Amritsar, Punjab New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!
My decision to leave Dharamkot and the mountainous hub of yoga, Tibetan culture, health food and chilled out cafés at first seemed very difficult. However after a few days of severe rain and downpours so heavy that ‘damp’ became my response to any generic question posed to me by either local or fellow-traveller, I decided that I owed it to India’s sheer size and to myself to see as much more of this vast and sensory-rich country as I can before departing for Sri Lanka. I’ll admit I was mistaken in thinking I would be satisfied with a month here. A month seems so miniscule when I think about how quickly the days have been passing, flying by in the squint of an eye against a haze of dust rising up from chaotic streets and overly potent onions.
So I enlisted the help of Lakshmi Tours in Dharamkot, (the tour operators directly under Trek n’ Dine, probably the most recognisable landmark in the teeny town and some extremely yummy homemade muesli), and booked myself a one-way ticket to Amritsar, in the Western province of Punjab. A whim, a blessing, a sign, whatever you want to call it, I then proceeded to reserve a room at the first hostel that made it’s way to the head of my Google Search – Jugaardus Eco Hostel, and I have to say, for once, I did good. I’ve stayed at my fair share of dingy, anti-social, isolating and DAMP accommodation, but from the second I stepped in to Jugaardus I felt completely comfortable and welcomed, the graffitied walls of clichéd travel-quotes and creative-traveller-type masterpieces ‘just scribbled’ onto the walls reminding me of the Madpackers’ in Delhi in all it’s hipster and backpacking glory. The best thing about these hostels is definitely the social aspect, and the organisation of tours several times a day to places that would take a lot of wrong turns and mind-numbing sign language to find alone without a guide. The team at Jugaadus are also extremely friendly, open and welcoming to solo travellers and groups alike, and the included meals (donation based) were also a blessing!
A well-timed group outing to The Golden Temple in Amritsar, home of the Sikh religion and one of the most stunningly beautiful areas of architecture and peaceful settings I’ve ever laid eyes on/stepped foot in, occupied the first evening. From being treated as tourist attractions ourselves and stared at, to being bundled into a foodhall and served chipattis in a clamour of splashing dahl and clashing metal plates as the next round of hungry mouths waited expectantly outside, only then to come out again to find the whole place suddenly lit by the reflection of real golden temples on the water where hundreds of Sikhs have just bathed and redressed the turbans and scarves of every colour imaginable…it really was an unforgettable experience, and one of my favourite outings in India so far. (That’s saying a LOT!) Beers in the local brewery (situated at the top of a shopping centre?) with new and familiar hostel friends ended the day nicely and the tourist in me was satisfied for another while.
Day two began with a fruitful breakfast and spontaneous jamming session in the hostel, before being whisked away on a food tour of the city, which lasted hours and brought us to some of the cheapest and most tucked away corners of Amritsar..I tasted the sweetest black chai of my life, and before even getting a chance to return to the hostel it was time to be picked up to continue the day of ‘touristing’ and go on the ‘Wagah Border Tour’. Another spontaneous decision, I only realised as we left the perimeters of Amritsar behind that we were actually headed towards the Pakistani border with India to witness a ceremony crossing flags and celebrating the two country’s heritage and peacefully maintained boundaries, as well as ironically symbolising their rivalry. Passports in hand and a kind of nervous expectancy hanging in the thick dusty air preceding sunset, we walked the long road-blocked entrance like that of a road headed into a music festival. Vendors painted Indian flags on our faces and sold bottles of water, fresh juices, mystery fried yellow things, and tables of other products outside.
When the stadium eventually filled to capacity and the sun had all but disappeared from the sky, Indian residents on one side of two iron-clad sets of gates and Pakistani on the other, thumping Bollywood music flooded the stadium and a troupe of dancers emerged in the road below.
On spotting us taking pictures, we were pulled into the crowd by young students to join their dancing in front of the hundreds of spectators! Dancing to ‘Jai Ho’ in a mass of colourful saris and flowing black hair overlooked by a crowd of chanting Indians is something I won’t forget in a hurry!
Once the dancing ceased, drum rolls signalled Indian soldiers marching and high-kicking their way towards the Pakistani gate to a height Micheal Flatley would envy and with such conviction that it was difficult not to take it very seriously. Between the crowds chanting in Hindi, the drums rolling, the clip-clop of the uniformed officers and the opposing chants and singing coming from the Pakistani side, it felt like being a spectator at some kind of bizarre sporting event!
After a lengthy marching routine, eventually the guards tired out high-kicking and opened the gates, where they swapped sides and lowered each country’s flag together, crossing them over in a sign of peace. And that was it. Back together the gates clanged, back down the stadium the guards skipped, and the Indian crowd’s chanting reached a peak to meet the final drum rolls end. Time to go home! It was back to Jugaardus for a shower to wash the dust away from tired feet.
My final day in Amritsar was spent catching up on sleep and online work, venturing into the madness of the city several times to explore local shops and market stalls! Back to Delhi now for a final night with the Madpackers and then onwards as my visa expires in a few days and I’ve yet to plan the next leg of my journey properly. Oops.
There is one thing I am sure of, however…
India, I’m not done with you yet!
I will most definitely be back. Onwards and upwards!