A hard-won glimpse of the Taj Mahal

IT'S nearly pitch-black and the air is buzzing with insects, spiked with the sounds of rickshaw engines and the jabber of Hindi and another local dialect.

We're somewhere on the outskirts of Agra in Uttar Pradesh and the Indians encircling me, the only foreigner to alight the vehicle, are rattling their keys and imploring me to hire their services.

I could really do without this. I've just endured seven gruelling hours' travel from Jaipur, laden with the after-effects of a debilitating Delhi-belly-like illness that robbed me of sleep for the past 48 hours and left me with a parched throat, throbbing head, hollow stomach and no energy.

Ideally, I would click my fingers, be magically transported to my hotel and rise feeling well enough to visit - and enjoy - the legendary Taj Mahal.

Instead, I look at the drivers and sense that they see me as easy prey. In the trading sense, at least. They could easily jump me, rob me and divvy up the proceeds between them. But, like most Indians, in my experience, they're more inclined to haggle.

I ask one heavily moustached chap how far it is to Agra's old quarter. "Ah, not far," he says nonchalantly. "OK, how much?" I ask.

"Er, 1000 rupee [$20]." Sounds expensive, I say (and it is, for India). "But it's quite far, my friend," he replies.

I turn to the chubby man next to him: "How much please?" I may be ill but I'm determined not to be a push-over. He says 600 rupees. The first man jumps in with a counter-offer of 500 rupees. The second man replies: "400 rupees!" I look at the first man again. "OK, 300 rupees. Deal?"

As we whoosh through the hectic suburban streets, the driver, over the hum of his backfiring engine, shouts and points towards the flickers of light on the horizon. It's Agra's old centre. I gaze intently but fail to spot the Taj Mahal.

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I check into my hotel, down some paracetamol and collapse. I sleep fitfully, then, about 5am, I clamber out of bed with a groggy sense of excitement and struggle up to the rooftop. A monkey is perched on the building opposite. His sporadic chirps mingle with the sound of the call of prayer emanating from the mosque below.

I slump weakly against the balcony and watch as an eerie, misty sky lightens and the silhouette and the elegant white hulk of the Taj Mahal appears.

It's a serene, almost mystical experience - enhanced by the fact I'm not quite with it. Instinctively, I want to head there now. But I'm in no condition to tackle the torrent of touts and would-be guides.

My head rules my heart and I tuck myself back into bed, safe in the knowledge that the great Taj isn't going anywhere.

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