Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Danielle’s friend Chala was getting married in Goa, and was the reason why Danielle was in India.  I love the beach, and I’ve heard good things about Goa, so I’d thought I’d tag along and visit Goa for a few days before getting my train to Kerala. 

Nev and Daniella had booked accommodation in Palolem, when we arrived I dumped my bags at their Hotel and found a cheap beach hut near the beach.  I never went down to the beach on the night of my arrival, although I could hear the sea.  When I woke up I went for a jog, and I was pleasantly surprised.  Although Palolem was very touristy, with cluttered beach huts lining the shore, it has an outstanding beach, and the whole stretch of coastline has a certain charm.  We’d visited lots of beautiful beaches along our travels, although Palolem was not the prettiest, it was probably my favourite.   Nev’s Hotel was about a 15 minute walk away from mine, I did my own thing during the day and then met up with them at night time for dinner.  My accommodation was very relaxing and right next to the beach.  I went for a jog and swam every day in the basking sunshine, it was a great break from the cold and hectic cities of Northern India.

Chala and her soon to be husband kindly invited me to a beach party that they had organised as a prelude to the main event.  They’d hired out a venue with a private beach and catering.  I had a great time, the food was amazing as was the free beer and cocktails.  Chala’s parents had some interesting stories about their time in Pakistan, they were lovely people.  We later got chatting to Chala’s grandparents, her grandfather had a role in the British consulate in the West African colonies.  He had some fantastic stories, I was enthralled hearing about tales during the colonial times of the African countries I have visited.  He was quite a character, he was grooving away on the dance floor later on, pulling some great moves, very impressive considering he was in his eighties. 

The day climaxed with an evening of fireworks, a fire dancer, and some Chinese lanterns.  When I left Chala even invited me to the wedding, I was touched, but I had a convenient excuse, I wasn’t going to be there, my train to Kerala was for the following evening.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


I’d been to Agra before, on my first visit to India I stopped off on an afternoon visit to the Taj Mahal and on my way from Varanasi to Delhi.  I wasn’t too impressed with it and thought it was overrated.   Before our visit I let Nev how I thought about the Taj, when we were in Sydney I told him I thought the Opera House was a better building.  Well I was wrong, and I had to take my words back.

I picked a budget guesthouse called Shanti Lodge out of the lonely planet which was meant to have commanding views of the Taj Mahal from its restaurant and from the deluxe rooms.  It turned out to be a great choice, and made our visit to the Taj that it more special.

Nev and Danielle opted for the deluxe room while I went for the budget option.  The view from their room was outstanding, as was the view from the restaurant.  I started to feel like a bit of an idiot for underrating the Taj, it looked absolutely magnificent.  Even from my first sighting, I knew that it was by far the best thing we’d seen.  I was cursing it for being so beautiful, I couldn’t believe it failed to impress me on my first visit.  There were contributing factors why the Taj Mahal didn’t making an impression first time round.  It was monsoon, it was overcast and the skies were grey.  I’d fallen ill in Varanasi and still wasn’t 100%, I was on my own, and the hassle from touts and the hordes of visitors had pissed me off.

As I’d visited the Taj before I wasn’t keen on the obligatory double visit that Nev insists upon with most of his wonders.  I let Nev and Danielle enjoy the spectacles of the Taj and the Red
Fort on their own.  While they were out sightseeing, I spent the late afternoon in the rooftop restaurant taking in the Taj, and I started to fall head over heels in love with it.  I had a beer during sunset and watched the building change from white to dark shades of brown, until just a black silhouette of the famous building was left.  

I visited the Taj on our second day.  The only downside to the Taj Mahal was Agra, a city rammed to the rafters with touts, and tat sellers.  You never get a moments peace, until you’re actually through the gates of the Taj, where the touts aren’t allowed.  The visit installed my feelings that the Taj Mahal was indeed a magnificent world wonder, and probably very hard to beat.  I’m not going to bother going into detail about what it looks like, it’s so iconic no explanation is needed and words couldn’t do it justice anyway.  All I’ll say is if you’re ever in India, you HAVE to check it out.

