Amritsar

We sailed peacefully through the cool misty morning air out of Lahore. After a wrong turn I consulted the satnav and decided to take the canal bank road out instead of the more direct route. This turned out to be a blessing as it appeared most of the city had not woken up yet and it was a peaceful road. The scenery slid easily by, with only the odd Honda CG125 with big brass jars on the back for company. The road spat us out back onto the Grand Trunk road, missing all the busy shops that line the rest of the way, leaving us just the last lonely stretch up to the border.

Thierrie had already crossed into India and emailed to say the border was ok and the driving similar to Pakistan. I was still a little nervous as we completed the formalities and it took quite a while for something which was pretty straightforward, but that seems to be the norm around here. On the Pakistan side one non-uniformed guy helped the uniformed customs official fill out the carnet and pointless logbook with all the usual repetitive information. He asked us about changing money (presumably commission being how he worked and maybe a small backhander to be left alone in the customs place). I explained we had none and showed him my empty wallet. He switched to foreign coin collector and seemed happy enough with a couple of euro. It was a refreshing change from the Iran border at least.

As we approached the gates one of the border guards recognised us and remembered where we were from since the border ceremony before. Perhaps this guy kept track of everyone instead of computers here. It was certainly more efficient than the big ledger books they also use. He recounted how he‘d toured a bit himself and wished us well with the journey.

The rest of the border crossing was simple though long. We stopped after about 1km on the Indian side to look up directions. A rickshaw driver stopped to ask “how much this cost“ (no lead ins about where we were from or anything like that). What surprised me though was that his second question was if it ran on diesel. When I replied yes, he seemed happy enough that his curiosity was satisfied. I was a little stunned that it just seemed normal to him and wondered if he knew we were coming but perhaps that’s just how it is here?

After a little confusion in Amritsar we found the accommodation block at the back of the golden temple. All the Sikh guys around were very friendly and helpful. We were directed to take the bikes into the courtyard which was surrounded by about 5 stories of rooms on each side. We parked under the stairs and the guardians seemed concerned and told us to make sure we took all our stuff.

We were told it was possible to eat dinner in the temple too as this is provided free for the pilgrims and other guests so we went to check it out. The “kitchen“ was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people swarmed around with vibrant colours and the noise of metal plates clattering everywhere. It was fantastic.

We stood in the middle of it all a bit lost and eventually I determined there was some sort of line of people moving through so we traced them back to the start to find we came in the wrong entrance. We joined the queue and followed around. A big metal plate was given to us followed by a spoon and then we entered the eating hall where we sat in a line on carpet cross legged. A guy came round and dished out some dal, followed by another with something like rice pudding and finally the guy who threw out the chippatti‘s which you had to hold out your hands to receive. When the eating was done they cleared the hall line by line so that people were brought inside in rotating batches. Outside we gave the plates back to one guy who emptied leftovers into a big vat and the plate was passed to another person to get washed. We took some photos of the food preparation including one older white haired man chopping onions really quickly without looking at what he was doing.

Walking round the temple at sunset was a peaceful relaxing experience. The floors and walls of the complex were marble, some with inscriptions of Sikh‘s who died in world wars or other conflicts, others bearing memorials to family members. Everyone seemed friendly and relaxed. We joined the line into the golden temple itself, trying not to make a faux pas and upset someone unintentionally but again everyone was understanding and relaxed. Inside people were playing drums, and the place was adorned in bejewelled cloths and completely gold clad walls. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos though I was surprised to note a full size TV camera filming proceedings. There was also a big satellite dish on a nearby roof so I guess they transmit the scene around the world.

We went to sit outside and absorb the scene of the sun setting by the central pool when a lovely Sikh gentleman called Channi came and sat beside us. He rounded the evening off perfectly by telling us all about his religion and some of the traditions at the temple including the interesting point that the gold temple is cleaned every night with milk. He went to lengths to be sure we understood he wanted no money, just to talk to us. He explained he lived nearby and spent most evenings getting to talk to foreigners. He pointed out that Sikh’s are very welcoming people who strongly practice equality no matter who you are, unlike the caste or class system prevalent in so many other places. As we bid our goodbyes I noticed his eyes look a little more watery than before, genuinely happy to have met us.

When we arrived back to the accommodation block I was shocked to find the central courtyard packed with people on sleeping mats. Clearly this is why the Sikh guards were concerned we secure the bikes properly and I was glad we had the cover with us to avert unwanted attention. I had already set the alarm on and wondered how many grumpy people there would be if it went off in the middle of the night.

We spent most of the next day trying to get a sim card for India. No mean feat in itself though we were also tired from one guy in the dorm arriving late and then proceeding to snore all night. The bureaucracy in India is legendary but we still did not expect to take all day to get a prepay sim card. It seems that since the Mumbai attracts the government took steps to increase security which meant you need a permanent address and passport along with resident permit etc. If there is any benefit to these measures is anyone’s guess. We tried several places before eventually arriving at the Aircel main office in Amritsar. An hour and a bit later we emerged with the sim which had 2g internet (apparently 3g is available but that was enough pain already) but also was very cheap for calls. i am not sure but I think the rickshaw we took was a single cylinder diesel like is popular for the Enfield conversion back home.

We also visited the Jallianwala Bagh gardens, scene of a massacre by General Dyre of the British army in 1919 when unarmed demonstrators were fired on without warning. The garden is now a memorial to the event with various plaques and a memorial statue about the event as well as a monument and gallery. It certainly seemed to be an important moment in the history of the country. If the governors at the time thought it would put down the protests they were certainly wrong as it seemed to strengthen their resolve. It was particularly poignant to look down the well where 120 people died jumping in to escape the firing.

Anyway, we heard from Tom that he was also in Armistar so arranged to meet up the next morning to head towards Delhi. We also snared one of the little private side rooms beside the dorm so we got a peaceful nights sleep.

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