We woke up early on New Year’s Day to go to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We left the hotel at 6:30 AM so that we could see the sights and make it back in one day. Agra is about 200 km (120 miles) from Delhi. I must say I was confused when the tour operator estimated it would take 4 hours to drive there. That’s an average of 30 miles per hour on a major highway between the capital and the largest tourist attraction in India. From Shanghai, I can take the high speed rail and get to Hangzhou from Shanghai (distance of 160 kilometers) in about 1 ¼ hours.
Once we were on the road, however, I understood. The road itself was better than expected. Two lanes in each direction, sometimes separated by a 3 inch high curb. The problem is the fact that it seems to be used by every type of vehicle known to man and every animal on Noah’s Ark. First there are the big trucks, spewing diesel fumes. Then there are buses, passenger cars and motorcycles. Then come the autorickshaws – three-wheeled carts with 100 cc engines. Occasionally, we would pass by a farm tractor pulling a bed of hay. Finally, there are people on bicycles, riding alongside the diesel trucks. Camels seemed to be the dominant mode of long distance transportation on the animal kingdom side. There were quite a few pulling some carts. However, there were elephants as well, carrying grass on their backs.
Despite their popularity in the rest of the world, I only saw two horses on the highway to Agra. Although they aren’t “using” the road, we did also see many dogs, monkeys, goats and of course cows sitting on the side, or trying to cross the road. As a result of all these obstacles, we got to Agra in just about 4 ½ hours, including a stop for breakfast.
The Taj Mahal really was nice. Definitely worth the trip. I won’t describe the Taj itself too much because everybody has seen pictures and my verbal description can’t add much. I will say though that the view from the back of the Taj Mahal was interesting. The site is located on the banks of a river facing what was to become a black version of the white Taj Mahal, and wihin sight of the Agra Fort, a palace for the Sultan. Even today, the view is impressive, until you see the garbage on the other side of the river and the people picking through it. Wherever you go in India, you are constantly reminded of the absolute poverty there.
After the Taj Mahal, we visited some other less famous and interesting sites, including the Agra Fort, and then quickly sped home at 40 km/hour and go to sleep.
The one other interesting part of our trip was that we shared the van ride with an Indian couple. The husband was from the United States (although born in Tanzania); the wife was born and raised in South Africa. When we told them it was nearly our 6th day in India, they asked us if we too were dying to leave. We then spent much of the day talking about the difficulty of living and traveling in India.