Sunday, December 20, 2009

First day on the road: Delhi to Agra

As promised by Anand, our shuttle driver was waiting for us outside the Eleven B&B 5 minutes ahead of our planned 9AM departure.  Bikes and bags stowed in the back of a nice Honda SUV, we dodged and weaved through Delhi rush-hour traffic south along the Mathura Rd towards Agra, our next major destination.

At 2500 Rs for a 60km shuttle, this was a pricey option just to get out of the urban traffic maelstrom, but in retrospect it was totally worth it.  We'd recommend this approach to anyone attempting to cycle out of Delhi, though we'd suggest you bargain harder than we did.  The Mathura Rd to Agra shares an alignment with one of the new Metro lines currently being built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and the combination of normal rush-hour madness and construction detours made this route virtually un-rideable.

Our anticipation grew, in the form of a yawning pit in our stomachs, as we approached our drop-off point.  The traffic seemed to be thinning only imperceptibly, and the pall and haze we hoped was specific to Delhi appeared to permeate the entire region.  Occasionally the countryside opened up to reveal yellow mustard fields bordered by eucalyptus, but then we'd pass a smoke-belching cement factory or be plunged into the honking chaos of another suburban crossroads.  We tried to get into the calming spirit of the devotional Hanuman music CD that the driver put on, but two hours of the exact same riff only had the effect of exacerbating our growing tension.

So we felt an admixture of relief with the dread as the driver finally pulled off the highway south of Palwal and we began assembling the bikes.  Would everything hang together?  We fumbled with the panniers as a small crowd gathered, but they were curious and polite rather than intrusive, and there was even some words of encouragement in English when we explained our itinerary.  At the last minute I remembered to tighten down the cleat screws on my brand-new, never-ridden-on, yet-to-be-adjusted Keen SPD sandals (yeah, we really left everything until the last minute);  falling over while trying to unclip would have provided even more entertainment than our Indian audience could have hoped for.

But then we were off.  The month-long transcontinental tension that had built up to the "actual riding portion" of the bike tour began to dissipate as the comforting feeling of a familiar old bike took over.  Tires rolled smoothly, gears meshed accurately and no untoward scraping, clicking, rubbing or squeaking emerged from the vicinity of our panniers.  And after a week of acclimatisation in Delhi we weren't completely flummoxed by traveling on the left side of the road. Woo-hoo, we're riding!

Not that we could exactly relax at that point: the busy NH 2 we were on has been upgraded to 4 lanes in the last few years, and although it's a divided highway it still has uncontrolled access.  Which means that local traffic, unable to cross the fenced median, travels against the flow of oncoming traffic, typically on the paved shoulder that we had hoped was our safety zone.  So that meant that while traveling at 25 km/hr we were also dodging oncoming traffic of various sorts - other bikes, speeding motorcycles, tuk-tuks, tractors, buffalo carts, even full-sized busses and dump trucks - all heading straight for us.  The convention we soon discovered was that oncoming vehicles usually expected to pass on our left, closer to the shoulder, which forced us out into traffic.  In the sprit of an exception to every rule, however, if the vehicle was a humongous big truck or bus they'd sometimes expect to pass on our right, so as not to risk falling off the shoulder.  So we just had to play it by ear.

But fuelled by adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment, we were exultant to reach our lunch spot, a roadside restaurant about half-way to our first-day's goal at Vrindavan, that was not too different than what we were used to finding on our travels through Morocco and Turkey.  Like the well-to-do Indian families out for a Saturday drive who were our fellow patrons, we sat outside on plastic chairs under colourful awnings and had a modest feast of daal, veg curry and hot naan fresh out of the tandoor.

The rest of the 86km ride to Vrindavan was more of the same, dodging oncoming traffic and worming our way through the inevitable knot of traffic that collected at each town and cross-road.  The only real glitch occurred when I got a pinch-flat rolling over an unseen obstruction on the Vrindavan road and had to stop to change tubes.  I was pleased to see that this event attracted only a modest handful of local observers instead of the traffic-clogging crowd of 200 that gathered during my last Indian flat repair while riding across Bihar State in 1988.

Vrindavan is a town on the banks of the Yamuna River that is said to be the site where Krishna came to earth 5000 years ago and where many of his juvenile exploits recounted in the Bhagavad Gita took place.  As such it's a holy site for pilgrims world-wide and is said to be home to 5000 temples dedicated to Krishna in his multitudinous incarnations.  ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Conciousness, or Hare Krishnas) has a flashy new temple there, and when we'd tried that day to make a reservation at their well-regarded MVP guest house nearby they claimed no availability for that night.  But when we just showed up anyway they managed to find an appropriately ascetic though spacious room for us on an upper floor - a practical payoff on my approach in India never to take No as the final answer.

The MVP was an idyllic haven of manicured gardens and stucco bungalows set in what turned out to be a literal shithole of a town.  Our early-morning plan to stroll the town and peruse the temples was aborted when we were physically unable to negotiate the bombed-out main street in the face of the Sunday pilgrim traffic, and we gave up our attempts to travel the side lanes after vaulting innumerable open sewers.  

So after breakfast in the temple cafe we fought our way through the Sunday pilgrim traffic back to the main highway and made our way towards Agra, facing substantially the same highway conditions and scenery we'd experienced the day before.  We were happy to see, however, that the yellowish tint of the sky was giving way to more and more blue.  Impatient for lunch, we capitulated at a roadside McDonald's crammed with Indian families out for their Sunday outing - just a few klicks before discovering another string of the kind of roadside restaurants we'd enjoyed so much the day before.

We'd calculated the distance to Agra as somewhat shorter than the previous day, but as we counted down the roadside mile markers to Agra (some in Hindi, some in English) we looked up from what should have been zero kilometers to see a sign saying "Taj Mahal 17km".  So it seems the mile markers count down to the city limits, not to the centre of town, with our roadmaps making a somewhat arbitrary split of the difference.  The discrepancy can be considerable for a city the size of Agra.

So, route-finding by way of an Agra city map, we chugged along the expressway through the urban traffic chaos until we reached the bank of the Yamuna and then turned south, roughly following the river's course towards the Agra Fort.  Finally, beneath the walls of the fort we had our first glimpse of the Taj across the sand flats, achieving a significant if merely symbolic milestone in this early stage of our journey.  

Using the Taj as a landmark, we navigated unerringly to the Shanti Lodge in the gritty Taj Ganj neighbourhood, the place (I think?) I stayed when I was here 20 years ago.  We checked into our bare-bulb room, large enough to fit the bikes, and immediately repaired to the roof for a refreshment.  The only thing Shanti Lodge really has to recommend it is that it's cheap and seems to have the tallest rooftop restaurant in the vicinity, with superb views of the Taj Mahal - though after having a delicious dinner on the nearly-as-tall roof at the nearby Saniya Palace hotel we realised that it would have made a much better choice.

We made an early evening of it so as to be prepared for a sunrise stroll through the Taj Mahal, which opens to tourists at 7am.  We went to bed satisfied that we'd accomplished our first goal in the "actual cycling portion" of the trip.