DAY 32 - MCLEOD GANJ/AMRITSAR
Our 32nd day travelling was to be a pretty intense one - a one day stop off in Amritsar, designed to allow us to see what we wanted to see in the city whilst also saving us precious time in moving straight on to our next location via an overnight train the same day. It all started off pretty badly for a couple of reasons. Firstly, upon gathering our things at 4 in the morning in order to meet our taxi driver who was scheduled to meet us outside our hostel half an hour later, we realised that the gate that led from the hostel to the street was locked. With no other options available to us and a taxi to catch, we reluctantly climbed it after throwing our bags over. Luckily we managed it alright. Then we came across the second dilemma of the morning - an absence of any taxi at all. By this point we were starting to get pretty pissed off, having already paid a 50 rupee deposit to the official taxi union office the day before. After putting our argument firmly across to a member of the union who was conveniantly waiting for a fare in the town's square, we eventually realised that nothing was to be done, so got his taxi to Dharamsala bus station where we were aiming to get the 5am state bus to Amritsar. By the time we got there, however, we were too late and instead had to catch a 7 o'clock bus to Pathankot where we were to link another bus on to Amritsar. Our first experience on a state bus was pretty good. We were the first people on board, eager to embark after waiting for so long in a run-down cafe at the station, so got some good seats at the front with leg room. Another bonus was the cheap fares, way less than the prices we had been paying thus far to travel similar distances. The bus quickly filled up, but on the whole the ride was pleasant and I enjoyed watching the people who joined us and the places we passed along the way. Our second bus was slightly less comfortable and got extremely cramped - we just felt lucky to have seats. Overall, however, we arrived at Amritsar in good time. We talked to a few rickshaw drivers once there and decided, after a small debate with one in particular, that he would drive us to all the places we wanted to go in the city as we couldn't afford to waste any time. Firstly, he took us to the restaurant of our choice, 'Crystal', a pretty high-class joint that loosely resembled a Parisian eatery, a look it was clearly trying to push. After a very satisfying lunch, we made our way to the infamous India-Pakistan border closing ceremony at Wagah, eager to observe the ritual which our guidebook describes as "python-esque". It was a fantastic experience. When we joined a crowd in one of the small stands set up for visitors to watch the ceremony, we could have been at a football match. The atmosphere was great - chants and cheers echoed from both sides (the Pakastanis were equally as enthusiastic) as heavy music boomed out and people danced in the street. The ceremony itself was hilarious - guards marching at double pace, almost breaking into a jog, until they got to the gate where they would perform a few impressive high kicks, much to the pleasure of the baying crowds of patriotic fans waving banners and flags. There was a sense of competition from both sides of the gate, with ringmasters hyping the crowds up, but overiding this was a feeling of celebration for both nations, something which made the experience all the more enjoyable. Afterwards, we met up with our driver and made our way to the Golden Temple, where we thanked him for his services and bade him farewell. After spending a while depositing our shoes and bags and putting on head scarves, we walked into the temple complex, which was made up of a square border of intricately designed religious sites surrounding a lake which boasted the temple itself. It was a truly mesmerising sight, one which I think was aided by our seeing it at night, the light from the surrounding buildings beaming off its startingly gold exterior in broad yellow rays which reflected beautifully off the lake. We walked around for a while before briefly queueing up and going inside. Although small, the interior was buzzing with activity: on the ground floor was a band who were playing traditional Indian music which was blasted over the whole surrounding area, around the edges of the main temple itself and on its roof were people relaxing and praying, whilst on the second floor groups meditated and read religious texts which were passed freely around. Being a very important holy sight for Sikhs, the area was flooded with pilgrims journeying to see the temple, and I found it interesting watching the variety of people who were there, from old holy men to young children who were probably unaware of the significance of the site that they were casually ambling around. I also wanted to visit the site of the Amritsar massacre in the vicinity of the complex, but unfortunately it was closed, so we made our way to the station where we were to catch an overnight train straight to Rishikesh. We had a little time to spare once we arrived, so we had a pleasant (and very cheap) meal at the station cafe before boarding our carriage and setting off on the next leg of our journey.