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Exodus recommend changing your holiday spending money at Mumbai airport into small denomination rupees – 10, 20, 50 and 100’s. DEFINITELY! Insist on it! We changed £400, our whole holiday spending money, and the sales assistant in the Thomas Cook Bureau de Change wanted to give us 500 rupee notes only – roughly a fiver. We almost had to have an argument with her before she finally agreed and then were handed over large wads of 10’s, 20’s, 100’s and a several 500 rupees notes. The 500 rupee notes are fine for settling up your lodge/hotel bar bills but useless elsewhere especially in the rural villages where a packet of biscuits might only cost 10 rupees and a packet of crisps/nuts just 5 rupees. Two bottles of ice cold coke (500ml bottles) and a few packets of crisps or nuts or biscuits or India homemade sweets always cost 100 rupees (roughly £1) in the rural village shops.
Food was good even if the choice was limited to take it or leave it, i.e. evening meals were a meat curry, a rice dish and two or three vegetable dishes with nan bread or other Indian style breads. The vegetarian curries were especially good. Cabbage curry sounds a bit odd but turned out to be one of my favourites. The meat curries, typically chicken but sometimes mutton and fish on one occasion tended to be mostly bone with not too much meat. When you see the chickens in the local village markets, Tesco’s finest range doesn’t readily spring to mind. Desserts aren’t quite Master Chef creations but pleasant none-the-less. A very sweet porridge one evening and a sort of carrot rice pudding another evening, which some of us inadvertently added to our main course plate thinking it was another vegetable curry. Breakfast of vegetable curry, samosa and pakora took a bit of getting use to, but if you wanted to give your stomach a rest from all the spices, plain omelettes, boiled eggs, toast and cornflakes were available, the latter served with hot milk by default so you’ll need to ask for cold milk if that’s how you like your cornflakes. The masala tea was wonderful. A black leafed tea spiced with cardamom and ginger (cloves in winter) and served sweet with warm milk. You can even get it in Tesco although it’s not quite the same.
Some of our fellow travelers had previously been on overnight sleeper trains, so we had been forewarned. In the end it turned out well above our expectations. Four of us were in the first compartment on the carriage, which meant only four beds instead of six so we had more room. The toilet was clean with no obvious unpleasant smells and had toilet paper, running water in both the sink and proper UK style toilet and a bottle of liquid soap, all of which lasted for the whole journey. We had “borrowed” a spare toilet roll from our last lodge though, just in case. I even managed a fairly decent nights sleep and local shops near the train station in Katni had bottled water, crisps, and packets of biscuits, cakes and bags of ready sliced bread. If you didn’t want to chance freshly cooked street food it was easy enough to get food for a simple onboard picnic.
The Red Fort at Agra was amazing, far better than I had expected. We visited in the early afternoon so that we could visit the Taj Mahal for the late evening light and sunset. While early afternoon was hot at the fort, there was plenty of shade and photography was still pretty good. Our tour lasted around an hour with time for additional wandering around and taking photographs. Remember to take water with you. We then returned back to our hotel in Agra for around an hour and a half before visiting the Taj Mahal, but enroute stopped off at a local marble workshop. If you want to get some good quality souvenirs then make sure you have plenty of cash or your credit cards with you – it’s not overly expensive but neither is it bargain hunt. You’re buying quality marble goods and I think everyone in our group of eight bought something.
We left for our visit to the Taj Mahal at the back of 4pm with sunset scheduled for 6:45pm. Security getting in was VERY tight, much tighter in fact than trying to enter the country. The usual airport style security with the added compulsory emptying of any bags and a full check of their contents. We had been warned about this by our hired guide in Agra but I still fell foul of it. I’d left my tripod back in the hotel as they are banned but had forgotten about the tripod head. That along with a camera remote release (they don’t allow anything in with an attached cable), a camera bean bag and my wife’s crossword puzzle (don’t ask me why, I have no idea) all got taken off me to be returned when we left. Apparently books and paper of any description are not allowed in although passports and cash thankfully were exempt from this. Water is fine but no other drink or food is acceptable and as with security people the world over, they’ve had a sense of humour bypass.
Once inside the grounds of the Taj Mahal, we had close to two hours either to go with the guide or simply wander around ourselves. An amazing place although inside the mausoleum it was VERY dark with not much to see and plenty of whistle blowing security guards who were in your face if you stopped at any time. Apparently this is relatively new. Photography is not permitted inside the mausoleum but it’s so dark it would be impossible without a tripod anyway, and they are banned. I really wanted to get the classic photograph of the Taj Mahal at sunset with the reflection in the water and despite the large number of visitors it proved quite easy to get without crowds of people getting in the way or in the shot.
For photographers, I was using two full frame 35mm DSLR’s, one with a 17-40mm lens, the other with a 24-70mm lens, both with polarising filters attached. Handheld since a tripod is banned but still relatively easy to get the shots I wanted. I also had a 70-200mm lens on another EOS 7D body for close-up detail shots, especially good for silhouette sunset shots of the mosque to the west of the Taj Mahal. Setting the white balance to shade rather than auto white balance also is a great way of enhancing sunset shots – or take one on auto and one on shade and pick the best one later if you’re shooting JPEG and not RAW.
Video in the Taj Mahal is only permitted when you first enter and then you have to leave it with security and collect on leaving. Two of my camera bodies shoot HD video but I didn’t volunteer that information or try to shoot any videos. I know I’m just being a grumpy old man, but you have to wonder who makes up these rules, especially when you see people wandering around with mobile phones that can shoot HD video and no one bats an eye and trying to buy a camera that doesn’t shoot video these days is next to impossible.
Finally, want a cheap souvenir? Keep back some crisp 10 rupee notes and laminate them when you get home. They make great bookmarks.