The previous day had taken me to the New Delhi train station tourist office to get my ticket for Amritsar. Having heard horror stories of the touts who linger at the bottom of the stairwell convincing people the office is closed and they must book through them I went ready for a fight. To my slight disappointment there was nobody there and I freely walked up the stairs and into the office. So armed with my most expensive ticket to date (I had opted for the 'superfast' service which was to take a mere 5 hours, a blink of the eye compared to some other trains), I boarderd my a/c carrige, accepted my complimentary tea and sandwhich and settled in for the long journey ahead.
Now Amritsar is the home of the Golden Temple, the most holy of sites for the Sikhs, and the main purpose of my visit. The Sikhs believe in the philosophy that everyone is the same despite differences in religion, colour or whatever else, this was to be made evident to me from the moment I stepped off the train. I was instantly approached by two young rickshaw drivers enquiring where I was staying, my digs were near the temple itself so I told them just to drop me there, I was then quoted the usual astronomical prices, showing my disgust in the most honourable way I continued walking alas I was to be followed like the proverbiable bad fart. I was then met my an older bearded man with a pink turban neatly coiled on his head, he couldn't speak english but knew my hotel and for a fraction of the cost the two previous guys had quoted. So I set off in his rickshaw surrounded by pictures of the Sikh warrior kings and with the whole of the back covered with one large picture of the golden temple, I felt like I was there already. Soon enough my miniture, motorised temple pulled up at a no vehicle entry barrier, expecting to walk the last part I was surprised to see my driver hail a cycle rickshaw pay him a third of his fare to take me the last couple minutes journey to the hotel, I was very impressed. This however was not my reaction when I was shown my room. I walked back to reception and made it clear that I couldn't stay there...well not at the price he wanted anyway. After taking away my A/C and hot water but with the promise of his cleanest dirty sheets we came to an agreement, I could always have stayed with the pilgrims in the temple dorms for free and whilst this would truely have been an experience, it was one I wasn't ready for.
I set off for the temple, buying a mandatory head scarf on the way deciding the communal ones at the gate probably weren't worth the risk. I deposited my shoes at one of the huge shoe stations and walked barefoot round to the entrance. After a quick wash of the hands and a dip through the foot baths lining the gateway I was ready to enter, a friendly guard tiedied up my head hankie and informed me of the temple ettiquette and set me on my way. The temple is set in a reflection pool surround by a huge walkway which teamed with thousands of pilgrims walking clockwise round the perimeter and many more just sitting in the shade chatting with friends. I joined the masses and navigated round the walkway, on reaching the far end there was a huge stall selling puja offerings to take into the temple itself, the queue to go in was over a thousand strong and wasn't going anywhere fast, I completed my lap and headed towards what could only be described as a massive shelter emmiting a loud clattering noise. I discovered it was the communal kitchen, they feed all the pilgrims for free and when you consider there can be in excess of 80,000 a day you can imagine its scale. A huge conveyer belt of people waiting, being served, eating and cleaning up all going seemingly like clockwork. I discovered the source of the clattering was the metal serving trays being dunked in various vats of hot soapy water before being thrown to the next then being hammered to get rif of excess water before being thrown to another station where they were stacked ready for reuse, the whole process taking under 20 seconds for about 50 trays.
The other major 'attraction' in Amritsar is the Jallianwala Bagh Park, the site of a massacre carried out by the British against a peaceful ralley. The site is a reasonably sombre affair with an eternal flame burning alongside walls littered with bullet holes and the well where 150 people jumped into to escape the firing squad only to meet a watery death. There was also.a small museum dedicated to the Indian man who subsequently assasinated the commanding officer of the man who ordered the attack, it was on exiting here I was to find myself the centre of attention. I was stopped my a man who spoke perfect english, a professor from the local university. On seeing me speak to this man the other nationals must have decided that I was an approachable guy and before too long a woman came up to me and asked for "one snap". I obliged, not thing too much about it and even when more family members flocked into the frame I wasn't too concerned. What I hadn't noticed was the tens of other families who had seen this pioneer family getting there photo taken with the white guy and decided they too wanted a piece of the action. Before I knew it queue had formed and there was now at least 8 or 9 mobiles and cameras pointing at my flashing away. I got a nudge from behind, it was the professor, he told me I should probably sit down, I agreed. After about ten minutes I decided to close Dougies Grotto much to the dismay off the remaining families and beelined for the exit. Not quite how I imagined my trip to the site of a massacre carried out by my country men on the local people would have turned out but an interesting experience.
The next day i explored the outer city finding myself in one of Amritsars finer dining establishments (it alsways amazes me how the colour of my skin can allow owners to over look the fact I am considerably under dressed). I was soon approached by an elderly gentleman sitting opposite me, very well dressed and obviously very wealthy. He struck up conversation and he was soon telling me of his 'new' life in an Osho ashram. I declined his offers of going to stay in his village for the next week, in one of his many empty bedrooms, and infeed I was welcome to stay on after he left for Nepal but in the meanwhile we could talk, listen to music...dance?!! I obliged him with my email address and it was only till after he left that my waiter informed me he was old bollywood royalty, oh well, thems the breaks living a tentative life in India.
Now running late I had to hot foot it back to the city centre to catch my minibus to the border with Pakistan. I wasn't visiting, just going to see the border closing ceremony, and all the pomp that accompanied it. After an hour of rushing through traffic we arrived 2km short of the border and we were told to walk the rest of the way. I was soon met by a crowd thousands strong all pushing and shoving to get a good position near the closed gates. Not knowing what to do I walked to the front and stood with the other confused looking white people near the front off to the side. They then opened a small side gate allowing only the women through but this caused a huge surge by all parties and soon they had no choice but to open the main gate and allow the eager locals to proceed. The mounted police men troed there best to keep the crowd under control but theres no stopping a crowd of Indians looking to get the best seats. Nearing the stadium all those holding a foreign passport were allowed to enter via a side entrance and we were shown to a privare area nearest the boder gates, one perk of being a whitey in India. The ceremony kicked off with women and children running up and down the main road carrying the Indian flag, then they all had a little disco dance, was actually nice to see the women getting to let tneir hair down for a change. On the Pakistan side of the border it all looked a much more sombre affair, the men on one side the concealed women on the other. Then the main show kicked off literally, one after the other soldiers proceeded to high kick and then goose march to the border where a Pakistani conuterpart would be mirroring their actions. There was lots of gate slamming and then the flags were lowered similtaneously and at that it was all over, and as fast as tbe stadium filled it began to empty.
In the morning I did a quick circuit of the temple before embarking on my long journey up to the hill station of McLeod Ganj, happy to be escaping the heat my only worry was the 3 public busses I was going to have to take to get there!