We asked the receptionist about how to reach the Taj in the morning and also where we could leave our luggage there – he said luggage is not allowed and advised us to leave the luggage in the railway station since there is no place in the Taj Mahal for baggage. Sounded a little suspicious but he was supremely confident.
A few of us took a stroll around the railway station – none of the shops were open at this hour of the night except for a small stall where we had tea and biscuits. When we returned to the lounge, I tried to catch some sleep in the non-AC area sitting on the chair but wasn’t successful – i felt fairly energetic and ended up plugging my phone to the charger and reading information about the various entrances to the Taj Mahal – south, east and west gates. The official site said the Southern gate is not open for entry; the east and west gates open an hour before sunrise. We had already bought tickets online – there is an extra Rs. 200 ticket for visiting the main mausoleum which also we bought online though we had no idea what the mausoleum contained. The official site didn’t have any mention about a cloak room though in one of the pictures it looked like there was some facility available in the Western gate. There are plenty of online forums where people give their opinions – but even from those I couldn’t conclude one way or the other. After all the digging I made up my mind that we’d go to the Western gate – there were also reviews by people saying taxis take you to the wrong gates closer to shops; not surprising that the ‘market’ tie-up exists here! Leaving our bags in the station, visiting the Taj, coming back to pick up our luggage and then heading to the bus station wasn’t an option for sure. We had to take our chance.
Horror of the toilet
I took a break to explore the other areas of the lounge – not much more to it; there was a small dining area where there were four large stainless steel empty buffet trays on a table. Beside this room were the bathrooms – the urinals were fine, the shower room was ok but the western toilet was a mess and I dreaded the thought of having to use it in the morning. The boys in the AC room were in deep sleep.
The Taj Mahal as per Google was only 6 kms away from the station; we could possibly even walk the distance but we had been warned before our travel that Agra is not the place for walking around the city – ‘the city is dirty, it’s unclean, there’s garbage everywhere, don’t walk on the roads’ were some of the warnings. And even without the warnings I doubt anyone from the gang would have been interested in an early morning walk sacrificing their sleep. From 5am I was waiting for someone to get up so that we could get moving.
At 5:20 our leader was awake; he came out to go to the bathroom. The toilet was still disgusting and I was willing to hold off using the toilet till we reached the Taj! Our leader walked to the receptionist and asked, “Are there any ladies staying?”
“Can you give us the key to the ladies toilet. Many of us are there and we can leave faster if we use the other toilet.”
After a momentary pause he agreed. To our delight the ladies toilet was clean; they had obviously locked it up after cleaning the place. We took our time to ensure that we didn’t have to visit another public toilet for downloading today. This is one problem that backpacker’s in India generally face!
A reverse auction
At 5:50am the first batch moved out; there were auto drivers loitering inside the train station mobbing us as soon as they knew we were heading to the Taj. We were firm in saying that we wanted to go to the West gate. The auto driver asked us to follow him through a back route out of the station but he was intercepted by another driver who wanted to take us to his auto. An auction type argument broke out between the drivers – Rs. 40 per head is where it started. ’40, 35, 30, 25,’ is where it stopped! We went with the Rs. 25 per head fare; all the while we kept repeating “West Gate” to all of them!
On the way we stopped at a roadside tea shop; it was still dark but from what I saw the roads didn’t look all that dirty; this was just like any other city in India. All along the ride I felt that we could definitely have walked the street. New city, dark streets, unknown driver does put you in a state of heightened awareness. But the boards on shops along the way mentioned ‘West Gate’ as part of their address – so at least we weren’t far off from our destination. We got dropped in a small street, the entrance to which was barricaded. A police vehicle with 3 cops manned the other side of the barricade. We walked past them down a lane to end up at the entrance gate to the Taj; there were two queues of foreigners waiting. There was no sign of any cloak room and we asked one of the security guards manning the entrance, “Where can we leave our luggage?”
He pointed us in the direction of the ticketing counter. As we neared that we saw more people – mostly foreigners again but we didn’t see any board about a cloak room. After enquiry we were guided to another location that was about 10 minutes from the ticketing counter. On the way to the cloak room there were guys trying to sell us plastic covers for our feet – this is similar to what is provided in Akshardham for entering the main temple but over here it costs money. I was suspicious about it and didn’t pause to hear out the vendor. We were the first people to put our luggage today in the cloak room. The guy methodically arranged all our bags in an empty room and gave us a token.
“It’s getting late. Let’s run. The sun is rising.”
And we jogged towards the gate to get in the queue; but the one for Indians barely had 5 people while the foreigners queue was a lengthy one! They had obviously planned their trip a lot better than us – they would have booked hotel rooms, left their bags in the hotel and come here early.
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