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Posts Tagged ‘Sikh golden temple’

An early morning fog obscures the gates that separate Pakistan from India. Across the road from the PTDC hotel is a small pen containing several peacocks, a turkey and few small deer. My intrigue is broken by a phone call. Our friend from Lahore has driven out this morning to see us off. Rehan is a Major in the Pakistan Army. We met him four years ago while trekking up to K2 base camp and have remained good friends since.

He opens a box containing a large walnut cake, which we cut into pieces and consume with some chai. He has followed our journey with great interest since leaving Cape Town and now we sit together for a couple of short hours discussing countries we have both visited face to face. We are grateful for the effort he has made to see us. He takes out a ten rupee note and signs it…To my great friends Greg and Emma keep peeling and best of luck Rehan… a final act of kindness before leaving Pakistan.

Saying hello and goodbye to Rehan

Saying hello and goodbye to Rehan

Of all the borders in the world few can claim to be as tense as that which separates India and Pakistan. The immigration hall is ironically empty given this is the only official crossing between the two countries whose combined population is well over a billion. We walk the last 50 yards to the now open gates and show our passports to one of the towering Punjabi Rangers. Standing on the other side of a white line a few feet away is an Indian solider ready to receive us. Considering the tension that exists I am somewhat surprised to discover that photography is encouraged when stepping over the line. The two guards smile but I resist asking them to be included in the photo. I think about all the other borders we have crossed so far. I lift my foot off Pakistan and step fully into India. A large arch 50 yards away has a single word written above it with a photo of Ghandi…India!

India Pakistan Border

Crossing the border of Pakistan and India

The bag search in Indian immigration is conducted thoroughly until I pull out as much clothing as I can and start to remove the batteries from my torch. It has the desired effect on the officer who seems to regard my willingness to be searched as a sign that I have nothing to hide. Emma is spared and only has to open the top of her pack. We are asked if we have any Indian Rupees, which I innocently confirm. The officer informs me that we are not allowed to bring Indian Rupees across from Pakistan. Next time I shall have to confiscate them. It seems such an easy let off, that I wonder why he even bothered.

Striding out of immigration always feels liberating. A sense of freedom to be allowed outside and explore a strange new world. The taxi drivers are there to greet us but ask if we are going to Delhi which is at least 24 hours away. No just Amritsar please, a shorter distance of just over an hour. Coming through immigration with us is a German NGO working In Lahore. Hans has come across just for the weekend to see the Diwali festival. We settle on 850 INR which I think is around $12.00 USD. Life was so simple in Pakistan with an exchange rate of a 100 to 1, now we have to contend with the diabolical figure of 62!

At the epicentre of Amritsar is a Golden Temple that appears to float on a pool of still water. Neither Islamic nor Hindu the temple and the surrounding pool is the most holy site of worship for Sikhs. The waters here are said to contain healing powers. From inside the temple itself, priests and musicians play continuous verses from the holy book of Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib. Every morning it is carried into the temple and every night it is taken back out and placed in a bed of red velvet before being woken again the next day. The music is hypnotic and relaxing, a serene experience and quintessentially Indian.

Golden Temple

Sunrise at the Golden temple Amritsar

The people here are very friendly, almost a little imposing at first. Their curiosity when combined with limited English can result in questions like…why are you here? And…what is your purpose? Some of their friends with better English laugh and elaborate. Most carry mobile phones and insist on having pictures taken with us and any other tourist they come across. I am not sure whether this is due to general culture or being in the presence of the temple. Certainly this desire to take photos is diminished once outside on Amritsar’s crowded streets. The pool is surrounded by cool white marble promenades. They are patrolled by blue and orange clad holy guards who carry long spears and curved swords. The sign instructing us to keep our legs crossed when sitting is obeyed diligently.

Sikh Man

A Sikh pilgrim

Like all new religions Sikhism met determined resistance at the time of its conception. This might explain why every male Sikh carries a small curved dagger by his side. I don’t know much about Sikhism, but it seems to be a very inclusive and fair religion. It preaches that all men are equal and all must help one another. All are welcome, rich and poor and all are expected to help in providing for one another. This includes helping in the kitchen to prepare food and the communal washing up of metals plates and cups provided to anyone who is need regardless of their beliefs or religious alignments.

Sikh

Possibly the biggest turban I have ever seen

The museum inside displays paintings of Sikh martyrs who were disposed of in gruesome ways. One man sits in a cauldron of boiling oil, the other is being sawed in half starting at the top of his head and working vertically through his body. I can’t help but to notice how serene their faces look during the macabre executions. I cynically wonder if in reality this were the case. I imagine a more anguished expression was given at the time.

By poor management and sheer good luck we have arrived in time for Diwali, the festival of lights. An already striking scene, the Golden temple is now lit by what appears to be a bulb for every man woman and child in India. The holy pool is surrounded by thousands of candles melting wax of every colour onto the white marble. Two young girls approach us with confidence and take a seat next to Emma. Their accents and manor are adorable.

Diwali in Amritsar

Diwali in Amritsar

We just saw you and wanted to wish you a happy Diwali. How are you liking Amritsar? We are also tourists here, it is a very beautiful place yah, too beautiful don’t you think?

