Monday, July 2, 2012

Let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start.

Coordinating travel with more than one person is much tricker than just getting one's self across the globe, which is already a complicated task. However, the benefits (company along the long long road) more than make up for it. Erin, Rachel, and I all chose a particularly tumultuous time to take off on a plane. Rachel had just moved all of her things from Richmond to Ann Arbor, driven to Rochester and then back to Ann Arbor. Erin had just driven a Uhaul (no small feat) from Chicago to Ann Arbor and entrusted her belongings to a storage facility and the hopes that an apartment would be waiting for her when she returned. I didn't have to move anything luckily, but was making room in my house for Rachel to move in. I spent the month of May attempting to complete some archival research that could easily have filled the entire summer while finishing another research project from the previous semester and preparing for the research projects I'm working on this summer (basically I tried to do too much in too short a time, who's surprised?). All of this converged in one crazy weekend where we were all trying to pack for a two-month overseas trip while 2/3 of us were living out of suitcases. Kelly was a trooper through it all and didn't complain about the mattress propped behind the couch in the living room or the duffle bags and boxes stacked in every corner. In any event, out of all of the chaos at Pauline Manor, we managed to get our shit together long enough to start our journey.

On the road

We decided to fly out of Chicago since it was cheaper than flying out of Detroit (which is somewhat odd because a couple of the flights we looked at were routed from Chicago through Detroit to Europe, go figure). This meant that the three of us and our things needed to get to Chicago. We had planned to take the bus, but it turned out that Megabus was unusually pricey that day and the timing didn't work out very well with our scheduled flight departure. Luckily, some very dear friends in Chicago agreed to look after the little Geo for me over the summer. This turned out to be super convenient for us and will hopefully prove equally useful for them :D We left Ann Arbor around 10am on Tuesday June 12th and drove 4.5 hours to Chicago. No hitches there. We left the car and keys with friends and then took a cab to the airport. We arrived at the airport around 2:30 for a 6:30pm flight, only to find the desk for Virgin Atlantic unstaffed and a long queue of passengers waiting with luggage for who knows how long. Eventually staff members showed up and began to check people in. When we made it to the front of the line I was bracing for the worst based on my previous interactions with Virgin Atlantic staff.

The backstory

To rewind, when we initially booked our tickets with Virgin we weren't able to select seats. This surprised me so I called customer service after booking to figure out the deal. Turns out, no one in economy is allowed to select their seats until 24 hours prior to check in. I told the customer service rep that we were traveling together and wanted to ensure our seats were together and she said sorry, there's nothing they can do. That sucked, especially since we were all adjusting our plans so that we could travel together and chose Virgin Atlantic because it was the best fit for all of us, even though it wasn't necessarily a great fit for anyone individually. So we waited until Monday night/24 hours before our flight to check in only to find that we weren't able to online check in, which meant we couldn't select our seats. I called customer service again and explained the situation. The women on the phone apologized but said there was nothing she could do and that we would have to wait to select our seats until we physically checked in at the airport, with no guarantee that our seats would actually be together. I didn't want to shoot the messenger but I was pretty angry at that point (there were two other earlier phone call exchanges about our E-ticket numbers and seating etc) and wrote a long email to the Virgin Atlantic folks explaining the situation and that the customer service reps hadn't been able to help us etc. I got a form response back that did nothing to remedy the situation. Anyway, fast forward to us walking up to the check-in desk at Virgin Atlantic and I'm anything but optimistic.

The flights

The person at the desk didn't seem to know what she was doing from the start. I explained that we were traveling together (our tickets were “linked” to indicate we were a group, but this didn't mean anything apparently in terms of our seats). She said the flight was completely full and actually over-booked and that she couldn't guarantee us seats together but she would try. She eventually found us three seats together (after locating and losing another set of seats to another agent a desk over). She could only book our seats for this leg of the flight though, so we were going to have to do all of this again in London. For some reason she put all three of our checked bags under my name as opposed to putting each bag under each individual person's name. I don't recall the exact reason and it didn't seem like a problem at the time, but we were scolded for it later in London. In any event, we got our seat assignments and were on our way. Or at least, we would be on our way after hanging out in O'Hare for another couple of hours. This part wasn't so bad but they changed the gate and didn't notify anyone so there was some confusion, and we boarded late.

