Saturday, May 14, 2011

What A Mess! Or reasons I don't like Shimla.

Let's chalk this one up as a lesson learned, several lessons actually. Just a warning, this is a long post.

As I mentioned previously, I hung out in Delhi a few days longer than I had planned, hoping to arrange my schedule with LG's so that we could travel together. When that didn't work out, I was intent on leaving Delhi for Shimla ASAP. I booked an HRTC bus, same bus I took last time, and called the only hotel whose number I already had in my little book of India notes, the YMCA Shimla.

My friend CK and I had stayed in the YMCA previously and, while I vaguely recalled not being thrilled with the place, I knew it was one of the cheaper/est places in Shimla, that it had an internet cafe, and that it was in a central location, so I figured why the hell not. A marginal known entity is better than an unknown potentially disastrous one, right? So wrong.

I called the YMCA on Thursday from Delhi and asked if they had a single room with shared bath for Friday. There are 4 types of rooms at the YMCA: single and double with a private bath or shared bathroom, with single shared bath being the cheapest. The woman I spoke with said yes, they had a room, and that it was 350Rs. I said great, gave her my name and asked her to repeat the reservation back. She did, saying single room, shared bath, 350. I started to tell her that my bus arrived early in the morning, but then she hung up on me. First good sign :)

My bus arrived around 6:30am. It was the usual mess of the 30 odd passengers scrambling to get to their bags first and twice as many porters trying to grab the passengers' bags for them, as well as a dozen or so folks shouting things about taxis, hotels, treks, and the like. I shouldered my way to the guy unloading the bags and planted my feet and threw elbows until mine was pulled out from under the bus. Then I shoved my way back through the throng carrying all of my crap and crossed the street to get away from the chaos. I did need a porter to help with my bag but usually walking away is much easier, and easier on the wallet, than trying to negotiate in the rush and press of things. A few guys started following me and I eventually negotiated with one to carry my bag for 80rs (down from his first absurd price of 200rs). In 2009 I only paid 60rs but everything seems to be more expensive in India this time around and I didn't feel like haggling anymore, so we were off. It's about a twenty minute walk from where the bus drops passengers to the YMCA, all up a fairly steep road. We took a few breaks along the way.

When we reached the Mall (the main thoroughfare in Shimla) another couple of guys walked up to us, whom my porter seemed to know, and started pestering me about hotels. I just kept saying that I had prebooked a room and eventually all but one fell away. The remaining guy was older and had big sunglasses on. When the porter and I started up the stairway that led from the Mall to the YMCA, he continued to walk with us and went on and on about how the YMCA was dirty (true), had no geyser (also true), or TV (again true), and that there were cheaper rooms for 300rs (not really true). He finally went away but then I had to get the porter to give me my bag back and leave before I actually went into the YMCA (prebooking or not, the porters will often try to get a cut from the hotel for bringing you there).

That all finished, I walked up to the desk and waited. It was about 7:00. Eventually someone walked by, saw me, and said “5 minutes”. I waited. Someone else came by and said “5 minutes” and I waited. Around 7:35 someone finally came to the desk to check me in. I gave him my name, he flipped through the reservation book and said, “Ah yes, double room, shared bath, 500rs”. I said no, that I reserved a single room for 350rs. He said no, I reserved a double room, and I said no, I reserved a single room. We're making progress, right? Then he said they didn't have any single rooms available, only double, so “you can take a double room for 500rs then”. I said no, I would not take a double room for 500rs, I reserved a room for 350rs and I would pay 350rs for whatever room they had available. Then he said that their single rooms weren't even 350rs, they were 370rs. At this point I was really starting to get frustrated because I had been standing there for so long and was tired and he was being really obstinate about the whole thing. I said that I had called the previous day to reserve the room, was told that a single room was available, and that the price was 350rs. Then he said I made a mistake and must have misheard and that I could have a double room for 500rs.

That was the last straw and I sort of lost my temper a bit. I said, “Look, I know this is a busy season, that is why I called ahead and reserved the room. The woman I spoke with told me one was available. If one hadn't been available, I would have gone to a different hotel and not walked all the way to the YMCA. She told me the room was 350rs, which isn't a big difference from 370rs but is a big difference from 500rs. If you're going to have someone taking reservations over the phone, then you should be sure that they know room rates and availability. I would like whatever room you have available for the price of a single shared bath”. He sighed like he was doing me a big favor and said okay, he would give me a double room for the price of a single. I should have just walked away and found another hotel, but I knew that it was the tourist season and that I was unlikely to find another cheap room, plus I didn't want to lug my bags around all morning. He went on and on for a while yet about all of the rules at the YMCA (there are a lot) and the breakfast situation (you get free breakfast, but only after the night you stay, so I wouldn't get free breakfast that day, which he made sure I understood). Then he started to ask me if I wanted to book a jeep for treks etc and I said no, rather snappily, that I just wanted my key so I could wash up.