We visited the Red Fort in the late afternoon.  Our careful planning for our visit coinciding with the evening sound and light show back fired on us.  Nev and Danielle had taken note of the time for the English version, but when we arrived they’d swapped the timings around so the Hindi version was first on.  This meant that we couldn’t watch the sound and light show in English as we had a train to catch.

We collected the audio tour guides and started our visit.  We only had a chance to get half way through as the Red Fort shuts at 5:30pm, much to our dismay.  I visited the Red Fort during my first time in Agra, and I didn’t think it was a wonder candidate.  I didn’t change my mind on my second visit, it’s got a great history, but it’s not much to look at.  Also, Scotland has loads of castles and forts, so it’s not exactly an original looking building for me. 

We watched the sound and light show for about 20 minutes.  It appeared as if the legend and stories of the Red Fort were being told while coloured lights were directed at different parts of the building, but we didn’t have a clue because it was all in Hindi.  It was a pretty pointless experience when we didn’t understand a word of what was going on.

After the Red Fort we went to the train station to catch our train to Delhi.  We had two nights in Delhi before our flight to Goa.  Our day in Delhi was a Monday, and all the Museums and tourist attractions were closed.  Danielle and Nev went shopping while I didn’t do much at all.  We had one night out in a local, cheap cocktail bar.  The cocktails were hit and miss, with Danielle’s cosmopolitan being undrinkable, and rimmed with a line of salt instead of sugar.  The pina coladas were great though, and myself and Nev stuck to them.  The bar played DVDs of popular MTV videos with the volume at a ridiculously loud setting.  It didn’t seem to matter as much the drunker we got, but after we’d seen the same songs three times we decided it was time to leave.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Return to Delhi

My overnight train was delayed by a few hours.  I checked into a cheap but pleasant hotel near the station when I arrived.  I then jumped into an auto rickshaw to meet up with Nev and Danielle at the Lotus Temple.

The Lotus Temple is a house of worship for the Bahai faith, and adherents of all faiths are welcome to come and use the temple to pray and meditate.   It’s in the shape of a white lotus flower and set among immaculately maintained gardens and small pools.  In photos it looks amazing, but up close it failed to impress.

From my initial sighting I knew that the building was far from a world wonder.  The closer I got to it the less of an impact the building made.  It kind of looks a bit like the poor man’s Sydney Opera House.  Up close, the building materials don’t seem to be of the highest quality, it certainly doesn’t shine bright in the sun like some of the other pure white buildings we have seen.  I would say it’s comparable to the Armadillo and Glasgow, and as Danielle put it, it looks like a conference centre.    When I met up with Nev, for the first time in our travels, I asked him, “Why did you put this on your list?”

The visit wasn’t great either, you can’t wander round the building or stroll in the gardens.  The visit is a fixed route, you are only allowed to enter into one door and exit another with most of the area outside the temple out of bounds.  The stringent rules seem to contradict the openness of the Bahai faith.  Inside the temple absolute silence is to be maintained.  It was freezing and looked even more unimpressive from the inside, so we didn’t hang around for long.

Our next stop on our whistle stop Delhi wonders tour was Akshardham Temple.  It’s a Hindu temple with a main focus on one particular guru.  Now this building was impressive.  The temple is huge and incredibly extravagant.  It’s made from pink sandstone and white marble with around 20,000 carved deities.  It was constructed by hand using the same techniques as were used in ancient times.  After visiting so many ancient ruined temples with carvings in a state of disrepair, it was great to see what a temple looks like in its prime.  The attention to detail is magnificent, the walls, ceilings and pillars of the temple have exquisite designs.   

Photos weren't allowed in the temple complex, so this is the only photo I took

The only thing that lets the temple down is that it appears to have another side, that of a theme park.  There’s a boat ride, a water show and the hall of values, a kind of show with animatronics detailing Indian history and culture.  These extra features seem to lessen the impact of the building as a temple for spiritual worship, but as I’ve found out from visiting various Hindu temples, Hinduism is one religion that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is also about having fun along with worship.  

