No Money!


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.


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.)




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.

Classic Posts

Since it’s been so long since I’ve had truly substantive posts on this blog, I thought I would highlight for new readers some of my favorites–the entries that I’m most proud of.  Below are a series of posts I did on religion:

The Reuse of Religious Sites series, in which I explore religious sites that have passed between conquering religions, is one of my favorites:  1, 2, 3

In this post, I ponder the difference between the word Islamic and the word Muslim.

In this series, I consider how the history and practice of Islam is distinct in certain countries/regions:  Indonesia, Balkans, China, India

This is a thought piece on Tibetan Buddhism.


I did two multipart history series, on Iran and India, which give quite a broad overview of the history of those two nations/empires:

Iran:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

India:  1, 2, 3

Rail Travel, and the Man in Seat 61


Most readers of my blog probably realize that I love train travel. Trains offer the adventure and sense of journey that overland travel provides, with the comfort and relative dependability of air travel, all wrapped up in an experience that is both civilized and romantic.  Although of course the time demands of modern living mean that train travel isn’t always an option (especially in the United States, where insufficient investment in passenger rail means that very few routes offer practically competitive service), when we are out traveling, roaming the world, I almost always opt to travel by train, whenever possible.

Train travel, like cruises, are sometimes trips unto themselves–with the journey as much an experience as the destination.  The most famous of these is perhaps the Trans-Siberian Railway, which crosses all of Asia on a continuous eight-day journey.  Connections to the Chinese rails, at one end, and the European rail network, on the other, mean that you can travel all the way from London to Saigon, on the rails, starting by crossing the Chunnel on the Eurostar, across Europe on a whole range of networks and then from Moscow to Beijing, and then from Beijing to the Vietnamese railway on the reliable Chinese rail system.

You can search the label “train” on my blog for some information on traveling by train, but the site I usually recommend for international rail travel is The Man in Seat Sixty-One, one of the internet’s very best travel sites, which includes an amazing amount of detail on train systems around the world, including helpful pictures of car layouts, and a surprising number of schedules and fares.  The site is named for his favorite seat on Eurostar first class.  Many thanks to Mark Smith for creating and maintaining such an amazing repository of travel information!

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 for details on how to set up your IRCTC and Cleartrip accounts.


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

Delhi QuickTrip: Pushkar


Pushkar’s camel fair, which takes place in the fall, is deservedly one of India’s most famous festivals.  Derek and I went together in 2003, and Derek again, alone, in 2009.  Last weekend, we thought we’d try Pushkar sans fair, and found it a very enjoyable getaway.

To get to Pushkar, we traveled by the Haridwar Ahmedabad Mail, which is scheduled to leave Old Delhi Railway Station at 10:20 PM and arrive in Ajmer at 6:40 AM, though our train ran a bit late.  We traveled via 2AC tickets we bought last minute using the tatkal system.  We returned to Delhi on the Ajmer Jat Express, which leaves Ajmer at 2:15 PM and arrives at Delhi Cantonment at 9:13 (and New Delhi Railway Station a bit later).  If tickets had been available, we would probably have preferred the Shatabdi, which leaves Ajmer at 3:45 PM and arrives at New Delhi Railway Station at 10:40 PM.  Those comfortable taking an overnight train back to Delhi could take the Chetak Express, which leaves Ajmer at 10:45 PM and arrives at Delhi’s S Rohilla Station at 5:10 AM.

In Ajmer, we took a quick look at Ajmer’s most famous site before we headed out to Pushkar.  A short autorickshaw ride away from the railway station is the famous shrine of Sufi saint Muinuddin Chisti, which is probably the most significant Muslim religious site in India, if not all of South Asia.  A place of pilgrimage for centuries, the Ajmer shrine is in some ways a giant version of the Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi, a huge religious site full of living medieval architecture and hundreds of pilgrims.  Bags and photography are not allowed–which is a bit annoying–but the energy is incredibly positive and you are likely to hear a bit of Sufi qawwali music.  (Before going to the shrine we also went to the Adhai Din ka Jhonpra, a Jain temple-to-mosque conversion dating from the 12th century–but this is optional.  In case you decide to go, it is walking distance from the shrine.)  From the shrine, we took an autorickshaw direct to Pushkar, which cost 300 rupees.  Cheaper, and probably just as fast, would be to go to the bus station and take a proper bus, although that would also require two short autorickshaw rides to/from the bus stations.  Returning to Ajmer we took a bus, which was fast, and fun.  Early for our train, we had lunch at the local/divey, terrific Medina Hotel across the street from Ajmer’s railway station.

In Pushkar we stayed at the Paramount Palace, in a lovely room with a small balcony overlooking Pushkar, perhaps slightly overpriced at 1000 rupees.  Had we booked in advance, we probably would have stayed at Seventh Heaven, which is the most proper/professional of the budget hotels in Pushkar.  The Bharapur Palace was also tempting, with its lakeside location.



What is there to see or do in Pushkar?  Almost nothing, which makes for a very relaxing weekend indeed.  We walked over to see the fairgrounds just outside of town, which were almost entirely empty (since the fair was not on), and did one circuit of Pushkar’s holy lake, where people were bathing (and some guards/priests enforcing the “no shoe” rule in an annoying manner).  Pushkar is a huge destination for both tourists and pilgrims, even when the fair is not on, making for good people watching (everything from very colorful Rajputs in marvelous turbans to Israelis with dreads) and shopping.  We had kurtas tailored, with special iPhone-sized pockets.  We had cokes and pots of chai on our balcony, overlooking the town.  We sat eating terrific falafel wraps and watched folks walk down the main bazaar (the town is entirely veg–not even eggs available for breakfast!).  Admittedly, some of the relaxingness of the weekend wore away with the long slog back home (which would have been better, I think, had we been on the Shatabdi), but we will certainly return to Pushkar again, for both the camel fair and for simple relaxation.


Camel Fair