When I went to wash up I remembered why I hadn't been thrilled with the YMCA when CK and I stayed there before. The place was dirty and full of bugs. When I set my bags down in my room a hairy spider the size of a quarter scurried off into a corner. Spiders aren't such a big deal, although I did make sure to shake my clothes and things out if I left them on the floor. The bathroom however, was a veritable zoo! I saw cockroaches, silverfish, gnats, spiders, flies, beetles, and mosquitoes, lots and lots of mosquitoes. It was impossible to shower or use the toilet without being attacked. I did a quick bucket shower with cold water (the old guy was right, they didn't have a geyser, which I didn't really mind). I did this really funny looking hopping slapping swinging my arms and legs dance the whole time to try to keep the mosquitoes from alighting long enough to jab me. I managed to keep most of them at bay. “Refreshed” and somewhat unpacked, I went down to get breakfast. The woman who manages breakfast again made a bit deal out of telling me that my breakfast wasn't free that day, that it would be free the next day. I said I understood and ordered some food. It was okay but definitely not worth the cost. Oh well, it's just one night I thought, I can make do.

After breakfast I decided to tackle what I remembered as an equally infuriating process, getting an Inner Line Permit. In order to get to Spiti there are two options, the northern route through Manali and over the Rohtang and Kunzum passes, or the southern route from Shimla through Kinnaur. The two passes weren't open yet, which is why I was going via Shimla, however in order to go that direction, one has to get an ILP for the stretch of road in Upper Kinnaur that passes close to the Chinese/Tibetan border. In Shimla, the permit requires documentation that one is traveling with a group of at least 4 foreign tourists through an official travel agency. I was, and again would be, traveling alone. Last year all I had to do was give a travel agency a couple hundred rupees and they gave me a letter stating that I was traveling with a group, which sufficed to acquire the permit. I wrote about that whole, convoluted, jaw grinding process here.

I walked across the mall and down a road toward the government offices, bracing myself for the onslaught of Indian bureaucracy. Step one: find the right building. This took half an hour and involved going in and out of 3 different buildings, up and down dozens of stairs, waiting for about 10 minutes outside of the wrong (empty) office (that had the same placard overhead as the office I really wanted), and asking several random folks for help (which was met with a blank stare, vague gesturing, directions given to the wrong office, and then finally accurate directions to the correct office). I arrived at the correct office only to be ignored by the Additional Magistrate's office staff, who act as intermediaries to actually meeting the AM. I stood there trying to make eye contact with them between phone calls and helping other people, with no luck. Finally a young guy tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me outside. He said, “You need an ILP, right?” I said yes, he said I wouldn't get one unless I was in a group, I said I knew that and that last time I came here first, got a form, and then went to the travel agency to find a group of people to travel with. He said I needed to go to the agency first and get a signed document etc but that I wouldn't likely find 3 other people unless I was already with them because there weren't that many other foreigners in the area. He then suggested I just go on to Rekong Peo, where they issue permits to single travelers (which I knew, but was trying to avoid to save time). I thanked him and went to the same travel agency that I had acquired a letter from in 2009, but the guy behind the desk wouldn't have it. When I told him that they had written a letter for me previously he said they don't do that anymore and that I should just go to Peo.

Somewhat frustrated, I walked to an internet cafe to check the bus schedule for Rekong Peo. The bus ride from Shimla to Peo is 10 hours and the fare is 181rs, and according to the Himachal Pradesh Tourist Information website, buses leave hourly. By that time it was already 11:30, so even if I could leave right away I would reach Peo in the middle of the night. This would be useless as the permit office was only open 10-5, and, given that the only bus from Peo to Kaza (the next stop on my journey) leaves Peo at 7:30am, would mean that I would have to spend a day in Peo getting the permit and then only be able to leave the next day. So I figured I would just stay at the YMCA since I had already paid for the room and had just been on a bus from Delhi for 10 hours. I could catch an early bus to Peo the next morning, spend a day getting the permit, and then catch the bus to Kaza the day after. (My original plan was to shave a day off of that process by getting the permit in Shimla, but so much for that). I left the internet cafe, treated myself to an expensive (300rs/$7) lunch in an air conditioned restaurant because I was grumpy (it was an Indian version of Mexican food, which was amusing but tasty), walked around a bit to kill time, and then went back to the YMCA where I read for a while and then went to bed early so I could get up early (preceded by another funny washing up for bed dance).

