If you are visiting India, Taj Mahal is the one thing you have to visit. Without seeing Taj Mahal, you can’t say you have been to India. The last weekend is Indian new year, so we get a four days long weekend. I had arranged a trip to see Taj Mahal with Mark, my other colleague who had exiled to Bangalore from Vancouver with me.
Taj Mahal is located in Arga in Northern India. We have to take a flight to New Delhi first then take a 3 hour express train ride to Arga. Since our flight arrive in New Delhi at night, so we stay there for the first night. The plane is delayed as usual and it took us a while to find the driver coming to pick us up. By the time we get to the hotel, it’s already 1a.m. Our train is 6a.m. the next morning, so we only get 4 hours of sleep.
Travel by train in India is quite an adventure. You see all the things you expected to see from the Discovery Channel. People waiting for over night train just sleep in front of the ticket office. The platform is crowded, with people trying to sell you everything form food to souvenirs. Wild dogs running between the rails and the platforms, looking for food in the garbage. Local people are carrying luggages on their head. In the train, the second class cabin for Indians are packed and stinky. Luckily we are staying in the first class cabin with AC. Put it this way, the condition in first class cabin better but still far from good, probably in par with the condition of buses in Vancouver.
We are staying in Arga for a night. On the first day, we visited Taj Mahal and the Arga Fort. Taj Mahal really lives up to its fame as one of the seven wonders in the world. It is very beautiful. I will save my words to describe how impressive it is, please just check out my photos in facebook. Local people pay Rs20 entry fee, tourists pay Rs750. It would be nice if everyone pays the same price, prefer at Rs750, so the Taj Mahal would be less crowded. The tourist guide we had on the first day is very good, he told us stories about Taj Mahal and helped us take good pictures.
According to the tourist book, Taj Mahal is the symbol of love for a king to memorize his dead wife. I think it is just an excuse for the king to build himself an expensive toy. The king wanted to build a black Taj Mahal in black mable facing the Taj Mahal, but he bankrupted his kingdom with just one Taj Mahal and got overthrown by another king. There are some annoying hawkers in Taj Mahal or any historical site I went in India. They will try to sell you the perfect angle to shoot a photo of Taj Mahal and ask you Rs10 for each position. One word you only have to say is NO. Don’t even bother talk to refuse them politely, those hawkers don’t understand any English word others than NO.
In the afternoon we went to see the Arga Fort. The Taj Mahal is the tomb for the queen and the Arga Fort is where the king lives. It is built using red sand stones overseeing the Taj Mahal. It is quite impressive on its own, but we had just saw Taj Mahal. The beauty of Taj Mahal just eclipse all other historical sites we are seeing in the trip. In short, the Arga Fort is just a huge ruin of an ancient palace. You get exactly what you expected form all palace ruins. The ancient air conditioning system in the palace is one of the few things interests me. The building is built using hallowed marble wall filled with water and sitting on top of a huge water pond. The water and marble keeps the building cool in the summer.
On the second day, we took a side trip to Fatehpur Sikri, yet another ancient palace / fort ruin. It is about 1.5 hours drive from Arga. The ruin itself is nothing special but the view of Indian country side on the way is quite beautiful. At least I don’t see garbage everyone in the country side like in the city. The tour guide we have in the second day is really bad. No only he talked on his cell phone all the time. He did not wait for slow walkers like me, I have to run to catch up with him a few times. He deliberately bring us to hawkers trying to sell us useless junks, and worse he try to persuade us buying the junks.
The tour guide from the first day at least did his job to warn us staying away from the hawkers. To be fair, the first tour guide also brought us to some handcrafts shops charging marked up tourist price, but we know it is part of the deal. Trying to sell us junks is not the job of a tour guide. It is totally unacceptable. I suggested we only tip the second tour guide only Rs100, but Mark is kind enough to tip him Rs200 and he regretted it once he handed out the money. From now on, I will not tip any Indian tour guide if his service is unacceptable. Talking on the cell phone more than 30 seconds, didn’t wait for me and trying to sell me junks equals to no tips! On the other hand, we should reward good service. We tipped the first tour guide quite handsomely. We even got his business card and will highly recommend him to others planning to visit Taj Mahal.
One other thing we learn is the driver is usually more reliable than tour guide. We have some time between the end of our tour and the our train back to New Delhi. We asked the driver take us to the government shop and a good restaurant for beer. He dutifully follow our orders and bring us to a decent restaurant. Unlike the tour guide, the driver probably don’t have any commission from the shops or restaurants, so he will simply bring you to the one he thinks is the best. On our train back to New Delhi, we sit next to a philosophy professor from Britain. Her field of expertise is the moral theory of David Hume. I really enjoy our conversation ranging from philosophy to almost anything.
We spent the last day in New Delhi. We got a tour guide to show us around the city and unfortunately we got a bad tour guide again. Anyways, there ain’t much too see. The museums and monuments are closed on every Monday, so I didn’t get to visit Gandhi. I am a bit disappointed not about to take a photo with his statute and posing like him. We visited two more ruins, Qutb Minar and Humayun’s Tomb. Qutb Minar is dating 1000 years old and have a tower 72 meters high. I am not interested in Indian history and we are not allow to go up the tower, so it is not very impressive. The Humayun’s Tomb looks pretty similar to Taj Mahal and it is 100 years older. It has a marble dome but the main structure is built using red sand stone. The garden is quiet and beautiful, but not as grand as the one at Taj Mahal. I guess Humayun’s Tomb is simply a cheap prototype for Taj Mahal.
One thing I am like about New Delhi is its city planning and government buildings. The roads are wide and well designed. The architecture of government buildings are Victorian style with Indian flavors. New Delhi is probably the capital with the most impressive center of authority district. Well… all those nice things are remains from the colonial days. The British pretty much built and design New Delhi from scratch in the 1920s. Once you go outside of the British planned section of the city, New Delhi is just like every other Indian cities. Looking at the nice left over form British ruling days and the current of the Indian government. I wonder the independence really did any good to the Indians. One way or another, the Indian people are oppressed by the government, whether it is a foreign rule or domestic one. However, the life of the people would be better if the oppressing government is at least more capable.