They can’t be more than 7 years but they act like young adults. It’s after 9 in the evening, this would never happen back home. A few man are making their way towards us. Armed with tin cups they are scraping all the wax off the marble floor. Little regard is given as to where the wax is flicked and Emma ends up with some in her hair. There is a fireworks display over the temple before the holy book is taken to bed. We walk back through the tight alleys to our hotel. People of all ages are letting off fireworks of dubious age and construction. I spot a fuse on the ground hissing and run back just in time as it goes off with a large bang. Some embers fall down from the buildings above. Getting home without ruptured ear drums or minor burns is proving difficult but everyone is having a good time of it, who cares about safety standards.

Diwali at Golden temple

Diwali at Golden temple

It’s hard to know what to do next in such a large and charismatic country like India. It would be easy to linger longer in Amritsar but winter is coming and we are keen to see Srinagar in Kashmir before snows close the roads. The bus to Jammu departs at an ungodly hour outside a collection of travel agencies just past Ghandi gate. In amongst a few Mercedes and Volvo busses is our automotive mongrel. I examine its sides for any indication of its manufacturer but it appears to be a collection of old body parts…Frankenstein’s version of public transport.

The seat in front of Emma is jammed in a position that presses on her knees. She stuffs the sleeve of her fleece in between for protection. The journey today to Jammu is only six hours, just a sprint really. We arrive before midday and are let off by an empty compound. There are no taxis or tuk-tuks around. Our conductor come baggage handler is an angry chap but points us down the road to some shops when questioned politely. A passing tuk-tuk spots us and stops. Some young Indian lads try to get in but he is clearly more interested in a couple of juicy tourists. The discarded locals assist in explaining where we want to go. We agree on 150 INR as I can’t be too sure how far away we are from the city centre. With every passing kilometre I feel more pleased and less compromised by our negotiation.

The young lads who helped translate to our tuk-tuk driver

The young lads who helped translate to our tuk-tuk driver

 

The first few hotels are clean and comfortable but the price is a little over our budget at 2000 INR or around $30 USD. The next two are cheap at 400 INR but possibly the worst rooms I have ever inspected…actually that’s an exaggeration. The room we passed while looking for a toilet back in Ethiopia takes that prize. I am starting to feel a little like Goldilocks in pursuit of accommodation. Emma consults our dwindling list of possible places to stay. The Green view Hotel is described as difficult to find but good value once there. At the end of an alley I make a left turn. A young man sits behind a desk in an open courtyard. He is wearing a woollen hooded top. A fat Labrador lying on a pillow looks up at me. The stairs leading up to the room are not inspiring and I begin to wonder if the room in Ethiopia might be challenged after all. He opens the door to Room 41. I am amazed to discover a well sized room with clean tiles and white sheets. The bed is neither hard nor soft. The bathroom is also clean with a western toilet. There is even a small flat screen TV mounted on the wall with several English Channels. This is budget travel paradise. I try to conceal my joy with a false look of neutral appreciation and ask the all-important question. Its 600 INR a bargain for $10.00 USD. I nod my head looking unimpressed but secretly I am ecstatic. I try not to reveal too much to Emma as I want her to experience the same surprise upon entering room 41.

On a corner not far from Jewell Chowk and next to the public bus stand are the shared jeeps that taxi people to Srinagar. Raj operates a small travel agency close by. The advertised price for shared taxi is 600 INR per person but for reasons unknown Raj is prepared to take us in a small car for only 1800 total. It’s a confusing offer and much cheaper that I had expected to pay for a private hire. I consider that the extra $10.00 USD is worth paying so we can avoid being squeezed in with five other passengers.

The drive north to Srinagar takes anywhere between 8-10 hours depending on traffic. We are warned that today will be slow as many trucks are returning filled with Kashmiri apples. The road climbs out of Jammu through boulders and dense forests. We encounter our first monkeys on the road since leaving Africa. They stare at the oncoming traffic baring their teeth before yielding at the last moment. A dog is crossing the road and moving a little too slowly. I am still traumatised months later by our horrific experience back in Ethiopia and ask our driver not to hit the dog. No kill dog… do not worry he assures me.

Road from Jammu to Srinagar

Road from Jammu to Srinagar

The road climbs higher through pine forests before crossing the Pantitop pass. Raju surgically weaves between squealing trucks and cars with less daring drivers. He narrowly misses oncoming traffic with only inches to spare. I am no longer concerned by such manoeuvres and place another tango ketchup chip in my mouth. We cross a second pass by way of a long dark mountain tunnel. On the other side is the Kashmir Valley over 140km in length and surrounded by snowy mountains. It’s a relief to reach the bottom as the road finally straightens and motion sickness subsides.

Jammu road to Srinagar

Dangerous overtaking

By the time we reach Srinagar it’s almost dark. We explain to Raju that we need to go to Hazaratbal which is 7km north of the city centre. It’s a bad time to be travelling. Srinagar’s narrow streets are choked with traffic. It takes another 40 minutes before we reach the mosque by the lake.

Okay this Hazaratbal where you want to stop.

Keep going straight please.

It looks so different in the dark and a little further past the mosque than I recall. We pass a large grove of Chinar trees and spy a small familiar sign… Butts Clermont Houseboats. The owner Mr G.N. Butts emerges from his office to greet us with a warm hug. Ah you have made it… I was not sure if you were going to make it here tonight. Please, we have the stove ready and some diner prepared if you are hungry now…

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