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“The destination doesn't matter; it’s all about the journey" September 28, 2014 to October 4, 2014 7 Days - 6124 kms - crossing 13 states - connecting 4 Metropolitans of India - witnessing 7 famed tourist attractions 12 hours to 20 hours of daily drive time. India’s most amazing ring Route – The Golden Quadrilateral - by Vaibhav Patil India has no dearth of beautiful travel destinations, diverse cultures, ancient – architectures, monuments, trekking destinations, beaches, and snow clad mountain ranges, natural forests reserves and many more. If I have to tour India and all of its tourist attractions, even 100 days might seem less. So, I set out on a road expedition to find out if tourists are able to spend less time travelling and explore more of India in same time span. The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013 ranks India 65th out of 144 countries overall. The report ranks the price competitiveness of India's tourism sector 20th out of 144 countries that means we do welcome a lot of tourist, from the not-so-affluent background, to have foreign tours in our country as well. It mentions that India has quite good air transport (ranked 39th), and reasonable ground transport infrastructure (ranked 42nd). Air transport is fast but expensive and rail transport though affordable for all budgets, they are not always accessible and don’t freely aid point-to-point travel. With improving road networks, the time gap between travel destinations is actually reducing and as the rail ticket prices soar, the cost to time advantage per head travelling by road makes for a significant case. For instance, consider travelling from Mumbai to Bengaluru for 2 pax, air ticket will cost INR 15k one side, with travel time of 5 hours including check in- boarding-travel time -and transit from Airport to city. Travelling via rail takes 24 hours and costs roughly INR 4K (2nd Tier AC). 2nd Tier AC travel is chosen, just to make a fair comparison of travel comfort by air and rail). Travelling the same distance by car (diesel) takes 13 hours and would cost one way + toll, sums up to INR 5k. In the same budget, you can travel either alone or up to 5 tourists. There you have it then, road travel puts you bang in the middle of equation for travel time and travel costs, with added advantage of ease and convenience of travelling point to point. In Jan-1999, when Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, our then Prime Minister of India, laid the foundation stone of Golden Quadrilateral, a highway network to connect major industrial & cultural centres and most important connecting major Metropolitans of the country, establishing faster transport networks between major cities and ports. The vision for GQ had more economic benefits and trade impetus, than tourism applications then. In Jan-2012, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia when India announced the 4 lane GQ highway network completion. The route map of GQ on Indian map was alluring enough to put this very road expedition into my bucket list. Fast forward to Sep’ 2014, with yours truly back on Indian shores and rain Gods finally giving some respite, we (Me and my Wife) set out for what’s planned as a 7 Day road expedition covering 6000 odd kilometers of ‘the’ Golden Quadrilateral, connecting 4 Metropolitans of the nation. To make things interesting, we listed out some major Tourist attractions en route the major cities on the GQ. Day 1: Mumbai-Silvassa-Vapi-Valsad-Navsari-Surat-Bharuch-Vadodara-Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar-Udaipur Distance: 784 kms Driving through states: Maharashtra, Gujrat, Rajasthan Driving Duration: approx. 10 Hours Day 1 kicked off at 5.10AM from Sion, Mumbai with my trusted steed, VW Polo GT loaded with essentials to keep us going on the road for the next 7 days. Packed with excitement, I drove through the border of Gujrat with a yellow tape on the right-side headlamp. The yellow tape is a mandate while driving in Gujrat, road authorities claim that it helps reduce glare on oncoming traffic during night drives. The road leading to NE-1 Baroda-Ahmedabad expressway seemed mediocre but we were able to pick up speed once it was access controlled. Another 100 odd kilometers in drive post the Ahmedabad bypass exit and you cross into the state of Rajasthan. One doesn’t have to be a genius to recognize the Rajasthan soil. Rajasthan is a spectacular sight the very moment to enter the state. I was wondering, how a simple check post and a truck terminal at the Gujrat – Rajasthan border, can change things so much. The vegetation is noticeably shorter, the scenery has scores of hillocks, each of a different shade of green, and truck drivers are suddenly nicer and acknowledge your dipper signals (well, let me tell you, that a very rare trait). Well for those who can’t differentiate states based on vegetation, the simple hint is to spot huge and reputed Bars and Restaurants as soon as you step into Rajasthan. Gujrat being a dry state, the liquor bars on the RJ border, is to the locals, what is like the King Fahd Causeway Bridge of Bahrain is for Saudi Arabia. Once you exit National Highway for Udaipur bypass, you are welcome by cows and cattle on the road, than in the meadows in Rajasthan. Our first tourist destination in Udaipur was the Udaipur City Palace, which was built on a hill top that gives a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding, including