Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Golden Temple and Border Fun


The next morning Sarah was feeling a bit better, still weak and dizzy, but good enough not to waste another day in bed. So after extending our reservation for another night we decided a decent breaky was in order as our meals had been very haphazard over the last couple of days. A huge bowl of porridge for Sarah and kulchi’s (delicious stuffed naans) for Dave and then it was off to try and buy train tickets. Unfortunately the guy at the Temple Ticket Office was impossible to understand and after quite a few frustrating attempts a very nice man behind us in the queue stepped in as interpreter. It turns out there were no Taktal tickets left and no Foreign Quota tickets either, so the best we could buy was two Wait-List tickets and we were numbered 17 & 18. After we’d paid, the man who helped us also told us that if we were to go to the District Transport Manager’s Office back at the train station he’d be sure to give us seats on the train even if we were only wait-listed.

The Golden Temple
We thanked the man for his kindness and help, while silently cursing the Indian train system, and for the third time headed back to the train station. We spent an hour trying to get information and locate the Manager but no one would help and we were told was to come back on the day of travel to sort it out. Frustrated, but with no options, we returned to town and hoped that the next day we’d miraculously be able to get our seats on the train. 

Back in town we decided to try the free lunch that the Golden Temple offers, apparently they serve up to 80,000 people a day! We were a little unaware of the protocol, but once we entered we were literally swept along with the crowd and we just followed the people in front of us: collecting a tray, plate, bowl and spoon on our way to find a free spot on the floor to sit. We set our things in front of us and noticed that when a waiter walked past it seemed that the way to ‘order’ food was to tap ones plate and then receive food, either a ladle of dhal from a bucket, or a scoop of curry, or serving of saffron flavoured rice, or a spoonful of kheer (rice pudding) or a piece of hot naan bread. 

Let the flood gates open...
The food was surprisingly tasty, we say surprising because we thought that food produced in such a mass quantity would be rather ordinary, but it was quite the opposite - especially the delicious kheer of which we both tapped our bowls for a second spoonful.

After we’d cleaned our bowls we quickly vacated our place on the floor for other patrons and as soon as we stood up our places were taken. We took our things to the dish washers and exited past the crowd of people chopping onions for the dhal. There was such a large quantity being diced that our eyes were still stinging 10 minutes afterwards. 

It was already 2.30pm so we decided to book a shared taxi to the border to see the famous closing of the Indian – Pakistan border. Thanks to the enormous number of touts it took all of 10 seconds to book a seat and we were set by 3pm. We didn’t get a chance to look at ourselves until we were seated in the jeep, and it was then that we noticed we were literally covered in food. It must’ve been when we were in the mob of people throwing their dirty plates to the cleaners (and it turns out saffron stains not only rice, but shirts as well).

Running with the flag (pre-entertainment!)
Despite our clothing it was a pleasant 40 minute trip to the border with a nice group of people and we all passed the time telling travel experiences and sharing tips and advice. We arrived just before 4pm, the time when the gates holding back the hordes of Indian’s were meant to open. However, by 4.30 they were still firmly shut and we were amongst a sweaty throng of eager Indian’s shoving against them. When they did open, it was a literal flood-gate, and we were swept along by the running crowd. Since tourists are entitled to sit in the VIP section we weren’t in a particular hurry, so we let the majority of people surge past. 

High-kick!
Turns out we needed our passports as proof of being said tourist, but a quick plead and telling the guard that we were Aussie, got us through and we took our seats amongst the small group of other tourists on the concrete benches with an hour to wait until the ceremony began. The Indians passed the time by taking it in turns to run up the road to the gate waving a giant Indian flag like crazy and then handing it over to the next eagerly awaiting participant. 

This went on for around half an hour after which the music was cranked up and an Indian style dance party took place on the road between the stands, women and children only. Then the chanting began – ‘Hindustan!’ One person would shout it out and everyone else respond en mass. It was kind of like the Indian version of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi, Oi, Oi!’

While all this was going on we could see the guards out the back limbering up with star jumps and stretches in preparation for the parade… and boy did they need it! When the parade began the guards practically knocked their own headdresses off with their high kicks. As soon as it started the Indian and Pakistani crowds did their best to out-cheer each other, and the guards did their best to out intimidate the other, each motivating the other. All in all it was quite the spectacle! 

The Golden Temple by night
After the flags had been ceremoniously lowered and the gates closed we were ushered out before the main crowd and we managed to get right up to the gate and see a few of the serious guards up close before being quickly shooed away. We shared the 'taxi' back in town had a late dinner before going to see the Golden Temple beautifully lit up at night. We sat by the water’s edge absorbing the place for a long time until Sarah’s exhaustion meant we needed to get to bed, especially as the next day we still needed to find a seat on a train out of Amritsar.

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