On a memorable road trip
Day 2 : Having slept like babies the previous night, we woke up fully recharged for the journey on the twenty first of October. Our plan that day was to reach Siliguri, a very ambitious plan indeed. Because, we had to make up for the shortfall of 190 km from the previous day’s journey. Instead of taking the bypass, we decided to drive through the city, which would connect us with highway AH47. From the city, joining the highway, we noticed the road repairs were in progress, though continuing to drive, we noticed the road conditions appeared to improve after the town of Guna, and then up to Padora. Driving along, we had to be careful, alternatively switch from lane to lane, because of roadwork. The scenic part of our journey on the stretch of road till Padora was like a green landscape, evidence of the cultivation done by the local people. Padora is a small junction town on the road, which has the diversion to Jhansi, bypassing the town of Shivpuri. On our road-trip we made the conscious effort to bypass towns wherever possible, as we were completely dependent on Google maps. Turning left at the Junction, and bidding adieus to AH47, we drove onward to join highway NH27. After turning into NH27, the road conditions became supreme, a well maintained road to drive on. Initially, even though the road seemed smooth, we weren’t quite sure of NH27’s road conditions, gingerly driving slowly at a lower speed. Having driven a couple of kilometers, we gained our confidence, and the power of the beast was unleashed. And from then on we maintained a steady speed throughout the route. This bypass route connected back to NH47 when passing through the town of Shivpuri. We quickly found out the bypass was highly prone to accidents; the road has a particular Y junction. And at the junction, a Tempo traveling from Jhansi to Shivpuri narrowly missed hitting us. All because there is no road signs to warn drivers, or slow traffic with speed breakers, coupled with bad visibility at the intersection. With this toxic mix, you have drivers who don’t pay attention, speeding through the intersection without looking, or slowing down.
Well, after our narrow escape from nearly crashing with the Tempo, catching our breath, and calming our
[caption id="attachment_181020" align="alignright" width="300"] A group of banjaras, or nomads, with all belongings on camels in search of a new destination.[/caption]
nerves, we continued on our journey on NH27. Driving east, looking out of the window of our car, the landscape began rapidly changing from the lush green of cultivation to very dry terrain. This was an absolutely new experience for us, which was quite a sight to behold. Now we were passing through an arid valley, dry land with just shrubs and bushes, trees were few and far between as far as the eye could see. The road we were driving on took us through red canyons with absolutely no vegetation - it was breathtakingly beautiful. One of the best roads we had driven on in our journey.
Driving along, we came across small groups of people with camels that had their Charpai tied on the backs of the camels. These bands of nomads were Banjaras, a local ethnic people with Rajasthani attire, who would move from place to place with their herds. When we passed them, they were on the move beside the road taking all their belongings, including their livestock. The sight of the nomads brought several thoughts to our minds about them. It made us wonder what kind of life could they be leading? Considering, their lives must be so different from ours? Seeing them, it makes one wonder that they may have chosen to continue to stay with their age-old traditional way of life. And this traditional way of life was passed to their future generations without ever changing to the comforts of our modern lifestyles.
Continuing on our journey, by 9am, 40 km from Jhansi, we pulled over for a break; this was more from the temptation to try another Dhaba considering our previous day’s experience. We settled in for a brunch at the Dhaba, but the experience felt short, needlessly to say, didn’t meet our expectations at all. There at the Dhaba, we took an hour’s break, but we needed to make up our lost time. And so we decided to continue, hoping our energy levels would keep up with our desires to get to our destination; conscious of the fact that we were very behind on our schedule.
Nearing the city of Jhansi, where the sights along the road told us that the area was of historical importance, probably dating back centuries. Not forgetting, we were in the land of the warrior queen - Jhansi. As we drove deeper into this mystical land, we saw even more ruins on both sides of the road. Must admit, felt sad at the sights of the ancient forts, they were standing tall, but no one seemed to care or maintain the forts. Despite the overgrown trees and shrubs on the ruins of the fort, one could see the past glory of these magnificent structures. As we drove, about 10 km from Jhansi, we saw a massive black statue with a sword on a hilltop. It was towering over the nearby houses around the hills. Our eyes were glued to the sight of the statue - we were speechless. With forts dotted all around the area, to us, the statue seemed to keep watch over the valley. We wanted to stop, but reminded ourselves that we had a schedule to stick to; we were short on time. This place would definitely require a second visit from us sometime in the future to explore and study its history.