In the course of walking around I had stopped into a few travel agencies to ask about the price for a taxi to Rekong Peo, thinking that maybe if the price wasn't too high and the driver could be ready the next morning, I could do that instead of take the bus. CK and I had split a car the last time we were in Shimla and, while I remember it being pricey (I think it was around $75-100), it was much more comfortable than riding the bus. I couldn't really afford it, but since I had just been on the bus for 10 hours and would be on the bus for another 12 from Peo to Kaza, I figured I might splurge if the prices hadn't risen too much. This proved to be a non-issue because no one was interested in going. CK and I had shopped around a bit before settling on a driver, but I thought that was mostly about negotiating the price and didn't remember folks flat out saying no. Not the end of the world though, I would just take the bus. So it was back to the YMCA.

I woke up super early around 4 (shaking the jet lag is taking me longer than usual and the YMCA was super loud all evening/night). I packed everything up and got my bags ready to go, washed up, read for a while, and stretched a lot in anticipation of the bumpy ride. Just as an aside, when I opened my door to go to the bathroom, underneath it there was a spider that was the size of my palm. I know I have small hands, but still. This sucker was hairy, thick, and nasty looking. I shut the door, took a couple of deep breaths to prepare myself to step over it, opened the door and it was gone. Hopefully across the hall rather than into my room, but who knows.

Around 6:15 I walked down to the bus station to see if I could buy a ticket for the next bus to Rekong Peo. The bus station was quite an experience. Okay so for those of you who have never been to India (or other places that function similarly) there really isn't any such thing as an orderly queue. People just sort of push and shove their way to the front and if you stand around waiting, attempt to follow the “rules”, or try to be nice, you'll never get a ticket. These are all things that are particularly difficult for me, as many of you know, but in order to get around in India I've had to learn to get over that (mostly). However, this ticket stand was particularly brutal. The other folks “in line” (all men) just seemed to be more aggressive and violent than other “lines” I've stood in before. The way it worked is that a small, tightly knit mob of maybe 10-15 guys crowded around the teller's window, which was maybe a foot square and behind bars. When you make your way up to the front of the group, you shove your hand with your money in it through the bars and start shouting your destination. Eventually, the ticket seller will take your money and issue you a ticket, or you'll get pushed back as others take your place and you have to start all over again.

I spent about half an hour pressed between hot sweaty bodies, was elbowed in the face more than once, almost lost my glasses, was “ditched” several times by people who were stronger than me pushing me back, and then almost had my arm snapped in half as I was reaching through the bars of the window to hand the ticket guy my money. All of this and then by the time I finally got the ticket guy to pay attention to me, he said “Rekong Peo, no”. Then moved on. My world sort of swirled around and whether it was being awake for so long without food, the crush of hot bodies, or the jetlag, I felt kind of faint. People were already starting to shove me back from the window but I pushed forward again and said, “Why no bus to Peo? Is there another ticket stand?”. The only reason I could figure was that maybe I was in the wrong queue, which has happened to me before. He said something really fast in Hindi that I didn't understand and, not really expecting an answer but mostly just out of shock, I just kept saying, “What? What?”. A guy behind me whose arm was reaching over me in a way that located the back of my head somewhere in his armpit looked down at me and said, “He said there's no weekend bus. Rekong Peo is only Monday through Friday”. I stopped fighting for my spot and was quickly pushed backward. I stood there for a minute, not sure what to do. I hadn't even thought about what day it was. What day was it? I pulled out my phone; it was 7:35am on Saturday, May 14th. Shit. Shit shit shit. As I trudged back to the YMCA up the steep and crumbling stairs that zig zag across the face of the ridge, I felt a little bit like crying.

Waiting around is usually not such a big deal for me, in fact it's generally a fundamental part of getting anywhere in India. My patience and level of tolerance for bullshit in the states has dramatically improved as a result of traveling in India. However, I had already spent more time than I wanted to in Delhi and the prospect of spending 48 more hours in Shimla, a place that I like even less than Delhi, was just sort of soul crushing. Plus that would mean that if today was Saturday and I left for Peo on Monday morning, I could get my permit in Peo on Tuesday, take the Wednesday bus to Kaza, stay a night in Kaza, and then finally get to the monastery in Pin Valley on Thursday May 19th, a full ten days after I arrived in India and depressingly late if I was going to get much of anything done before I had to head back to Delhi to catch my flight to Nepal on June 11th. Traveling all of this way and spending all of this money to spend two and a half weeks in Spiti just sucks.