In any case, we eventually boarded the plane and walked all the way to the back until we found our seats, and I do mean the back. Turns out we had the last row of seats behind which were the restrooms and galley or something. It also turns out that the last row of seats doesn't recline very far. When I pointed this out to the flight attendant she informed me that they reclined the same as all the others. I told her I was fairly certain they didn't. She came over and tested the seats, realized I was right, and then said sorry but there's nothing they can do because the flight's full and there are no other empty seats. On top of that, Erin's seat's headphone jack was broken so she couldn't watch any movies on the flight. I also had a bar of sort from the seat in front of me in the middle of my leg space so that I couldn't actually stow a bag there or extend my feet in the center. All together I have to say they were probably the most uncomfortable seats I've ever been on in a trans-atlantic flight.

trying to get comfy

awful bar between my feet
The upside is that the flight staff felt bad for us and recognized that we had crappier seats than most (of the already crappy seats). They gave us some bonus miles, which hopefully we can use to upgrade on the return flights, otherwise they're useless as I doubt I'll fly Virgin again. They also poured us generous drinks, which helped improve our moods somewhat. Erin slept a bit, Rachel and I watched a Brat Pitt movie about baseball, and we ate some crappy pasta. 8.5 hours later we arrived in London.

these all once held Dewar's
Take two

When we disembarked we went to a desk where another Virgin Atlantic staff member was supposed to give us our boarding passes for the London-Delhi leg of the flight. The first person we spoke to freaked out because we were going to India but didn't have Indian visas. She passed us onto someone else who also was very concerned we were going to India without visas.

Why is this an issue, you might ask. After all, folks transfer flights all the time in countries for which they do not hold a visa. Unfortunately, when transferring from one airline to another in India one has to physically pick up one's checked luggage and recheck it onto the next flight. Not the end of the world. But in order to do that, one must first go through customs, which requires a visa. So in order to pick up and re-check your bag, you need a valid Indian visa. While I actually have an Indian visa because I'm planning to go to India after Nepal, I wasn't able to use it when we landed because there's a no re-entry for 60 days rule. We'll only be in Nepal for 58 days, so I would have to hang out in the airport in Delhi for 2 days before being able to go through customs in India again, or hang out in Nepal for two days after Erin and Rachel left and classes were over. A giant mess basically.

In any event, the person at the desk didn't think it was possible for us to transfer in Delhi to a flight to Kathmandu. I told her it was and that we just needed to have our bags transferred from Virgin Atlantic to Spice Jet (the airline we were taking to Kathmandu). There's an international transfer desk in the Delhi airport and supposedly (based off of friends' and random people on the internet's experiences) all you have to do is go up to the desk and give them your flight information and they'll take care of transferring your luggage. I told the woman at the desk this (minus the “supposedly”). She called someone in baggage claim and told them to mark our bags so that they would be picked up for transfer in Delhi, which seemed simple enough. She said she wasn't promising anything and that what she did might not work and it was our own problem if our bags didn't make it, all very stern and disapproving. Then she assigned us our seats without giving us any say in the matter. When I said we wanted seats together she said, like the person in O'Hare, that the flight was full and we'd have to take what we could get. It turned out to be okay. Rachel and I were in an exit row and Erin was in a seat behind us, so we could still turn around to talk. But I'm getting ahead of myself, we still had the layover in Heathrow.


I have to say, Heathrow isn't the best airport if you have to hang out for a long while. There are a bunch of nice shops and decent, albeit super expensive, bars and restaurants. However, if you need to hang out for more than a few hours there's nowhere comfortable, quiet, or out of the way to wait it out. We contemplated leaving the airport and going into London, and maybe it would have been more fun if we had, but we didn't. We stayed in the airport in part because we didn't want to spend a bunch of money traveling into London for a few hours (although the airport ended up being expensive enough that maybe we should have left) and because we really just wanted to sleep and not go sight seeing (although we weren't really able to sleep so perhaps checking into a hotel would have been more effective). In any case, we were exhausted and didn't want to try to navigate London with all our carry on luggage while jet-lagged etc., so we hung out in Heathrow. Resigned to stay, we made camp on a row of unoccupied chairs flanked by duty free shopping on one side and a row of high-end clothing retailers on the other. We took turns trying to sleep, got up from time to time to walk around, brush our teeth, get a snack etc. It was a long 14 hours. Yep, 14 hours. Finally, it was time to board our flight to India. 

More to come...

Dear friends and family, family and friends;

I am, as you probably already know if you're reading this, in South Asia, yet again. However, unlike my previous journey to this particular part of the earth, things on my end might seem rather quiet to you. I've been here for more than two weeks now with nary a peep. No blog updates, few emails, no pictures or skype dates. Have I forgotten all of my loved ones on the other side of the globe, you might ask. No! Am I having such an amazing time that I just can't spare a minute to update all of you, you might also query. No! The Truth Is. This trip got off to a rockier start than previous adventures. It was beset with many minor calamities in a short period of time coupled with the fact that the program this summer is simply HARDER and more time consuming than last year, all capped off with the present state of things, in which I am SICK. Don't worry, it isn't as dreadful as it might sound. Being sick means I'm sitting still long enough to update all of you (finally you might say) on how the past ~2 weeks have gone. And so I shall.

