit each spot, and Vikram also had a great clean, safe, and cool place ready for lunch.
Once you get on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, you'll purchase your ticket at the "foreigner" window, where you will also get little mesh booties and a bottled water (complimentary with your purchase.) If anyone approaches you, and they will, offering guide services "free of charge/included in your ticket price," don't believe them. They will still expect money, and honestly, a tour guide isn't needed. You'll head through security and then enter through the main gate where you will be taken aback by the splendor of the grand Taj Mahal. Be prepared to fill all of your phone's storage with selfies and pictures of the gardens and buildings.
To the right and left of the Taj Mahal, are two identical red sandstone buildings; one is a mosque, the other a residence. You can enter both of them as well. The booties you'll need to slip on over your shoes before entering the Taj Mahal. Inside is the emperor and his wife's tomb, as well as beautiful marble work, precious stones carved into the walls in intricate and beautiful designs, and, looking up, you can see the base of the huge dome.
Once you've made you're way around the gardens and feel that your visit is complete, head back out of the main gate, to the busy streets and loud horns. You can then visit Agra Fort, which isn't far away. It's a huge fort, occupied by military now, that houses the palaces of the Mughal rulers. You can only access 25% of the fort, but it's huge and the white and black stone palaces are very majestic. You can even get views of the Taj Mahal from atop the balconies, in the distance.
Between the loud commotion of the day and the overwhelming heat, a nap on the train back to Delhi did me good. The trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something amazing to mark off of your bucket list. Just like experiencing New Year's Eve in Times Square, it's an event like no other, and one that you quickly acknowledge will never happen again.
Taj Mahal entry fee: 1000 Rs. (approx. $15.50 USD)
Agra Fort entry fee: 550 Rs. (approx. $8.50 USD)
Tuk Tuk driver hire for day/ per person: approx. 400-450 Rs. (approx. $6-7 USD)