DURING my first year in Delhi, I took mum to see the Taj Mahal. But truth be told, the spectacular beauty of the Taj was overshadowed by poor travel logistics. Our bus was late, cramped, delayed. The air-conditioning broke down, and by mid-day, we were simmering like a couple of dimsums!
Next time round, it was for my sister Janice and her best friend Savita. They had never seen Shah Jahan’s monument of love, even though Savita has lived her whole life in Delhi. The girls were dying to get a glimpse! So, I booked train tickets.
And then, the daredevil of roadtrips, messed with my head a little. He urged me to drive down in my Alto. From Delhi to Agra and back; me behind the wheel.
He said to me:
“It will be a great bonding experience for you and your sis, and her buddy. And your car is in GREAT shape, and has awesome wheels!”
I had doubts; what if the car broke down? what if some creepy men followed us? what if…? After much persuasion, he finally said: “What are you scared of? Maybe you’re really are not an independent woman after all!”
Ouch!!! Maybe I was a wuss…or maybe not…
I began looking up pics of the Yamuna Expressway online, and was astonished at how easy it looked; 6 lanes that stretched for 165 km. I felt a sliver of hope.
I checked the train bookings; we were on the waiting list. Maybe we would not make the cut, and then I’d have to drive. But then I didn’t want fate to decide how we were reaching the seventh wonder of the world. The more I thought about it, the less I felt like being dependent on buses, trains, and cabs. So, I cancelled our tickets, and handed over my Alto LXI with its spanking new wheels to the garage for servicing. The garage was instructed to prep the car for a long, long ride. I filled up the wheels with nitrogen, and topped up the gas tank. The trip was ON!
Savita crashed at our’s the night before and we were in bed by 11.30 pm,, after filling up six bottles of water, biscuits and snacks, and putting our phones to charge. The alarm went off at 4.55 am, and by 5.40 am we were on the road. It took us about 20 minutes to get from South Delhi to the DND flyway toll, and by 6.14 am, we hit the Yamuna Expressway via Greater Noida Expressway.
The real pleasure began once we hit the Expressway — 165 km of smooth baby’s bottom!
We revved passed Buddh International Circuit, which would come alive with F1 action the week after.
This was followed by miles and miles of agricultural land and clear blue skies.
And the wind in our hair.
At the first toll booth, the boy behind the counter grinned at me and asked if it was my first time. “Yes” I responded, with the enthusiasm of a roadtrip virgin. “Try to keep your speed limit to 110 km, as speedsters will be caught,” he advised. I agreed grudgingly.
Back on the expressway, road signs claimed that speed demons would be prosecuted at the next toll booth as everything was captured on a CCT Camera. However, the speed demon in me could not resist the thrill of speeding down this dream expressway. I shuttled between 100 and 110 for a while, and as some SUVS thundered past at 160 km or more, I steadily increased the momentum to 120 km. Not stepping on the clutch and brakes for miles, was pure joy.
There are three tolls along the way, and it’s advisable to purchase a two-way pass for 510 bucks if you plan to return from Agra on the same day. A single pass costs Rs 320, and hence sets you back by Rs 640, both ways. Hold on to the toll receipt throughout the journey as you need to show it at every toll booth, which amounts to six in all, both ways.
You don’t need to stress about taking a leak or going hungry. There’s a toll plaza 500 m ahead of every toll booth. We made a pit stop at the first toll, powdered our noses and had a hearty breakfast of egg omelet sandwiches, chole bhature and coffee. The restrooms are decent.
Back on the road, sis and Savita, clicked several pics of the sights and themselves, and selfies galore. We skipped the next toll plaza, and stopped at the third one as we were not too sure of the restroom status in Agra.
We touched Agra by 8.40 am, and proceeded to the Agra Fort using Google Maps. The Agra highway is good, but once you get into the city the roads are full of potholes, and often they are non-existent. As you approach the Fort, the roads gets chaotic, and nothing like I’ve experienced before. People, dogs, cows, horses, donkeys, bullock carts, rickshaws, trucks, tempos, cars, SUVs, all compete for a sliver of road; I was terrified of killing someone. But some timely hints from pedestrians and fellow drivers, saved the day.
