I have taken several trains in India and consider myself quite good at it now. I have taken full advantage of the many ways to procure a ticket: Internet, travel agent, booking office and on two occasions “Tatkal” or Tourist Quota. On every train a percentage of tickets are held back for tourists and released 48 hours before travel meaning convenient last minute bookings. For my train to Amritsar I had booked (Tatkal) a first-class non-AC ticket. A private cabin with locking doors and extra wide beds – luxury.
Well not quite, trains are often dirty nay filthy, but they would have to invent a new word for the ingrained putrescence on this train. Our compartment even came with layers of paan spit halfway up one wall. Luckily I had Tine to share the journey with. I have to say thought it was one of the best night sleep I have had on a train yet. The locked door meant that any worries about the safety of my baggage or person were eradicated.
The Sikh Golden Temple was really beautiful and the setting serene but I didn’t feel as connected to it as I did at the Taj, for example. The ethos is fantastic – everyone is welcome. Tine and I arrived at the temple on the free bus and were directed towards the free accommodation and then given an amazing free breakfast of coconut rice-pudding (the ONLY time I have ever enjoyed rice-pudding) dhal and chapatti.
We were given a small three-bed room just beside the main dorm provided for foreign travellers. Once our stuff was safely locked away in the lockers and quite smug at our good fortune of not being in the main dorm, we went exploring. On our return three young girls and their copious amount of luggage were strewn all over our beds. Our hearts sank. Mine sank even further when they spoke and turned out to be English and posh, public school types on their “gaap Yaar.” Three beds, five girls – someone was moving into the dorm and Tine and I were pretty sure it wasn’t going to be either of us.
However, the problem couldn’t be solved there and then because we were all going to see the closing of the India/Pakistan boarder. Tine and I made our way to the taxi where we had been told to report at 3.45pm. The boring half-hour wait was livened up when a fight broke out suddenly between two middle-aged men. Punches were flying left and right, turbans were unravelling and spinning off, passer-bys seemed to pick a side, jump-in and start throwing punches too. When the, clearly, more aggressive of the two picked up a brick and appeared quite keen to use it, the crowd finally made a genuine attempt to break up the fight. When we realised that the brick-welding manic was supposed to be our taxi driver, we quickly found alternative transport.
The closing of the border is a bizarre affair. After being segregated by sex and searched, the foreigners were then led off to the VIP section. Like many VIP areas it was disappointing and only distinguished as such by a metal bar. Beyond the gates demarking the border were the Pakistani stands, filled to bursting with patriots, flag-waving and chanting at the tops of their voices. They released enormous bunches of green and white balloons into the air that then floated over into India – antagonising, perhaps, but decidedly non-aggressive.
It was like being at a football match, but one where you wished you were supporting the other team. India put on a very poor show in comparison. After much waiting (of course), they invited the Indian girls to come down from the stands and run with the Indian flag up to border gates and back – hardly passion-inflaming. The heat was sweltering and boredom was setting in. The party hotted-up a little when pop songs were blared over the speakers and the women and girls were once again encouraged to participate, which they did with gusto.
Eventually, the ceremony proper finally started. A confusing display of strange comedic marching, high-kicking and pompous leaping. The gates were ferociously wrenched open on both sides, corresponding soldiers hoppety-skipped towards one another, shook hands and then slammed the gates on each other. Apparently not content with that, other soldiers then took their turn to practice their best “John Cleese” moves. The Indian crowd by now were chanting and yelling rousing choruses of “Hindustan – Zindabad” roughly translated to mean “Long-live India”. The flags were eventually lowered to more pomp and not quite ceremony; flags were folded and safely stored away for the next day.
The three English girls actually turned out to be very sweet and really quite intrepid themselves. Hannah, Otti and Natalie have been travelling all over India for three months, having passed four A’levels each – with A’s. One of them moved in to the main dorm. The other two managed to effectively cover our room in detritus quicker than even I can. Being 18 they glowed with rude health and enthusiasm that hadn’t quite encompassed all aspects of taking care of themselves. Not mentioning any names, of course, one of them had a birds nest in her hair that only half a bottle of coconut oil and twenty minutes of combing could finally tease out and the other took it very well when I told her that she would have to wash her feet before sharing a bed with me.
But no-time to stop and enjoy the scenery (I will also skip over the fact that I forgot to go inside the temple!) – I have to keep moving if I am to stick to my whistle-stop tour of Northern India. I am leaving soon you see. Have I mentioned that already? So where to next? I am heading to Dharamsala, or more precisely Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile and hopefully a private audience with the Dalai Lama himself. Oh and Christine my friend from Bundi will be there too – Hurrah!