Friday, June 17, 2011


I'm in Kathmandu, Nepal! I arrived here on June 14th :D

I'll continue to update the previous posts about my time in India, probably interspersed with more recent posts about Nepal.

For now, I am staying with a Tibetan family and it's raining rather hard outside.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I woke up super dehydrated with a minor headache but overall not feeling too bad. Last time I had some minor nausea and a bad headache from the altitude change even though I had stayed the night in Reckong Peo, so I was worried that this time, having skipped the night in RP, I would feel worse. None of the shops were open yet so I went across the street and had a chai while I waited to buy water. I bought a couple of bottles, went back to the hotel, brushed my teeth and washed up, then went back out for breakfast. Kaza was surprisingly busy; taxis kept pulling up and unloading people (all locals, I didn't see any tourists until later that afternoon). After breakfast I walked down to the main shop area and tried to call the states, but the phone lines were down. I had another chai and hung out a bit people watching and reading, then I walked over to the Sakya gompa where they were preparing for the Budh Purnima/Saka Dawa celebration), however everything seemed slightly subdued. Given the time of day/importance of the holiday I would have expected folks to be lined up and things underway already, but the monks were sort of milling about and slowly putting up banners.

I walked back to the main area and started chatting with Lodrey, who owns one of two internet cafes in Kaza (his wasn't up and running yet and probably wouldn't be for another week or so). I asked Lodrey about what was going on at the Sakya gompa and he said that the festivities were partially canceled because a young man had died the day before. He didn't say who or how and I didn't want to press it, but that explained the strange air that was hanging over the monastery and the sort of sluggish pace of the monks setting up. He said all of the folks who had come in from neighboring regions for the celebration (which would have included some 'chams dancing) were milling about the town without anything to do because they had come to spend the whole day at the monastery celebration that was now canceled. I tried the phone again and eventually got through to the states (it took forever to get a line), had some lunch, then went to the main bus stand to ask about bus times. A few people told me the buses hadn't started running yet this season because the roads were still too bad. That was fine, I figured I could catch a taxi later that afternoon and went back to the market to kill time with Lodre. We drank tea and chatted about Spiti; he knows most of the Bhuzhen in the area so we talked about them for a while, which was really interesting. Around 2:30 I went back to the taxi area to try to find a ride to Kungri and met with absolutely no luck. Everyone who had come in for the festivities was trying to leave Kaza. The taxi/bus area was packed, but everyone I asked about Kungri already had a full car. I went back to the main area and told Lodre I was having trouble finding a taxi, so he walked back over with me and found a group of people who were all waiting to go to Kungri. There are only a few jeeps that go between Pin and Kaza, so he located their drivers and, sure enough, they were all full. However they were apparently coming back to Kaza to do a second run after dropping the current set of passengers, so I just hung out at the taxi stand waiting with the rest of the folks going to Kungri.

Around 5, the taxis had still not returned but a group of monks walked by who I recognized from Kungri, so I went over to say hi. They were also waiting for a ride but had apparently secured one of the returning taxis, although they weren't sure when it would return. Their car was full, but they said they would make sure I got on the other taxi going to Pin. We hung out, drank chai, and chatted a bit until 6:30ish when both taxis came back about the same time. Everyone rushed the first taxi when it returned and the driver said I couldn't get on because it was full. This was pretty frustrating and I was worried I would have to stay another night in Kaza and catch a ride the next day when there were fewer people (I found out later on in Kungri that the driver thought I was tourist and he apologized for not letting me on right away, which made me feel a bit better, oh ego). When it was clear he wasn't going to let me on, I went back to the area where everyone was waiting to see if there were any other taxis going. I guess one of the monks went to argue with the driver because he came rushing over, grabbed my bag, shouted "dro!" (go) and took off. He opened the back of the jeep and two of the girls from Sangnam, who had also been waiting the whole time, moved over and squeezed three to a seat so that I could get in. The monk shut the door behind me and threw my bag on top of the jeep and we were off.

I tried to chat with the two girls, who I was pretty sure I had met a few times last time I was in Spiti, but they just giggled and whispered to each other and pretended they didn't understand me. Later on when I was showing pictures to the nuns from my last visit, I found a bunch of pictures of both girls. They were friends with the nuns and in 2009 had come over for a couple of parties. I had pictures and videos of them singing and dancing. I told Yeshe that I rode with both girls on the taxi to Kungri but that they pretended they didn't know me. She kind of laughed and said that was weird and that they were probably just being shy but maybe they didn't recognize me. Interactions like this make me wonder how difficult it will be to do field work in this area, especially when folks who I've met before won't talk to me.