There’s ample parking outside the Fort. Once inside, we were wowed by the architecture and majesty of the fort. I attempted to buy an audio CD, as I simply can’t deal with the overzealous guides, (which seems to be the only kind available). Sadly, the audio CD counter was deserted. The CD offers a more authentic tour of the fort, while the guides’ commentary, I suspect, will include some amount of fiction.
Once done with our admiration and photography sessions, we set out for the Taj Mahal. Now, getting to the Taj is tricky, as it has four entrances, the East, West, South and North Gates. Google maps took us to the East Gate. We circled the roundabout next to it, for a bit, as I could not spot any parking. A little kid and adult began chasing the car, and persisted for sometime. I stopped and rolled down the window, only to discover that since there’s no official parking space, they can offer “private parking”. I decided against it and proceeded to the South Gate, through a very, very narrow road through the village, which was peppered with hotels, Internet cafes and restaurants, all with majestic names like “Tajview”, “The Taj”, “Shahjahan’s palace”, et al.
At the South Gate, two chaps approached us with an offer to provide parking in the compound of some hotel. I decided against it, and then proceeded to the North Gate. En route, there was a barricade where a traffic cop stopped us and said cars could not go through. So, we made a U-turn and laboured on to find the West Gate.
Turns out that this is the right gate for roadtrippers as you have legit parking space. We took a little battery-operated buggy up to the Taj Mahal entrance, and purchased our tickets. You can go by camel too, but the poor things looked so tired and worn out, we decided against it.
As usual, I was quizzed on whether I am from India. I responded in Hindi and said I am from Delhi. I suspect they think I am from Mauritius. Once inside, the girls got out their mobiles phones and got up to the usual Taj Mahal-certified poses, with a vengeance. There was a real scramble for space as everyone seemed to be getting up to the same poses.
Since, I had already been inside, I sat under a tree and relished the view. I also chit-chatted with a granny from Lucknow, who was proudly showing off her twin grandkids. The two little girls were scampering in opposite directions, and the granny tried keeping them on a tight leash with little success. We were done with our tour of the Taj by 12.30.
Our next and last stop was the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, often reffered to as the “Baby Taj”. Beg was Mumtaz Mahal’s grandaddy, and was conferred the title of(pillar of the state) by Emporer Akbar. The tomb of Itmad Ud Daulah is EXQUISITE, and a must-see in Agra. Plus, the estate has a clean restroom. It was 1.30 pm and by this time the girls were exhausted and had enough of majestic tombs for a day.
It was time to head back home and beat the Delhi traffic. We got back on the Yamuna Expressway in minutes and were soon thundering down the highway. The drive was so relaxing that I began feeling a tad drowsy. My sis and her buddy were deeply engaged in conversation with each other, and the sweet strains of Boyz II Men were putting me to sleep. So, I parked at the next toll plaza and closed my eyes for about 15 minutes. Then we were back on the road, and the sun was starting to set beautifully. We hit the DND toll by 4.30 pm, and were back home in South Delhi by 5.15 pm.
Now, if I were to make another roadtrip to Agra, I’d do some things DIFFERENTLY.
1. First stop should be the Taj Mahal, as you can reach the West Gate more easily from the Agra highway.
2. Next stop, Fort. This way you escape the horrific jam outside.
3. Last, drop in at Itmad Ud Daula tomb, which is close to the Yamuna Expressway. Sadly few people, know or care about it enough to visit, hence, you will not be swamped.
4. The restaurants are not great, so get your own lunch. Maybe sandwiches.
What we got right:
1. Carried lots of water and kept ourselves hydrated through the day.
2. The ideal time to drive down is October- Nov and Feb-March. After and before these time frames it is either too hot, too cold, too foggy/ smoggy or too rainy. We did it in October.
3. On an all-women’s roadtrip, err on the side of caution and dress “modestly”. No plunging necklines or sleeveless, if you can help it.
4. Make sure you have multiple phone chargers in your car; after all the battery life of smartphone on a roadtrip is about 5 seconds, what with all the selfies and Taj Mahal-certified poses!
5. Even if you drive a small car, make sure your tyres are awesome. PS: The tyres of my wee Alto were purchased off http://www.changemytyre.com/
Thanks daredevil, for your skills of persuasion!
Am thinking – where to next? Maybe Jaipur. Maybe Goa. Can’t wait to be on the road again, with great company and the wind in my hair!