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. 


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