A hop through India – Amritsar

A 5:40am flight sounded ok when we booked it. When it actually came to it we worked the alarm had to be set for 2:30am… Not sure how we’ve managed to do this to ourselves twice but it sums up this trip so far perfectly – early mornings and packed days. With all that what we want to fit in over the next 3 weeks that doesn’t really look like changing. There is just so much to see and experience.

The check in queue for our flight to Mumbai was the slowest we have ever encountered… anywhere… It took an hour to process about a dozen people in front of us and we watched some tourists point out their bag had just been sent down the belt with no bag tag, followed by a very half arsed attempt to unsuccessfully retrieve it. When it was finally our turn everything was going smoothly until the check in guy decided we needed to have a booked departure flight out of India (not true). We pointed out our visas for Pakistan and China and explained our itinerary was overland, showed the flights home from China but he said while he could see that  we still needed to have a flight out. Thankfully when he got his supervisor we explained it all to him and he asked the guy if he’d seen proof of our Indian e-visas (the first thing we’d showed) he said well that was fine then. We were relieved, we hadn’t got up at that time of the night to not make our flight.

Little sleep was had on the 2.5 hour flight. We had a tight connection, so were stoked to land 20 minutes ahead of schedule. How often does that happen?! The terminals are big in Mumbai so we hot footed it down to immigration and were relieved to find it basically empty, with us the first in the e-visa queue. Processing still took an eternity. Then we split – Marie went to collect the bags and Emma went to the nearby money changer. The money changers at Colombo airport had everything but Indian rupees so we’d had to get our left over Sri Lankan rupees (which can’t be changed outside of the country) changed into US$.

We swiftly made it through customs to discover there is not a single sign in the international terminal for how to change to one of the domestic terminals. If we were staying with Jet Airline they seemed to fly out of that terminal for domestic too so had their own process. After asking about 4 people we ended up at the Uber stand. They have a couple of guys there who can help request a trip if you’ve just arrived and have no mobile data. Instead of hooking us into their wifi the guy we spoke to just did it for us. It turned out to be a 10 minute drive through the morning commuter traffic.

The IndieGo check-in was a total contrast to our experience with Jet. Self service kiosks with a dozen open bag drop desks. When we couldn’t complete the self check in the first woman we spoke to said no problem, it would be because we booked with a foreign card and it’s fine to just join the bag drop queue. A woman was directing the queue and it literally took us 4 minutes to be checked in. All up from our first flight landing the whole thing had only taken us an hour. That gave us an hour to relax.

A much more modern plane and a row to ourselves we didn’t care when this flight was 15 minutes late departing, we were going to make it to Amritsar today. We’d got such an early flight in order to squeeze in an afternoon and evening to mainly see the Golden Temple. It was exciting to think this was our last flight for 3 weeks and the next one departs from China.

We tried to get some sleep. Emma got some, Marie gave up and did some reading on Amritsar. When we landed we found the airport is pretty small although we were still bused a short distance to the terminal. For the first time possibly ever on leaving an airport we weren’t touted for a taxi, so we ended up going to a pre-pay taxi stand. The pre-pay apparently meaning you hand over your money to the man behind the counter, he passes it to a ‘fixer’ who finds a driver and in our case that driver then took us half way into town before randomly switching with another driver at the side of the road. It somehow all worked out.

We’d booked a carefully researched hotel for the night just before leaving Colombo. We knew it was too hot and humid to waste time messing about sussing out the plethora of different options to try and find the best bang for our buck. We did the same for Lahore too. If it turned out we’d booked anywhere really bad we’d just leave and go elsewhere.

We’d chosen our hotel for its locality near to the Golden Temple and reviews said it was the best option in the area. The problem was around the temple is a pedestrian area so it is very difficult for taxis to get to. Ours got us as close as he could and told us to walk straight and then turn left.

We tipped out into a typical Indian backstreet, narrow and completely chaotic. Neither of us had any clue where we were going and if you’ve experienced how packed with places Indian backstreets are you know that even people on the same street might not know where somewhere is. It was about 34C and 80+% humidity. Once attempting to walk in that with our rucksacks, never mind deal with the chaos, or find our way there, would have sent one of us into a grumpy meltdown. But we headed into it totally unfazed. We must be mellowing with age.

We walked in roughly the right direction. We consulted a map we’d printed that had a few street names and worked out roughly where we thought we were. Eventually we figured we were close enough to ask a shop owner. Amazingly not only did he know it but he said he’d call them to send someone to come get us. More amazing he really did phone the actual hotel we’d booked. We’d done pretty well, we had walked for 10 minutes and were only 3 minutes away.