several historic monuments such as the Lake Palace in Lake Pichola, the Jag Mandir on another island in the lake, the Jagdish Temple close to the palace, the Monsoon Palace on top of an overlooking hillock nearby and the Neemach Mata temple. The locals warned us that we won’t be able to get around town once Navaratri celebrations begin in the evening, so we proceeded to checked in our Hotel RTDC Kajra and later headed to Fatehsagar Lake in Udaipur’s local commuter rickshaw, aka, a tumtum to enjoy the sunset. To end my wonderful day, there was no better place for dinner than the Upre – 1559 AD Rooftop restaurant with the most amazing view of the City Palace across Lake Pichola. Day 2: Udaipur-Chittaurgarh-Ajmer-Jaipur-Gurgaon-Delhi Distance: 772 kms Driving through states: Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi Driving Duration: approx. 10 Hours Driving in pitch darkness, through the sweet smell of desert sand, I managed to start my day 2 early at 4.45AM. The desert roads were gutted but driving experience was unparalleled with traffic only from trucks of all shapes and sizes driving with utmost discipline. Traffic is noticeably higher towards Haryana. Road side dhabas were packed with truck drivers stopping for breakfast. They park their trucks haphazardly on the 3-lane highway without concern about blocking the lane. You can see some beautiful hills and rock formations once the road clears. Haryana has the biggest line up of gas stations to welcome you, and why not, with manufacturing hub for Auto majors like Maruti-Suzuki, Hero Motors and others in the vicinity, and many test mules in the vicinity. HIDC is India’s version of Singapore’s Pearl Harbour Highway. It’s spectacular to see the line of industries right after crossing into Haryana. The sudden outburst of truck traffic in Gurgaon which you wish you wouldn’t have to experience after a long day’s drive. Traffic continues onto the Gurgoan-Delhi expressway with no intent of letting you express through to Delhi and the numerous diversions, only add to the chaos. After I reached Delhi, around 3.30pm, I headed straight to Qutub Minar before its closing time of 5pm. Red Fort is general close on Monday for public visit, and thereby had to give it a miss. By the time I could reach India Gate, it became dark, and that was exactly how I wanted it to be. The India Gate is a spectacular site at night! So mesmerizing, it is to view the India gate in bright white light under the dark clouds and tri-color flag waving in all its glory sends down shiver through your spine at first glance. The structure is so huge and the lights so bright. You rush to its site, just to catch a glimpse of Amar Jawan Jyoti from close vicinity. After we pacified our excitement, we went to Cannaught Place to have a typical Punjabi cuisine dinner, and later ending the day at a hotel near the IGI Airport. Day 3: Stint 1: Delhi-Faridabad-Mathura-Agra Stint 2: Agra-Firozabad-Etawah-Kanpur-Sagar-Fatehpur district-Allahabad-Varanasi Distance Covered: 824 km Driving through States: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh Driving Duration: approx. 11 Hours I have a habit of refueling every morning soon after commencing the journey, to maximize my range and avoid intermediate breaks. Well that’s exactly what I did, when we started from Delhi towards Agra. To my surprise, my habit proved to be a blessing in disguise, as I had no idea, that the newly built ‘Yamuna Expressway’ that connects Delhi to Agra as well as Budh International Circuit (India’s only F1 track), on its way, was a race track in itself. We all know, all good things come at a price – and you do pay a hefty share on fuel for the blistering speeds you could do on the Yamuna Expressway. The Yamuna Expressway is our perfect gateway to put our Nation’s improving infrastructure on the world map. It is that good. In fact, it’s so good that one can talk about it, in the same topic discussing the German Autobahns or Britain’s M1. Sadly, we do have a speed limit on the Yamuna Expressway, unlike the former. It is a debatable topic that we do not follow speed limits mostly because the limits are unreasonably low. You know that the NHAI wasn’t serious about the speed limit when you factor just 2 things about this fantastic expressway; first, the Expressway is arrow straight with visibility up to 1.5 to 2 kilometres up ahead. No kidding, I was so curious to understand numbers, that I actually measured trip distance to the next visible point. Secondly, it’s a 6-8 lane access controlled expressway throughout, with not more than 7 entry-exit points along its length of 165 km, and even the NHAI patrol vehicles use speeds over the specified limit. To be frank, I was doing speeds that allowed me to cross the Yamuna Exp in an hour’s time, and I could count not more than 10-20 vehicles along the complete stretch. So, it was more like my personal playground, to fill my appetite for speed that was actually reserved for this very road, in my 7 days GQ itinerary. The Yamuna Exp best elevates India’s Road Network – Commercially, as it provides immaculate connectivity from Delhi International Airport to the BIC, and further extends to nation’s most famous tourist destination and one of the Greatest Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. So, undoubtedly then, my next stop over, Agra, to admire the Taj Mahal. Hours (and may be days!) could pass by and I still wouldn’t deplete