Back into the Melting Pot

Flight number ‘we’ve lost count’ involved an early start. It was dark when we got up and there was a powercut but luckily we thought this might be the case and had already packed most of our stuff up and had a torch and candle on standby.

Being in Jammu and Kashmir Leh airport has heightened security. You have to show your itinerary and passport to armed police to get into the airport, then show them again to more police before putting your bags through the scanner. You also walk through a scanner and get frisked (women get a curtain and disappointingly they didn’t do a very thorough job). The it is on to check in, then you show boarding card and passport to go to another security check area where hand luggage and you go through another scanner and get frisked again (women behind a curtain again). This time you get a stamp on your boarding card and hand luggage tag. Then the person with the luggage tickets on their boarding card has to go to the outside security area and identify their checked in bags. Don’t identify them and they wont be loaded ‘for security reasons.’ Then you wait in a smallish boarding area that continuously fills with people. There is some entertainment – guys don’t get the privacy of a curtain so you can sit and watch them getting frisked.

Confusingly when you book the flight you’re told you are not allowed to take any hand luggage on. At the airport there are signs saying the same thing but that you can take your camera and laptop on. At the first luggage check Marie was made to take the spare batteries out of her bag and put them into her rucksack, we were confused but did as we were told. So it turns out that despite what everything says you can take hand luggage on just in the more traditional sense e.g a handbag, small rucksack.

Exiting the lounge to board our bottles of water were taken off us (other liquids weren’t checked), boarding passes and hand luggage tags checked for stamps to say they were cleared and then queue again to get another stamp on each, then get frisked again, put on a bus, driven 300m to the plane to get on, passes and tags checked again, under the watchful eye of the police.

Apparently flights arrive and leave from Leh so early because after about 10:30am the weather up there is not conducive to flying. It is a pretty cool place to fly in or out of. After taking off we weaved our way through the mountains until safely above them where we got tantalising glances of the snow capped peaks below through the clouds.

We were met a Delhi airport by our driver as we’d arranged with the agency. He took us to the office in the city centre where we got our loose itinerary, hotel vouchers and settled the expensive bill. Getting into Delhi took ages but getting out too even longer. It is a different perspective driving through the chaos in a car and we are not entirely comfortable observing people eeking out a living from behind a sheet of glass. We did see an elephant walking down the main streets of Delhi though.

It was as hot as hell and the aircon couldn’t compete with the sun, and Indian roads have a speed limit of 60km. 186km on good (by our standard) roads took us 5 long hours. We were knackered, not enjoying being back in a hot, humid environment or being harassed by vendors and people with monkeys (for photos) when we stopped briefly to pay road tax. Or the lunch stop restaurant that charged 60 rupees for a tea (that’s twice the price of a nice restaurant), and tried to make us buy the most expensive thing on the menu despite us saying we weren’t hungry. Then having the cheek to stick a 15% service charge on. Followed by using the toilet only for a woman to nab Emma on the way out by throwing dry tissue into her wet hands after she washed them and demanding 100 rupees (to give that context in tourist sites you pay 5 rupees to use the toilet). Emma actually laughed, the woman then gestured that 50 rupees was ok and Emma indignantly said ‘I’m not paying 50 rupees for a pee!’. Fair enough, over $1 for a pee is a bit much and since it came on the back of buying the very expensive tea it was all too much for Emma. We had some kids persistently beg with faces pressed against the car window as we were stuck in traffic for what seemed like eternity and our ‘helpful’ driver tells us things we already know because of course he wants a tip at the end. We were slightly over it and pining for the mountains.

It rained as we began to approach Agra and this made us happier as it cooled the air slightly. Just the sun going in made a difference in making it more bearable. We were tired and somewhat grumpy, dreaming of Leh when we got to the hotel, we took our bags up to the room despite the porter offering several times, (because you have to tip them) sure it’s not much money but you can hemorrhage money if you tip for everything and it’s not something we can afford to do given the tour is costing an arm and a leg. The air con remote wasn’t in our room so the porter went to get it and then expected a tip…

Dinner at the hotel restaurant (we were too knackered to go looking for food) took over an hour to get everything we ordered and we were the first in there – getting a roti took a record time of almost an hour and still the waiter wanted a tip… we hate it, we understand why, most of the time it’s because they are not paid much but supporting a tipping culture is only going to exacerbate that, not fix it. We just want to know what something costs and we expect when we pay for something that people are paid fairly, particularly when we are already paying a lot of money for something.


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