No Money!

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It would be difficult to argue that I’ve ever known real scarcity, but there have been a few times in our travels when we’ve been left totally without cash and without an obvious way to access it.  The first time was when, due to a sort of banking mixup, we ended up with no money in the only account for which we had a working ATM card.  This was in Turkey, if I recall, during our 2008-09 big trip, and our friend Shan came to our rescue, quickly depositing a few thousand dollars into our bank account.  Just the other month, we were staying overnight in the small village of Xidi in Anhui Province, China, which we discovered had only one ATM, connected only through the Chinese UnionPay network, and not Cirrus or Plus.  We had enough money for our room but not for dinner or transport back to Hangzhou—our friend Haiping came to our aid with a quick WeChat virtual payment made from Hong Kong.

Today, I was not the victim of my own poor planning, but one of the billion plus affected by the Modi government’s apparently rash plan to rid the country of “black money.”  On the evening of November 8, the Indian Prime Minister announced that all existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes—over twenty billion bills that constituted about 85% of the Indian money supply—were to be worthless as of midnight, and must be exchanged for new 500 and 2000 rupee bills.  There was an immediate shortage of cash everywhere, with ATMs emptying as soon as could be stocked with the new bills and businesses not able to make change.

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We wandered all over town looking for money, finally waiting in line for about half an hour when we found a stocked ATM.  (The line wasn’t even that long, but the ATM was hideously slow with a confusing interface.)

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Success!

It is easy to view the chaos that resulted as typically Indian. Disorder on the order of billions is, after all, a sort of hallmark of the world’s largest democracy.  The decrease in economic activity will hit GDP substantially, though estimates vary, and of course there’s a corruption angle to even this anti-corruption measure—it is said that leaks allowed those who were connected to launder their money in advance.

But for all the short term disruption, the possible benefits are clear.  In one fell swoop, the government rid the economy of billions of dollars in counterfeit and illegally obtained hoards of cash.  For example, it was almost universal for Indian real estate transactions to have both a legal component and an under-the-table component, for purposes of tax evasion.  Such large black market payments would now be difficult.  Entire industries ran on the unreported cash economy, and may now have to be formalized.  Buying a US$3 lunch with a credit card today (the restaurant couldn’t provide change for our 2000 rupee notes), it occurred to me that the government will have from this cash shortage period all sorts of new data on the volume of transactions done by businesses, revenues that probably went entirely unreported on the cash economy.  Lack of cash is not only triggering the use of ordinary credit cards but also new mobile wallet schemes, the growth of which will help India not only locally but perhaps establish systems and brands that it can then market, using its IT prowess, around the world.

The long term consequences will of course be unclear for a while, but India does have perhaps a unique . . . tolerance? ability? to muddle through chaos, and things seemed to be working out.  Our hotel was obviously grateful when we handed them approximately $60 in rupee notes to settle our bill, but Uber to the airport was as smooth and cashless as anywhere else.

Trains in India 2

Back in 2009, I put together a pretty thorough post on train travel in India, including the booking system, different classes of travel, and things you’re likely to see while riding the Indian rails. This is a supplement of that post, including descriptions of some of the different kinds of trains that are available (some with distinct classes of service).

Also, an update on booking: In addition to the Indian Railways (IRCTC) website, which has always been a horror to use (and which does not currently accept overseas credit cards), you can now book train tickets on third party sites through a bridge to the Indian Railways, including my favorite, Cleartrip. Cleartrip, in addition to providing a very pleasant and simple booking interface, has iPhone Passbook integration, bringing Indian rail travel into the 21st century. Please refer to the indispensable www.seat61.com for details on how to set up your IRCTC and Cleartrip accounts.

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If you’ve traveled a great deal around India by train, you’ve probably noticed that there are some “special” types of trains, with different levels of service and fares. One might argue that these trains add complexity to an already complex system, but knowing what they are and offer is important for frequent riders.

