This is the first post in a series, sharing our experience of what is it like to hire a Rajasthan car and driver to get you around the most regal of Indian states. The start of our driving journey takes us to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.
We arrived in New Delhi at 06:50 hrs on the sleeper train from Lucknow. The driver who we’d spent time selecting on our previous visit to Delhi was, as promised, waiting for us on the enormous platform.
He offered to take us to his home for some breakfast before departing to Agra. His house, which had been given to him by his grandfather, was located a few minutes from the station and was in an excellent location. He’d been living here for 8 months while renovating the old building. Each floor contained a small living/sleeping room and either bathroom or kitchen to the side.
The house was shared with Chander’s family of four children, and his brother and his wife. We sat on the floor and shared some ghee paratha, spicy veg and masala tea with all the family. The children were preparing for school as the wives prepared breakfast together kneading and shaping the bread before cooking it on the one ring gas burner which served as the family kitchen until renovations were complete.
Rajasthan Car and Driver Itinerary: New Dehli to Agra
On leaving Dehli we opted to take the new expressway, as the fog was thick and there wasn’t much to be seen from the window. The expressway takes about 2-3 hours, as opposed to 6 hours taking the old road to Agra. After 10 minutes hurtling down the outside lane in our Ambassador car, there was a mighty thud and the bonnet crashed into the windscreen. Our driver skilfully and calmly manoeuvred the car into the slip lane using his side mirrors. We were lucky that the windscreen didn’t smash completely. The front hinge on the car had completely broken in two.
A temporary repair, locking the now buckled bonnet back in place and we resumed our journey, a little shaken, but thankfully we were all ok and carried on down the highway at a much slower pace. I guess our planned day of seeing the Taj Mahal was going to be delayed somewhat. I hoped this wasn’t an omen of things to come.
I started to question why we hadn’t listened to the advice of everybody and gone for a modern car. Only time will tell if we made the right choice. We stopped halfway through the journey at a rest stop which had some remarkably clean toilets with real toilet paper, a first on our India journey.
The rest of our journey took us through the plains of Uttar Pradesh, till we reached the outskirts of Agra and the driver treated us to the site sometimes referred to as the Baby Taj. The I’timad-ud-Daulah tomb is a beautiful marble, intricately carved, building centrally located in a gated courtyard. Inside the main tomb you will find some detailed original frescos painted on the walls. This certainly was a great warm up act for the real thing later in the day.
We arrived at our driver picked hotel, on the plus side it was in a great location, a mere five minutes walk from the Taj Mahal main gate. On the downside the food was expensive and initially they tried it on with the room rates until we told them we would book for less through Agoda and the price was adjusted steeply downwards. We think this will be the first of our merry dances to come with the drivers recommendations (cutting down his commissions). We were only there for one night so it wasn’t worth too much of a fight, and was our first day after all.
We set off for our Taj Mahal experience and walked to the western gate. You have a choice of transport from any of the main park gates surrounding it. You can choose horses, camels, cycle rickshaws, and environmentally friendly electric vehicles. We walked, as it’s only a five minute hop, but you will have to endure 50 offers of a ride from the transport owners.
We were led to believe we would be besieged by tourist touts at Agra, in the end it was not as bad as we had been warned. They were there certainly but not in anyway aggressive or persistent, perhaps there were bigger fish to catch and we just went under their radar.
We discovered the hard way that you are not allowed to take computers or cigarettes and lighters into the Taj site. After buying our tickets and queuing for ten minutes our contraband was discovered and we ended up doing a detour back to the cloakroom which is about 300 meters away from the main entrance. This was all a bit frustrating as neither of us had slept well the night before (on our train journey) and our patience was wearing thin.
The cloakroom has lockers for 20 rupees, but after you lock your belongings in the locker, they keep the key which is a little worrying. There is a slot for your own padlock but we didn’t have ours with us, in the end we collected the bag full of everything that was originally in it – relief.
Seeing the Great Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal is more stunning than you can possibly imagine from the photos and TV programmes you have seen before. You get your first glimpse as you wander under the arch of the main gate and it really does take your breath away. Having regained your composure you then need to work out how you are going to get the best shots of the magnificent structure along with the other three thousand people that are milling about the place with you.
The place is incredibly busy with a great mix of Indian and foreign tourists. While researching the best times to visit the Taj for photo opportunities I heard lots of people trying to work out how to see and photograph it without anyone there in the shots. The short answer is you can’t unless you know someone in the government or you are a major celebrity or Royal.
C’mon, it’s one of the ‘great wonders of the world’ and will always have people there so go with the flow, trust me, if you are patient you will get your moment alone with this jewel in India’s crown. The best spot for us was at the halfway point in the canals that lead you to the Taj. There is a marble raised platform with a little arch underneath which you can tuck yourself into with a perfect straight view of the Taj Mahal and the canals. You can snap some candid shots of other visitors here and use a remote, or timer to get the perfect images of you and your loved one. John who is not normally clumsy, fell into the canal moat whilst under the spell of this most evocative building, which amused us both.
There is a fast route to the Taj Mahal for foreigners, not bad seeing as you pay an inflated price for the entrance ticket (750 Rupees). Inside the actual building is somewhat of a disappointment, but the outside splendour more than makes up for it. Don’t bother paying for a guide, there are enough milling about with tour groups in any language to follow round and get the inside track if you feel the need.
If you really want that ‘no people’ shot of the Taj Mahal you can take a rear side photo from the other side of the river, but given the atmospheric conditions at this time of year a morning sunrise shot is going to be misty or foggy on any given day. We rocked up at the Taj at about 2pm and were in there until about 4pm, the low sun provided a great light on the front elevation of the building and we came away with some photographs for the album.
We really missed the light here having spent too long at the Taj, but the internal buildings and fort walls are very impressive and imposing. Your first half tour will lead you through the red stone fort and then amazingly you will emerge from one doorway to be greeted by all white marble and sandstone structures intricately carved and detailed. We managed a hurried hour here trying to catch the end of the light before the sun set at about 5:15 pm, we have lots more forts on our Rajasthan driver itinerary over the next two weeks so we were not too disappointed at rushing this.
A very busy and long day from Delhi to one of the highlights of India, but well worth the trip. We had an early dinner and were early to bed, ready to start a long six hour road trip to Jaipur in the morning.
Rajasthan Car and Driver: I hope the jokes get better!
We will leave you with one anecdote, from the many, our Indian driver told us. There are some foreign women, of a certain age (mature), who visit India and find themselves an Indian male companion. Amongst some of the drivers these women are known as ATM’s, the card slots maybe a little tired, but they keep dispensing the cash.