The owner was a friendly guy and personally checked us in. Emma was pleased with herself for finding a room that cost us NZ$20 which ticked all the boxes – it had an ensuite (the shower was a tap coming out of the wall and a bucket) and A/C which was amazingly efficient. It was a typical Indian budget room though. Compact, scruffy, everything was or felt dirty. The bed was made (an improvement on some we viewed in Delhi on a previous trip when people had literally just got out of the bed) and the sheets were probably, maybe, washed, but they haven’t been white in a very long time. We’d bought some sarongs in Colombo so we could visit temples in our shorts instead of trousers. Not wanting to get our sleeping bags dirty or sweaty we used our sarongs as sheets as their final act before we binned them (we’re stuck with having to wear trousers from this point forward). When the time came though we had a change of heart and packed them just in case we encounter a similar situation.

We cooled off for a bit and then got organised to head out as our stomachs started to rumble. We started with exploring the pedestrian area around the temple. We got plenty of stares and approached by a number of touts but in contrast to our previous trips to India they accepted no and they weren’t pushy. We’d only had a few stares in Colombo, often from old people. So that was good for us to get back to being used to.

The search for food drove us down a side street with a bunch of street sellers outside small tatty restaurants. You dance with diarrhea when you eat street food, particularly in India, but the reality is you can get the sickest from some of the poshest restaurants in developing countries. We picked one at the end that seemed to be doing a steady trade from his big pan of oil. We selected a couple of things to try; stuffed paratha and fried paneer. It was so good we got a second paratha and something else to try, we don’t know what it was maybe fried potato stuffed with spices (it was yummy but hot) with a drink, all up it cost us NZ$3.50. Eating hot food in a hot humid climate feels good, you feel the heat less and it becomes more comfortable.

Finally we decided it was time to visit the Golden Temple. One of the world’s holiest shrines and the most important pilgrimage site in Sikhism.

Founded in the 16th century by Guru Ram Das Sahib, the 4th Sikh Guru, every Sikh is supposed to make a pilgrimage there. It is visited by over 100,000 people every day and is said to be one of India’s most spectacular sites. It is certainly beautiful and people are very friendly and welcoming. It also made a nice change to not have an entry fee and not even a tip is needed for the shoe deposit.

The temple is open from all four cardinal directions so people can enter from any side – symbolising the openness of Sikhs towards all types of people. The temple is also famous for it’s langar (free community kitchen) for the sheer number of people it feeds; around 50,000 a day. A massive logistical exercise, lentil dahl, chapatti, yogurts and chai are made on a grand scale by volunteers. Trays are handed out as you enter and everyone sits in rows on the floor and the food served straight onto the trays. Following the same principles as the temple everyone is welcome to be fed, from all walks of life and faiths. The humidity was wicked. We were stopped outside the langar by two young women who wanted to practise their English and as we stood having a good conversation with them sweat rolled off us. We decided the last thing we wanted was to enter a hall and be faced with food so we passed on the experience of dining at the langar.

In the centre of the temple complex in the middle of a large temple pool sits the sanctuary. It is made from white marble and in 1830 (2 centuries after it was built) covered in 162kg of 24 carat gold. A further 500kg of gold about 24 layers was added during renovations in the 1990s by skilled artists from across India.

Inside the sanctuary on a jewel-studded platform lies the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs. The scripture is a collection of devotional poems, prayers, and hymns composed by the 10 Sikh gurus and various Muslim and Hindu saints. The hymns are chanted, accompanied by instruments and piped out of speakers across the complex.

We carried on walking the circumambulation path (a marble concourse) around the pool that surrounds the temple. The pool was built in 1577 and the temple complex was then in turn built around it. We were reminded that we are rock stars in some parts of India when a group asked to have their photo taken with us. The problem with being stopped once though is others get brave too so by the time you’ve had multiple combinations of photos taken with one group another will have got brave enough to scoop you up. Then you escape but someone else farther down has seen so does the same.

As we finished the full circle we were overheating in the late afternoon heat so headed back to our hotel. We went back out in the evening as the scripture is moved out of the sanctuary each day and literally put to bed in another temple building. The streets (and complex) were even busier than it was earlier except now it was dark with it. The key to dealing with the chaos of India is simply to be confident as F and be phased by nothing. Even when the humidity hasn’t dropped a single notch and you’re a ball of heady sweat.

We did 2 laps of the pool and watched the procession to the sanctuary to get the scripture but by then it was nearly 10pm and we’d been up a long time so we were both over-tired and over-hot. We had to make the call to not wait to watch the scripture get taken to bed, we needed ours!

We really enjoyed our short stay in Amritsar. It seemed to us to be one of the most friendly, helpful and welcoming place we have been in India, certainly outside of the Himalayas.

Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through

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