In any event, the taxi ride from Kaza to Kungri isn't very long, but I quickly saw why the buses weren't yet running. The road was in terrible shape! There were several land slides (small enough or cleared enough for the jeep to get around but impossible for a bus), and in many places we were pretty much driving through small rivers from all of the melting snow. I wasn't sure if the monk who put my larger bag on top of the jeep had tied it down at all and spent the whole ride gazing out the back expecting to see my bag fly off. Every time we took a sharp turn or hit a large bump, I would look out at the road and visualize where my bag would land, whether it would bounce along the road getting dirty but recoverable, or whether it would drop off the side of the mountain into the river below. When I got off the taxi in Gulling, I found that the bag hadn't been tied down at all and felt pretty lucky that none of my visualizations materialized. Gulling is the first town on the main road into Pin and is just before Kungri. Since the taxi was headed to Sangnam and not up to Kungri, they dropped me in Gulling. The taxi driver also charged me 70rs, which was a little too much (standard is 50rs), and may have been part of why he later apologized. It was maybe 8pm by then and dark out. I stood on the side of the road with my bags waiting for another car to come through that was going to Kungri. A few younger local guys stood in their doorways staring at me and hassling me a bit. Eventually the taxi with the monks came by and I hopped onto that for the rest of the ride up to Kungri.

Reckong Peo to Kaza

The guy driving me was named Vinod. He was only a couple of years older than me and incredibly obnoxious. He picked up his friend on the way out of town so he had company for the ride back. Vinod and his friend liked “American rap” and they liked it loud. I think I heard more Eminem in the duration of that ride than all of the Eminem I had previously heard in my life combined. Vinod was also a rather typical 20's male driver in that he liked to be in front of a line of cars and insisted on passing everyone even if he didn't need to. It was going to be an interesting ride.

We were only an hour and a half out of RP when we had to stop. There was another land slide up ahead that took them half an hour to clear. Vinod was more than happy to hang out on the side of the road at a chai stall chatting with his friends (apparently he knew everyone at the chai stall). When it seemed like traffic was moving again I had to be pushy to get him back in the car. We drove a little distance and came up to another road block, where we waited some more. At least this time there weren't any distractions for Vinod, who was increasingly petulant about the whole thing. A bunch of cars piled up waiting, including two of the folks from the ILP office. We chatted a bit, I read a book and listened to some music. Eventually they blew up the largest boulder that had fallen and then brought in a plow to clear the rest (everyone had to back their cars up quite a bit to be clear of the explosion). It was becoming somewhat late in the afternoon and I was starting to wonder if we would get into Kaza in the middle of the night. We drove for a few more hours until we came across a third road block; this one wasn't a land slide but a road widening crew. The wait wasn't as long but everyone in the car was getting impatient. Luckily, by this time Vinod had exhausted his supply of rap and had switched to some Kinnauri music, a surprising selection coming from him but one that I enjoyed.

I didn't mind waiting for the road widening crew so much because the stretches of new road they had finished were quite nice. They're widening the road to two lanes; right now the road is a single lane and cars often have to stop and pull over to pass each other. They're also paving the entire thing, which probably won't last very long and will require constant upkeep, but still, I appreciated the parts that are done. Eventually the entire stretch of road from RP to Kaza will be redone, but for now the newer sections spring up in patches separated by the narrow, rocky, washed out dirt road. Vinod made the most of these new patches, increasing his speed until the impending dirt roads made him slow down. The road itself was in really rough shape overall; this and the frequent delays made me grateful I had sprung for a jeep rather than taking a bus. The road from Shimla to RP is not so bad on the bus, but from RP to Kaza the condition deteriorates dramatically (the height of the road and sharpness of the turns increase as well).

At Chango we stopped for the first permit check. Both permit checks are now on the road between Nako and Tabo, which is nice because it means that tourists can visit Nako without getting a permit. Previously, the first permit check was in Spello, which is before Nako, but it has since been moved to Chango apparently due to complaints by the residents of Spello and because two trucks smuggling goods over the border to China had been stopped near Chango. This is the part of the permit concept that really confuses me. In Shimla, the Additional District Magistrate gave me a lecture about how the permit check was for foreigners' safety because the road was so difficult and it was easy to become lost or “fall off a mountain” (the latter apparently preventable merely by paying a travel agent). In RP, according to the permit handler as well as Vinod, my driver, and later confirmed by the military official who checked my permit in Chango, the permit check is primarily to stop smugglers and people from passing over the Chinese border. If the latter is the primary motivation for the check posts, then it really doesn't make any sense to target foreigners, the vast majority of whom are tourists just passing through and stopping off at the monasteries. If they wanted to stop smuggling, I would imagine it would be more productive to focus on checking locals. Part of the check post system requires all vehicles to stop and register (free, no permit required), not just those vehicles carrying foreigners, which makes me wonder if the foreigner permit requirement was just an extra step tacked onto the process to financially supplement the cost of checking every vehicle that passes through. In any event, there doesn't seem to be any indication that they'll do away with the ILP any time soon, based on the fact that both Shimla and RP have been investing in digital cameras and new computers to expedite the process, as well as establishing agencies to “assist” foreigners. If the Kunzum pass doesn't open by the time I need to leave Spiti (which is unlikely), I'll have to double back on the same route and get another permit in Kaza. We'll see how that process compares to RP and Shimla. [update: I did have to get another permit in Kaza, which will get it's own wonderful delay-laden post]