We stayed for the water show, which was entertaining, and went back for food.  Danielle and Nev were checking out of their hotel and moving to one nearer the train station as we had an early train to catch the next day to Agra.  I got the subway in a different direction.  I had one change at the end of my journey back to the train station with only one stop left.  This busy hub was incredibly packed, I’ve never seen the like of it.  There were massive queues which were aligned with the doors of the train when it stopped.  When a train stopped people were already packed in like sardines, the whole queue of people would push the passengers at the front until they were squashed into the train.  All the commotion was carried out under the watchful eyes of several policemen.  After witnessing the mayhem I decided to take a pass on the underground for my one stop journey, and left the station to get an auto rickshaw back to my Hotel.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


 After expecting to arrive in Gaya at 9pm, the train eventually trundled into the station at 2am.  I did initially plan to go straight to Bodhgaya, but as it was the middle of the night, and Bodhgaya is a small town with the population of 30, 000 people and only a handful of guesthouse, I decided to stay in Gaya for the night.  I found a cheap guesthouse near the station and went straight to bed.  It was possibly the dirtiest guesthouse I’ve ever stayed in, it really looked like that it had never ever been cleaned, since it was built.  I also managed to trip the power when I was plugging in my travel adaptor.  One thing about India is that in the guest houses the only socket in the room is normally attached to the light switch panel and is invariably high.  So when you plug cables into it, they dangle and often don’t reach the ground.  This was why I managed to trip the power, the weight of the cable attached to my travel adaptor started working its way loose causing sparks to fly, and when it eventually, inevitably hit the ground, the power went off.  While I’m on the subject, another thing that annoys me a bit is the panel of switches, with sometimes up to 10 switches on one board.  You have no idea which switch controls which light, fan or more often than not serves no purpose.  You end up having to flick 9 switches before you get your desired light on.

After a short sleep in the dirtiest hotel in the world, I got up early, had breakfast and left for Bodhgaya.  With a stroke of luck the guesthouse I chose from the lonely planet had one last room left.  It was three times the price I was expecting, but I managed to haggle them down a bit.  The town seemed a lot busier than I expected and along with the overinflated price of the Hotel I presumed there must be some sort of festival on.  And I was right, I was in Bodhgaya during Kalachakra, which is kind of like the Hajj for Buddhists, and the Dalai Lama was in town.  Bodhgaya was swarming with Buddhist monks from all around the world, but mostly from Tibet.  It was a very colourful sight, all the different shades of reds and oranges of the monk’s robes flapping in the wind.  There were literally hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, during the Kalachakra the population of the town swells to over 600,000.

I was looking forward to my short stay in a sleepy town and a break from the big cities.  I wasn’t expecting the sheer numbers of people that had swamped Bodhgaya.  Initially it was kind of cool, seeing all the different types of people from all over the world descending on mass.  But it got a bit annoying after a while, having to queue for everything, and just walking around could be a nightmare.  On my first day I visited the Mahabodhi Temple, which is built next to the Bodhi tree where Buddha gained enlightenment.  I didn’t go inside as I was put off by the massive queue.  I wandered around the grounds and took in the sights of the pilgrims chanting and performing rituals.  It was very serene and interesting.  While I was walking round I noticed a lot of pilgrims would stop walking and get down on their hands and knees, touch their head to the ground then lie completely flat.  I was almost tripping over them at first until I realised what the score was and started to tread more carefully.  Beside the main walkway around the temple there is a bronze fence with loads of horizontal spinning wheels, I presume to symbolise the circle of life.  People would spin the wheels as they passed, with the effect that the wheels were constantly moving and were never stationary.

As Bodhgaya is a centre for Buddhists pilgrims from all round the world, there are temples here for every major Buddhist country in the world.  After the Mahabodhu I visited the different temples, with the Thai, Japan and Bhutan temples being my favourites.

