Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Backpacking around Europe Part 1 (Tourist Visa process)

At last here is the series of post of my first Europe Trip during the September and November this year.
As I had thought about earlier, if you go on a business trip through your company to US from India it makes a sensible choice to think about taking a stopover at Europe. I had thought about this during my second trip that I will definitely do it during the next one. As its well known travelling as youth ( below 26 years of age) has its own advantages.

I had little time to apply for Visa as the trip came up as urgency but various sources of information told that 5-7 days should be enough for a visa. Here are some (hard learned) realities (All info is about Schengen Visa applied at French Embassy in Mumbai) :

0) The main thing, almost all countries Visa office now issue Schengen visa for Tourists. This means once you get a visa you can travel freely between 22 nations. Usually you need to apply for Visa of the country where you gonna spent maximum number of days (This point is slightly elaborated in 5)

1) A Tourist Visa isn't as simple a deal, the big list of documents that I had to submitted included:
Hotel reservation proofs, No object letter and covering letter from Employer, Payslips for past 6 months, Income tax returns for past 3 years (I submitted 2 that I had worked for), return tickets printout, Medical Insurance proof, Two photograph white background 35 x 45 80% face, Visa Form, Credit card copy and of course a valid Passport.

2) The French Embassy in India didn't give me Visa based on these documents alone, they schedule an appointment date 6 days after submission of my application (due to high number of pending applications)

3) The interview process is pretty much similar to a B1 visa for US. The consulate tries to ensure that your documents are your intents are real and not harmful. You have to appear in Person for this interview, I had to visit the Nariman Point Visa office.

4) They issued the Visa the same day in a matter of 30-40 minutes after the interview.

5) On entry to France, they put the date of entry on my passport. The Visa was a 15 days, multiple entry, I guess based on the documents I provided (my plan showed I wished staying for 11 days and had insurance for 21 days and had slightly flexible requirements of date as my US return trip dates weren't fixed yet).
As much as I understand you would need to exit from the same Airport as they will have to put the exit stamp.

Against the general impression and opinions I heard from others, the Embassy isn't sitting there to solely reject the visa requests, they were pretty cooperative and in no sense non-welcoming. I was not really questioned about why I requested Multiple Entry (which I still don't know :D)

Oh, btw the Tourist visa was valid for a duration of 2 months, but 15 days in one trip, as against the usual notion that they will give very restrictive visa according to your itinerary, I guess explaining them that my US travel was flexible helped.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A train trip to Lucknow (on Abhishek's wedding)

It was Abhishek Dixit's wedding on 29th November, 2008 that led a trip to Lucknow. The trip didn't add much to my tourist knowledge of the place but I learned quite some things about train travel. The prices for flights had gone up so horribly high that I decided to travel by train. Fortunately the sanity in flight prices is back. The Tax has decreased by 1,400 Rupees in past week making the ticket cost more reasonable once again.

So the train journey started with Gorakhpur express from Hyderbad. This time the good thing was that I made it to the train in sufficient time in advance, something I have almost not done since long. The train seemed to have a almost perfect timing all the way till Bhopal and "just" 1 hr delay at Jhansi, but then I got reminded of the old days of delayed train again. The train kept stopping at every random station for uncalled amount of time and eventually reached the destination Lucknow at 2:00 PM instead of 9:30 AM.

I must say I was surprised to see the city contradictory to my preconcieved notion about the city being part of a state which has been politically exploited based on caste politics. I had heard that parties whenever they came to power used to bring down old statues and errect new ones wasting loads of public money. Not having seen statues at every junction I felt relieved to know that my information wasn't correct. But wait, the junctions all had lavish water fountains and should have been a big waste of construction and maintenence money, water and electricity anyways.

Then I was pointed to one statue on the left of the road, it was Mr. Ambedkar's. I was told that he is the only person whose statues get put at every place and that I found true within next 2-3 Kms. Other than that the City indeed looks pretty developed seeing the flyovers and broad roads.

The original plan was Sandeep and team would be coming from Delhi and we would go sight seeing around but they couldn't make it because of not getting their seats in the train out of waiting list and also not being allowed to take a taxy out of city boundaries due to some rule of Election commision to "Seal" the boundary of state during election, another seemingly stupid rule. Arvind and Sreejith did make it to the wedding being in IIML also Piyush Bhargav came.

The marriage had all the traditional north Indian wedding stuff like Baraat walking with a band playing some famous songs, some of us dancing and also some fireworks on the way. Something that was different from the wedding in MP was that the Dullah came in a car all the way to the venue instead of coming on a horse. The dinner was pretty good and I found it pretty much similar to the one we have at weddings in MP. After the dinner was over there were some private/family events including the Pheras that went on over the night again another similarity.

I had an early morning train next day. The train started on a bad note with a delay of 2 hrs, keeping me worried if I will catch my connecting train from Allahabad. I came to know later that my choice of train the Nauchandi express was a bad one. I should have rather taken an intercity train which people say is much better in maintaining timings.

My train kept adding more and more delay so instead of reaching Allahabad at scheduled time of 9:55 AM I reached at 2:10 PM. At once the train was at a station 5 KMs or so away from Allahabad for approximately 30 minutes. Someone knowledgable proposed us leaving the train and taking an auto rickshaw to avoid wasting another 30 minutes as this train waits for another train to cross. I was interested because I could have caught my connecting train, some others had a appointment at the (Army?) office at 1 PM.

Turns out that despite the delay of 2 hrs my connecting train left the station before I could reach it. I came to know some interesting stuff about trains:
1) If my ticket was a normal ticket (not an e-ticket), the station superintendent could have given me a seat in another train based on availability without me going through pains of cancelling this ticket and reissuing another.
2) Even with my e-ticket, I could still claim my refund for this ticket because I missed the train because of the delay and I had PNR numbers of connecting ticket.
3) You can buy a general ticket when reservation is not available and contact the TT to get you a seat in Sleeper category. The TT issues a "panelty" reciept for 320 Rs for the distance from Allahabad to Jabalpur and I could use that along with my general ticket worth 87 Rs to travel. Effectively paying 400 Rs instead of may be 300 Rs ticket.

The journey from Jabalpur to Hyderabad was much more peaceful with no major delays or hiccups. As I understand it train delays are a thing of past for many places in India but not for UP still, be careful about giving ample extra timings between your trains and reserve extra time for the delays in your plans.