You need 3 things to be a good driver in Delhi.
Naveem glances in the rear-view mirror to make sure I’m listening.
“One,” he says, pointing his finger to the ceiling, “a good horn. Two, good brakes. And three, good luck!”
We giggle as he continues to push his way through more than 5 rows of traffic where the road markings show there should be 3.
I was nervous about travelling to India solo. I’d been lucky enough to be invited to explore India on a luxury train but wanted to have some time to travel independently before boarding. Fearing the crowds and traffic I’d read were common in Delhi though, I didn’t want to just rock up to Delhi with hopes of visiting the Taj Mahal and leave the logistics to the last minute. Luckily G Adventures had just the itinerary for me.
The Agra Independent Adventure is designed for travellers, exactly like me, who want a trusted driver and tour guide to take them to the Taj Mahal from Delhi. The 3-day tour, which includes 2 nights accommodation, can be booked as a group or solo, and it makes visiting the Taj Mahal completely stress-free.
Naveem, of the road safety jokes, was my private driver and companion for the full 3 days. He made me laugh at the crazy Indian roads as we left the airport and was teaching me mathematics tricks by the time we left Agra.
My first afternoon I was left to settle in and explore on my own and then the next morning Naveem arrived to take me to my first activity. Although this tour is primarily about Agra, a City Walk is included in Delhi with a G Adventures supported charity.
This City Walk is not your usual walking tour though, as it is hosted by a former street kid who talks candidly about life on the streets in Delhi. My host was Junaid who lived in New Delhi train station, rag picking and stealing from the age of 6, and you can’t help but be blown away by his story. His rehabilitation and new career as a tour guide are thanks to Salaam Balaak Trust, and you can read all about their work with Junaid and other children like him in this post.
Usually on this tour you then make your way to Agra ready for a sunrise tour to the Taj Mahal the following morning. But my sunrise Taj visit would have fallen on a Friday, when the Taj Mahal is closed for prayers, so instead Naveem put his foot down to get me there for sunset.
Once we’d left the clogged streets of the city the freeway was empty and the almost 4-hour drive to Agra passed quickly as Naveem and I discussed everything from marriage to religion and the speedily-passing scenery.
Waiting for us in Agra was Pramod, a ministry approved tour guide, who would be accompanying me at all the sites on my itinerary. He sorted out my tickets for the Taj (entry fees are included) and began to tell me the story of the Taj Mahal as we stood just outside its rather grand entrance.
Commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1632 as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is known as the world’s greatest monument to love and took 16 years to finish. Not often mentioned in the guide books is that the Shah had three wives (as was common for the Mughal Emperors) but Mumtaz was the only one he loved. (So the story goes.)
During Mumtaz’s 19 year marriage to the Shah she bore him 14 children, only 7 of whom lived to adulthood, and she died giving birth to the last of them on the battlefield. Her dying wish was to have a magnificent burial place to symbolise their love and the Shah certainly spared no expense on the marble monument encrusted with semi-precious stones that he built for her.
Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time is an unforgettable moment. As Pramod filled me in on the backstory I grew even giddier about walking through the main gate. He pointed out details in the architecture I would never have noticed and then finally we were ready to go in.
It left me breathless.
As we’d switched the itinerary and were visiting close to sunset the Taj Mahal was a lot busier than it would be for others on this trip. I honestly hardly noticed. Seeing the hundreds of tiny heads peering up at this New World Wonder only made it seem even more incredulous.
Pramod wasn’t about to let anyone ruin my photos anyway. He took my camera for most of the tour, snapping the angles he loved the best and insisting I get a token tourist shot on the ‘Princess Diana’ bench.
Slowly we made our way towards the tomb, marvelling at the perfect symmetry of the complex and how good the marble looked for its 370-odd years.
Going inside the mausoleum itself was the only disappointing part of the visit. Although tourists and locals are made to queue up separately (there were hundreds of local visitors weaving around the monument’s base) at the entrance the two queues merge into one and you essentially get squished through the door and shuffle your way around the tombs. In the darkness, I could just make out the tombs of Mumtaz and the Shah (who was later buried with her, thus throwing off the symmetry) before the horrible acoustics and whistles of security got too much and I hurried out the exit.
Claustrophobic tomb experiences aside, visiting the Taj Mahal was everything I hoped it would be and more.
Through a cloudy sky the last of the day’s sun popped out to turn the pillars pink and that was our signal to leave.
Bucket list gets a big fat tick.
Click here for Part 2 of this tour review where we explore Agra beyond the Taj Mahal.
The Agra Independent Adventure starts from $499 per person for 2 travellers. Accommodation (in very clean & comfortable 3 to 4 star hotels), transport, entry fees & guides are included, meals and tips are extra. I travelled as a guest of G Adventures, all opinions are my own.