The next day I woke up early as I wanted to visit the Mahabodhi temple when it was quiet.  I got there at around 7am, but it was even busier than the previous afternoon.  I got in the queue to see inside the temple, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  The queue moved at an incredibly slow pace, and after queuing for nearly three hours I was near the front and realised why.  All the monks were pushing in, I was getting really pissed off, but found it difficult to give a telling off to a monk.  When I finally was inside I realised that the last three hours was a complete waste of time.  Inside the temple was a small room with a tiny gold Buddha inside.  People were giving offerings which also led to the slow moving pace of the queue. 

After my disappointing visit I had a quick walk around the temple, walking past the bodhi tree where Buddha become enlightened, and watched the hundreds of monks in mantra, focused on the tree.

I had a quick lunch then went to the train station to catch my train to Delhi.

Monday, January 9, 2012


We had little time in Varanasi, two nights in total and a crucial 20hr long train journey from Amritsar.  If this train journey from Amritsar was delayed, and from my previous experience Indian trains are often delayed, then it could have cut down our time in Varanasi dramatically.  Fortunately this train was on time, in fact it was early which was a real bonus.  When we arrived we jumped in an auto rickshaw and set off for a guesthouse we’d picked from the lonely planet.  A tout accompanied the driver on our journey.  He seemed ok, and suggested a much cheaper guest house in a better location.  From his description it had everything that we required, a rooftop restaurant, internet, and a hot shower.  Like Amritsar and Delhi, Varanasi was cold and a hot shower wasn’t so much a luxury, but more a necessity.  We took his advice and he led us to Mishra Guesthouse.  It turned out to be a great find.  The hot shower was the piece de resistance, after having cold showers for the last few days the powerful roasting hot shower we had in our room was an absolute joy.  I think I had three showers on our first day.

I love Varanasi, it’s probably my favourite city in India, and one of my favourite cities in the world.  It’s just so Indian, steeped in Hindu culture, and it’s so totally different to any other place I’ve ever been to.  The city has a medieval feel, with narrow streets, animals walking around everywhere, with hundreds of cows, and of course the river Ganga (also known as the Gangies) on its doorstep and the rituals, bathing and the burning ghats that go along with it.

A lot of Hindus go to Varanasi to die, from what I can gather they have a firm belief that after cremation, if their ashes are scattered in the holy river Ganga they have a better chance of reaching Nirvana.  There are hospices for people waiting to die, morgues close to the river and multiple burning ghats.  I think at this point a bit of explanation is needed.  A ghat is basically a stepped access point to the Ganga where people can go down to bathe in the holy water.  And a burning ghat is where the dead are burnt on funeral pyres.  Our guesthouse was right next to the main burning ghat, with as many as ten corpses being burnt at the same time.  It’s a very different experience to what a western cremation ceremony is like.  Only men are allowed to attend and it’s very public.  It’s bizarrely not a solemn affair with not one tear shed and the occasional sound of laughter.  I guess the Hindus in Varanasi are so certain of their beliefs that death isn’t the end, just another stage of the circle of life. 

As you can imagine the cremations can be rather graphic.  The amount of wood to burn a corpse is carefully calculated and weighed out on big scales near the main burning ghat.  When the pyre gets smaller the extremities of the dead bodies are exposed and have to be brought back into the hottest part of the fire in order for them to be fully cremated.  This is done by literally snapping the bones of the arms and legs and bending them back into the flames.  It is a fairly gruesome sight, and if I was watching this being done to a close relative I would have nightmares for the rest of my life.  But as I said before, death for a Hindu appears to be a transitional process and is not the end.  Once the person is dead there seems to be no attachment to the corpse.

There was only one occasion where I could visibly see a great deal of grief.  Before the cremation the dead bodies are bathed and washed in the holy waters.  We witnessed a small bundle being brought down to the river wrapped in a sari.  It was obviously the body of a small child being carried down to the Ganga by his father.  It was a heartbreaking sight, and as soon as they took the boys shawl off and started washing his body I had to walk away.

For some special cases cremation is not allowed, and the body of the person is weighed down with stones and sunk into the river.  This applies to children under the age of ten, pregnant women, Sadhus (Hindu holy men), and people who have died from snake bites, small pox, or leprosy.  According to the lonely planet and Wikipedia, the Indian government have introduced snapping turtles into the river to try and combat the problem with the abundance of dead bodies.   This does sound unbelievable but after doing a bit of research online appears to be true.

