Hello from India's biggest tourist hotspot, Agra. The vast majority of travelers to India will visit this city of 1.3 million at some point during their trip to the subcontinent, and the reason why is simple - Agra is home to the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal. If it wasn't for the Taj Mahal I'm not sure if I would have come to India this trip, and I'm sure that's the case for many other travelers as well. So I wasn't disappointed when we turned up at our hotel to find it was situated less than 1km from the Taj entrance, with our customary rooftop restaurant affording us a distant view of the monument.
Our guide advised us to wait until sunset before entering the Taj, so we spent our afternoon at another of Agra's famous monuments, the Red Fort. This was the second Red Fort I had visited in India - the first being the Delhi Red Fort - though this one was much better preserved. It was basically constructed to act as an impregnable barrier between invading forces and the Mughal King, who for a long time was Shan Jahal, the man who built the Taj Mahal. Remarkably, that man was also held prisoner in the fort for the last 9 years of his life, as his son deposed him as Mughal ruler. Such a sorry end to life for a man responsible for so much of North India's greatest architecture - his talents weren't just limited to the Taj. The fort had many lovely gardens and a lot of nicely preserved carvings, but perhaps its greatest asset was distant and unobstructed views of the Taj itself. The greatest concentration of the tourist hordes was unsurprisingly on the terrace offering Taj views.
We spent one hour sightseeing at the Red Fort and then went back to our hotel for a short rest, before the time finally arrived to take the short walk to the Taj's eastern gate. The roads immediately around the Taj Mahal were very quiet traffic wise and so easily walkable. Around a decade ago the Indian government brought in pollution restrictions near the Taj because its brilliant white colour was being faded, but these have worked a treat. No vehicles can go immediately up to the eastern gate for anti-terrorism reasons, and there is a 1km exclusion zone to any vehicle not operating on green fuel. The Taj is thankfully back to its brilliant white colour, and looks good as new thanks to these measures.
Walking out into the Taj Mahal gardens through the eastern gate was probably the final spine chillingly amazing moment of my round the world trip. The view was exactly how you see it in the postcards and on TV, but just to be there was incredible, and not even the throngs of tourists could distract from the feeling. The Taj Mahal is an absolute masterpiece of design, and it's incredible to think it was built in just 21 years from 1632. Shan Jahal constructed the building to act as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, whose coffin lies at the centre of the Taj. He died before the building was finished, but his son opted to bury him alongside his wife within the Taj. This was never his intention, but it was the cheap option for his son and it saved building another memorial. Shan Jahal's tomb is the thus the only thing thing non-symmetrial within the entire construction of the Taj Mahal. We queued up alongside the largely well behaved Indian hordes and took a walk through the mausoleum, but the interior of the building was much less impressive than the exterior. We exited in plenty of time for sunset and sitting in the gardens watching the Taj's colour change as the sun descended was a real highlight of my world trip. It was a fantastic moment. I am so glad the place lived up to my expectations, but that's been in keeping with pretty much all of the glorified world sights I've seen - from Macchu Picchu to Uluru to Angkor Wat. I guess that is why such places retain their positions as world wonders, and all of the wonders I have seen have proved to be distinct highlights of my 7 month world trip. I am saddened that I won't be seeing another world wonder this trip, but at the same time I would rather go home and save the rest for later life!
Of course nothing I'll see in my final week in India will live up to the Taj Mahal, but the first place to attempt to do so was another world heritage site - the Mughal ruins at Fatephur Sikri, situated 42km west of Agra. Myself, Sam, Ruby and Adria all caught a taxi there this morning for the bargain fee of 3 pound per person, including waiting time. Fatephur Sikri was constructed in 1570 to act as the capital of the Mughal Empire. However, after a mere 14 years severe drought forced the city to be abandoned as the citizens all moved away in search of water. The remaining ghost town, which is comprised of 3 palaces and a mosque, is regarded as Agra's second greatest attraction after the Taj Mahal. The palaces, constructed for the King's Christian, Hindu and Muslim wives, have all been left to ruin, but the spectacular mosque is still in use today by residents of the small nearby town. After seeing so many palaces I was not overly fussed by the ruins at the Fatephur Sikri, but the mosque was impressive, and I was glad I made the trip. It certainly seemed the more preferable option to going shopping at Agra's crazy bazaars.
However, I sadly won't remember Fatephur Sikri at all for its ruins and wonders. Instead when I hear the name I'll be drawn to think of one thing - hassle! The attention we received walking through the ruins, and especially at the bazaar near the car park, was truly horrific. As soon as we exited the taxi we were surrounded by touts trying to sell things, and trying to act as guides. They just wouldn't leave you alone no matter what you said. If you said you had no interest in buying anything they were unperturbed and would simply say "no problem, just looking". If you said you didn't want a guide they would just lower their price, and then follow you pointing out obvious things like steps as if you would give them money for that! After half an hour with these guys in my ear (I do my best to ignore them and keep walking as saying no or telling them to go away makes little difference), and in the 35C heat, I regrettably snapped at one of them, which the girls were none to pleased by. He was about the 20th would be guide to approach us and I just desperately wanted to be left in peace. I felt a bit guilty because this is what happens when you get too many people in a country with too little resources - people will do anything to make money. Disturbingly though, according to my Lonely Planet, the hassle in Agra is nothing compared with the hassle where we are going next. The Hindu holy city of Varanasi, situated on the banks of the Ganges, is meant to be horrific for hasslers, so I'll have to prepare myself for our 3 days there. We are catching the overnight train tonight, and I shall hopefully update before we leave Varanasi on Wednesday sometime. By that time I should hopefully know when I'm going home! I was hoping I would find out tomorrow, but the BA website now says the schedule will be compiled after the end of the first strike, so it'll be Tuesday at the earliest. I checked and the same flight I am going on next Sunday took off this morning in the middle of the first strikes, but I also read tales of nightmare last minute cancellations, so until my flight actually takes off I think I'm going to be worrying. Not what I need at the end of 7 months away. I really just want to be looking forward to coming home at this point, and if I'm lucky, this time next week I'll be in the sky! Thanks for reading.