During our bumpy ride from the Taj Mahal we could see the Agra Fort at a distance – we were told that this was better than the Red Fort. We made one pit stop on the way at a shop that was filled with a variety of flavoured Pethas – the Agra Petha is a famous sweet of this city. I thought Petha would taste like the milky peda which was a sweet I loved; we bought one box of plain Pethas to taste. I had a small piece and it was super sugary without any milkiness – tasted like concentrated syrup with a bit of crunchiness that I didn’t like. Neither did Vijay but the others picked up boxes of flavoured Pethas to carry back home and for colleagues in office.
The ride to Agra ISBT (inter state bus terminus) seemed endless – more so since we were all sitting in uncomfortable cramped positions. We reached at 9:10 am; still 20 minutes for departure. The terminus wasn’t great; had the appearance of a laid back one. Surprising that a city with one of the wonders of the world had such a bus terminus – but then how many of the foreign visitors would be traveling around in a bus?
There were only a few buses around and none of them looked great either – reminded me of the typical bus terminus that we had in smaller towns in South India; there were hardly any shops inside the terminus and I was so worried of missing the bus that I didn’t want to step outside the terminus. It wasn’t hard to locate our bus since there were only a couple that looked like they might leave. The others were abandoned.
The 2nd auto with our gang came in at 9:25; our leader had done the smart thing of stopping at a restaurant nearby to have breakfast. They also brought packed breakfast for us – the pooris had dried up and the channa curry wasn’t hot but even that tasted yummy. We occupied the last few rows of the UP State Transport bus; the outside and inside of the bus were quite a contrast – it was reasonably clean inside and there was an unbelievable amount of leg room for all seats; I always struggle in Indian buses and end up sitting in a funny posture with my legs sticking out on to the aisle. But in this bus I had no such problem – there was ample space between my knee and the seat in front.
Sankar and I had an interesting conversation on school admissions in Chennai; his experiences and what he learned from others. Just like there were forums to discuss about US visa interview encounters there were forums formed by parents to discuss school admissions – for certain schools parents queued up a day in advance just to get the application form since only limited number of forms were issued! Children and parents were put through interviews before admissions were granted. And all this for just lower kindergarten! Not only had the cost of education gone up but so had the stress levels for parents. There are also schools where people made advance reservations for their future kids who were yet to be born – the heights of madness!
Except for the state of the Agra ISBT, I was in for a few pleasant surprises in this bus journey. The intercity ride was a super smooth journey – the highways were really wide and as good as highways you would see in the US. The one thing which was a bit irritating was the speed – the driver never exceeded a specific limit (which we guessed was around 80 kms/hour) even though the road ahead was empty for miles. Why wasn’t he going faster to reduce the travel time? Maybe it was for safety – which was a good thing but being so used to bus drivers trying to accelerate at every opportunity even if the road was clear for only a few meters, this definitely seemed unusual for us. Definitely was very safe due to the limited speed.
There was one long pit stop for lunch; and unlike back home where the buses would stop in shady areas in the middle of the highway, the buses here had properly constructed facilities where they stopped. There was ample parking space; large indoors with few food outlets inside; and even proper toilets.
The whole journey felt surreal – really wish that this was replicated in the rest of the country.
The highways had proper exit diversions similar to the exits in the US freeway system. Given the constant speed that the driver was maintaining we knew how long it would take to reach Lucknow. The only delay we had was during the pit stop – the conductor discovered while counting that a family was missing – it took a few minutes for him to hunt them down and get them back in the bus. Well, that’s one thing that’s the same across the country!
Around 3:45pm we reached Lucknow ISBT; this terminus was a lot better than Agra – a small one but elegant. Next to the bus terminus there was a metro station as well. After using the toilet we headed out; when stepping on the streets of Lucknow the first thing that hit us was the honking. It’s not that we don’t have honking in Chennai – but this was a different level.
Since we never had any lunch we hopped into a restaurant near the bus terminus. I don’t know why but we ended up stepping into a South Indian restaurant – quite crazy of us to have travelled all the way from Chennai to Lucknow and then picking a South Indian restaurant! And it was doubly crazy of us to order a dosa over here – a family dosa that was humungous and shared by 3 of us; it wasn’t good; felt a little sour; and even the other food items weren’t great in the restaurant.
We were put up in a small hotel near Fun republic mall – all arrangements for the hotel taken care of by our host (the bridegroom). Repeating the name of the mall and using Google maps helped us convey the location to the auto drivers. The hotel was across the Gomathi river and the roads on this side of the city looked plush – they were wide, well lit and devoid of any roughness; very different from the roads outside the bus terminus.
After getting our rooms sorted with blankets and figuring out how to switch on the heater (they didn’t give direct control within the rooms and instead had a main switch box on the corridor for this) we headed for a walk at 7pm to the riverside.