So here’s the thing: when I organize a trip, the way I build an itinerary is I read through a guidebook and I start getting a sense of what places I want to see, and how many days I can spend in each of them. When I read about Agra, I thought it was a one-day city, that I could do just two nights here and then squeeze in another destination at the end. But, I was given the excellent advice that in India it’s better to simplify your travel as much as possible, so I decided to do two full days here and drop Darjeeling from my itinerary. I figured I could do the Taj one day and Agra Fort the next.
As it turns out, I did both of those yesterday, so I didn’t quite know what to do with myself today. One possibility was to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the archeological site of an ancient Rajasthani city, but the issue is that it’s in an entirely different region 50 km from Agra. In Japan, that’s the distance you cover when you sneeze in a shinkansen, but in India it’s not as easy. I looked for tours, but as I’ve lamented on this very blog before, as a solo traveler it’s nigh impossible to find open group tours that I can join in: all tours I found were private and would set me back at least 4000 rupees. It’s the kind of thing that I would do if it was one of my priorities (like if it was to see the Taj) but I wasn’t invested on this anyway.
I asked at the hotel, and they put me in touch with a travel guide who offered me a driver to Fatehpur -it was barely cheaper, so I wasn’t sold, but I saw that they also offered walking tours of Agra. That was cheap, would give me something to do, and still leave me with a free afternoon to put my feet up!
So that was the plan today. I met my guide, a young local guy, at my hotel lobby and we took a rickshaw to the old quarter of Agra (brief note: the guide points out that here you should call them rickshaws and not tuk-tuk, like in Southeast Asia, but over the last week I’ve heard locals use both equally).
We started the walk from the Jama Masjid, a surprisingly large mosque that was built in the 17th century. I say surprisingly because you almost can’t see it from the street, as it’s raised and hidden from view by other buildings, but after climbing a few steps I found myself in a spacious, empty courtyard.
We looked around the mosque, empty except for a few kids learning songs at the madrasa, and then went back to the streets. Here the guide took me through a narrow, busy maze of streets full of carts hauling merchandise, cows on the road, monkeys on the roofs, and people coming and going in all modes of transportation.
Our next stop was a Hindu temple; I’d never been to one before! It was a rather cavernous two-story building, the lower of which had several worshippers chanting and praying around a silver linga (a bust) of Shiva. They would take buckets of water and pour them over Shiva’s head.
Upstairs, there was an older shrine, with figures of different deities adorned with garlands of marigolds. Here my guide got a blessing from a priest, who put an orange circle on his forehead and gave him a red flower. He motioned to do the same to me; I initially declined, because it felt a bit appropriative to receive a religious blessing that didn’t mean to me what it did to them, but they insisted and so I came away with my blessing and my flower (I put mine in my backpack and later, when I put my mask back on, it smelled of flowers).
We kept walking around, stopping here and there to look at interesting houses. I would never have noticed if I’d been on my own, but there were several colonial-era buildings with beautiful -if rundown- balconies and façades that used to be houses or market buildings. When you’re walking on your own, you have to pay so much attention to not getting in the way of rickshaws, cars and cows that it’s difficult to raise your eyes and look at the architecture.
We stopped at a poori place that is apparently very old and famous -pooris are a bubbly type of bread that is often eaten with curry. I also had tastings at a couple of sweet shops, trying traditional Indian sweets. One kind, made with milk and brown sugar, was very reminiscent of baklava and other Middle Eastern sweets, but I also had others that seemed to be made of crushed seeds or cereal that were quite unique.
The walk ended with me getting dropped off back at the hotel around lunchtime. It wasn’t a very long walk, and honestly that worked out great for me. I wanted to rest a bit, and the prospect of having the afternoon off sounded very enticing indeed! First, though, I took out some cash at an ATM. Getting cash has proven unexpectedly difficult so far, but especially here in Agra. ATMs are very difficult to spot, even when they are open, because they are just stand-alone machines inside tiny rooms so they’re hard to see from the street. I went out yesterday and was only able to find two, and one was out of service and the other one didn’t take my cards, but today I was finally able to find an SBI machine that for whatever reason took my card and gave me my money.
Then, for lunch, I am on the record as saying that this side of Agra is a cursed hellscape, with nothing anywhere, but during my ATM hunt yesterday I found a Fabindia shop and café just around the corner from my hotel, so I tried it out today and had a pretty good Chettinad chicken (Chettinad is a Southern Indian region and also the cuisine from my favorite restaurant in London, so I couldn’t let it pass). There was a group of ten 30-40-something, well-to-do Indian ladies as the only other customers there, and I was fascinated by them rather than annoyed at how noisy they were. They spoke to each other only in English, and I wondered what they were doing here. The restaurant was upscale and they fit right in -more than me, to be sure- but where do they live and how did they end up here in this forsaken dust road? How did this restaurant, for that matter? Anyway, the food was good, and I treated myself to a solid-black, massively thick vegan chocolate cake for dessert.
So that’s it for Agra, then. In the end I don’t know what it’s like at Taj Ganj, the backpacker district, but from this side the city is pretty dreadful, but it’s absolutely worth putting up with it to experience the beauty and magic of the Taj Mahal. It is for sure a one-day trip, and in fact lots of people do it as a day-trip from Delhi, but I think it must be too stressful and time-consuming to do it all in one day unless you have a personal driver from Delhi and back.
Tomorrow I have a morning to kill and then I’m off to Jaipur!