all the angles to get the most perfect photograph of this Wonder. After 2 hours, we proceeded towards the east side exit and headed to grab a quick breakfast but it happened that we were in for a feast! Ordered Aloo parathe for 2 and found myself licking fingers after having the most mind blowing Aloo parathe ever! Then started the drive through UP. We got some traffic until Firozabad but then the roads opened up. Around noon, we were slowed down by a series of diversions – around 30 diversions for under construction flyovers encountered over 2 hours. Flyovers were freshly completed as Kanpur came close. The Kanpur bypass elevated road helped us save a lot of time. Allahbad bypass road is a beautifully surfaced access controlled road, banked on each and every turn and corner making it sheer delight for every petrol head. Driving on this stretch gets more involving and exciting as we further progress on twisty roads with varying elevation and very few straights. Sunset was pretty early and darkness fell before we could reach Varanasi. Roads were narrow and filled with cyclists. We made it through the winding roads up to our hotel on the bank of river Ganga. Varanasi, happened to be our first destination where we had to skip our seeing plans. Was completely unaware of the fact that sunset is around 4.30 pm, in the eastern zone of the country. By the time I reached Banaras, it was around 5.30 – 6 pm, and many sites well pass their usual tourist visit time. Day 4: Varanasi-Chandauli-Mohania-Kudra-Sasaram-Dehri-Aurangabad-Dhanbad-Asansol-Durgapur-Bardhaman-Kolkata Distance Covered: 690 km Driving through States: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal Driving Duration: approx. 9 Hours Day 4 being the shortest lap of our journey, we were determined to reach Kolkata as early as possible and go sightseeing before heading to Durga Pooja Pandals. The highway passing through the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal helped. Bihar had the least amount of traffic, possibly because we breezed past through it pretty early in the day. Jharkhand has the most amazing roads of the entire trip with ghat sections adding extra flavour. The best part of the Golden Quadrilateral drive thus far has to be the NH2 though the state of Jharkhand. It’s neither as fast as Yamuna Expressway nor anything like the Allahbad bypass road. But then, when that first image of Golden Quadrilateral was visualized, I believe this was the form, function, size, view, layout, access map, anything and everything included. I know its high praise, but yes, it’s in fact that good. Then was West Bengal with the strictest traffic men in the entire country! Several major junctions on the highway in West Bengal – this slowed us down. The Burdwan Bypass road is another exciting experience. Kilometres pass by in a jiffy! And we reached Kolkata at 2pm. This is the earliest we’ve made it to any of our planned destinations. After enjoying amazing Mughlai cuisine and great kababs for lunch at Arsalan, Kolkata, we checked into our hotel for a quick nap. In the evening we headed to Victoria Memorial Museum past the Elliot Garden and finally to the Durga-Puja Pandals at Mohmmad Ali Park and College Square. We celebrate a lot of festivals in India, but the grandeur of Durga-Puja Celebrations in Kolkata, wins the prize, hands down. It didn’t take a while for us to realize the sheer vibrancy this festival has on the locals and the tourist. If one has to visit Kolkata for holidays, I strongly recommend making a trip during the Navratra Festival. Day 5: Kolkata-Kharagpur-Balasore-Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar-Berhampur-Srikakulam-Vizianagaram-Visakhapatnam-Rajahmundry-Tadepalligudem-Eluru-Vijayawada-Guntur Distance Covered: 1309 km Driving through States: West Bengal, Odissa, Andra Pradesh Driving Duration: approx. 20 Hours This day was targeted to be a 12 hours’ drive from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam (Vizag), but this was the start of a long weekend, hotels in Vizag were all booked and had to stretch another 400km from Vizag to Guntur where our friend had welcomed us over to his home. The drive through West Bengal and Odisha seemed monotonous without much ups and downs. We halted near Chilka Lake for lunch and rushed on as we had a long way ahead. Wasting a lot of time in traffic as we passed through the city of Vizag, followed by heavy rains, means even Mother Nature did its bit to slow us down and needless to say, it was a challenging drive. Unknown state, heavy rains, highway touring at night with blinding oncoming traffic, all factors put together made a perfect proving ground for any serious tourer. Roads from Vizag to Guntur, were notably good and the smooth ride proved to be our saving grace in an otherwise adventurous night drive. At 1.30 am late night, driving for 1308 kms and spending precisely 19 hours- 37 minutes in the car, we finally reached our friend's place in Guntur just to crash hard on a warm bed and relax before we could kick start our drive to Chennai next morning. Day 6: Stint 1: Guntur-Ongole-Kavali-Nellore-Gudur-Gummidipoondi-Chennai Stint 2: Chennai-Sriperumbudur-Kanchipuram-Walajapet-Ranipet-Vellore-Ambur-Vaniyambadi-Krishnagiri-Hosur-Bangalore Distance Covered: 764 km Driving through States: Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka After a filling and sumptuous homemade breakfast, we lead out of Guntur city onto the Guntur-Vijaywada