The permit check at Chango was surprisingly busy. Another woman at the checkpost told me that she and most of the folks milling about were traveling to the monastery for the Budh Purnima (Vaisaka) celebration the next day. I somewhat kicked myself for not paying better attention to the Tibetan calendar, because that would have been something interesting and potentially useful to stop and see. I figured there would also be something at the new Sakya gompa in Kaza the next day (if I made it in time) that I could check out anyway. Back in the jeep until the next permit stop in Sumdo. By this time it was dark out and we had run out of water (there hadn't been anywhere to buy bottled water at either check post and, while I had brought plenty for me, Vinod and his friend hadn't brought any, so the water went twice as fast as I'd planned).

I had asked Vinod several times to stop for dinner and water and he said that we would soon. Turns out he had a specific place in mind, again, so he could hang out with friends, but which turned out to not have food or water. It was before we reached Tabo, I think somewhere just past the checkpost between Gue and Hoorling. There was a cluster of houses and two dhabas, one with lights on and full of activity and one mostly empty and dark. I think the first was more of a bar/local hangout and the other was a rest stop for travelers. Vinod took me to the latter and told the guy I wanted food and then walked off next door (he was seriously turning out to be a very bad driver). The guy who was running the dhaba kitchen and I had a confusing conversation in broken Hindi in which he told me that there was no food! I asked him if there were any eggs and maybe just roti (seemed super simple to me) and he said no eggs and walked away. I sat there for a bit and he came back and asked if I liked daal and sabji, I said yes but that I was in a hurry and something simple/quick would be best, again he disappeared. About this time Vinod and his friend came back and asked if I had finished eating. I was pretty annoyed with him for disappearing for half an hour (and in general) and said no, I hadn't had anything yet. Vinod went back to the kitchen and argued with the cook and then we all sat down to wait (it had been 40 minutes or so by this time). The cook eventually came out with an omelet and roti (magically I guess there were eggs). I started eating quickly and then he came out with a veg thali (rice, daal, sabji), at which point both Vinod and I were like, what the heck? A minute ago we told him we were in a hurry and he said there were no eggs and there was no food, and now he's bringing out way more food than I wanted or needed. The whole situation was rather absurd. I should mention that five minutes earlier a handful of guys had come in and also asked for food and been told there was none, so when the cook brought out the thali they also started shouting at him. So he gave my thali to them and then brought them out another, much to everyone's confusion. I finished the omelet and roti, all the while wishing I had some water, and then we got back in the jeep. I argued with Vinod a bit about the poor choice of a stopping place and the fact that there was not water and he just sort of shrugged.

It was getting late and I was tired so I tried to doze for the rest of the ride, but that's kind of difficult when the road is as bumpy as it was. I put on headphones to drown out the rap, which had returned to replace the Kinnauri music, and was sort of out of it for the rest of the ride. We reached Kaza around 10:30 and pulled up to the Zambala Hotel, which is right where all of the taxis and buses come and go. I hadn't called ahead to reserve a room (again, you can usually just walk up to a hotel or two and get a room in Kaza). I had stayed in Zambala twice before because one of the managers/owners/not sure, lives in Kungri and is the financial secretary or something for the monastery. I turns out that Zambala was in the process of being renovated and they weren't renting out rooms. When I explained to the younger guy who answered the door who I was and where I was going, he said okay and found me a room that they hadn't yet begun renovating and then brought me a bucket of water (there apparently wasn't any water, either from the renovations or just because the city was out, I wasn't sure). The downside of the renovation was that the restaurant in the hotel was empty, so there wasn't any bottled water there either. Everything in Kaza was closed so I washed up a bit and then collapsed, hoping to find water first thing in the morning.

Reckong Peo

Having tackled a landslide, a change of buses, a flat tire, and a very unaccommodating fellow passenger, I was now almost to Reckong Peo, (actually quite conveniently) about 3 hours late. The bus station in RP is about 2km uphill from the main drag in town, which the bus passes through on the way up to the bus stand. I wanted to get off in town because that's where the permit office was rather than having to hike all the way back downhill from the bus station. However, the driver was in such a hurry because of the lost time, that he wouldn't let me off! Looks like I was going to be going up and down the mountain a few times anyway.

