10.04.2012 - 11.04.2012 25 °C
As I’m writing to you I’m surrounded by an India I am very much not used to – it’s cold, wet, green and quiet! We decided after a day in Amritsar that we didn’t want to stay long at all, and thanks to Elena’s amazingly kind father, we’re now making our way up to Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj in the Himalayan region with private driver (ooh la la) Tuti – though he does not measure up to G-Singh or Zakir in any measure of charisma. We’ve still got two hours or so to go but the contrast in landscape is truly amazing. I feel like I could be driving through the countryside anywhere in the world, especially as we left in the dark of the night at 5am, and woke up in the car surrounded by fog and greenery. I kept trying to trick myself into thinking I could be driving somewhere near the mountains in Sydney, and then contrasted that with the thought that we’re moving along in a little car parallel to the border of Pakistan. Crazy!
Also – I realised yesterday that this is the furthest north I’ve ever been in the world. Completely crazy for Spanish-born Elena to comprehend considering India is very south for her. I find these funny little thoughts very entertaining.
Anyway, back to where we left off on Monday! When we arrived in Amritsar it was well past midnight. True to reputation, our train was about three and a half hours late, stopping randomly for an hour about five minutes before the station. We’d met a man on the train, who we’ll just call Mr Singh (it’s a pretty safe bet, especially in Punjab as it’s an incredibly common Sikh name).Due to their religion, the nature of Sikh people is to be very hospitable, and simply on the train we learnt this was very true. Even at midnight, Mr Singh called his brother to make sure there could be accommodation, called a guesthouse for us, told us about accommodation in the Golden Temple, and offered to arrange a taxi for us.
When we arrived at the station all five of us got into a rickshaw – they’re much bigger out here – with our luggage on top, and made our way to the Golden Temple. The temple offers free or cheap accommodation to pilgrims (representative of their hospitality), so we went to see if there would be anything available at about 1am. As we drove through town it was completely dead and kind of eerie, until we got to the temple where people were coming and going. Sasha and Lian went to have a look at the dormitories that were available for free, but they said the ones they saw were feral and disgusting and so we went to look for a guesthouse. We met some Americans later who were staying in the temple and they described it quite differently so I think perhaps the girls saw the wrong part or something.
Anyway, the driver took us to a hotel we’d seen a street back, and as we were negotiating prices about four young guys ran past trying to hassle us, but one said that he had a hotel. Sasha was amazingly angry and there was a bit of an altercation (after we left the police were involved trying to get rid of the guys) but we just ended up sharing a room in Lucky Hotel. It’s nice and clean, a bit pricier than we’re used to, but because we all squashed in and I slept on the floor we got the room for about 200Rs each ($4).
We hadn’t got to sleep until about 2am, so the next morning I had my longest sleep in in India and woke up at about 9.30. The floor mattress had been surprisingly comfortable. As we left to get breakfast around the corner, I discovered how insanely different Amritsar is during the day; as we were right near the Golden Temple it was very busy, with people and rickshaws everywhere – though cars aren’t allowed in that area during the main hours of the day as it’s quite a tight squeeze. It’s also quite different to the rest of India that I’ve seen as well in the sense of dress. Women wear the traditional Punjabi suits, which is like a kurta, loose pants and a scarf, and being a predominantly Sikh area, most of the men have turbans and long beards, so the streets becoming filled with brightly coloured turbans bobbing up and down as the men cycle along on the rickshaws.
We got some breakfast (first time I’ve had muesli in so long, yum!) but Elsbeth was feeling really sick so she went back to the hotel while the four of us went to search for the bus station. Our walk to the bus station confirmed the fact that what everyone said about Amritsar is true – four days is way too long to be here. It is not a pretty city at all, and people very rarely smile back at you, which surprised me a lot given the amazing kindness I’d received from Sikh people during my travels. At the bus station the girls asked about cheap buses to Dharamsala, and we asked about any place we could go away from Amritsar, the main contenders being Dharamsala and Chandigarh, a city that apparently looks ‘just like Paris’ and is the cleanest city in India. Of course as you already know, we decided upon Dharamsala and due to Elena’s fathers kind generosity we’re on our way up there right now!
After we sorted out the driver stuff with a guy from the hotel we went to visit the Goden Temple, the main attraction of Amritsar. The temple is the epitome of Sikh worship, and people travel from all over the globe! We met a family who had been living in England and Kenya who came for a trip here. It’s an enormous complex of white buildings, with a large pool/lake and the Golden Temple situated in the middle of it. We walked around for a long time, taking photos of things and people – proud parents love thrusting their children upon us for a photo (and I love it too – kids always make good photos). People bathe in the pool, similar to the Ganges, as well as people taking their children like a sort of christening ceremony. Outside there is a big hall where you can get a meal for free, and many volunteers sitting around chopping vegetables and washing dishes.
After we were done visiting the temple we got a quick bite to eat and then went to the hotel to wait for a car to take us to the Wagah Border – another of the main attractions in Amritsar. The Wagah Border is the crossing where India meets Pakistan at Lahore, and every evening they have a ceremony to close the border – which I must say is one of the strangest and most wonderful things I’ve seen in India. More than a hundred people go to the border playing music, singing, dancing and cheering, as some sort of patriotic act. The Pakistani side attempts to do the same but the sheer amount of Indians there means that there’s no comparison in the competition of whose ceremony is louder or more exciting. When we arrived we showed our passports to security and were directed to the foreigners section, where I was instantly amazed. People in grandstands were shouting and cheering and waving Indian flags, and below many women were dancing excitedly. I went over to take some photos of them and was instantly grabbed and twirled, every Indian woman seeming to want to dance with me. There was also a conga line! It was hilarious and embarrassing and I loved it. Then Jai Ho came on! That’s when things really got mental.
After the music stopped and I was able to catch my breath, the ceremony was about to begin. At first, a very tall man dressed in all white was running around cheering the crowd – it was as if we were at a sports match or something and he was the host. He’d chase people around and bounce up and down with his microphone, leading the cheers which all the Indians in the crowd mimicked in the direction of Pakistan. It wasn’t rude or provocative cheering but rather like friendly banter. Then Indian soldiers came out, about two women and a bunch of men, doing funny high kicks and salutes up and down the main path towards Pakistan. After a bit of this the gate actually opened, and you could see the Pakistani soldiers dressed all in black doing a similar ritual. The flags then crossed and were lowered, and the gate closed and locked again.
After the ceremony was done we made our way back out to our death trap of a van, which had been an hour late to pick us up and was taking its time to take us back – the speedo was broken and stuck on 4km/h the whole way home! Elena and I grabbed a bite to eat and got to bed pretty early as we knew we’d be leaving in the wee hours of the morning.
At about 2am Amritsar revealed its eerie side again, as a storm began with violent lightning, then causing power to go out and an electric wire to spark flames. All five of us ran to the window and you could see people marching up and down the streets to and from the Golden Temple making strange noises. It’s hard to describe but it is just a bit of an eerie town at night. Very weird.
Anyway, I got an hour or two more sleep and then here we are! Next stop: Dharamsala. By the looks of the greenery and drop in temperature so far, I really cannot wait.