Amritsar, India: Golden Town

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Turkey was great fun and easy to travel in.  This does not make for particularly interesting reading. Drama and suffering make much more compelling topics for art.  There are not many successful artistic depictions of happiness, so while Turkey was a good experience, writing about it was tough to make engaging.  And I know that you, beloved reader, while wishing us all the best, can no doubt stand only so much reportage of how excellent a time we’re having and a small part of you, I’m sure, wishes in a secret schadenfreude way to hear about our trials and travails as well.  India stepped up to solve this problem.  From other travellers’ tales we knew India would have its challenges so it was partly with trepidation and partly with excitement for some good blog fodder that we started our travels.

Delhi was disappointingly smooth-going in the beginning and it was only the train back from Agra (where we were cooked on the platform waiting hours for our train) which gave us a hint of the tribulations to come.  Agra was just a side trip before we got back on the train in Delhi to travel to northern India to escape the summer heat. Amritsar was to be the first northern stop, the morning after getting back to Delhi.  At least that was the plan.

We arrived at Delhi station early in the morning, on time and with our foreigners’ first class tickets in hand, ready to go but unsure which entrance to use.  The Delhi train station is a sensory overload with lots of people: beggars asking for money, porters wanting to take your bags and other confused people wandering aimlessly.  We were operating on limited sleep after a long day the day before so you have to cut us some slack.  We were pointed in the direction of an official looking guy (he had a white shirt anyway) standing in front of a security guard.  He took a look at our tickets and said that they were wait listed.  Wait listing means that you’re on a list to get a ticket if enough people ahead of you cancel.  This is a common practice in India where millions people travel the system every day, seats are booked up 3 weeks in advance, and people buy more train tickets than they need to ensure they have a means to travel.  They then give them up at the last minute for a partial refund.  Wait listed people then get reallocated these tickets.

This was the first we had heard about being wait listed but the guy pointed out the WS printed on the ticket and said this showed that we were on the list and couldn’t go onto the platform without paying a 2000 rupee fine.  Sarah said we weren’t paying the fine, and was cursing under her breath the guy at the foreign tourist bureau who sold us all our tickets as we were led upstairs towards the bureau to try and sort out the problem.

On the way we bumped into another man coming down the stairs who said that the bureau wasn’t open but we could pay the fine to him.  This seemed suspicious to us and we again refused to pay.  We were then told that we wouldn’t be able to get on the train and would have to deal with the police if we tried to get on.  I took our bags through the security check onto the platform while Sarah went to talk to the duty manager, a third guy who quite convincingly told her that we did not have tickets for this train and would have to travel to another office nearby via an official government taxi in order to get some train tickets. There was talk of another train in a couple of hours but we’d have to move fast. She grabbed me and the bags back off the platform, we headed for the taxi and the duty manager told us how much it should be then negotiated on our behalf when the driver wanted more.

So off we went in a dilapidated taxi with two guys in the front, only to be driven to what looked like a commercial tourism agency.  The one guy who spoke English seemed pretty keen for us both to go into this place but there was no way I was going to leave our bags in the boot with the driver.  Sarah went in and of course there were no train tickets but there were plenty of expensive flights to Kashmir or chauffeured cars offered instead.  Sarah said she’d have to talk it over with me and asked the travel agent for his card, which he said he didn’t have, or a mobile number which he said he wasn’t allowed to give out. ‘That’s odd’, she thought. Sarah got back into the taxi with a list of options that all sounded pretty bad and we asked the taxi guys to take us back to our hotel so that we could think it over and research further on the net – as by this stage we had missed the train we were meant to catch that morning.  It started to get even more weird then.

The taxi driver hemmed and hawed and then said we should just go to a coffee shop up the road. Does it have free wi-fi?  Yes, yes, of course.  So we drove a short distance up the road to find the coffee shop not open.  Now we insisted on going back to the hotel but they claimed that this taxi didn’t go to that area so we got our bags out while the guy who spoke English got on the phone to someone. Handing it over to Sarah, she found that the travel agent from the first place was on the line – evidently the taxi driver was allowed to have his mobile number. He asked why we weren’t going to the coffee shop, she said it was closed and wasn’t sure why she was put on the phone to him, and hung up. Shortly another taxi pulled up with another two guys in it who agreed to take us to our guesthouse. We got in but as we drove, they started to claim they didn’t know the address or area (despite there being a clear map on our hotel brochure). It started to feel like The Truman Show at this point, with us trying to escape the set. As we passed another travel agent they offered to stop as it was a much better travel agent with a bigger computer who is sure to have train tickets.  So we got out, planning to flag down another taxi to our hotel, but Sarah thought it worth one more try for train tickets, and went inside.  I had an argument with the taxi driver who said that his taxi didn’t go to the area our hotel was in, so I got all our bags out and bid them farewell.

In the meantime Sarah was talking to this new travel agent so we sat down to see what he had to say. No, there were no train tickets and air travel would be very expensive.  When Sarah explained how we ended up here he asked to see our tickets.  No, no, he said.  WS means window seat so these are valid seats.  Who told you otherwise?  Sarah snarled out, “some fucking asshole at the train station”, then her eyes filled with tears.  We had long missed the train by now, there didn’t seem to be any tickets to get out of Delhi, we were both exhausted and the itinerary that Sarah had spent months planning seemed to be unravelling.  Sarah went outside to punch a few walls while I chatted with the travel agent who now seemed startled into decency and was trying to be helpful.  These scammers wasted our morning, made us miss the train and all they got for it was about $5 in taxi fares.  The latest travel agent told us that there were later trains to Delhi and our best bet would be to go back to station and ask the tourist bureau about new tickets.  We reluctantly accepted his offer of a free car ride back to the station, slightly distrustful now of taxi rides, but we got back to the station and headed to the now-open ticket office for foreigners.

