Another long travel time today to Agra with highways that break apart in between resulting in lots of sudden stops. The infrastructure in India is in a terrible shape resulting in long journey time. This was unlike in China which have a superb rail and road infrastructure that makes it easier for travellers to get from one point to another quickly.
On the way to Agra, my driver was caught for speeding, and I think he paid around 1,000 INR in the form of a bribe. It took around 3 hours of non-stop driving to arrive at Fatehpur Sikri which was underwhelming since there was lots of touts and self professed guides. This is another reason that can push people from visiting India. I haggled with one of the young guides who says he would include the bus tickets in his guide fee as well. I think I paid around 500 Rupees for the guide. Fatehpur Sikri is another of those large city complex built by a series of Mughal emperors. This one was built by Akbar, the 3rd ruler succeeding Humayun, whose tomb I visited in Delhi.
From the carpark, visitors need to travel by bus from the parking lot to the site and they need to take off their shoes to enter the Jama Masjid or the Jama Mosque. A large courtyard greeted us when we entered which befits the name ‘Jama’ since it meant congregational. It definitely would be an extraordinary sight on Friday afternoons when Muslims hold their prayer session here.
One thing that tourists need to be aware of is that there were tours pushing for visitors to pay for cloth and praying ornaments that was to be made as offerings in the tomb of Salim Chishti. The tomb is a white marble pavilion that stands out amongst the red sandstone building of the mosque in the middle of the courtyard. Inside there is the main cenotaph where visitors present the cloth and seek blessings. According to my guide, the cloth would be presented to poor and needy women at the end of the day though I am a bit skeptical on that.
The guide did a good job in explaining the various features of the site including the tomb for the male descendants of Salim Chishti and how the lattice screens act as separation for the male and female cenotaphs.
The main highlight within Fatehpur Sikri though has got to be the Buland Darwaza that was meant to symbolize a victory monument for Akbar’s successful campaign against Gujarat. The monument was one of the tallest gates that acted as a grand entrance into the mosque as well.
Visitors would need to rely on the bus as well to return to the parking lot and upon returning, do expect to be pulled over to souvenir shops selling candleholders, marble coasters and other souvenirs. Not the best experience in my opinion since the sellers can sometimes be pushy. While the people was not the best experience in this destination, I thought the place is nice for a stop if you can afford the time due to the historical significance of the place as a royal city of the Mughals but also for its mosque architecture.
The next morning I had intended to visit Taj Mahal and this was supposed to be the highlight of my trip but the foggy weather ruined it for me. Arriving early at around 6:30am, I had to wait before the ticket office opened and there was already a group of tourists waiting. Do beware of the guides who wants to charge you extra, and I think 500-800 rupees are reasonable depending on how large your group is. Also do wear extra clothing like a jacket as it can get colder around the Taj Mahal in winter.
My guide bought tickets for me and the ticket prices for foreigners includes shoe cover, maps and a bottle of water, along with free cart transport to the entrance gate. Tricycle and horse carriages are extra and these drivers can be tough to ride with as they all ask for extra tips and fees. Remember to be firm on your prices when you negotiate!
From the visitor centre, the cart ride took probably around 5 minutes and drops us off at the West Gate of the complex where we waited again for probably another 20 minutes for the Taj Complex to open. However the fog have not cleared yet by the time it opens and thus the walk to the main gate was still shrouded in fog.
My guide escorted me across the gardens and pointed out the bench at the fountain where Princess Diana and many other celebrities had their picture taken with the Taj Mahal. In the Taj Mahal itself, the guide explained the use of lapis lazuli on the marble frescoes around the entrance to the mausoleum. Again due to the fog, it was a bit dark within the tomb unlike my visit to the Humayun’s Tomb. Then we walked once around the Taj Mahal, as the guide went on to explain the optical illusions on the towers to make it look straight.
The next stop we went to was the Mehmaan Khana or the guest house of the Taj Mahal located on the east side of the mausoleum. Unlike the Taj Mahal which was built in white marble this building is similar to the mosque on the west side and built from red sandstone, the choice materials for much of the Mughal architecture. This created a good contrast against the fog.
Due to the fog, I did not get a good photo of the Taj Mahal itself and even after spending some time waiting for the fog to clear which it did not so that was disappointing. But I did made full use of my time by enjoying the wonderful ambience the fog creates over the Taj Mahal. By looking on the bright side, I got some good shots showing the mystery of the Taj Mahal. Exploring the whole Taj Mahal complex should take probably 1-1.5 hours, and there is also a museum that opens later from 9am, but I did not wait since it was just too cold and the fog does not seem to clear up at all.
The drive back to Delhi via the Yamuna expressway was the best since as my driver said it and this time there was no cows or anything else for that matter on the road. It was actually very empty even with a toll fee of 320 Rupees. Along the way though, we witnessed some accidents which my driver attributed to the fog in the morning. Reached Delhi’s Indira Gandhi airport in about 3 hours from the entry of the expressway though not without any drama as the police caught my driver speeding again. This was even though he was driving at 107 on a 100 stretch. Most probably the police mark certain cars for the money is my opinion and again my driver had to pay another unofficial fine.
During the journey closer to Delhi, I also witnessed the change from agrarian countryside to the construction around Noida with lots of new buildings. This was even more noticeable after the Buddh International Racetrack where the F1 race is held at in New Delhi around October. The drive back to Delhi surely shows the pace of developments in the country and it would be nice if India manages to build highways and high speed rail to Jaipur and Agra for added convenience to visit some of the wonderful Mughal architectures in the region!