Amritsar

One of the things I was looking forward to in India was the train travel, and particularly the toy trains that serve towns and villages in some parts of the country on the same narrow gauge lines as they have for 120 years or so.  It was with this in mind that I decided to take Mel’s suggestion not to take the direct bus to Amritsar from Mcleod Ganj but instead the Kangra Valley railway – a lesser known scenic toy train, to go part of the way.  The trip involved first getting to Kangra. We set off early morning and were greeted with an early obstacle.  Mel had been holing up in my place for a couple of days after having some trouble at her guesthouse.  The guy there threatened her when two other guys skipped without paying.  She got away by promising to pay some money later and was running scared ever since. Just as it looked like we were getting out of town, there he was just hanging around waiting for new arrivals from the bus stand.  When he started talking to her I didn’t know who he was and it was only when he began to follow us that I realised something was up.  She told him a tale about visiting a friend for the night but her full backpack was a giveaway.  We feigned for the local bus and quickly jumped into a share jeep to take us down the hill to Dharamsala “Challo!”

Looking back up at the mountains from the plain of Dharamsala we had a much clearer view of the range and could see that the cold we felt the previous night meant that snow had fallen up there.  It was a beautiful sight to see as we left what had been our home for over a month.

For Kangra we needed a local bus, caught by the side of the road that rattled along down the hill with the conductor shouting his destination belatedly in case anyone on the street was headed that way.  After many stops and pickups we arrived at Kangra bus stand and wondered, where next?  (I didn’t know at the time but this was the first of many local busses that I would take over the next week and by the end of that I would happily not see one again!!)

Asking the conductor which bus we needed to take for the Kangra Toy Train proved difficult – Kangra has two railway stations.  He told us to get back on the same bus and we drove off, highly unsure where we were going.  It was about at this point that ist started to rain, heavily.  We drove out of the town, around hills and valleys and stopped on a corner in the middle of nowhere.  A helpful man led us in the right direction but after a ten minute walk down a dirt track we were drenched by the time we reached the small station.

15 Rupees each was all it cost for the toy train but it was at this point that Mel “remembered” the “scenic” part of the trip would be going in the opposite direction.  Soaking wet and cold we crammed in to the tiny, dark train with only half windows to look out at the sodden landscape.  It was packed but we just about managed to get seats.  It certainly wasn’t a tourist train, all the passengers were Indians and most seemed to be just going about their business, although everyone went “woooo!” when we went through a tunnel.

We did chat to a man who was going to visit an old army colleague he hadn’t seen for forty years who was also a new visitor to the area and who helped translate some information about salt plains and the like; the unremarkable journey did drag on a bit though and we got colder and colder.  There were a few interesting rock formations and water courses but I’m not sure that made up for the pain.  When we arrived in Pathankot it was still a three hour train journey from Amritsar.  We could only buy Second Sitting class tickets but those carriages were packed full and so we walked along the train looking for a seat.  Eventually finding an empty bay in the most expensive AC2 sleeper coach we took a gamble, sat down and feigned sleep if anyone came along.  It was really no issue and we were even offered food at one point.

From Amritsar station to where we planned to stay at the Golden Temple there is a free bus for Pilgrims (or freeloaders such as ourselves) so at first we turned to the queue and waited, fighting off the attention of Rickshaw drivers.  When the bus eventually turned up there was a total bum rush as the queue turned into a surging mass of people.  Before the bus even stopped the group were pushing their bags through the back windows to save seats and clamouring to get on as the passengers onboard did the same to try and get off.  Looking at each other, the size of the bus and the mass of people it didn’t take much persuasion from the Auto-Rickshaw driver who turned up at the perfect moment.

Driving through the crazy streets of a big city in the back of a rickshaw with the air and noise blowing into my face, it felt for the first time that I had really arrived in India.  Pulling up to the Golden Temple complex without really knowing where we were going and first trying to negotiate the Indian queuing system of the wrong dorm before being ushered to a different building.

“Queuing” in India consists of standing in front of a counter and using your elbows as much as possible to fight off advances from right and left as impatient Indians squeeze into barely perceptible space, throwing money and barking requests as required.  Trying to ask people to wait their turn is usually greeted by looks of bewilderment – so it is the strong arm tactic that rules the day.

There were no such issues in the foreigner dorm where a large main room consisting of about 12 single beds set up in a row was free to stay (with voluntary donation) for up to 3 nights , while side rooms for 3 or 4 could be had for a bargain 100 rupees.

The chaotic journey had taken it out on Mel, who had been sick anyway.  Ryan and I, ultimate tightwads as we are, meanwhile, wanted to take full advantage of the Sikh hospitality and experience the 24 hour community kitchen which feeds up to 60,000 pilgrims a day.

As you approach the large hall you are greeted by the sound of scores of volunteers washing dishes in rows at the long sinks, the clatter and din rising into a cacophony of cleanliness.  Getting nearer and making your way up the steps you are presented with fork and spoon, the ubiquitous thali tray and a bowl.  Following directions to the next hall, either ground floor or upstairs, you filter in with the groups of pilgrims sitting in long rows on the floor.  Then there is a slight pause before more volunteers come around to slop dhal, beans, rice and “rice pudding stuff” into your tray, depending on what has been cooked up that day, and drop chapattis into your waiting hands.  There isn’t much hanging around, and although you can sometimes get refills, when the room starts to empty, the water is tipped on the floor and mopped by the volunteers then it is really time to go.

It was dark by this point so we took a stroll around the temple which is a stunningly beautiful building.  We took it in from all sides and then decided to join the queue and take a look inside.  It took a while to make any progress on the small bridge leading to the temple which is situated in the middle of a lake and once we approached the door to the downstairs area where musicians were playing the music piped all around the complex it was such a crush that I took a sidestep to the left and skirted around the perimeter.  We could see what was going on through the side entrance and then took the route out back and upstairs.  There are many Granthi reading the “Book” or Granth Sahib, throughout the temple and throughout the day.  There are also lots of signs that Photography is prohibited within the temple, although this didn’t seem to stop the Indian visitors, Westerners seemingly the only ones being picked out by the stern Sikh security men.

As the most holy pilgrimage spot for Sikhs the Golden Temple is famous for two ceremonies daily.  “Bringing out the Book” and “Putting the Book to Bed.”  It just so happened we timed leaving the central temple just as the book was being taken out “to bed” and we walked alongside it as the pilgrims played music and followed the book alongside.

The following day we had a look around in the daytime and it was just as impressive, if not more so.  We also visited the Sikh Museum because apart from the community spirited nature of the religion I didn’t really know what the key tenets were.  The museum didn’t really enlighten me too much mind, it had a lot of pictures of battles and Martyrs, including some particularly nasty images of mothers with their dead babies draped around their necks by their entrails.  Anyway, here’s some more photos of the temple.

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