We talked to the old white-haired lady at the reception of the bureau, the guru of Indian Rail who seemed to have the timetable stored in her head for instant recall and just used the ageing computer terminal to confirm her memory.  She said we could get tickets on the 1pm train and a refund on the tickets for the train we had missed.  So we got back in the line for tickets and sitting behind the counter was the same man we purchased tickets from last time.  He seemed incredulous that we would think we didn’t have valid tickets but they were very kind and gave us our money and some new tickets.  They also recommended that we report the offence to the rail police.

It took us a good 30 minutes to find the rail police but by this stage we had time to kill.  Sarah went in to file a report and could not have found more disinterest in her case.  She told the story to a gathered group of policemen and then finally to a woman who seemed to be in charge who said, “What is the crime here exactly?  Did you lose any money?  Could you identify the men involved?”.  Sarah, looking at the Indian guy next to her writing out his own police report on the theft of his passport and laptop, admitted there’d been nothing lost except time, and couldn’t identify the scammers, so accepted a cup of tea and we left it at that.  Ahead of us were more hours of waiting on the train platform, this time so crowded that we could barely find a place to sit down, where we sweltered and fumed.

The tickets on the new train got us individual seats that were comfortable enough in their ramshackle state and air-conditioning that barely kept the worst of the heat at bay.  We pulled into Amritsar at 10pm, the end of another very long day, and were picked up at the station by the hotel’s car to be deposited like a couple of wilted leaves at Mrs Bhandari’s Guesthouse which has rooms that look like former military barracks and hard mattresses and pillows to match.  The legendary Mrs Bhandari is long gone but her descendants carry on the hotel.  There are articles about Mrs Bhandari on the wall saying that as a girl she used to visit what is now Pakistan to go shopping.  She lived through a tumultuous age here on the Pakistani border and would have seen Partition first hand.

Our main reason for visiting Amritsar was to see the Golden Temple which is the holiest place to Sikhs.  A condition of entry is that you cover your head.  Wearing a cap is not acceptable for some reason but there are discarded head clothes at the entrance so I popped this bright orange head gear on. I got a few admiring comments only to discover later that I had it on the wrong way around.  Thank you to the family from Kolkata who pointed this out.

The temple is spectacular.  It is not massive but they have created a lovely setting.  Every surface seems to be white marble, apart from the golden-plated domes on top.  As you enter the large courtyard you can see the temple at the end of the causeway in the middle of a holy lake filled with holy carp and holy nectar (the water).  This water is considered holy for bathing in and is also used to wash the causeway regularly.  There is always a crowd waiting to get in the temple so we lined up for 45 minutes and went through a couple of wash cycles on the causeway as these big Sikh guys dragged buckets of water up from the lake and wiped down the surface with towels.  Inside the temple the Sikh holy book is fanned constantly, musicians play and the book is read by a constant cycle of participants. As one musician leaves, another takes his place. It had an interesting atmosphere of sacred awe and intimate community at the same time – in the halls around the centre where the holy book and music are contained, people prostrated themselves, read their own scriptures, nursed children, lay and slept, sang together with the musicians or just swayed with the music. Outsiders or non-believers are welcome and  we were smiled at often.   Anyone is free to wander around but we were on a tight schedule so there was only time for the free lunch.

Part of the Sikh religion demands charity to all and they take this seriously at the Golden Temple where they have enormous kitchens to give a free meal to anyone at the temple.  Although we are not exactly poor we wanted to see how it all worked so we went in to the communal dining hall, which is just a huge room with mats on the floor where everyone sits together cross-legged.  You get a metal plate and spoon on your way in, then servers wander up and down the lines dishing out daal, chappatis, water and rice pudding until you can’t take any more.  The kitchens downstairs have massive pots staffed by rotating volunteers, there are automatic and manual chappati-making production lines and the washing up is a site to behold.

We were on a tight schedule because the other favourite activity in Amritsar is the daily ceremony for the closing of the border between India and Pakistan.  This might not sound like the most interesting activity but it has somehow developed into this huge spectacle attracting thousands of spectators every day.  I guess anything in a country of over a billion people can gather a crowd, but it really was an entertaining ceremony.  On one side are thousands of screaming Indians and on the other a slightly smaller crowd of chanting Pakistanis.  India has an emcee for the occasion, a tall moustachioed fellow in a sparkling white tracksuit with the Indian flag printed on it.  He led chants in Hindi, that we assumed was something like “India” / “Is the best!” “India” / “Is the best!”.  They also played the latest Bollywood songs and the girls and mothers in the crowd needed little encouragement to come down from the bleachers and dance.  When it was time to get serious the guards in chaps and brightly coloured fan hats brought out their best silly walks and with incredibly serious faces stomped their way up and down to the border gate.  Eventually the flags start coming down with great pomp and they are marched away into the base as the gate was clanged shut for the night, and the crowds cheerfully dispersed.

We went back to the Golden Temple that night to see the closing ceremony where they carry the holy book down the causeway to great fanfare.  It’s a spectacular sight.

Head here for more photos and videos of Amritsar

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