When we arrived at the bus station there was a chaotic rush of activity as everyone switched from one bus to another. It seemed like most people were continuing on to the bus through to Kaza and only a few got off in RP. I clambered on top of the bus and grabbed my bag, then walked to the closest hotel to try to find a room to drop my things. The bus to Kaza left at 7:30 the next morning, so I needed a place to stay the night. The first two places I checked were full but I was directed toward the Apple Orchard Hotel, which had plenty of rooms but no one at the desk. After walking around shouting hello for 5 minutes, I waited at the desk for about half an hour. Then I walked around again shouting hello again and someone finally stirred. I got an okay room for an okay price, unloaded my things, washed up, and then set off down the hill to get some food and my ILP. It was about 9:15 by this time and the ILP office opened at 10. Like my hotel, nothing seemed to be open yet in RP. I snagged a couple of cold samosas from the day before (not the best thing to eat but I was hungry and it as that or sweets) and found the ILP office.

Here's the thing about Inner Line Permits: First, they're required for foreigners who want to travel from upper Kinnaur to lower Spiti on a part of the road that passes quite close to the Chinese border. The actual stretch of road for which one needs the permit is quite short, especially since they recently moved the check post. You seriously get out of the car, show your permit, wait while a soldier fills out a bunch of redundant information in a giant book, get back in your car, drive for a little bit, get out of the car, and do the whole song and dance again. This is all a small stretch of the 257km road between RP and Kaza and yet the Indian government is obsessed with these freaking permits. The other thing about the permits is that technically they're free. However, they make the process of acquiring them incredibly complicated and then set up a non governmental office as an intermediary to “help” foreigners navigate the process and justify charging them a huge fee. It's supposedly possible to bypass this intermediary and just go directly to the right offices and get the paperwork yourself, but they don't tell you anywhere exactly where to go and who to ask for which forms and in which order, and if you ask anyone they just direct you back to that intermediary office. I suppose if my Hindi were much better and I were a pushier person, I could probably get them to tell me what I needed to know to do it on my own, but for now I am at the mercy of the “helpful” office.

More obnoxious things about the ILP. They recently increased the fee for the permit to 350rs (at least in RP). This comes out to $8-9, depending on the exchange rate, which may not sound like much but is actually pretty high (for comparison, my hotel in RP was 400rs and I spend maaaybe 100-200rs a day on food and water). Pretty much everyone I've talked to, foreigner or local, says that the ILP is gouging travelers. The other obnoxious thing is the requirement that there be 4 or 5 foreigners before they'll issue an ILP. In Shimla the requirement is 4 and you have to be traveling together with a registered travel agency. This is clearly useless for most folks who aren't already in a group of four and aren't going to pay a travel agency to arrange a trip they can figure out on their own for much less. Supposedly in RP individual travelers can get a permit on their own, which is why I went there when I couldn't get it in Shimla. However, the RP ILP “agency” also insisted that there be 5 foreigners before they would issue the permits. This really just meant that the guy who gets paid to be a runner and navigate the permit system for us won't do this unless there are enough people to make it worth his while. He doesn't care if you're all together or not, but until 4 other folks showed up, he wasn't going to take my application over to the office. While the 4 person requirement is government backed in Shimla, in RP it's not a requirement at all, just the whim of the ILP “agency”. [update: and in Kaza it's only 50rs and there's no requirement for the number of people, more on that process later]. Luckily for me, two more sets of two folks showed up not too long after, which was actually quite unusual for this time of year, so thanks to those folks for existing. We all gave the permit guy copies of our passport and visa along with the completed ILP form and then followed him to another office, where he left us and went into a room and had all the forms stamped, then came out, asked for our actual passports, took us to another building, had us wait, went in, came out, then took us to a third building, where we had our photograph taken and then had to wait longer until he finally gave us our passports and the ILP and we got to give him 350rs. On the upside, the whole process was much less painful than in Shimla and didn't take as long, on the downside I was out 350rs and had to stop in RP for something really stupid.

I had my permit in hand by noon and was faced with two options: kill time in RP where there's not much to do and take the (cheap but incredibly uncomfortable and longer) 7:30am bus to Kaza or shell out a bunch of cash and hire a taxi. Given my frustrating bus ride from Shimla and the fact that I wanted to be in Pin ASAP, I opted for the latter. I walked over to the row of taxis and started to negotiate a ride & price. Folks always start out demanding something completely unreasonable because I'm a foreigner and presumably a tourist who doesn't know any better, and probably I always end up paying more than what I would if I weren't a tourist/a foreigner, but I suppose that's my own fault for not negotiating better. When there are a dozen taxis however, it's easy enough to laugh and move onto the next guy if someone quotes an unreasonable price. Helpful things to know if anyone ever needs to do this are the current petrol prices, what kind of car the taxi guy is driving (the TATA jeeps are diesel which is cheaper but smaller cars sometimes get better gas mileage, etc.), and how many kilometers it is to your destination. It's also helpful if you know what other folks have paid in the past or are paying at the moment (forums online are useful for this). Given that petrol prices had risen quite a bit from when I did the same drive by taxi in 2009, I expected to pay more, but even so I ended up paying more than I wanted. In 2009 I paid 3500rs/$75 and this year I paid 5000rs/$112. I should have been able to get someone down to 4500rs (negotiations started at 6500rs) but at some point it becomes a balance between money and my desire to get on the road. I also justified the expense because this time the University Grant (thanks school!) I received for travel was footing the bill (although I had in fact budgeted for taking a taxi for one leg of the trip just in case, the less I have to spend on transportation the better). After checking out the car and interrogating the driver for a bit, I hopped in and we drove up to the bus stand so I could grab my bags. The hotel manager was sleeping again and I woke him up so I could check out. I tried to get him to refund some of my money, as I had only actually used the room for 4 hours, but he wouldn't. That sort of sucked, but oh well. Back into the jeep and we were off!

