04.10.2007 - 04.10.2007 35 °C
The alarm goes off at 05:00 and I stagger out of bed, bleary eyed. It's time to catch the VERY "red-eye", 6:00 am express to Agra, home to the symbol of India - the Taj Mahal. As usual, we're met at the station by a young man bearing a sign with my mis-spelt name and pretty soon we're bundled into a taxi and ferried off to the "Royal Residency", yet another hotel in the final stages of construction.
I'm actually quite amazed at the number of permutations of mis-spelling my surname can generate. Normally, when people in Oz mis-spell "McDonald" they add another "a" to make it "MacDonald". But here in India I've observed the following combinations on the signs awaiting me at stations: "MacDonald", "McNonald", and here at Agra, I think, MacNdonld! But it doesn't end there - I observed a sign in our train carriage that assures you that the carriage was "Disinfested on the 12/5/2007" and the restaurant menu that proudly displays it's liquid refreshments under the heading of "Bavarages", or the hotel in Jaipur with the following signage: "Night Staying Facility"!
After freshening up, we take a taxi to the Taj. Now, the touts we've met so far in India have been pretty aggressive, but here in Agra they have reached a whole new level of obnoxiousness - probably due to sheer practise, I guess, given the number of visitors to the area. Our experiences in Jaipur were a good illustration of what to expect in the way of touts in India, as this was the only time there was no-one waiting at the station to ferry us off to the hotel: Six or seven touts, sniffing fresh "gringo" meat, surrounded us in a semi-circle at the station exit and tried to entice us to their hotel, assuring us that our current hotel either didn't exist or had lost our booking. This in turn attracted other touts and onlookers, and pretty soon a crowd has developed, being serviced by food-sellers, beggars, and other assorted cottage industries. If we had stayed in the same position long enough, I'm sure whole suburbs and city infrastructure would have sprung up around us!! Here in Agra, the approaches to the Taj Mahal are swarming with hawkers selling guide books, Taj Mahal snowdomes, leather whips (!) and other assorted junk. I steel myself and forge ahead to the entrance, trying not to look any of them in the eye!
Finally we're in, and there it is - what can I say? I've seen the Taj Mahal a million times in photos and books but nothing compares to seeing it in the flesh - a magnificent, symmetrical, white marble construction built by Shah Jahan in the 1630's as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Below is the "money shot" of the trip, yours truly sitting in front of the Taj. This photo will be added to the collection of me in front of the pyramids at Giza, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the World Trade Center in New York. I would add more photos if I had more time and the internet connection was more reliable, but for now you will have to be content with this little morsel!
The afternoon and night was fairly uneventful - we found a decent rooftop restaurant and kept on frequenting it for the remainder of our stay. We also visited an emporium that specialised in marble inlay work (the craftsmen being the descendents of those who built the Taj) and I was THIS close to buying, but my tightfisted Scottish blood got the better of me and I resisted!