Agra has two main attractions – the Taj Mahal and the Agra fort. The first is more famous, most probably due to being clean and more westernised than any other place of interest, much more advertised literally everywhere, and charging you much more too. This is not to say the Taj is not nice – it is, but not so special after all, and there is not so much to see to be honest. Agra fort is a remote copy of the Lal Quila inDelhi, or rather the other way round, is a large complex of buildings and a home to monkeys and green parrots. Not as white as Taj, but who cares? Monkeys and parrots are better!
The idea to book a hotel in Agra was a good one, for we had a place to dump the bags and have a shower before boarding on a night train same evening. The prepaid taxi driver from the train station to the hotel was all nice and charming, 2 mins after we had set off he pulled out a notebook with “He is a really nice guy! I really recommend him!” written in Russian, apparently by his Russian lady-friend. How sweet. Next, as usual, he enquired in detail about our travel plans and was aghast to hear that we are only 1 day in Agra.
- Oh, and you can hire this car for the whole day! To take you to the Taj and the Fort.
- Ummmmm - said I.
The offer was repeated twice more, the last time when we pulled off by the hotel with the Taj clearly in the view.
- No thank you.
- No?! But how will you get to the Taj?!
- It’s just here, we will walk.
- And to the Fort?!
- Walk too.
- It’s very far, it’s not possible!
- You know, we walked for 8 hours straight in Delhi yesterday, and it was good – said I. While he was digesting this information, we picked up the bags and hid in the hotel.
Put the bags down, and off to the Taj. No smog here, thus warmer but not unbearable. Once you get to the gate, you are informed that the ticket office is 1 km away, in that direction. Ok, we walk there dodging rikshas and promising a teenage guy called Lucky to have a look at his shop after Taj. Tickets come with a complimentary compulsory bottle of water to foreigners (why only here? A tourist death from overheating at any other monument is probably of minor importance, but the Taj’s reputation can’t be tarnished by anything like this). There are also paid lockers by the ticket window, the message saying “Don’t carry any valuables in your bag”. Allrighty. So back we are at the gates, greeted by Lucky again, yes we will visit your shop we promise, and going through the body scanners and bag checks. I was stupid enough to have the swiss knife and a torch in my pocket, and these two are not allowed inside.
- You need to leave these at the lockers.
- Are there lockers around here?
- No, at the ticket office.
- But it’s 1 km away!
- Yes. Do you have a guide with you? – these come for only 200 rupees extra.
- Call your husband here madam, tell him.
So I do, ignoring the husband bit. Somehow it doesn’t solve anything. Meanwhile my knife and torch are put aside, and I am hopeful I can just pick them up, but no.
- Speak to my senior over there, madam. – ok, I face the Senior guy now.
- These are not allowed inside. Do you have a guide with you?
- No, and I don’t want to walk to the lockers. Can I just leave these things here in a tray and pick them up later?
- But anyone can take them from here.
- No problem with me.
- Ok then.
The knife and torch are in the tray, placed right behind the scanners, and off we go. On the way back I picked them up from exactly the same tray, carefully hidden under a newspaper that was lining it.
- It’s so that no-one steals it – I said.
- No, it’s so that you can’t find it – said Vanya.
About an hour long walk from the Taj to the Fort was along quite a nice road between the two parks, with no sidewalks and full of eager rikshas. When we stop for a minute to look at the map (strategically walking on the right side of the road, mind you!), a riksha immediately stops by and barricades us with his vehicle. Something clicks in my head and it all stops being annoying, it’s just too funny. “What are you doing?” I asks him and laugh. He laughs too but holds the tuk-tuk where it is. We walk away and he leaves.
Fort done, on the way back we are finally talked into a riksha who swears that he will take us to wherever we want for only 20 rupees, and he has change from a 100. We ask to go to a place where we can get a car taxi. When we are in the tuk-tuk, another guy jumps in, takes a seat next to the driver and they start driving us somewhere. 10 mins later we are at some shady office, giving the riksha 100 rupees.
- But I don’t have change! – looks really bemused. Then to his sturman – do you have change?
- Look, you said you had the change. This is why we went with you. – I’m trying to sound like a school teacher telling off a kid. Amazingly it works, he fished out quite some banknotes and gives us 80 back, smiling happily – thank you!
Further we go by a car, and ask the driver twice if he knows where the hotel is. Yes he does. Then he stops at the petrol station, gets out, pops his head in and says
- I need to get petrol
- Ok, we’ll wait.
- 200 rupees.
- Ok, you pay, we wait.
- 270 rupees!
- Ok, go pay.
- Ok, 100 rupees.
- What do you mean?
- Money! – he looks at us quite aggressively.
- Look, we are not paying you anything now. If you want to buy petrol, pay your own money. We’ll pay you when you bring us to the hotel.
He walks around the car, doesn’t put any petrol in, gets back in and drives quietly to our hotel. Emerges all smileys, opens the door for me with a little bow and a smile, gets the agreed before with his boss money and looking very happily leaves. What the hell? People are trying to cheat you right there and then, but being very straightforward like small kids stealing candies. But if you catch their hand and tell them off, they stop it and behave, with no remorse of course. Is it how is works here? We’ll see.
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