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We should have visited the Taj Mahal at the first part of our trip. We realize that now.

One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the renowned memorial to a Shah's dead wife, it is supposed to be the most beautiful monument of love on earth.

The quote about it that the Indian public seems to like most is that it is 'a teardrop on the face of eternity.'

It's an icon, the name of a blues singer, a metaphor for an act of love.

It's, well, it's pretty.

Really pretty?

Set in a lush garden of flowers, grass and trees (not part of the original plan, I overheard a guide say) and approached along a wide, fountain-dotted reflection pool, the Taj Mahal is a peaceful place to sit and look around.

The cool marble exterior takes on the color of the dawn and sunset. The dim interior is a hushed mausoleum.

But, I can't help but feel, despite its technical elegance, it's world-famous history (Boy meets girl, girl has too many babies, girl dies, boy is sad, boy's son locks him up to die alone), that it's just, well, pretty.

I contrast it to the mirrored palaces and pavilions of Udaipur, Bundi and Ajmer. The gardens in Bikaner. The marble work in Jaipur. Before we had seen these things, I think we would have appreciated this solemn place a little more.

**Click here to see photos from Agra**

 
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Monkeys relaxing at the palace.
If there's anything I like more than a palace, it's a ruined palace.

Better than a ruined palace? One with monkeys.

Boy, did I love Bundi.

One day there, we trudged up the cobblestone hill from the quaint, blue-painted city to the palace, swinging the peeling red monkey stick our guest house lent us for the day. The sunny morning of a Rajasthan spring was nearly too hot for us, but it didn't seem to bother the monkeys much. They rule the ramshackle avenues of this town.

Eating breakfast at a nearby rooftop cafe, we watched a monkey nearly make off with our egg sandwiches. Across the narrow alley below our cafe, a family of macaques sneaked across the roof to some pots left by a careless housewife. One by one they dipped their inquisitive paws into the leftovers. A cunning youngster jimmied a rooftop water cistern open and took a swim. A baby and his mother scavenged a garbage heap far below.

A woman a few doors down, a laundress hanging up bright clothes, wasn't having any monkeys in her washtubs, though. She kept a slingshot handy while she worked and took accurate aim at monkeys climbing the old city walls. They avoided her.

 At the 17th century palace, wires and screens had been put up over one of the rooms with the best-preserved murals. The marbled corridors and rooftop garden were fair game though, and monkeys swung from the trees and balustrades eyeing the tourists walking into the encaged area below; a strange zoo reversal.

Farther uphill, at the 14th century fort, was where our day changed from ordinary sightseeing to living out childhood Jungle Book fantasies. The red monkey stick didn't do much to scare off the loop-tailed langur monkeys who fed on leaves in the overgrown courtyards and patrolled the maze-like hallways.

And, while Kipling didn't visualize the exploits of a boy raised by wolves  while in Bundi, he did write part of his book Kim here. Our third day in Bundi, we tried to go a little farther than the monkeys' hilltop kingdom by hiring an autorickshaw (three-wheeled taxi) to take us to some nearby villages.

The driver was willing enough, if not real sure where us crazy foreigners wanted to go. His vehicle was another matter.

 We got about 30 minutes out of town, into a thorn-tree desert landscape of ochre fields and lonely brick houses, and stopped at an intersection for a cup of hot tea at a roadside shack. While we waited for the tea Dan went around to all the turbaned men drinking tea and gossiping and took their portraits. I tried to chat to two women waiting for a bus, a conversation that mostly consisted of smiles. We all waved goodbye exaggeratedly and repeatedly, which was why it was such an anticlimax when the rickshaw wouldn't start.

Five would-be mechanics, five attempts at pushing and one at towing later we got back to Bundi one adventure richer.


**Click here to see our photos from Bundi!**

 
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Walking through the Sun Gate to the bottom courtyard of Amber Fort, I feel like we've stepped into a set of Conan the Barbarian.

 "Can I punch a camel in the head?" Dan asks.

 No camels just here, but the crenelated walls of the yellow fort look perfect for snake-worship or simply throwing a grappling hook over.

This is the ancient capital of the Jaipur aristocracy, built before the pink city was created. It sits halfway up a scrubby mountain, lording over a village in the green valley below. Defensive barriers, not unlike China's Great Wall, line the ridges of the hills around. Another fort, Jaigarh, the last line of defense we presume, dominates the peak of the mountain. It was never taken in battle, and the Jaipur royal family's one-and-one-quarter flags continue to fly defiantly from its tallest tower.

Winded from climbing the hill, we took plenty of time to look over the forts.

Amber (say it with a silent 'b') is a fun-house of tiny, odd-shaped rooms, tilting passageways and mysterious corners, stairways and bypasses.  One courtyard, the Jai Mandir, has mirrored paintings that glitter silver in the afternoon sun. On a more practical side, I overheard a guide telling tourists that the fort has more than 100 latrines hidden throughout its four stories. The hamam, or bathing area is also interesting--certainly the oldest jacuzzi I've ever seen.

Jaigarh is built flatter, on a wider expanse. The walls have triple-holed shooter's hideouts and ramps for canons. The view reaches the 11 kilometers to modern Jaipur and over countless valleys around it.

There's a puppet theater that used to amuse royal children, a long dining hall with manikins forever enjoying tasty medieval food fashioned out of plaster (men and women separately, of course).

The best part of the fort, though, is the garden. Three forty-foot tall scalloped archways in red sandstone look east over the village of Amber and the golden walls of Amber Fort, made toy-like by the distance.

As the sun set behind Jaigarh, we kept an eye out for roving barbarians and made our way down the mountain and back to the 21st century.

**Click here to see our photos of Amber and Jaigarh!**

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 We are awed.

 Delhi's Red Fort is ginormous.

From the massive sandstone gate through to the delicate carvings and inlays of the pleasure halls overlooking the river bed on the other side, the Fort takes up a huge amount of central Delhi real estate.

First a royal palace and then used by the British as a garrison and then, after Independence, by the Indian army, today it's a park popular with local families and one of the must-see attractions of Old Delhi. It's so popular that even when we visited on a weekday afternoon there were a few hundred people in front of us waiting to get in.

Because each visitor is checked by security individually, it took a long hour's wait before we could enter and we were worried that the inside of the fort would be crowded. But the complex is so large that even with the thousands of visitors it receives every day, the fort seemed roomy. We refused the advances of several guides in favor of wandering by ourselves, and enjoyed the peace of the shady grounds and empty outbuildings.

Leaving the fort at sunset was an amazing contrast between the tranquility of the park to the chaos of the Old Delhi streets.

**Click here to see our photos from Delhi!**