We were advised to ‘get out of Delhi quickly and return later‘ by someone familiar with Delhi so I‘ll save Delhi for a later post.
Given we had only one night in Delhi before heading north, our trip really started with a flight from Delhi early on 11th November. We were heading to Amritsar - home to the most holy shrine to the Seikh religion and frankly, one of the most amazing places I have ever been. The Golden temple, situated in the centre of the Old Town is absolutely exquisite. While I don’t think the orange bandanna will be something I wear on our return, it was certainly worth it to see the staggering place.
This was really our first experience of being in a large crowd of people and immediately, the first thing we noticed was the amount of staring (mainly at Sarah) but this really does take some getting used to. Once we’d come to terms with that, we were then often approached for photos, sometimes with whole families! We still aren’t sure why. I was asked at one point, while Sarah was posing with a family of 4 if I was a celebrity!
Above all, everyone - with the very occasional exception - is happy to help and will gladly beam back in response to a friendly smile and a poorly pronounced ‘Namaste’.
After the Golden Temple, we headed into the streets of old town, among the tuk-tuks and motorbikes and cacophony of horns which, on the road are used to announce ones approach, passing and thanks, along with warnings on blind corners and as an alarm for the largely unaffected pedestrians! All this means the streets give new meaning to the word bustling. Cars and heavily overloaded tuk-tuks go for gaps that only the Harry Potter Night Bus could make it through but somehow, we haven’t seen a single accident yet! Not even a minor scrape. There have however been a number of stale-mates with neither party willing to back up. Walking around the small streets, many - usually older - Indians would invite us in for a cup of tea. Still being rather green and unsure if this was a rouse to sell us something else, Sarah and I would politely decline.
It was Divali on the evening of our first night in Amritsar, the primary reason for some frequently punctuated nights sleep with fireworks that would make the UK‘s millennium celebration look like an indoor fire-cracker. It also meant that while we were both truly excited about an authentic Indian meal, we couldn‘t find a taxi or tik-tuk to take us in. We were advised that in Old Town it was ‘chaos‘ and we would be wise to eat nearby and return to town tomorrow. (Our hotel was a few miles from Amritsar). Armed with 3 restaurant recommendations within walking distance, we headed out to find them all closed for Divali so we ended up having 6 samosas in a coffee shop with a bag of crisps!
After an early night and as much sleep as the fireworks would allow - one in particular shook the windows of our hotel room - we headed into Amritsar again, in pursuit of the Tourist Information Office with the intention of packing as much into the day as possible! We were greeted at the train station by an elderly thin man who instantly attached himself to us and showed us to the Tourist office with the offer of driving us where we liked once we decided if we would like to have him.
We made our list and came out to find Surindah waiting, on a hot day (to us) wearing his wool jacket. He was originally from Pakistan bus as his story went, when India and Pakistan were split, so was his Mothers side of the family and he stayed in India. We liked him. His English was excellent and he seemed knowledgable about the places we wanted to visit. It wasn‘t until we got back to - and walked straight past the tuk-tuk rank that we realised he was a cycle rickshaw driver! We tried to explain our combined weight but he insisted that was fine and he had ridden with ‘Americans and their luggage before‘!
We set of at a slow but steady pace for a tour of Amritsar, both feeling very self-conscious. On a rickshaw, you’re very open and can‘t avoid the extra staring and also because this old man was peddling hard. At one point - on a small incline we had to get off and walk, helping him push up the slope to cross the railway tracks. This was all rather amusing, until re-mounted, coming down the other side. I began trying to think whether this was covered in my life insurance. The main roads are absolutely insane. Horse-drawn carts, big and small cars, tuk-tuks, mopeds and rickshaws, all travelling as fast as they dare, vying for the same patch of tarmac.
Our particular rickshaw had 1960‘s rod-brakes - brakes that struggle to stop a normal old bike let alone a rickshaw with 3 adults on. Alton towers will be boring for ever more.
We ended up at the site of The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, which took place in 1919. I have linked to Wikipedia but in short, unaware of martial law and a ban on meetings, a large number of ‘mostly Sikhs, few Muslims and Hindus‘ met for ‘the annual Baisakhi celebrations which are both a religious and a cultural festival of the Punjabis‘ and on that day in 1919 ‘On [Reginald] Dyer’s orders, his troops fired on the crowd for ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to run out.’ British figures put the figures at 370 dead and 1200 wounded whereas the Indian numbers are far higher , at around 1000 dead. 1650 rounds were fired - that‘s nearly 3 per second for ten minutes. ‘The ineffective inquiry and the initial accolades for Dyer by the House of Lords fuelled widespread anger, leading to the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920–22’.
It was virtually impossible not to be moved by the memorial in its solemnity as the well designed memorial garden. Both Sarah and I spoke to each other about how it was also impossible not to feel some sort of guilt about what had happened.
One thing we did find a little odd was the number of people taking group selfies in front of one particular wall where the bullet-holes had been marked out and identified.
We settled up and said good bye to Surindah and went our separate ways.
That afternoon, after a lengthy but more comfortable taxi ride, we found ourselves at the Wagah Border Crossing, after experiencing the separate queues for men and women for security checks, 3 of them - all pretty lacklustre, we were lined up at the VIP entrance, as instructed and were seated in the so-called ‘Foreigners Gallery‘.
The Wagah Border Ceremony is a frankly amusing and pantomime display where the Pakistan and Indian border forces, with matching choreography, show off their strength with huge crowds on each side cheering to show who is strongest. On the night we were there, the Pakistan crowd were louder by a long way but nevertheless, the Border Security Force (BSF) put on a good show with hamstring-threatening high kicks and comedy double time marching up to the border where the Indian and Pakistani flags are them lowered together and the gates slammed shut at sunset, not to be opened again until the morning.
That evening, we took a tuk-tuk from the hotel into town again for supper - looking for, according to the Rough Guide, ‘the best dhaba restaurant in town’. Without the driver knowing it well, we never would have found the place, down a tiny back street, at the end of another hair-raising ride in. They only had space for two people and we had timed it perfectly, taking the last two seats that meant joining a group of 5 friends, who not only helped by explaining the menu - and essentially ordered for us, but paid for us and showed us to the best place for jalebi (a popular Indian desert) in Amritsar. We swapped cards and linked up on Facebook - as you do. By the end of the night, finishing with a group photo at the golden temple, we had made some new friends and had one of the most enjoyable evenings of the trip so far and setting the bar high for future evenings out.