The Taj Mahal opens at dawn, which is to say that is probably the best time to go. Because when I arrived around 7am it was already fairly crowded. Sure you had to wait a bit at the most scenic points and dodge tourists with your camera, but it truly does live up to wonders-of-the-world status.
Afterward I returned to the guesthouse for breakfast before the driver came and whisked me off to the rest of Agra's main sites:
- The so-called mini Taj Mahal (tomb of the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the famous one was built)
- Mehtab Bagh, a lovely garden located across the river from the Taj
- Agra Fort, an impressive walled complex featuring numerous palaces.
I have to say, though, that being stuck in traffic going to and from all these places was just as fascinating as seeing the sites themselves.
In Delhi I had been warned that Agra is a bit of a dump (during the actual conversation I think the person used more colorful language to describe it) dotted with these magnificent monuments. It's true.
Cruising around you'll see makeshift houses as rickety as something the first little pig built that got destroyed by the Big Bad Wolf; vagrants with obvious wasting diseases; skeletons of buildings that are either collapsing or were abandoned midway through construction; and cows - small herds making their way down main avenues as rickshaws, motorbikes and cars swerve to avoid them. It's a case study in problems with tourism. Because amidst all this poverty you also have 5-star hotels with tall iron gates and armed guards.
Obviously rupees are pouring into the area thanks to all the visitors, but on the street you can see just how many people aren't reaping any of the economic benefits. The foreigners just come to kick back in air-conditioned suites and cars, blinders on with their eyes fixed straight ahead on the pretty monuments, oblivious to the real Agra around them.