Chapter Three - The place everyone visits : Agra
Agra Fort was a magical place to be at dusk. So was the Taj Mahal. So, the best thing is to be there at least two nights. Personally, I found the atmosphere at the fort even better than at the Taj. Why ? Hard to say. Probably it's because when you sit there at the octagonal tower, looking at the Taj in the distance, you get a similar feeling to the one that Sjah Jahan might have experienced when seeing his creation. It's so mysterious, so beautiful and yet unreachable (for us only a few minutes drive away actually). The Taj' beauty you have heard about so many times, you've seen it on TV so many times. But it's still very, very impressive when you see it for real. But the threshold between the expected and the reality is lower than for a place like, for instance, Agra Fort. This place was strange, new for me. So the threshold is much higher; there's more impact here, if you understand what I mean.
Entry to the fort is Rs 2, to the Taj Mahal it's Rs 10.50. Photography is officially not allowed inside the Taj or on or near the platform that it's on. In practice, you shouldn't worry about using the camera anywhere but the inside. I found the platform in front of the Taj one of the best places also to photograph people. There are many different types of people, often wearing colourful clothing. As everybody supposes that you are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal, it produces some great, not-posed-for photographs and great portraits with a telephoto lens. Photogenic I also found the immensely crowded and too narrow bridge over the Yamuna near the fort and the Itimad ud-Daulah. Entry here is Rs 2 and there are a lot of photographic opportunities. Inside though, some guy may come up to you and tell that it's not allowed to take shots inside. Don't worry about him. It is. That dude will probably also say to you : "...but okay, you can take your shot, I'll look out for you", and expect a tip. If so, do like me and say that you didn't know it was prohibited. Apologise and tell him that you would never indulge in such an illegal matter. Then walk out. He'll be left standing there with nothing to say and with no money to take away from you. Walk around the back of the building, get back in and take your snap.
My place to stay in Agra was the Hotel Agra Deluxe. This is the former Hotel Shahanshah Inn (the proprietor is the same, just the name has been changed). On the street one can see signs of both hotel names. The manager told me that he leaves the old one there for a while because some people are familiar with that name. The cheapest single on offer was Rs 600, but after I explained that I was looking for something cheaper, the receptionist said "I know what you are looking for. You are looking for a room more around the Rs 300 mark, right ?" I nodded and was taken to the room behind the reception. It was quite all right, only suffering from the noise of the reception office (but I'm a good sleeper). It also didn't have air-conditioning, or better, it had, but it was out of order. There was a fan and a shower with hot water. And 300 rupees was the price, excl. 10% taxes. I took it. In the same building is also the Nishat Restaurant, which was very good and cheap enough. Service was also very much OK and a live Indian music band performed at night.
Today I read in the newspaper that the Indian government is going to close down 106 factories in the immediate vicinity of the Taj Mahal as to protect the monument from further destruction. The colouring of the originally snow white marble by corrosive and polluting gases should now be halted. Around Agra, Akbar's Mausoleum at Sikandra was worth its time. Entrance here is Rs 2. Beware of 'guides' that appear as soon as you arrive and who will buy your tickets even after you have refused them. They will then force you to take them or charge you unreasonable prices for the tickets. Very firm language is the only one these guys speak. Losing face has not to be taken into account here!
On the way to Fatehpur Sikri you may spot men with bears. If you stop to have your photo taken with them, expect to pay exuberant prices. If you don't agree on a price (and do it fast, before any of the bears do any performing) they'll ask you Rs 400 or 500. Don't even think of paying them less then Rs 100... per bear ! If you do so they'll let their bears grab you which can be frightening if you're not expecting this to happen. By the way, bears are dangerous animals and they don't wear any muzzles here !
The Fatehpur Sikri monuments are divided into two groups for which you have to pay separately. The first group consists of the enclosure of Shahi Darwaza, Buland Darwaza, Jami Masjid and Shaikh Salim Chisti's Tomb and costs Rs 4.50 to enter. The second costs 50 paise for which you can see the Palace of Jodh Bai, Birbal Bhavan, the Karawan Serai, Ankh Micholi, Panch Mahal and the nearby gardens called the Char Chaman, Palace o/t Christian Wife, Diwan-I-Am, Diwan-i-Khas, Naubat Khana and Rumi Sultana. I took a guide with me to the first group who, after a little bargaining, charged only about Rs 30 for the whole time. He stayed with me for about two hours and was very informative. I hired him at Agra gate.