By the time we entered Uttar Pradesh, we had a completely different impression of the road conditions
[caption id="attachment_181022" align="alignright" width="300"] An old fort in Jhansi[/caption]
that we may encounter. We were expecting bad roads, but our impression of the roads changed in Uttar Pradesh. The entire stretch of highway, NH27 was smooth. The area around the road seemed densely populated; hence the high volume of traffic, but that didn’t slow us down. We moved at a good pace through the slow moving vehicles, maintaining a steady speed between 80 km to 100 km per hour. To us, the entire Uttar Pradesh region along our route appeared green, with large amounts of trees along the road. We crossed into Kanpur by 2pm, exiting the city over a bridge, with a view of the religious ceremonies below on the banks of the Ganges River. After a couple of kilometers, we stopped to have tea. This was our second chance to use our makeshift kitchen in our car. Having made the short stop, consuming our quota of caffeine, which included some munchies to get our energy levels back, we set off on the road again.
[caption id="attachment_181023" align="alignleft" width="300"] One of several old forts in Jhansi[/caption]
Around about 4:30pm, we entered Lucknow. This was one amazing city, as we drove through the city, we could see it had a lot of history, but at the same time this ancient city like most Indian cities was touched with modernity. Lucknow appeared organized and clean; one could easily compare its infrastructure with any one of the global cities around the world. With our enthusiasm, we had to remind ourselves not to stray too far into the city of Lucknow and loose time. As we were bound by our deadlines, we had to keep focused on the GPS (global positioning system), and keep our eyes glued to the map. The best part of going through the city of Lucknow was that it was very well planned and straightforward. We drove through the city to the interception, which meets with highway NH27. We had to be careful to take a left turn on NH27, because making a right would take us to Delhi.
We kept driving with our ambitious target to reach Siliguri; deep in our minds knowing full well it would be impossible. Because, doing a time check, it was 7pm in the evening, and we entered Faizabad. It was getting dark; and the traffic there was slowing us down. But we journeyed on, leaving Faizabad behind us. As this was the season of festivals, we were traveling during the festival of the lights – Dewali. There were firecrackers, and beautiful lights everywhere. Our road was filled with processions preparing for the immersion of the Goddess Kali idols. To us, it seemed a male-only celebration. Some of the vehicles in the procession were one of a kind. The trucks were decorated with projectors with LED lights, and playing disco music, apparently in the Bhojpuri language. Everyone in the procession was engrossed dancing and celebrating the joyous season. In a way, we too were caught up in their celebrations; forced to slow down, all because along the road at several spots one lane of the road would be closed for the celebrations. And the single lane was shared by traffic going in either direction. Since we were considerably slowed down on our journey due to the celebrations we encountered, our target to reach Siliguri by the appointed time definitely wasn’t going to be met.
Continuing on, while the immersion ceremony progressed throughout the night - we entered Gorakhpur. The processions in Gorakpur were little different, what was astonishing was to see few of the men in the group carrying 12 bore single barrel or double-barrel rifles. Initially we were a little uneasy, but got used to seeing almost all the immersion groups sporting their rifles. It appears, according to some recent estimates, the area around Gorakhpur has a very high density of firearms, mostly locally manufactured.
Caught up in the celebrations around us, we took a quick look at the fuel gauge of the car and noticed the fuel was low. Plus the built-in feature of the car kept nagging us that we needed to refuel. I wish there was an option to switch of the warning. And as there wasn’t an option, and we needed to refuel, we began looking for a fuel pump - and locate one quickly. Having found a fuel station, noticed it was very badly maintained. It had handwritten rates on the board, and the rates seemed to be higher than the existing fuel prices in Uttar Pradesh. The fuel station had armed men too. Not comfortable seeing them, we decided to go to the next fuel station. Having found another fuel station, it appeared decent. It was well maintained, we tanked up the car, and there too we noticed armed men with rifles. The crew at the fuel station did not care too much about conversations, they were armed and ready to reach for their weapons at a moments notice. They looked us over, and take down our vehicle numbers, while at the same time surveying our car. The fuel price in this fuel pump seemed accurate. While making the payment I asked the manager why everyone were armed with a rifle? The manager was quick to respond, he said the crime rates were very high in the area. His advice to us was to stay safe. He insisted we not cross over into Bihar that night. Instead stay over in Gorakhpur or Kushinagar, and then travel during the next day. After the formalities of refueling, and the well wishes of the fuel station staff, we were back on the road continuing on our journey.
