Amritsar, Punjab – New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!


Amritsar, Punjab New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!

 

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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.

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Peekaboo…The sun disappearing behind the entrance of the The Golden Temple

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!

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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.

 

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Foodhall in Amritsar’s Golden Temple
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So many colours!
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Bathing at the Golden Temple

 

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. unnamed-20Passports 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.

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Indian supports at the Pakistani border

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!

 

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2 sets of gates – India border vs Pakistan

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.

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“Just one picture, Madame!”

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!

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Useful Links:

Trek n Dine Facebook / Trip Advisor
Lakshmi Tours India
Jugaardus Eco Hostel: Website / Facebook / Trip Advisor
Madpackers Hostel Delhi : Facebook / Trip Advisor
Gold Temple Amritsar Website

 

I’d like to thank religion and modern societal constraints and perceptions for giving me such legitimate excuses to eat copious amounts of chocolate every couple of weeks.

First there was Christmas – a time when even the strictest of health and fitness regimes take a break and allow an extra helping of stuffing and one too many glasses of wine – I’ve heard that some gyms actually close for a day or two over the holidays- imagine that?!
Chocolate at Christmas comes part and parcel (excuse the pun) with pudding and turkey nowadays, no Irish household completely prepared for the feast-day of our Lord without the blue tin (or plastic box, of recent years) of Cadbury’s Roses nestled smugly under the tree amongst brightly coloured gifts that serve as the starter course for the day of indulgence.

Fast forward through the ‘dry January’ and empty New Years’ resolutions; swearing that you ‘don’t even want’ the leftover nibbles and chocolates from the festive season (I’m still steadily working my way through a selection box and a giant Toblerone), and we’re timely faced again with the prospect of a day full of love, this time in the form of fake plastic hearts which represent ‘affection’, as people show how much they mean to one another by giving the gifts of wine and chocolate – all filed and hidden away, as the Irish do best, in a sugar-coated ‘expression’ of love.
Yep, you heard me. I love you, so here’s some chocolate. Okay great!
No need to talk about feelings – I’ll just eat my chocolate and drink my wine until I’m sufficiently tipsy to ‘accidentally let slip’ that I do in actual fact have very strong feelings for you…or for chocolate. The lines get crossed so often at this stage that I can’t honestly tell the difference anymore.

In any case, whether you’re single, taken, or bound within an unspoken and uncertain agreement of affection versus hesitation to commit, chances are you’ll find yourself faced with some chocolate this weekend. And not necessarily as a gift from another, or a surprise purchase in your mother’s weekly shopping – I mean you literally may not be able to avoid being faced with it if you have any sort of tendency to go out in public during the day. Let’s face it- shops need something to work towards and market, so it may as well be your affections.

If it’s not a garish display of cupids and hearts and flowers, it’ll be a mass-produced and over-packed shelf display of purple and yellow boxes that have eagerly preceded their season already by encroaching upon the Valentine’s Day sales. You can almost see the hanging cherubs glaring as the ‘3 for 2’ offers on all medium chocolate eggs by the smug looking bunny rabbit is already proving more popular than the cheap tinfoil balloons he’s offering.
With the exciting treat that is Pancake Tuesday always surprising us at it’s proximity – It’s next week, guys! – and peaking Nutella sales worldwide, we’re left dawdling along for six weeks or so on a half-arsed health-kick, mildly aware of the frankly painful sounding ritual of ‘Lent’ that apparantly preceeds the chocolate-feasting gluttonous glory that is Easter.

Easter needs no introduction; suffice it to say that it is the one time of year my affection, need for, and irrational tendency to indulge in chocolate of all kinds; be it hot, cold, black, white, milk, mint or tiffin, is correctly and accurately catered for by retail outlets, TV ad campaigns and supermarkets alike – irrationally, in excess, and fabulously over-supplied.

Once Easter is over I begin to be thankful I was born in May…. #ChocolateCake