Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rishikesh to Amritsar: Golden hospitality

It's been a while. I'm getting lazy. My writing is always rushed, inaccurate, and not to the best of my ability. Many apologies. Blog is coming, the Indians would say.

I had a moderately awful yet bearable overnight bus ride to Rishikesh, arriving just before sunrise at 5am. I sat in a chai shop with some Russians and Israelis while we waited for the sun to make an appearance. Then, got a vikram (a new form of transport, but basically a large rickshaw) to Lakshmanjula, on the East (or was it West?) side of the river, which is only reachable by a suspension bridge. It's relatively quiet and I found a very cheap single room (which had actual hot water and even a tv) for 160 Rupees. Then I slept for most of the day. The next 5 days I felt pretty rough, with my stomach consistently playing up and the weather being pretty rubbish. The first day was stunning. The Ganges is a turquoise colour as it crashes out of the Himalayas, it sits in a little valley with forests on either side, and so many ashrams you can't walk more than 10 metres without tripping over a hippie, sadhu (ascetic holy man) or yoga course. The plan was to do a yoga course, but I found the ashrams and whole 'new age' thing a little much (and not to mention a little delusional) and decided to go to some drop in sessions instead. The man who runs it, Swami Umesh Yogi, teaches transcencental meditation (which he tried to sell me for 200 Euros....I think not) but the yoga was extremely good. I finally got the breathing and asanas and everything. It all clicked, but after 3 hours of it I spent 2 days barely able to walk. It was pretty intense.

I spent most of one day with a Russian man, and we spent a lot of time talking about different brands of vodka and comparing notes on our national foods. Did you know Russians wear their wedding rings on their right hand? Small fast fact. Despite his initial cold, unfriendly manner (which I judged far too quickly) once he got going he was a lovely man. I can't for the life of me remember his name. I think I've got him in my little travel address book though.

I also had an angry day where I walked for half an hour to Swarg Ashram to use the State Bank of India ATM, queued for 15 minutes and then found it was broken. Then the one round the corner was broken. And the next one was broken. I point blank refused to get a rickshaw into town and walked for an hour along the banks of the Ganges - past very beautiful beaches and a funeral pyre, amongst all manner of other bizarre Indian things, including an impromptu cricket match amongst the kids.

I ate at the Little Buddha cafe (loved the Tibetan staff) nearly every day. I felt pretty bleugh though, and after spending a lot of time wondering what to do, decided to leave early and head for Amritsar after 4 nights. I spent Friday (a week last Friday) feeling very sick indeed, and dreading the train ride. I was barely eating and had no one to go with, and couldn't be bothered to handle it on my own right now. However, after getting a rickshaw to the bus station, I hopped straight onto the bus to Haridwar, where I sat in the little booth at the front (side facing seats, in the dark - Raleigh would have been mortified) with the driver and a assortment of Indians. Of course, I was the only foreigner on the bus.  I arrived at the station, set myself up with some chai and joined the group of turbaned Sikhs similarly heading for Amritsar. I was shocked and stunned when the train turned up on time. Of course, this was too good to be true. Half the train had turned up. For some reason, the other half, with my carriage, was nowhere. A group of Spanish people were also looking for my carriage, which is where I met Martha. She was on the upper berth in the next alcove to me, an unbelievably energetic Pilates instructor who pronounced my name in the most wonderfully Spanish way.

I slept badly - 2 of the loudest snorers I've ever heard were in my vicinity. Of course, it arrived 3 hours late into Amritsar Junction. Martha and I made a beeline for the free bus. We could barely believe it. Nothing is free in India. Nothing. We crammed onto a tiny school-like bus, and as we set off, all the Sikhs (we were, again, the only foreigners, standing in the aisle and balancing as the bus must have been packed to 3 or 4 times its actual capacity) began chanting a call and response song which was pretty damn beautiful.

