My first couple of days in India have been spent as a pedestrian tourist in Amritsar. I have been here before, but it was 13 years ago – a ridiculous amount of time between visits for a country that both me and Eejay love (it won’t be 13 years before I’m back again, it might not even be 13 months). Amritsar has its own feeling – not like the rest of the country – it is the capital of the Punjab region and the world capital of Sikhism, the language and religion is different to most of the country.
I arrived in the early afternoon of Sunday 31st May. A 12 hour flight that was meant to be direct but actually went via Delhi. I sat next to an Indian tourist on the plane, Anuj, who had been visiting his brother in Birmingham. Anuj is a biker, he rides the same bike that I will be hiring and has travelled some of the areas I will be visiting, so we had lots to talk about. It made the journey fly by (ba-dum, ch!)
The taxi from Mrs Bhandari’s guesthouse was there to meet me at the airport – which made a change from the last time I arrived in India when we were ripped off by a scam taxi driver – like I said, Amritsar isn’t like the rest of India – certainly nothing like Delhi. Mrs Bhandari’s is, apparently, something of an institution amongst over landers travelling between India and Pakistan. I have Eejay to thank for finding it – we were booked in for last week when I was supposed to be crossing the border.
I spent the afternoon in the grounds of the guest house. It’s set in the cantonment area of Amritsar and has the feel of the army about it, large gardens, an oasis from the hustle and bustle outside. I also had my first curry – a vegetarian thali. I’m a sucker for a decent veg thali, and it was lovely. It won’t be my last on this trip…
I visited the Golden Temple (also known as Harmandir Sahib) in the evening to view the ceremony where the holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib – is put to bed. Alas, there were several thousand other people there to see it as well, so the closest I got was seeing the group of men march around the tank with a flag.
Visiting the Golden Temple was a highlight of our last trip, and it will no doubt be a highlight of this trip. The Sikh people there are so warm and welcoming that it can be overwhelming. I was helped to find the baggage store (it has moved since I was last here), helped to fasten on my headscarf (there’s a Knack to it) and within minutes of arriving asked to pose for photos and take photos of groups of people who were keen to talk, ask questions and offer information.
Next morning I went to Jallainwalla Barg – it is the scene for one of Britain’s worst atrocities when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed people protesting for Indian independence. The incident was included in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi Again, Eejay and I had visited last time. It was an incredibly peaceful place, calm green space in the middle of a manic city, and locals were keen to talk to us. This week just the same – but with about 10 times more people in the park!
This first photo shows ‘historical lane’ where British soldiers shot at people who were trying to escape. You can get a sense of the potential bottleneck as hundreds of protesters tried escaping down it, with many gunned down and murdered by British soldiers.
This guy didn’t ask for his picture take and I didn’t ask either, but I couldn’t resist this photo, reminds me of a Lowry painting Man Lying on a Wall
Again, the people were very friendly, some just wanting to practice a few words of English, some wanting photos, often they want to know where I’m from, I usually say ‘Manchester’ because most people have heard of Utd or City, one man stayed quiet when I told him Manchester, so I said ‘Utd? City?’ And he said ‘I’m a Liverpool fan, my brother is a Utd fan’. His friend then chipped in with ‘We’re from Wolverhampton!’
They both recommended going to the Guru Kar Langar dining room. I hadn’t been previously, probably too wary of eating street food, but I decided to take a look and I was blown away. The dining room feed 60,000 – 80,000 people everyday, free of charge. I decided to go for it… Took a plate, then a spoon, then a bowl, followed the crowd around the corner into the ground floor dining room (there is an upstairs as well), sat down on the floor next to someone, folded my tired arthritic legs into a knot and waited…. One man came with a bucket full of rice, another with some daal, another with some white stuff (part rice pudding, part coconut, lovely) then someone with a basket of roti. All within about a minute of sitting down.
Afterwards I was mobbed like a pop star for photos – I think I must have been the only white face (well, ok, bright pink, face) there that day. This is my favourite.
This family wanted me to take their picture. They gave me their address in Delhi to post it to – everyone else has given emails or Facebook addresses – must make sure I do it when I get home.
The kitchens for the dining rooms were phenomenal – just don’t let anyone from the council elf-n-safety see it.
On to the main tank complex, with pilgrims bathing in the holy nectar, and seemingly thousands queueing up to see the holy book in the floating golden temple. I guess you can tell by the number of photos that I was deeply impressed by the whole place. Will happily return. Hopefully.
I returned to Mrs Bhandari’s to meet the only other guests to visit the border closing ceremony at Wagga. Anja and Ewan are both tour guides / leaders with an overland tour company called Dragoman they were stuck in Amritsar waiting on visas for Pakistan so they can deliver a truck / bus to China via the Karakoram Highway… Sounds like an idyllic lifestyle…. Anyway they were great company for the afternoon and evening, so I was happy they were stuck, just hope it comes through for them.
The ceremony was great fun, these photos don’t do it justice at all. Each evening about 10,000 on the Indian side and much less (a couple of thousand?) on the Pakistan side come to watch a ceremony to close the border between the two countries. Before the official start, women and children are invited to run (or walk) towards the border waving an Indian flag, then the women and children stay to dance Bhangra – at times it felt like a Hindu wedding rather than a milliatary ceremony. Eventually, soldiers from the Border Security Force take it in turns to goose step and silly walk up to the border gate, pose, scream and strut their stuff at the other side. Flags are lowered, gates slammed shut and agreements made to do it all again tomorrow. It’s a bit like a Bollywood version of Changing the Guards at Buckingham Palace.
This was the closest I got to Pakistan on this trip – close enough for my phone to receive a text message from Ufone welcoming me to the country. It only dawned on me later that I actually have a valid visa to visit Pakistan, and that I could have visited Lahore for the day rather than Amritsar. I have kicked myself a few times about missing out on that one….
I think that’s enough blogging for the first few days. You won’t believe how long it’s taken to load all these photos using Indian wi-fi. Hope it was worth it.