The “special” train that travelers are most likely to experience is the Shatabdi Express, which are the fastest and most luxurious daytime trains in the Indian train system. Many travelers end up taking the New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi, which departs New Delhi Railway Station for Agra Cantonment Railway Station in the early morning and returns in the late evening, allowing a full day of sightseeing in Agra on a convenient daytrip. This particular run, which takes about two hours, also contains the fastest stretch of the Indian rails, at a maximum speed of 150 km/hr. Shatabdi Express trains offer only AC Chair Car and Executive classes, and cost a pretty hefty premium relative to other trains–but also include meals, tea service and bottled water. In Executive Class the servers also wear nifty outfits! (Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, so you’ll just have to be surprised.)

A Traveller Enjoying Dinner on the Shatabdi Express

Tourist Enjoying Dinner on the Shatabdi Express

The overnight equivalent of the Shatabdi Express is the Rajdhani Express. Rajdhani means “capital,” and the Rajdhani Express trains link Delhi to the largest cities in India. Rajdhanis, like Shatabdis, include free meals and snacks, and are all AC (1AC, 2AC and 3AC classes).

New Delhi - Ahmedabad Rajdhani Express

New Delhi – Ahmedabad Rajdhani Express

Even faster than the Rajdhani is the Duronto (“restless”) Express, which is a nonstop service. It’s actually pretty impressive that these nonstop services exist, given the significant distances they cover. What other train systems have 16-20 hour journeys without a single stop?

The Shatabdi, Rajdhani and Duronto are premium services. The Indian Rail also has special economical services, the Janshatabdi and Garib Rath.

AC Chair Car, on the Green/Yellow Garib Rath

AC Chair Car, on the Green/Yellow Garib Rath

The Janshatabdi Express, or “common” shatabdi, offers similarly fast service as a Shatabdi, but instead of Executive and AC Chair Car classes, has AC Chair Car and Second Class, and no free meals. The Garib Rath offers service that is similar to a Rajdhani, but offers only 3AC and AC Chair Car. Garib Raths are unusual in two respects: they are basically the only trains to offer an air-conditioned seated class for long distance trains, and the 3AC is a special “tighter” configuration that allows more berths per car, and correspondingly lower fares.

AC Chair Class on the Garib Rath

AC Chair Class on the Garib Rath

3AC on the Garib Rath

3AC on the Garib Rath

And, of course, the suburban rails. With subways being built in so many Indian cities now (Delhi’s system is ever expanding, while Mumbai, Bangalore, Kochi and Jaipur are building out new systems), the suburban rail systems may not last too much longer… but with their open air configurations, they can be quite a joy to ride, as long as not during crowded rush hours.

Delhi Parikrama

Delhi Parikrama

"China Standard" Hotel Rooms

Between the two of us, we’ve travelled in China for a total of a few months by now, and have seen enough Chinese budget/midrange hotel rooms to know that they are, for the most part, almost identical–what we call “China Standard” and a useful way for us to describe the level of lodging quality elsewhere in the world (“well, it’s almost China Standard…”). Available in smaller towns and cities for somewhere around 120 RMB, or USD 18, or in bigger cities for somewhat more, these rooms offer a level of comfort and amenities that would be wildly luxurious in many other countries–but in perhaps the most drab, tattered and boring way possible.

That the rooms are so similar across the entire country is something of a mystery–I think that there must be some sort of standard kit, either very significant suppliers that supply each and every hotel or nationwide standards that require certain items for a hotel to be classified as two- or three-star (the level of hotels of which I am writing). Anyway, some elements of a China Standard hotel room.

Lobby. Chinese hotel lobbies always seem to have world clocks (of course not set properly), and a board showing room rates. Note that you almost never pay the posted rack rates in a Chinese hotel–substantial discounts of sometimes more than 50% are given even without asking.

Inside the room. This room has cleaner carpets than most–the floor is generally the worst part of a Chinese hotel room. Note the headboards bolted to the wall as well as the chairs, with a tea service. On the other side of the room is hot water, which is always available and refilled (for making tea). Except in the largest/most crowded cities, where space is at a premium, there’s always plenty of room for luggage.