As you can imagine the Ganga is heavily polluted, but it doesn’t stop thousands of people from taking a dip every day.  I’ve even seen people drink the water.  Myself and Nev took a boat trip up and down the river for sun rise one morning.  It was bitterly cold and I was more than impressed with the turnout of people willing to take a dip in the freezing water.

With its narrow streets  Varanasi can really be like a maze at times.  We only managed to get lost when we needed to get somewhere in a hurry, like when we were going to the train station.  When we tried to get lost to become submerged in Old Varanasi it appeared to be impossible.  I loved wandering around the old town, occasionally we would come face to face with a cow which blocked off the narrow street and we’d have to turn back the way we came.  Motorbikes became a nuisance though and we’d often have to literally jump out of the way of the speeding vehicles. 

Every night there is a religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganga called a Pooja.  Last time I was in Varanasi I really enjoyed the occasions.  On our first night I took Nev down to have a look.  The Pooja involves three to four performers on raised platforms.  They have symbolic fire lamps and incense and they kind of dance about while moving the burning lamps and scattering petals around.  The performance is accompanied with music, chanting and lots of bell ringing form the nearby Hindu temples.   We went back on our second night after a delicious special lassi.  It was a cool experience and a good way to spend our last night in Varanasi.

We had a walking tour of the old town and Hindu temples on the morning of our last day.  Our guide was an old man and had been doing the tour for over forty years.  We had loads of questions to ask, and he had great answers.  It was an insightful tour and very worthwhile.  Afterwards we had some food and went to the train station to catch our separate trains. 

As I mentioned previously, when you try to get lost in the maze of narrow streets of Varanasi you can’t, but when I needed to catch a train I got hopelessly lost.  I was getting a bit stressed being lost whilst squeezing past cows, groups of school children and countless motorbikes with a heavy rucksack.  We eventually found the main road, but no Auto-rickshaws.  We finally tracked one down and made it to the train station 20 minute before the time my train was meant to arrive to find out my train was delayed by 4 hours.

I was departing for Bhodgaya, the city where Buddha found enlightenment, while Nev was off to Delhi to meet his girlfriend Danielle who was joining us on holiday for a couple of weeks.  His train was also delayed, so we decided to go and try and find somewhere to have a beer.  After a couple of bevies I went back to get my train. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Delhi & Amritsar

After spending Christmas with my family in Dingwall, and Hogmanay with my friends in Glasgow, it was time to get my flight to India to continue travelling.  I was rather exhausted after having little sleep during the festivities and was looking forward to getting onboard my night flight to Delhi, having a good sleep and arriving fresh faced in India.  Things didn’t really work out that way.

The Glasgow hurricane season wasn’t quite over, and Hurricane Bawbag was back.  When I arrived at Glasgow Airport I found out that all the flights were either cancelled, or massively delayed.  As I was flying BA, then Air India, I had to pick up my bags and change terminals.  At Heathrow this can take hours, and I took this into consideration giving myself a four hours stop over.  My flight was delayed by two and a half hours, and when I reached my terminal I was too late to check in.  The Air India staff were very unsympathetic and charged me an extra £185 to get the next flight the following morning.  It was late at night, and I was toying with the idea of staying at my brother’s house, which was a couple of hours away from Heathrow, or paying for a Hotel. 

I went back to terminal 5 thinking there may be a small chance that I may be eligible for a Hotel stay courtesy of BA, although I secretly knew I wasn’t as my connecting flight was with another airline.  I spoke with some of the BA staff and they advised that I probably wasn’t entitled to a Hotel voucher but to queue for one anyway.  After queuing for 3 hours I finally got to the front of the queue.  I wasn’t actually asked to produce any documentation, I just stood there and didn’t say anything, while looking incredibly grumpy.  My tactics worked and I was handed a golden ticket, a free stay at the T5 Sheraton.   