leaving Shimla, May 14th

It's a conspiracy!

This trip it has seemed as if something has conspired against me to prevent my arrival in Pin. Last time I came it was a long journey but nothing insurmountable, this time I seem to meet with delays at every turn.

On leaving Shimla

I mentioned previously that I moved from the YMCA to a much nicer room at the Ashoka Hotel. The room was twice as much, but was bug free, had a private bath with plenty of hot water, and very nice and helpful staff (all quite the opposite at the YMCA). I mentioned to one of the folks working there that I had gone to the bus station and the guy at the ticket counter told me there were no weekend buses to Reckong Peo. He said he was pretty sure there were buses and that he didn't know why the ticket seller said that. He suggested I go to the Tourist Information Center office in the middle of town, which I did. They were also quite helpful and said that there was in fact a weekend bus to RP, but that there was only one and it was an overnight bus, leaving Shimla at 6:30 and arriving in RP at 4am. It was then Saturday the 14th. As I had already checked into the Ashoka Hotel and wasn't sure that the Inner Line Permit office in RP would be open on a Sunday, I went ahead and bought a ticket for Sunday night to arrive early Monday the 16th, and stayed in Shimla.

Next step was to find a hotel in Reckong Peo for Monday and find out the bus schedule from RP to Kaza. The latter part was easy as I was pretty sure the same bus I would be on from Shimla to RP would continue to Kaza, so I could just hop on the same bus the next day after getting the permit. The first part proved to be impossible. I had the Lonely Planet guide to North India that lists half a dozen hotels in RP as well as a number of travel websites and a travel agent at my disposal, however in spite of all of this, I could not get in touch with a single hotel in RP. Of the dozen or so numbers I called, either no one answered (for hours), the number was disconnected, or it was a wrong number. The travel agent was completely useless because tourists generally don't stay in RP, they go to Kalpa, a more scenic town farther up the mountain from RP. He kept telling me about all of these nice hotels with amazing views and good restaurants he could set me up with in Kalpa even though I told him that I didn't care about the view or the food, I wanted a simple room close to the bus station and permit office, which meant staying in RP not Kalpa. I generally wouldn't have spent so much time trying to pre-book a room (it's usually fairly easy to just show up and find one) but the bus was scheduled to get in at 4am and I didn't want to have to sit at the bus stop until 7 or 8 when folks actually woke up and would answer the door. Unfortunately, it seemed like that would be my fate.

I spent most of the following Sunday in Shimla hanging out at the Indian Coffee House reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which I had picked up in Shimla after deciding that Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno required a little more concentration than I could muster at the moment. I read My Name is Red by Pamuk a couple of years ago and it quickly moved to the top of my list of favorite books, but I hadn't had any time since to read anything else by him. Snow is just as good as My Name is Red, although they are quite different books, and would prove an oddly apt choice of book for my upcoming travels (the protagonist is trapped by inclement weather on a long journey).

One amusing little anecdote; while I was reading a man came up to me smiling really big and said hello and reached out to shake my hand. I get a lot of different reactions and interruptions from Indians on vacation in Shimla, more on that later perhaps, but he seemed nice so I stood and shook his hand. Still holding my hand he said, “My wife thinks you look just like the actor who plays Peter Parker in Spiderman, so I wanted to say hello”. I laughed and said thank you, maybe it was the glasses, while he continued to shake my hand and grin and look hard at my face. I didn't realize at first that he actually thought I might be Tobey Maguire (whose name I had to look up) and had come over to check; I thought he was just remarking on a resemblance. This might be the first time I've ever been confused for someone famous, and I must say that of all the actors in the world, I don't know that I would have guessed it would have been Tobey Maguire. I did sort of have my hair styled like he does here and I have glasses, but that might be about it. Amusing nonetheless.

