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Email: Greetings from Sikkim, India


Date: Saturday, 22 November 2003 06:03 PST
Subject: Greetings from Sikkim, India

Captions for pictures:
1. Auto Rickshaw – I squeezed in next to the driver in front
2. A man enjoying his breakfast in Agra near the bus station
3. Rush hour in Agra
4. The Red Fort in Agra
5. The Taj Mahal at sunset

14 November 2003 – Day #55

We are now in a small town in the state of Sikkim, India called Yuksom. It is the jumping off point for our six day trek in the Himalayas. Yuksom is a small town of no more than a few hundred. There are only two hotels here – both small. The main street consists of a handful of small shops. The street itself is dirt.

In India, you must register with the police in each city or town you stay. This includes Agra and Delhi. However, in the large cities, the hotel takes care of it (they must fill out a form for each visitor in duplicate). In the small towns like the one we are staying tonight, you must take care of it yourself. What the police do with the thousands of forms they must receive each day is anyone’s guess.

In addition to registration, there are several permits required to visit and trek in Sikkim. We received a temporary visitor’s permit when we crossed the border from the state of West Bengal. We acquired the permanent one the following day in Gangtok (the capital). There is a second permit that is also acquired in Gangtok for the trek itself. Since Gangtok is reached via six hours of hairpin-turns, one-car-at-a-time bridges and washed-out roads, it’s best to do a little planning before you arrive.

Five days ago we were in Agra. The night before we left, we visited the Taj. We arrived an hour before sunset by taxi. Sunrise and sunset are the best times for photos. The kids are free. However, our ticket cost is a shocking 750 Rupees or about $16 each. Don’t tell the official that controls pricing, but it was worth it. Once you pass through the gate, all you see a imposing building that is built opposite of the Taj. You then must pass through a giant door in this building and walk through a cavernous room in order to enter the main garden. Words cannot describe the exquisite beauty of this monument. Sandy and Kristen went up the stairs to a patio that surrounds the Taj. They both remarked about the detailed inlaid stonework. Unlike many other modern wonders, the Taj is in nearly perfect shape. It will surely be one of the high points of our trip.

The next day, we traveled from Agra to Delhi. There were several options: the train (required a booking in advance), taxi (we received quotes of between US$45-75) and the government-run bus. Since we didn’t have a train reservation, we figured that we should go to the bus station, check things out and fall back to a taxi if things didn’t work out. As it turned out, a bus headed for Delhi was leaving as we arrived. Cost for the four-hour ride: the equivalent of US$2.30 per person. The bus was almost empty when we left the station. But before we left the city limits an hour later, it was full.

On the journey, I took note of the amazing variety of transportation that we saw out the window. Here is my list:
1. On foot
2. Donkey cart
3. Horse cart
4. Cow cart
5. Camel cart
6. Bicycle (foot powered and hand powered)
7. Bicycle rickshaw
8. Auto rickshaw (a cross between a motorcycle and a golf cart)
9. Tractor and cart
10. Moped
11. Motorcycle
12. Car
13. Truck
14. Bus (our form of transportation)

Before we arrived in Delhi, we were warned several times about scams. Scams are the next evolutionary stage after blinking neon signs and touts. They are caused by too many goods and services chasing too few rupees. Scams are designed to part traveler from their money. Since the purpose of our trip is education, we can honestly say we left Delhi well educated. The good news is that, if you do fall for a scam (we fell for several), you learn to recognize them the next time. Fortunately, the worst that happened to us is that we lost some time and a few bucks.

Here are the scams that were tried on us:

1. Taxi, rickshaw driver offering cheap transportation – this is always in hope of selling other services during the ride. In several cases, a tout joins the driver so the driver can focus on driving.
2. Taxi, rickshaw driver quotes price per person versus the price for the ride. (To be fair, this happened in Africa as well).
3. Taxi, rickshaw driver gets lost and asks for more money – this one is hard to detect since Delhi is such a huge city.
4. Train ticketing office is closed for two days while is it repainted. The man that says this stands on the stairs leading up to the ticketing office and wears an official-looking uniform.
5. Train tickets bookings for trips other than the current day require a visit to another office (really just a travel agent disguised as a government office)
6. All the trains are full. Besides a private car is so much better.
7. This carpet took four artisans 2 1/2 years to make.

The good news is that India has generally a non-violent society. Most of the people we’ve met before, during and after our visit to Delhi have been friendly and helpful.

Hope this email finds you and your family happy and healthy.

God’s blessing,