Making our way towards Gorakhpur, looking at options, analyzing, discussing our situation, what could we do that would be different if any? One of us felt uneasy, and while the other felt okay with the circumstances. After our discussions, and looking at options, it was agreed to stop over for the night, and speak to the local community to determine the safety of travel through the night.
About 15 km from Gorakhpur, we pulled into a Dhaba around 10pm. The first impression of the Dhaba was truly a sight of nation integration; one group of Sikh men enjoying their dinner, while another group appeared to be from south India. The Dhaba was busy with customers, with the Dhaba staff darting about taking orders and serving food. This restaurant was a typical Dhaba, noise coming off of the main road, music blaring from the parked trucks; seeing trucking men deep in conversation, sharing their experiences and food with fellow truckers. One would of course see this sight on any number of roads while traveling in India. Waiting for our order, the waiters were not responding. We asked the waiters several times what was on the menu? Still there was no response from them. We were about to leave, when we heard a voice, saying: roti, dal, anda fry, alu fry, bhendi fry. And when I turned to ask what else was on the menu? He reply in a humorous way that he was reciting the Dhaba’s menu, which he just heard a while back being recited to another customer. Matter of fact, he too was a fellow customer waiting for his order. Both of us burst out laughing, making apologies for the mistake. The man was a trucker from Calcutta; he was driving from Assam to Delhi. He shared his experience driving in the country; and told us not to drive through Bihar at night. Because some boys tried to stop him on the highway, when he didn't then they shot at his tires.
He came across as a very interesting personality. Joining us at our table, the trucker shared interesting stories of his highway experience. He said he knew most of the roads in the country well, and highways numbers were on the tip of his tongue. To us he came across as educated and well informed on current affairs, but he said that he never went to school. After our meal, he suggested we take the Gorakhpur bypass, and advised us not to stop anywhere with no civilization. And if we had to stop, we should stop only at a busy Dhaba, or fuel pump. Before we parted company, the trucker took us over to his truck to show us the rear tires to his truck, which was punctured – shot by the boys in Bihar. He said didn’t stop, continued driving. Not having his highway experience, we took his advice seriously.
Made our way into Gorakhpur bypass with great caution. At one spot on the road, after the tollgates and the bypass, it was busy again with idol processions for immersion. Again, one lane of the road was shared by traffic from either direction. At certain portions of the road, it was completely dark. Not a car in sight, traveling on the lonely stretch of road, our minds began playing games with stories told by the truckers and the fuel pump manager. Then glancing at our clock, we noticed it was already passed 11pm, and our ambition to drive through Bihar was starting to wane. We began making plans to stop for the night, and the only available place or option for us was in Kushinagar. And after Kushinagar, we would be entering Bihar, and in between there were no towns or cities. And so we continued driving towards Kushinagar, and by 11:30pm we entered Kushinagar. There we did an online search for a hotel, we found a place called Olive tree. This hotel was right on the highway, in Khushinagar, but it was closed. We decided to knock on the doors of the hotel for someone to open them. When one of the staff opened the doors, we enquired about their rooms. He took us to the room of the hotel; checking the room, we didn’t like the room shown to us, not comfortable at all, we continued looking elsewhere. But it was very nice of the staff at the hotel to recommend another hotel called Adelphi Grande. This place had good online reviews; and we drove to it. The hotel was in the center of town. In the dark we concluded that the area around the hotel appeared to be catering to South East Asians. There were signboards in Japanese or Korean, and the area had some western influence. When we reached the hotel, the hotel was already fully booked. Unfortunately we got there late, the hotel had just checked in a bus full of Russian tourist, couple of hours earlier. However, it was getting late, so we got the hotel’s permission to park in their parking lot. We slept on the built-in beds of our car; finally we got to make good use of them. We went off to sleep, only to be awoken by guests leaving the hotel and boarding their bus. These were the Russian guests who had checked in the previous night. We were very curious as to where were they going? Too tired to think or analyze, went back to sleep. Slept like a log.