So Sunday the 15th I checked out of the hotel, left my bags at the hotel, and killed time until the bus left at 6:30. Bored of waiting in the coffee house and incapable of suppressing my American urge to be on time for things, I left for the bus station way too early and had to sit around in the chaos and wait until the bus arrived at 6:25. Finding the right bus was rather stressful first of all because there are two bus stations in Shimla and I had been given conflicting suggestions as to which one to go to, and second, because the bus was supposed to arrive at “platform 9”, which didn't really exist; the numbers stopped at 6. The ticket booth guy had gestured toward a crowd of buses that all said HRTC (Himachal Road Transportation Co) so I milled about around them asking folks if they knew where the bus to Peo was. Just as I was beginning to sweat, a bus pulled up that said Reckong Peo on the side. I showed the driver my ticket, confirmed it was the right bus, climbed up on top of the bus to load my larger bag, then found my seat with my smaller backpack. I shared the three person seat with two men, one on his way to Kinnaur and the other to Spiti. I had a window seat and the guy to my left was an absolutely awful travel companion. When I got on, there was a bag on the floor in front of my seat and when I asked him to move it he just looked at me and said I could put my bag under the seat. I said no, I was going to put my bag on the floor at my feet and needed him to move his bag. This stand off continued for a few minutes until I picked his bag up, but it on the floor at his feet, and put my bag down. Off to a great start.

The bus left a little late and, after everyone who had a reserved ticket and seat was accounted for, it became a local route, meaning that it would stop along the way to pick up and drop off other passengers who stood in the aisle, which meant that the whole bus packed front to back with people.

Leaving Shimla the dense evergreen forests slowly thin out, but Kinnaur is on the whole still a pretty green place. We stopped for dinner around 9 at a roadside dhaba. I wasn't really hungry but had a Cliff bar anyway. Who knows when the next stop would be? When we got back on the bus everyone started to fall asleep. This is when I became a very grumpy passenger. The older guy sitting next to me had been taking up more than his share of space the entire ride. The three seats are joined together like a bench; there isn't an arm rest in between but the individual seats are clearly differentiated. He had his arm and leg on my seat, pushing me up against the window. This happens all the time to me on planes and things, perhaps because I'm small, but whatever. I didn't mind so much until he decided that sleeping meant he got to put his feet on my side/on my bag and completely lean on me. I kept pushing him back over on his side as much as possible, but it was difficult, again because he was much bigger/heavier than me. Every time the bus bumped or turned, he would slouch over again. As much as I felt bad about shoving someone's head off my shoulder, keeping him from crushing me against the wall was becoming rather painful. At the next bathroom/food stop, I tried to explain to him in as articulate of Hindi as I could muster, that this was my seat and that was his seat and that he was pushing me against the wall. He seemed completely unconcerned. When we got back on the bus I was a little less gentle/polite and planted my feet and held my arms at my side as best as I could to keep him from squashing me. It worked only slightly and I spent most of the ride feeling like I was in a mosh pit, becoming increasingly bruised while he slept. Oh, India. Good times.

Some time around 3am the bus stopped again. At first I figured it was another pit stop for the driver, but then another bus pulled up next to us. I couldn't see anything out the windows and wasn't really sure where we were. More and more buses pulled up and the clock ticked past 4am, our scheduled arrival time. Most of the other passengers were sleeping and the few that were awake seemed unconcerned. As the sky started to lighten I saw the river to our left, the mountain to our right, about 10 buses hustled together, and a large rock slide in front of us completely blocking the road. Everyone woke up and we all milled about on and off the bus until 6:30, when everyone grabbed their things, climbed over the rock slide, and waited on the other side for another bus to come get us. When the bus did arrive, there was a confusing scramble for seats and a lot of arguments between the bus driver and passengers from other buses who had tried to board “our” bus. Eventually we were on our way. This time, I offered to swap the window for the aisle seat, hoping to save my aching shoulder. The older man took full advantage of this, again taking up more than one seat, so that I had only about half of my body actually on the seat. Despite this, it was much more comfortable on the end.

The next sign post indicated that we were still about 45km from RP. I wasn't too concerned because the permit office didn't open until 10am anyway and the upside of the rock slide was that I didn't have to sit at the bus station from 4-7am. With the slightly more comfortable seat, the prospect of a permit to Spiti, and having bypassed the 4am arrival time, I was feeling pretty optimistic. When the snow capped mountains slid into view, I began to feel more upbeat, even smiling at the older fellow who had caused me so much discomfort over the past 12 hours. That's when the tire blew. I take full responsibility for the misfortune my happiness brought upon my fellow travelers. The nuisance of changing a tire was compounded by the fact that this wasn't the driver's original bus, so he had no idea where all of the requisite tools were located. It took the better part of half an hour just to get everything assembled to be able to begin to change the tire. An hourish later, with the bus newly tread, we were back on the road to RP.