I had to queue for another 2 hours at the Sheraton to check in.  When I finally got to the front of the queue, the hotel staff announced that BA had made a cock up and had issued too many hotel vouchers and they were now fully booked.  After hearing the news, I got my bags back on a trolley and raced back to terminal 5 to see if there were anymore hotel vouchers available.  There was one guy in front of me, but I managed to overtake him when he stupidly tried to go through an exit only door.  After winning the race, I claimed first prize, the last hotel voucher.  I was really lucky, as I wasn’t really eligible for a free hotel stay, the rest of the BA customers could have paid for a hotel then claimed the expenses back, but not me.  I would have had to have forked out at least 200 quid for a nights stay.

I had to queue again for next Hotel, but this time I had a better strategy, I sat by the bar until the queue died down and then checked in with a minimum of fuss.   I went straight to bed, at around 3am and set my alarm for 7 o’clock.

The next day I flew to Delhi, arriving at the ungodly time of 3:30am.  Nev was already in Delhi and had arranged for transport to pick me up from the airport and take me to the guesthouse he had pre-booked.  I was absolutely shattered and was looking forward to a good rest in a nice guesthouse.  But when I arrived I was taken aback, Nev and managed to book the dirtiest, grimiest guesthouse in the whole of Delhi.  That’s probably not true, I’m sure if we were looking we could have found a worst guesthouse if we’d really tried, but in my state of exhaustion it seemed pretty grim.  The room was on its own right up the top on the roof.  The toilet had no hot water, no shower and hadn’t been cleaned in years, with cobwebs and a patchwork of dirt and mould covering the walls, floor and ceiling.  The room wasn’t much better, it was in dire need of a deep clean, with a centimetre of dust and dirt on the floor.  And what’s more we had to share a bed.  It was absolutely Baltic too, in winter Delhi can get very cold at night, with temperatures dipping into the low single figures, and when I arrived there was freezing fog to add to the chill. 

I wished Nev a happy new year, and sarcastically complemented him on his choice of guesthouse.  In fairness he had booked a triple room, with en-suite but it was booked out when he arrived and he didn’t want to change hotels as this was our meeting point.

I managed to get some tortured sleep while Nev got up and explored Delhi.  We were due to get our train to Amritsar in the late afternoon.  Our train to Amritsar was delayed and we didn’t arrive until about 2am.  The purpose of our visit was to check out another one of Nev’s wonders, the Golden Temple.  The Golden Temple is the holiest place for Sikhs in the world, it’s like the Mecca for Sikhs.   We initially planned to stay at the Golden Temple, you can stay there for free, we thought this would be a good way to immerse ourselves in the wonder.

After trekking for a while trying to find the free beds we stumbled upon a building with a massive room full of over a hundred bodies sleeping on the floor on make shift mattress’.  There were some Sikh guys in charge of the sleeping arrangements, who greeted us and ushered us away to a small room for westerners.  This room was even worse, it was tiny, packed with double beds and had super bright strip lighting which seemed to be permanently switched on.   After suffering from severe lack of sleep over the last few days and extreme fatigue I just couldn’t handle it, and I could see not even Nev was keen.  We managed to check into a guesthouse nearby and finally got some decent rest.

The Infamous Long John Suit
Nev left early in the morning, he was, as he always when he’s close to visiting a wonder, very excited.  It’s funny to see him sometimes when he’s on the verge of visiting one for the first time, he seems agitated and can’t sit still, and he starts speaking at about a million miles per hour which can make it difficult for any locals he tries to communicate with.  I awoke with the weirdest sensation, I didn’t know where I was, it felt like I was at a nightclub, with disco lights but no music.  When I finally opened my eyes, I saw Nev sitting on his bed gazing proudly at his newest model, a Golden Temple complete with flashing, multi-coloured, LEDs. 

For the first time in days I felt well rested and nearly back to normal.  And I was very hungry.  One great thing about the Golden Temple is that you get free food, 24 hours a day.  We thought we’d combine my first visit with lunch.  Before entering the temple you have to leave your shoes behind at a booth at the entrance, and you also have to cover your head.  It was wet, and cold, and walking about barefoot in the muddy, chilly rain water wasn’t very pleasant. 