expressway. We continued our journey on the amazing NH5 to reach our next destination - Marina beach, Chennai. Had lunch at Anjappar, a restaurant I had badly we missed for their pepper chicken and chicken biryani from my days in Kuala Lumpur. At around 5pm we started off from Chennai for Bangalore on the NH4. There were noticeably too many VIP number plates on the road. In a city like Mumbai where double digit vehicle registration numbers are to be purchased officially from the Motor Vehicles Department, Maharashtra, we found fancy number plates a common sight in this part of the country. Roads were bad initially but became quite good after sunset. Reached Bangalore by 10pm, where a dear friend and his family were waiting for us for dinner. Had delicious home-made Punjabi food for dinner at our friend's house and ended our day reliving travel stories of our drive thus far. Day 7: Bangalore-Tumkur-Chitradurga-Davangere-Ranebennur-Hubli-Dharwad-Belgaum-Kolhapur-Karad-Satara-Pune-Panvel-Mumbai Distance Covered: 981 km Driving through States: Karnataka, Maharashtra The last leg The last day of GQ drive started from Bengaluru (hometown to my in-laws) to Mumbai(my birth place and native ). That said, the number of times I have driven this stretch of GQ in recent past almost equals the climate changes of the country. But then, road journeys always have something new to offer. And after 6 days on road, I was well convinced that there is never a monotonous or boring moment when it comes to driving. The changing road surfaces, own driving methods of the locals, new generation access controlled expressways and many unexpected elements paying a surprise visit out of nowhere. So, did I take the last day of GQ for granted? Frankly speaking, NO. I was not driving on the very same road, that I drove 2 months back, the lane markers were now in place, guard rails now made the edges more secured, the climate has changed too. Driving on a Nation Highway on a long weekend meant a lot of cars on highway than just the regular sight of trucks. Not to mention, cars on highway have their very own character and contribution to the whole scenario of road transport and speed. Either trying to push the envelope of speed or contributing to chaos and traffic clogs. And that takes me to a different dimension about driving on highways - Safety. I fancy driving and spend a lot of time on road, doing daily short hauls to office to long tours crossing states. I have experienced everything from chaotic city drives to single lane highways to Ghats to access controlled expressways. Speed is commonly considered as a deterrent to Safety. But truth be told, it isn't. Driving slow doesn't mean its safe. Might be safe for one in terms of longer reaction time, but can cause an element of hazard for others on road. Going too fast without considering fellow road goers safety isn't the right way either. Pace, is therefore the key element for safety (self and others) on road! Big shout out to my wife Abhinaya, for her continual support and encouragement. Her presence during the journey, also meant, I could enjoy every single moment into driving, without being worried or getting distracted for anything else, the course had to offer. Can’t thank her enough for that. So, in a nutshell, is the Golden Quadrilateral actually a golden proposition in nation's continuous quench towards better infrastructure and development? Straight answer, YES. We now have faster transport networks with major cities and ports, enabling industrial and job development in smaller towns through access to markets. Some may argue about the increasing traffic of heavy vehicles on our national highways and issues or inconvenience caused. But, indeed these are positive signs, I would say. Giving an impetus to Truck transport throughout India, means, we now have smoother movement of goods and people within India. Providing opportunities for farmers, traders, manufacturers through better transportation to major cities and ports for export, through less wastage and spoils and hence driving economic growth directly. National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) never promoted GQ as a highway network with 4-6 lanes and access controlled expressways that will allow touring heads to cover distance between two metropolitans set more than thousands kilometres within 24 hours. But the fact that it can be done, is a testimony in itself. The Machine: VW Polo GT 1.6 TDi True to its name, the GT - was the Star performer of the 7 Day - 6124 km Golden Quadrilateral Drive. Good Roads, Bad Roads, Broken Patches, rumble strips, pebble shots - nothing could unfazed the stupendous German build quality. The Polo GT tackles them with such aplomb, it almost didn't matter. With 104 BHP/ 250 Nm of Torque, there is always enough grunt for stress-free cruising for long hauls as well as for quick overtaking manoeuvres. The Polo GT shares its underpinnings with the more potent Euro-spec Polo GTi (capable of handling power upwards of 180 BHP and electronically limited top speed of 250 kmph) that lends her superior handling and matured road manners. This makes her feel at home on expressway and high speed cruising. With comfortable ride, stellar performance and impeccable build quality, there were no signs of squeals or rattles even after strenuous 7 days drive, the GT proved to be great choice for mile munching. Pictures from the trip can be viewed on Instagram @vaibhavxp #GQDrive