So as I alluded to in my last post, the journey to Agra was not a pleasant one. It should have been a very enjoyable journey, the Gattiman Express is a modern, fast train, and whilst I wouldn’t call it luxurious, it was similar to standard class on UK trains, but with food served to your seat and everyone gets a seat! I can’t comment on the food served, I was too busy concentrating on not seeing the previous night’s meal again to sample the breakfast.
After what seemed to be a lifetime but was actually only about two hours we arrived in Agra and picked up an auto rickshaw to take us to our hotel, via the Archeological Survey of India office where we could purchase tickets for the full moon viewing of the Taj Mahal for the following evening. My husband went to get the tickets while I waited in the rickshaw, which took about 40 minutes. Fortunately we had picked the only auto rickshaw in Agra with wi-fi! Our driver was extremely friendly and helpful, and had we needed the services of a driver for the following day, I would happily have booked him. You can see his video on YouTube here.
Once we arrived at the Doubletree by Hilton, Agra, we headed up to our upgraded room and checked out the view of the Taj. We also managed to check out the pool before my stomach got the better of me and we headed back to the room to spend a few hours lying very still in the air conditioned bliss. Eventually hunger caught up with us, and as we were starting to feel a little better we headed down to the main hotel restaurant for lunch. In the afternoon we sat by the pool before enjoying a light dinner in the other hotel restaurant, kebab-e-que. We also wandered out of the hotel to explore the local area, which I found quite disappointing, there was nothing around the hotel other than a large gypsy camp and a large shopping mall with only two units occupied.
The next morning we headed for the Taj around 10am and were pleasantly surprised to find there was no queue at the South Gate. We spent a couple of hours at the Taj, however by mid day it was incredibly hot and time for us to head back to the hotel. I enjoyed the visit to this iconic monument, and whilst there were a lot of people there, it is such a huge area, it doesn’t feel busy. We headed out of the west gate and picked up a Turk Turk back to the hotel where we enjoyed some more pool time, and discovered that our train for the following day was delayed by approximately 12 hours. After speaking to the concierge at the hotel, who tried, unsuccessfully to get us on another train, we decided to take a hotel car at a cost of £170 at 5am the following morning.
After sorting this out, we headed to the Saniya Palace hotel, a small, budget hotel in the Taj Ganj area with an rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the Taj, where we watched the sun set as we ate. The food was good and very cheap compared to previous meals, we had a vegetable biryani and onion pakoras as well as drinks for less than £10. We then headed off to the main, East gate of the Taj where we were picked up to go to the Taj for the full moon viewing. Each full moon and for two nights either side, the Taj is opened after sunset from 8pm to midnight for visitors in groups of 50 for a half hour slot. There is a long list of things you cannot take and have to leave in the lockers at the gate, including mobile phones. Unfortunately I forgot to take mine out of my camera case and had it confiscated at the entrance, the bus driver then forgot to stop for us to pick them back up afterwards (I wasn’t the only one!) and one of the staff had to come running after the bus with it. Overall, I found the night visit to be very disappointing, at 9pm when we went, the moon was still behind us and the Taj was barely visible.
If we were to visit Agra again I would only stay for one night, two nights was too long and as much as I liked the hotel and the facilities it offered, I would have chosen a hotel closer to the Taj in a more touristy area. The following morning we left at 5am, before sunrise to drive to Sawai Madhopur, the nearest town to Ranthambore National Park. I was dreading the journey, however it passed quickly, and our driver gave us a fascinating insight into life in rural India, and we got to see a lot of things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. We arrived at the Anuraga Palace just before 10am. We’d booked the hotel via booking.com based on their reasonable price and good reviews, and we weren’t disappointed. We had a lovely large, traditionally furnished room with a TV that had the widest range of channels anywhere on our trip. Whilst I don’t go on holiday to watch TV, there wasn’t much to do after dark in Sawai Madhopur, so it was very pleasant to be able to get into bed and watch a couple of episodes of friends before dozing off. After checking in we headed out and found the “English Wine Shop” approximately 5 minutes walk from the hotel, where we picked up some beers to have later. We also grabbed some snacks to keep us going through the rest of the day before heading back to the pool for a bit before our first Safari. Safaris can only be booked 90 days in advance and you can either book a place in a six seater gypsy or a twenty seater canter. I found the booking process via the government website impossible to navigate and so eventually we decided to let the hotel sort out the booking for us, which cost about £10 per person per trip extra, well worth it when you consider that by booking direct you have to report to the office before the safari to pick up the paperwork.
We were picked up right on time that afternoon to head to zone four of the park, a 15 minute drive away. The terrain in zone four is extremely bumpy and whilst we saw a lot of wildlife, mainly deer, we didn’t see any tigers. Over dinner that evening, tigers, who’d seen them and in which zone was a hot topic of conversation. Dinner was a buffet with a wide variety of Indian dishes to suit all tastes, as well as fresh naan breads brought to the table. After dinner we sat in the gardens for a while which was fairly busy, with some people eating from the barbecue which was available as an a la carte option. There was also a local band playing and a man making bangles on an open fire. The next morning we were up early for our second safari to zone 6 this time. We were very fortunate to see three tigers, a mother and her two cubs. We initially saw them at a distance, however we followed them along the river to a spot where we were approximately 10 metres away from them whilst they bathed in the river. After this we continued through the park to see various other wildlife including a crocodile! We made it back to the hotel for breakfast where w chatted with other guests, most of whom hadn’t been as lucky as us. In hindsight, we probably should have booked our train for this afternoon to take us to Jaipur, rather than the following morning, but we didn’t, so we decided to head to the pool (again!) before going out and doing some shopping in the afternoon.
Neither of us were particularly bothered about visiting the fort, particularly as we’d got plans to visit several forts in Jaipur, however, I have heard excellent things about Ranthambore fort. It took a while but we managed to pick up an auto rickshaw back towards the park entrance where there are several shops selling crafts made by local women, we didn’t buy anything, although they had some lovely stuff, as the high prices put us off a bit. We did however buy some bits from a souvenir shop nearby, before heading to the Taj hotel for cocktails. This place is AMAZING! The staff are fabulous and the cocktails were out of this world. They also brought us a very tasty soup in a teacup and selection of different breads, so we didnt even have to go and find lunch when we got back! We could never have afforded to stay at this hotel, but it was great to experience the luxury for an hour or so! It was tricky to get a rickshaw back into town, and we had to wait a while, but we got there eventually. We ate in the hotel again as part of our half board package (If you’re going to Sawai Madhopur, go half board, there aren’t really any other options of places to eat outside the hotels!) and the selection was significantly less than the previous day, and there were a lot less guests around. The following morning was the same story at breakfast, and we headed off to the train station to catch the train to Jaipur for our final stop in India.