The mattress is the second worst thing in a Chinese hotel room–often rock hard. On the other hand, the sheets and plush white duvets–almost always this exact pattern–are almost luxurious. Derek often asks for a second duvet to cushion the rock hard mattress. We’ve often heard stories of Chinese hotel rooms having dirty sheets, but encountered this for the very first and only time just this past week in Tibet (in a hotel owned and managed by Tibetans), and assume that many of the horror stories are from years past, when standards were lower.

That the floor is usually filthy doesn’t matter much because you are usually given some sort of footwear. Here, plastic, but usually paper disposable.

Bedside controls for lights, relatively uncommon in other parts of the world, are another feature of “China Standard.”

Bathrooms are well amenitized. Have you thought it annoying that you have to pack a toothbrush when going for a weekend trip (though almost every other basic toiletry is covered by hotels)? In China, and we predict soon all over the world as Chinese tourists start taking over, disposable toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste come standard.

We didn’t picture perhaps the most important parts of a China Standard room. China Standard rooms always have air conditioning and hot water aplenty, even in some of the most remote parts of the country (heating is more of a problem)–items that are often missing at hotels at similar prices in other parts of the world. Nearly all have a television with various flavors of CCTV, Chinese state television, one in English.

Chinglish in a Shigatse Supermarket

Reeling from a bad morning at Tashilhunpo Monastery (see post of 2010.06.02–who knew we were so sensitive?), we found ourselves with many free hours in Shigatse and not much to do. The Old Town was pretty much deserted because people were out of town for local holiday picnics, and we weren’t about to pay more admissions for more second-rate sights. And so we thought that we might as well enjoy a day in Anytown, China, which is what most of Shigatse looks like, and headed to a local mall. The mall itself was pretty crummy, the Lenovo shop even locking up their WiFi when they realized that we were using it, but it did have quite a nice supermarket.

“Mr. Bond coffee — American pattern — >> I’m young..I’m coffee”

When we saw the cans of Mr. Bond coffee (not bad, by the way), we thought that we might as well spend a half hour looking through the grocery store for awkward or nonsensical English. Here’s what we found:

“Almond — used to flavor extracts, liqueurs and orgeat syrup. T’ — els of apricot and peach pits have a similar flavor — same toxic effect (destroyed by heating) as b — hios. Pistachios are available blanched o — sliced, chopped, candied, smoked, i — nd in many flavors. Toasting Pis” It seems like they were trying to be helpful by cutting and pasting an encyclopedia entry or something?

“THEUNITEDSTATES – MSLP – THE NEW TASTE & EUROPEAN TASTE”

“CHONQING STRANGE-TASTE HORSEBEANS”

“May the breeze bring you The tenderness and warmth from me Far from each other we may be. Yet still you are here, At the bottom of my heart.” Rather poetic for a bag of pistachios.

“Choiceness raw material Produced meticulous”

This one isn’t really even about bad English–just that the product itself is so odd, that they shouldn’t have bothered to translate. Would any English speaker really buy this for their child?

This cleanser removes horniness.

No doubt others have remarked on this, but “jissbon” is a popular brand of condoms in China.

“MOTH KILLER – mothproof toothpaste”

“Old Chengdu. Sichuan special products. The hands tear the serial products of beef of “liuyanggou” is chosen the adult yak’s crua meat of the prairie of Ruoergai of Abab state carefully. (Only accounts for 3% of the whole yak’s body) complement with several dozen natural plant seasoning, pass several dozen modern craft refined. It is mouth feel unique, aromatic and strong, and pleasant impression is long.” I personally don’t want my yak jerky to leave a long impression in my mouth.

