India Travel Tips (Oct 97)
- In order to fund a big payrise for government employees threatening strike action (what do they do? stop doing nothing? stop being obstructive?), an emergency budget was passed in September (97), which amongst other things pushed the foreign travel tax to a new extortionate level of Rs 750.
N.B.The various State Banks at the airports do not accept VISA cards for cash withdrawal, although the State Bank will take Diners Club and Mastercard - but give them plenty of time: it would appear that the bank commissioned Beckett to script the transaction.
If you're stuck at the airport without enough Rupees to pay the dreaded tax, and only a VISA card, try the airline. Some of them will handle the departure tax for you, and charge it to your VISA card.
- Bihar, backward as ever, sets the record for pointless form use by continuing enforcement of the regulations on foreigner registration introduced by the English colonial government at the beginning of World War II. Perhaps somebody ought to inform the state government that both the war and the Empire are over.
- Hotel Valentino, recommended by Lonely Planet, would be good value once (if) they get their plumbing problems sorted out. Don't believe the promises of hot & cold water (or even flushing toilets) until you see it (and listen out for the dawn chorus of waiters with wrenches).
- Some guides seem to think that the only options for transport out are buses or hiring a whole taxi. Nonsense. They are regular taxi services to the common destinations (Gangtok, Siliguri etc) leaving from the various taxi stands - buy a ticket from the booth, and if you're in luck get to choose which seat of the taxi you want. The cost is about 50% greater than the bus fare, but they get there so much faster.
- Hotel Kareshi has increased its room rate again, a single room is now Rs 3500, and you still can't get CNN. The Ashok Varsti next door, another government place, has the singles pegged at Rs 500, but the interior gives the uncanny impression that it's not quite built yet.
- Before staying at any of the high-rise hotels, you may want to take a look at Himalaya House on Kasturba Ghandi Marg, where Indian Airlines have their offices. However, falling apart as it alarmlingly is, it is still standing, which is rather more than another high-rise in Bombay, which collapsed recently due to shoddy building.
- The YMCA is charging Rs350 for a vanilla single bedroom with common bath and about Rs850 for air-con single with bath. YWCA strictly enforce the 12pm check-in - if you want to check-in earlier you must pay for the extra night. YMCA allow 2 hours grace, and you may check-in if a room is available. Neither place is fussy about age, gender and religion (Old Female Hindus may be seen at the YMCA) although there may be some understandable problems with Village People fans.
- Before heading here, check out the political situation. The entire state was shut down at the end of September due to popular discontent with the Chief Minister and proposals to phase out affirmative action for native Sikkimese. With so much unrest going on in India, individual crises can be poorly reported - don't rely on a lack of coverage on TV or newspapers as sign that all is well. There is no sign of outright hostility to the presence of foreigners, but the closure of banks, buses taxis, shops, government offices make any kind of travel very difficult.
- For helpfulness and friendliness, Hotel Tibet (next to the GPO). Discreetly open during the strike (including the restaurant, but not the bar). Single room with view (cloud-permitting) of Kanchenjunga, currently Rs 630. The hotel is owned by the Tibetan Government in exile and managed by Tibetan refugees.
- SivaGuest House, Chowk near Dasaswemedh Ghat. Next to the Baba guest house, and a few metres from Munchi Ghat, the rooms make up for the lack of a view by their surprising cleanliness. A friendly family, cheap rooms (double offseason for Rs60) and the coldest fridge in town make this a fun and relaxing place to enjoy the town.
- Mona Lisa restaurant, on the main alley in the old city, has an attached Shiva temple which doubles as a music temple on certain nights. Performances are good value for Rs25.
- Everybody in this city has an uncle, friend, third cousin or employer with a silk shop. Some of the people are just interested in being friendly and hobnobbing with a foreigner, but they're the minority. The local bead-hawker at the ghat estimates the bad-un slice at 95%; in truth there's a sizable number who aren't greedy or dishonest, but simply forced by dint of economic circumstance to let business creep into social encounters, in ways which whould be considered discourteous or exploitative by those affluent enough to separate business from pleasure.
- The good news - the new open skies policy has allowed private sector competition against India Airlines. Jet Airways and Sahara India have new planes, competitive fares, inflight magazines, frequent flyer programs, and a bold innovation in Indian aviation - courteous service. Sahara go a little extra with the gift box of sweets on check-in and complementary lunches in the airport restaurant, but both have cabin crew who can smile, and have none of the old IA surliness. (And the bad news - the Indian government has not increased resources for air traffic control to cope with the increased traffic; ATC staff work in poor conditions, and the accident rate has been going up, including the Saudi Air 747 crash in Delhi killing 350.)
- Given the appalling state of the roads, and equally appaling lack of driver courtesy, the frequent bus & lorry crashes are hardly surprising. Some accidents are more predictable than others - in September a bus crashed on a mountainous North East Frontier road killing a large number: but with over 200 on board, the brakes were simply not capable of holding it on the slope.
- At the railway station, you'll find the usual Kafkan knot of bureaucracy, which you must untangle step by step. Bigger stations have a foreigner registation office - these however will not assist you for trains that leave within the next 4 hours. If you're used to Western trains, you'll want one of the A/C classes - ordinary first class is only a slightly less crowded version of second class. 1st AC is the most expensive of them all - roughly the equivalent of a European 2nd class couchette car, but cabins are rare and there's a reservation list black-out between the end of computer booking access, and about 1/2 hour before departure. One strategy is to buy an ordinary 2nd class ticket, and ask the conductor on board for an upgrade to what's available (2nd/3rd tier AC sleeper, 1st Class AC, AC Chair) - having the 2nd class ticket means that there's no risk of being fined (or even arrested) for travelling ticketless. Alternatively, the best person to find when the booking office is no help is the "Chief Inspector Ticket" or the "TC Office" as its known - if he's of the helpful sort, then all the bureaucratic barriers can melt away and you'll get the class you want - if he's not, then decide whether you're going for the edge of the carriage roof (for the view) or the middle of the roof (for safety).
- Indian streets do not have pedestrian crossings. New Delhi has black and white stripes on the roads, certainly, but if these have any function it must be to keep the gore and skid marks localized. Unless you're Parisian or Roman, get some jaywalking practice in before heading to India.
- Treat bus time tables with some suspicion. As an example, the Siliguri to Patna super-deluxes in theory take 12 hours, but in practice take at least 20. Treat the claims of "A/C" likewise - if a bus does have this, you'll see the ungainly box at the back or top of the bus (but that doesn't guarantee that'll actually work); otherwise, understand AC to mean that 'the windows may be opened as needed by passengers'.