Sunday, June 12, 2011

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!

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