Photo Fees in Tibetan Monasteries, or On Tashilhunpo Monastery

I’ve always thought that there is something slightly unseemly about admission fees at religious sites. Of course being a tourist attraction does result in expenses, in terms of staffing and whatnot, but charging admission highlights the sometimes commercial and parasitic nature of organized religion, and seems to fly in the face of evangelism, which one would think would be an aim of any group that believes that it holds ultimate truths that others do not. That said, I understand that for some institutions admission fees help with capital projects, further charitable missions and fill other gaps in budget. The tourist is getting something of value, and it’s not totally unfair for the faith to benefit.

As we expected, Tibetan monasteries, like all tourist attractions in China (see post of 2008.07.25), charge fairly hefty admission fees (50 RMB, or USD 7.50, on average, I would say).

What we did not expect, certainly at this level of frequency and magnitude, are the camera fees. In order to take pictures inside most of the most visited Tibetan monasteries, you need to pay an additional *per-chapel* charge ranging anywhere from 10 RMB, or USD 1.50, to over 100 RMB, or USD 15–and monasteries can have a dozen chapels (outside pictures are included in the regular admission fee). We’ve encountered camera fees in other parts of the world, mostly in India and ex-Soviet republics, but the photo fees we are encountering in Tibetan monasteries are particularly pernicious, not only because they are on top of relatively high admission fees, but because they are administered in a way that is annoying and demeaning to the monks and the monasteries–on a per chapel basis.

I understand that charging per chapel might result in higher proceeds, but, in an era when photography is so much of a traveler’s experience, it turns each monastery visit into a sort of shopping expedition, where one pauses to evaluate each chapel to decide whether it is “worth” memorializing at whatever price is being asked. It turns each monk into a sort of ticket enforcer (a task some seem to relish), and since there is no clear receipt or anything given, even after one has already paid one is still bothered with questions regarding the photo fee.

Even then, at the first monasteries that we visited, I was willing to give the Tibetans the benefit of the doubt. I told myself that the per chapel fee made sense because they sort of took the place of per chapel donations that the faithful would leave (though of course at many multiples). Until I got to Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.

Tashilhunpo Monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in spiritual authority (and a “recognizer” of new Dalai Lamas), and one of the principal tourist attractions of Tibet, with a prominent place on almost any Tibet itinerary. Admission is a steep 85 RMB (USD 13), befitting its prominence and size, and perhaps the extensive restoration work done. What really sets the monastery apart, however, are the photo fees, which range from 75RMB to 160RMB (USD 11 to 24)–per chapel.

The mercenary character of all this came into full light when we were told that the monks of Tashilhunpo–which is said to be more closely affiliated with the Chinese government than other monasteries–actually work office hours, like civil servants, taking public holidays and an hour off for lunch. Now, I’m not saying that monks have to pray 15 hours a day, but certainly there is something about a religious calling that should be distinguished from regular salaried employees. I knew that the Chinese government was “involved” in the affairs of the Tibetan monasteries, sometimes even requiring monks to profess allegiance to the Chinese government ahead of the Dalai Lama, but did not think that monks would simply be government employees. Through this lens, like so many things in China, Tashilhunpo appears like an operation optimized solely for profit.

Sign at the monastery promoting a sister site, widely reputed not to be worth the admission fee. Why is a monastery advertising tourist attractions?

Our disdain for the photo fees being charged at Tashilhunpo made me reconsider not only the merits of photo fees at all Tibetan monasteries, but also made me feel offended by their general funding tactics, so common to many organized religions. Most Tibetans are extremely poor, yet when they come to these gilded temples, some with fabulous amounts of government support, they throw heaps of (small) bills at each shrine. The money is displayed extremely prominently, sometimes the deities surrounded by bills, apparently equating holiness and material wealth. When a holy man dies, a memorial stupa is raised with obscene quantities of gold and precious metals (the weight of their gold now a favorite fact on tours). Seen this way, the monks are almost predators, feeding on the superstitiousness and awe of the people (who are not even invited to the esoteric knowledge of the monks) in order to maintain their livelihood. The priestly class as parasites–not an uncommon motif.

The stupa of the Tenth Panchen Lama, said to contain 614 kg gold, 868 precious stones and 246,794 jewels

Poor pilgrims, offering their meager savings