After our short visit to Varanasi, we hopped on a plane to Agra. It was a pretty quick flight and although it was a bit delayed, we made it to Agra easily and with lots of time to spare.
After checking into our hotel, we headed to Mohabbat-the-Taj, a musical depicting the love story that inspired the construction of the Taj Mahal. This was a total tourist trap and so cheesy, but I kind of enjoyed watching the Bollywood-esqe depiction of the story of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Just to be clear, this was cool but was totally the type of place where giant tour buses pull over at the side of the road to dump boatloads of tourists into the theatre, so if you’re not into that type of thing it would probably best that you avoid spending your money here.
After that, we headed to Pinch of Spice, a large restaurant with great food and an even split of tourists and locals. By this time, we were starting to feel pretty weighed down by all the heavy, oily food that we had been eating. Ricky and I decided to do ourselves a favour by splitting some dal tadka (lentils), rice and dry tandoori roti (whole wheat flatbreads). We were also careful to communicate no butter and light on the oil. This was actually a great option, since the food at this restaurant is really flavourful and our dal was still tasty but didn’t leave us feeling lethargic.
I have actually been surprise how easy it’s been to eat vegan here. Vegetarianism is everywhere, and “pure veg” options – no meat or eggs – are clearly labelled with a little green dot everywhere you go. It has been a bit more challenging to get meals made without dairy or ghee (clarified butter), but we have simply asked and explained at each restaurant we eat at, and generally most places are happy to accommodate. One thing that I have noticed, though, is that if you’re asking for veg food without ghee, many restaurants will need to prepare a fresh dish from scratch which can take a little longer. I’ve fallen victim to hanger more than once as I’ve waited for my food to arrive as my non-vegan friends are chowing down – definitely plan ahead and don’t let yourself get too hungry if you’re eating at places that don’t specialize in vegan options.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up and opened the drapes to see a thick blanket of fog covering the entire City. Having already been screwed over by the fog once, we knew that it wasn’t worth waking up early to try to see the Taj Mahal, since there was a really good chance the visibility would be low. I’m told that the best time for the early morning sunrise viewings are during or just after the monsoon season (North American summer-early fall), because the skies are much clearer and the heavy rainfall rinses all of the pollution off of the monuments.
Instead of going straight to the Taj Mahal, we headed to the nearby Agra Fort. Built but the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1565 AD, the Fort is a huge series of structures made predominantly of red sandstone. Surrounded by a moat that was once filled with crocodiles and a land-moat once filled with tigers, the Fort was actually one of my favourite things that we have visited so far. Thue architecture is unbelievably stunning and our guide, Pawan, was super knowledgeable and had a ton of little stories about the various Mughal dynasties that inhabited the Fort after its construction.
Once the sun started to peek out from the clouds, we headed over to the Taj Mahal. It was Sunday, which meant that not only were we dealing with other out of town tourists, but locals with the day off were visiting too. It was super busy, and the lines were long, but it was still a pretty surreal experience to see one of the seven wonders of the world just plunked in front of me. Not to be too stereotypical, but I have been pretty excited to see the Taj Mahal. The story is so romantic and I am a such a sucker for a good photo op.
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial and mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took over 20 years to construct, is perfectly symmetrical and is totally breathtaking. Something that surprised me that isn’t evident in the pictures of the Taj is that the building’s perfect mukrana marble is inlaid with thousands of precious and semi-precious stones. Not only can you see the giant exterior inlay work when standing at the entrance to the gates, but the closer you get to the Taj, the more the details all around the building become noticeable.
We then headed to the Baby Taj or Itmad-Ud-Ullah. Also a mausoleum, the Baby Taj was built in 1622 and is well known as having interiors that are even more detailed and beautiful than the Taj Mahal. The building is made entirely of white marble and is filled with delicate, intricate inlay work and marble screens.
After our long day of touring, we stopped for dinner at the Maya Restaurant. This little rooftop spot is the perfect place for a cold drink and a snack or quick dinner. They have beautiful ambiance (think lights struck up over head and a beautiful view) and delicious, inexpensive food. They also have live music which was something we haven’t seen much of a restaurants while we’ve been here.
The next day we drove to Ranthambore. Before leaving Agra, we made a pit stop at Panchhi, a snack shop that is famous for selling both sweet and savoury treats. Ricky’s parents had suggested that we try petha and dalmoth. Petha is a sweet made from sugar and ash gourd, a type of pumpkin. You can choose from a variety of different flavours, but we went for saffron (aka kesar – which, for the record, is insanely delicious). Dalmoth is a crunchy, savoury snack made of lentils and tiny chickpea-flour noodles. It is also super tasty but be forewarned that because the little pieces are so small, it can be a pain in the butt to eat. The last item we grabbed chikki, a peanut brittle flavoured with cardamom. Not healthy in the least, but super delicious. From there, we started our drive to Ranthambore.
Just under 15 Kilometers from Sawai Madhopur, the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve National Park is a giant nature reserve that was founded to provide a breeding ground for tigers. 80 percent of the Park is closed to the public, but the remaining 20% is open to those who wish to take a guided nature tours.
After arriving, we had dinner at our hotel, Ranthambore Kothi – a safari guest house – and then called it a night. We woke up early the next day for our nature tour. The tigers in Ranthambore are not chipped or controlled in any way, so sightings are generally pretty rare. This meant that the majority of our day on the nature reserve was just driving around in an open-air jeep, soaking up the views and getting some much needed fresh air. We went on two tours – one in the early morning and the late afternoon/evening.
In addition to tigers, the park is also filled with a number of other species of wildlife including spotted deer, Indian Impala, summer deer, bears, leopards, peacocks, and a ton of other critters. We were lucky enough to spot lots of impala, deer and peacocks, as well as a big sloth bear, digging for termites. While we weren’t lucky enough to spot any tigers, it was a really beautiful and peaceful experience and I was very grateful for the opportunity to get out of the cities that we had been frequenting.
After a few days reconnecting with nature in Ranthambore, we headed off to our next location – Jaipur.
So far I am still really enjoying India and have been consistently pleasantly surprised with the people and places that we’ve come across here. Ricky and I have already decided that we definitely want to come back to India – both to see the South, and as well in 20-some-odd years to re-visit what we are seeing on this trip. There is something special about this place that I can’t quite describe that makes India very magnetic. It’s a bit like everything is in a state of total chaos but is also working together in perfect harmony. I haven’t left and already can’t wait to come back … That has got to be a good sign, right?