Delhi – Amritsar

Delhi wasn’t just about the Commonwealth Games. After getting over and around the well publicised hassle that Delhi seems to have in abundance, I found it to have some great places to visit. The humayun tomb, with its Taj Mahal esq design, the Red Fort, which was spectacular from the outside and the Jama Masjid, India’s largest Mosque, and boy was it huge, were all impressive. After five days I was quite chuffed with myself considering the general consensus from people was that 1-2 days is the average stay due to the heat and the fact that everyone seems to be out to rip you off. However although I liked it more than I expected I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t delighted to be booked on a train ready to leave for Amritsar.

On the eve of departure Delhi did have one last parting gift for me…a rickshaw driver declared that he needed double the fare because the road was closed to the train station and he would need to take a long diversion. Oh how I had wanted to hear a line like that. Laughing I left him and went to the next rickshaw driver, who promptly apologised and drove off. The third let me hop in and away we drove until we met lots of road closed signs due to the cycling event. Fortunately and after considerable negotiations I finally got him to abide by the meter hence meaning no double fares! The story did remind me that actually some crazy stories from rickshaw drivers and touts in Delhi can actually turn out to be true!

The train journey to Amritsar was painless and I arrived in Sikhism most holy site the following morning. The greatest part that I understood of Sikhism is its inclusiveness. No more is this shown then by how they have built a tourist dorm next to all the pilgrims dorms and within the Golden Temple complex itself. Not only did this provide a great place to meet people and hang out, it also meant that every morning, when exciting the dorm, the Golden Temple stood infront of you, only 20 or so meters away. Oh and it was also free to stay there (donations were encouraged)!

To get to the waters edge though you had to dress modestly, clean your feet and cover your hair. I just about managed the first two rules however the later one was a struggle, not least in negotiating the outer rim of the temple trying to find the man with the free head scarfs. Eventually after much panicking from some of the pilgrims I found the man. My punishment for such a crime, getting to wear a nice bright pink bandana. Sikhs seem renowned for their bright turbans and head wear but this was taking the mick.

The temple itself is absolutely spectacular, especially at night. Sat at nine in the evening by the waters edge, listening to the monks chanting was a beautiful experience. But whilst its grandness is its selling point, the pilgrims themselves were what made the place so special. I lost count of the amount of times that I was stopped and talked to. At one point two guys who worked in the temple and were on their free time, took me to a special vantage point to see the holy book get taken out of the temple to be ‘put to sleep’. It was fascinating listening to them explaining the importance of the ceremony and also the basics behind being a Sikh.

Another feature of the Golden Temple is the communal dining room. Here volunteers feed between 60 and 80,000 people a day. Class, religion and nationality is totally irrelevant. The food whilst basic was good, especially the sweet rice and rice pudding. On one day, I and a group of other people from the dorm volunteered by rolling Chapattis which were then cooked and sent upstairs for eating. After an hour I went up to eat and noticed the man next to me looking strangely at his plate. On closer inspection there sat a very odd sized, thinly rolled Chapatti. Amused by it being one of ours I apologised to him. He saw the funny side and seemed very impressed that we had spent time volunteering.

Outside of the temple, Amritsar also has another big trick up its sleeve. On the first evening, I joined an Israeli guy to the Indian, Pakistan border to witness the closing of the border ceremony. It was a truly hilarious and incredible site. There must have been around 3-4,000 Indians crammed into the stands surrounding the gate. On the other side the Pakistan crowd was out in good numbers too. What followed was a Monty Python sketch as both sides tried to out do each other in a highly choreographed event. For example, the crowd, aided by cheerleaders and flag bearers attempted to out sing each other, the soldiers, on microphones, attempted to out shout each other and for a good half an hour soldiers took it in turns to out goose step, and adjust their hats better than the other side. It was utterly bizarre but made for fascinating viewing.

In many ways I could have stayed in Amritsar for many more days but instead choose to join two guys who were heading further north. So after an eventful couple of days I decided to play Russian roulette with the local bus system and take a ten odd hour journey up to Mcleod Ganj, the official residence of the Dali Lama.

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