After a quick tour round we went to the food hall.  It’s quite an impressive sight watching the preparation of the food.  It’s like a factory process, one group of people peels peas, while another group chops garlic, while another group peels potatoes etc.  When we got in line, one person handed us a metal Thali style plate, the next person gave us metal bowl, and the final person gave us a spoon.  We were then ushered into a room where everybody sat in a line on the floor, with up to a couple of hundred being able to be fed at the same time.  When we sat down the Sikh volunteers started dishing out the food.  They marched up and down the lines at a fair pace with buckets of Dal, veg curry, rice, chapattis and tasty rice pudding stuff.  They then gave us a dollop of our requested food as they speedily walked passed.  The food was great!

When we left the food hall we gave our plates and bowls to another line of Sikh volunteers, one would empty the contents by hitting the plates of the side of a bin, then he would pass them onto another guy who would separate the plates from the bowls and chuck them into separate bins ready for washing.  The washing detail was something else, there were lines of people standing at sinks, making an almighty racket, bashing and clanging the metal plates as they worked.  Speed is paramount when you are trying to feed the masses, and watching the carefully coordinated operation of food preparation, serving and cleaning was a sight to see.

Our time in Amritsar was dominated with visits to the Golden Temple, partly because we didn’t eat anywhere else during our time there.   

The Golden Temple is impressive, it glitters in the sunshine and is dazzlingly bright.  The surroundings add to the splendour, with the temple situated right in the middle of a lake with a small footbridge.  The main complex is a brilliantly white building with four minaret looking towers on each corner.  The only thing counting against the Golden Temple as a candidate for a world wonder is that it’s pretty small.  It is unique and iconic, has a great history, with lots of gory battles being fought by the Sikhs who have been persecuted for hundreds of years.  But it just isn’t big enough to really stand out.

The experience was great though, and fairly emotional.  They have loudspeakers perfectly placed throughout the temple complex, where you can hear pleasing music whilst walking around the lake and the near vicinity.  I thought it was a tape recording until I walked across the footbridge and into the Golden Temple for the first time.  I was surprised to find a group of Sikhs performing in the middle of the temple, playing sitars, weird Indian type accordions and singing. 

If you hadn’t already guessed, I was a big fan of the free food.  Not just because it was tasty, but I liked the concept that if anybody is hungry, no matter who they are, they would be fed.  It reminded me the of the hippy ideals during the summer of love in San Francisco.  But at the Golden Temple they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years, with some prominent and wealthy Sikhs volunteering in the food preparation.   I also liked the fact that they provided accommodation.  If our train wasn’t so late, and I wasn’t so shattered when I arrived, I would have liked to have slept in the main room with the hundred or so other people.  The concept of the free accommodation for Sikhs is really about equality.  Everybody is the same and everybody on a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple should sleep in the same room, both rich and poor sharing the same floor space.  I like this ideal, but I also like having some privacy and a hot shower.  So if I did take advantage of the free accommodation I probably would have only stayed there for one night.

We made one other excursion in Amritsar, a trip to the Indian/Pakistan border.  Every day there is a weird ceremony where the gates are opened, a Delhi to Lahore bus is let through, then there’s a bunch of Army processions on both sides of the border.  They’ve constructed terracing on both sides for the nationals of each country to stand and watch the pomp and ceremony.   It was quite a weird experience, it was like being at a football match.  Both sides were signing Patriotic songs, waving flags, and goading the opposing “fans”.  When the gates to the border opened and the bus went through, everybody cheered.  Then the goose stepping began.  One or two soldiers from each side would start marching quickly towards the border whilst goose stepping with ridiculously high kicks, both sides trying to outdo their doppelgangers.  They would then meet at the border, turn and face each other, salute, and then goose step back over to their native side.  Each side also had a commentator, and in between the goose stepping, there became a bit of a strange competition between them.  Each commentator would start shouting what sounded like “Goooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaal !“, exactly like the kind of thing you’d hear on Brazillian TV when somebody scored a goal.  They both tried to outdo each other by lasting the longest without pausing for breath, although to me it always appeared to be a tie.