In retrospect, if I had realized that I couldn't get the permit in Shimla I could have just got off the bus from Delhi and got on another bus to Rampur (5 hour drive, half way to Rekong Peo). Then I could have spent Saturday in Peo getting the permit and been in Pin by Monday. Or I could have just left Delhi earlier and avoided much of this mess either way, but the prospect of traveling with a friend, especially one who knows the area much better than me, was appealing. I know that you win some and lose some, but so far this trip has mostly been about losing.

By the time I got back to the YMCA I had decided to find a better hotel and then spend the day trying to convince someone to drive me to Peo or Rampur (after checking to make sure that the bus from Rampur to Peo runs on the weekend, which it might not). Queue next fiasco.

The entire time I've been here, the old guy and the group of porters who hassled me on my walk up to the YMCA have been hanging out at the bottom of the staircase that leads up to the YMCA. I have to pass them every time I leave and they usually ask me if I want a hotel or a jeep or whatever. This time was no different and as usual I kept walking but then stupidly paused, because one of the guys had just said “I'll give you a room for 300rs with a geyser”. I turned around and said, “Which hotel?”. The guy pulls out a pamphlet for Hotel Woden and starts pointing at pictures. Clearly he was full of crap because I knew the Hotel Woden was more expensive than that. So I said no thanks and kept walking. Bad move. Bad, bad, bad move. The old guy broke from the group and started following me. I walked up to the closest hotel and asked if they had any single rooms available and they said no. The old guy caught up with me and started going on and on about how he could get me a room, a cheap room, a good room, with a tv, with a geyser, with a view, with just about anything. I said I would just stay at the YMCA, but as we were approaching the next hotel he shouted out to the front desk to ask if they had any single rooms. The desk guy checked his booking list and I figured why not hear what he says and walked up to the desk, for all appearances with the old guy. I should have just abandoned the hotel finding mission until I lost the guy but I was already standing in front of three hotels so I just went with it. That place didn't have any rooms. The next one didn't either, nor the next. This whole time the old guy was babbling on and on about hotels and treks and did I want this or that. I tried to shake him and told him I'd just go back to the YMCA, or that I was going to go get some breakfast and then keep looking, but he just kept following me.

We came up to one hotel where it turns out that they did have a room (it was quite nice and definitely more than I had wanted/hoped to pay, but given the scarcity of rooms I figured I'd have to move up in price range). The old guy was talking to the hotel keeper and from what I could understand I think he was trying to say that he brought me there and, I presume, should get something. So I just said that I didn't want the room because it was too expensive and walked away, while catching the hotel keeper's eye over the old guy's head. The hotel keeper, whose name is Ashoka, looked at the old guy, made a face, and shook his head. I walked away and the old guy kept babbling, I felt bad that he had followed me to the hotel.

At a fork in the road I went the opposite way he was walking and he started to follow me, saying I was going the wrong way. I told him I was done looking for hotels and ducked into a phone booth and pretended to call someone until he walked away (actually, I tried to call CK to vent a bit, but I forgot to write down the calling code for Nepal, so that didn't work). Then I went back to the hotel and took the room, which was expensive for me (apparently not overall in Shimla), but quite nice. Ashoka, the hotel manager, said to go get my things at the YMCA and he would send someone to help carry my bags. I walked back to the YMCA and waited on a bench at the base of the staircase where Ashoka told me the guy would meet me to help with the bags. This was an unfortunate spot because the group of porter guys and the old man were still hanging out at the bottom of the staircase. They came over a couple times and asked if I needed a hotel and I said no and ignored them.

The guy the hotel sent walked over a little while later and, as we were loading up my bags, the porter guys started to throw a fit! They were saying things to us and Kewal, the guy helping me, said some stuff back to them and then we kept walking. He said that all of those guys were from Kashmir and come in for the tourist season and that they hassle hotels for a cut for bringing guests. We chatted for a bit and discovered we're close to the same age; he's a very nice guy. I have now settled into the new room at the Ashoka Hotel, which is, again, quite nice. It's much cleaner, more space, has a balcony, a geyser, and a couch, where I am now sitting typing this post. My plan is to go to the internet cafe, post this, find out about the bus schedule from Rampur for tomorrow/Sunday, buy a Monday morning ticket to Peo online if I can, have some lunch, then see if I can find someone willing to take me to Peo on Sunday morning. This option would be pretty expensive (I'm guessing it'll run anywhere from 4000 to 5500Rs, which is $100-$125) and would only shave a day off the trip, but it might be worth it. Fingers crossed!


  1. You are braver than I could ever be. A Spider the size of your palm? OMG, I think I would have run away screaming. I don't know how you got any sleep after that. Stay safe!

  2. Mom just said "OMG"

    I hope you made it out of Shimla! xoxo