Unplanned trips have a tendency to spring up surprises, usually pleasant ones. A long lost college mate and good friend, now settled in the UK was in India and we were unable to work out ways to catch up until he suggested if I could come down to Agra as he was going to be there to meet relatives. And why not, I said, never one to miss an opportunity to visit the Taj.
Janmasthami suited us best as it was a holiday for my son, but then to our horror we realised it was a Friday, the only day of the week when the Taj is closed (I cant still figure out why a tourist place like Taj ever has to be closed). But we were committed to meet him come what may. And as luck would have it, the newly constructed and much hyped Yamuna expressway got inaugurated just a day ago, with promises of connecting Delhi with Agra in two and a half hours. Why not try it out, and we set out early morning by 6:30.
A heavily overcast sky threatened to inundate us with floods though secretly we looked forward to it, adventurers at heart that my wife, son and I are. But like most monsoon days in Delhi, it only flattered to deceive. Where similar skies in Mumbai would have created another 26/7, not a drop of rain met us all day. Starting from south Delhi, we were soon on the NGN (Noida-Greater Noida) expressway in minutes. Signboards announcing the Yamuna expressway greeted us as we neared Greater Noida and touchwood, they were all simple and easy to follow. Four broad lanes on either side, mostly cemented and adequately fenced to prevent stray animals and villagers. Ubiquitous signboards requesting drivers not to use the cell-phone, or not to drink & drive, to overtake only from the right-most lane, and to halt only in the left-most, something commonsensical, but then most Indians don’t get it.
Just being the second day after thrown open to public, for quite a while, ours was the only vehicle on the road. But we were perturbed by the innumerable stray dogs lying dead on it, we stopped counting after twenty. And several live ones crossing the road made my wife scream and shout at me not to trample them. Unless this menace is controlled, these highway accidents will soon wipe out all stray dogs on this stretch and not to mention threats to commuters.
Another irritation, and a possible danger, was the groups of local villagers on either side of the road we saw throughout our drive. Either for recreation or simply in awe of such a fine road passing through their fields & village, we encountered clusters of teenagers and elders every few metres. Most were innocuously huddled in a group and busy with themselves, but some were running across the road and clicking photographs. The kids were just happy waving their hands at every car that passed. Good fun this is, but may soon result in major risk and later to possible and needless accidents.
Though the speed limit is set to 100 kmph on this road, I effortlessly touched 140. The road is very broad and extremely good quality, the biggest advantage being that there were no interruptions of cattle crossings, or a tractor chugging in the fast lane or a bullock-cart coming the wrong way. I zipped at 140 for the complete stretch, something unheard of on any road in this country. There are three toll gates with public amenities and food courts, though the food courts weren’t functional as yet. As a small blessing, the e-way was declared toll free for the first week and I managed to save Rs. 510:).
Even with several photo-op stops, convenience breaks and slowing down at three toll plazas, we were at the Trident in less than three hours. On NH2, this journey would have been 5 hours, accompanied by incredible stress and an aching back. Now Agra can truly be a day outing from Delhi. The sales manager at Oberoi Amarvilas was perturbed this may have a negative impact on guests staying overnight in Agra. Nevertheless he took us on a property tour of the Amarvilas, which has the best views of the Taj from any property in the city.
Unfortunately the city of Agra hasn’t progressed much since the Mughals were last here a few centuries ago. As soon as you enter the town, its all chaos, filth, non-existent roads and people running all over the place like headless chicken. My fingers are crossed that after having made the e-way, relevant authorities will pay heed to the roads of Agra that lead up to the Taj.
There was a lot to catch up with Hemant, reminiscing college days, old friends and a bit of philosophy, we could have gone on talking for days. In the afternoon we went to Mehtab Bagh, which is behind the Taj and across the Yamuna. By evening, we were back on our favourite (already!) e-way. A quick word of caution here, as of now there are no refuelling stations along the road and I learnt it the hard way. It took me half a tank to reach Agra and I was confident the remaining half would bring me back safely. Sadly the fuel meter sunk down to almost Zero level less than two-thirds on our way back and it was pitch black outside by the time we reached the third toll-plaza, still 60 km short from home. Inquiring here I learnt the nearest petrol pump was in a village named Tappal, for which I had to drive back 15 kms and get off an exit. I will be wiser next time.
Now, its finally possible to do the Taj Mahal, Sikandra and Agra Fort comfortably in a single day.
Here is some info about the Yamuna Expressway that I picked up from newspapers:
Total length: 165 km
No. of lanes: 6 + 2 (extendable)
6 interchanges and 3 toll plazas
All 3 toll plazas have public conveniences and food courts
Approx charge: Rs 300 one way, Rs 510 if return on same day
Security cameras to monitor speed, commuters will be caught at the next toll plaza