We flew from Udaipur airport, which was a a modern cool building for a provincial airport. We were flying from Udaipur to Delhi then a 3 hour layover before flying on to Amritsar. Everything was very efficient and when we got to Delhi there was even a Costa (anyone who knows me knows my love of Costa coffee). Unfortunately I was not feeling well and could not bring myself to buy a coffee (gutted).
We flew on to Amritsar and fortunately our bags had been checked through. We had asked the hotel to arrange a pick up for us, so it was nice to see our name on a board as we cleared security. Strangely our driver seemed to be the only taxi in the Punjab who took notice of the rules of the road. This infuriated every other driver as they were not happy when he stopped and waited for a red light. We struggled through more heavy trafffic to get to our hotel. It was the first hotel we had arranged ourselves and we had splshed out on the Ramada (45 quid a night).We had a big comfortable room, which was exactly what we needed after a long days travelling!
Amritsar is a predominently Sikh city in the state of Punjab. The Punjab in general felt much wealthier than Rhajasthan. The roads were much better (the traffic wasnt) and generally there seemed to be more money around, although there were still many hawkers. At the risk of stereotyping all Sikhs, every Sikh I know in the UK seems to be a professional (including my optician who I saw just before we left), so when a hawker in a turban was trying to sell me some Raybans, I thought he must know his stuff and that I should pay more attention (although I didn’t buy them).
Next morning after an amazing breakfast we made our way out to the city centre. Our first port of call was Jallialwala Barg – not Britains finest moment. In 1919 British troops under the command of General Dyer had opened fire and killed over 1000 men women and children who had been peacefully demonstrating, and that eent then kick started the independence movement.
There were very few westerners in Amritsar and we were aware that we were the only white people in what was a very busy park and memorial. Being British, a lot of people could have felt animosity towards us, and this was at the forefront of my mind when we started getting a lot of attention from groups of young men. The stares were quite obvious, and we were approached on multiple occasions. However, fortunately it was all very friendly – more of that on the blog “Popular in Punjab”.
Neither of us felt very well that day and so late morning we went back to the hotel and so began 24 hours of hell (we obviously hadn’t got away without the dreaded Delhi Belly after all). However, if you are going to be ill, better to do it in a comfortable hotel room! Next day, feeling slightly better we made our way to the real reason we were in Amritsar, the Golden Temple which was easily walkable from the hotel. They are doing a lot of building work in the area on the way to the temple and it will look amazing when it is complete – with massive marble statues and stone walkways. Hundreds of people were working in the area, no health and safety though….cutting stone with an angle grinder in your flip flops with no eye protection, craning huge slabs of concrete 6 feet above pedestrians on the street – why not! Once through all the organised chaos we neared the temple and were given headwear which you must wear to enter it. We dropped our shoes and socks off, cleaned our hands and feet and entered the complex.
The temple itself is truly awesome. We went through an arch and at the top of the stairs we got our first view – the temple is completely covered in gold and is a sight to behold. It shines from the middle of the water which reflects the gold and only adds to its impact. I believe that every Sikh is supposed to go there at least once in their life and although I am not a Sikh I am are so glad we saw it. If you come here and are not moved (whether religious or not) you have no soul! It’s not just that the building and the complex that are so beautiful, but the devotion of the pilgrims here mean that the atmosphere is very special. Everyone who visits is entitled to a free meal whether you are a Sikh or not (we didn’t – still feeling a bit rough), and many pilgrims were volunteering to cook, clean or do general work for a couple of hours. It was all incredibly serene considering the the thousands of peope that were there.
We went back to our hotel for a break, and then at about 8:30 in the evening we returned to the temple. Impressive as the temple was during the day, the view of the temple at night, when it was lit up was spectacular. I’m a cynical 50 year old man but it brought a lump to my throat as it was so beautiful. I took about a million photographs, none of which could ever do it justice, its simply one of those things you have to see for yourself if you can.
There was one other thing I wanted to see whilst we were at Amritsar, and that was the Wagah Border flag lowering ceremony on the border with Pakistan. Dawn was still not feeling that great so I went on my own. The border here is the only open land border between the two countries. I took the 40km taxi ride to the border and was dropped off 1 km from the border itself. I had to walk the rest of the way. After passing various security checkpoints I got to the border where they have built stands on both sides to accomodate the thousands of people who come evey day to cheer on their border guards.
For an hour before the ceremony itself, there was an MC to hype up the crowds and there was music blaring out to drown the music coming from the Pakistan side. Young women and girls are invited down from the stands (not sure why no men or boys were invited) to run around with flags and dance to patriotic music, then everyone went back to the stands. The very well choreographed ceremony begins whereby soldiers, both male and female, march two at a time or sometimes on their own towards the gates, stamping and kicking in a furious manner, much huffing and puffing and stern looks towards the Pakistan guards (who are doing exactly the same thing on their side), then the flags of each country are lowered at exactly the same time and the gates on both sides are slammed shut.
Tensions between the two countries are very high at the moment so the atmosphere was akin to being at a tense football match on a derby day. As an outsider the pomp and propaganda eemed a little worrying, but you have to remember that both sides have to work together to ensure that they are doing the same thing at the same time. I was also relieved to see that when it was all over and people were walking home, people from both sides were waving to each other through the gates in a friendly manner. I’d like to see it again, but next time from the Pakistan side.
It was then time to jump in a car for a scary 4 hour drive to Chandigargh our overnight stop on the way to Shimla. Again the roads in the Punjab were much better, but sadly the driving wasn’t. Better roads means faster roads and our taxi driver was no exception to that rule.We arrived safely but had seen the aftermath of many serious accidents on the way, including a lorry upside down in a ditch with several people scratching their heads around it. Fortunately we only have a couple of short taxi journeys left in India, but we have 3 very long train rides to come which should be interesting in themselves, as we’ve not been on an Indian train so far….