We arrived at the gurudwaras of the Golden Temple - the Sikhs' holiest shrine, which welcomes everyone with unbelievable equality. We got a room in the dorm (for free) and headed over to the kitchen - also free. You sit in a huge hall (wearing your free orange bandana to cover your head, of course) with a Thali plate, and armies of volunteers, with unbelievable, uncharacteristically un-Indian efficiency, doled out meals of rice, chapati, curry, dhal and rice pudding. I still wasn't eating much but was more bewildered and excited by the incredible atmosphere around me. One of the key principles of Sikhism is equality - and they really do go out on a limb on this, if that makes any sense. Anyone, of any nationality, race, religion, or anything else is equally welcome in all parts of the Golden Temple. The volunteers serving the food and the armies involved in washing up showed the genuine compassion which came form this special place. Unlike in some holy places in India, which are plagued with people trying to rip you off and sell you stuff at every turn, I felt genuinely welcome. Also, the communal bathrooms were immaculately clean. To European standards. There was even SOAP at the sinks. O.M.G. This is a HUGE deal.

The Golden Temple itself sits in the middle of a large pool or lake. We circumambulated it and of course had the usual number of requests for photos and all that...but quite a lot of the time conversations with Sikhs from all over the world who were genuinely just curious about who we were and where we were from. How refreshing. Of course, the creeps made their appearance, but I've got the look of daggers and disdain down to an art. There was constant, beautiful music echoing around the entire complex, and we visited the Sikh museum before crashing out.  Martha enthusiastically woke me up at 2pm to announce that a group of people were heading to the border for a 'dance thing' and did I want to go. A huge, motley group of us, organised by Mathias, a German guy, crammed into a school bus and headed to Wagha, to the India-Pakistan border. absolutely hilarious. After so much security and all kinds of searches, we finally made it to the specially erected stands and the two gates which faced each other, with the flagpoles and respective flags fluttering in the early evening sun.

There were 'MCs' for each country, revving up the crowd. There were annoyingly loud happy-clappy-singy Hare Krishnas standing behind us, and hundreds of Indian flags and all the kids dancing to Jai Ho and other Bollywood favourites in the aisle below. Eventually a trumpet sounded, and the ceremony began. It involved a lot of shouting, goosestepping, outlandish hats and very silly costumes, as well as some robust handshaking and gateslamming. It's difficult to describe how hilarious the whole thing was. Youtube it. For two countries which in general hate each other, there was a fair amount of empathy, although you could still see a little tension in the shouting competitions: 'PAKISTAN...[something in Arabic] ... 'HINDUSTAN... [something in Hindi/Punjabi] it got louder and louder until it reached a deafening crescendo and the flags were lowered and marched back into the special border patrol hut.

On the way back to the Golden Temple, we stopped at a Hindu temple, the Mata Temple. It was like a fun house at a fair - crawling through tunnels, strange mirrors, crazy, colourful and sometimes gruesome statues of various Gods and other assorted deities. Then, we were given rice and dhal and chai - unbelievable! Some sort of ceremony was going on, and our multinational group looked very odd indeed amongst the bell ringing, chanting Hindu devotees who were flocking to the shrine.

That evening I saw the closing ceremony where the Sikh holy book is 'put to bed' amidst much pomp and circumstance. The Golden Temple looked particularly beautiful as it was all lit up at night, reflecting in the waters surrounding it. The next day, after very little sleep, I decided it'd be a good idea to crack on to Dharamsala - which had been at the top of my 'must do' list the whole time I'd been in India. Tired but determined, I headed to Jallianwala Bagh, a park where the British committed a horrific atrocity in April 1919. General Dyer's troops open fired on an unarmed group of men, women and children who were breaking a law which banned public gatherings. There were around 1500 casualties, of which about 300 were fatal. Not our finest moment. The park has been restored beautifully and made into a memorial to the dead, though quite chillingly there is a well in which many tried to jump to avoid the shootings, and where they drowned. You can still see the bullet holes on the inside. Strangely I saw a few Punjabi kids running around the park playing with toy guns, which was very odd.

Then, Lulu, a Dutch lady from the border trip, and I, headed off for Dharamshala. We missed the direct bus by 15 minutes, and so instead took the indirect route, getting at first a bus to Pathankhot, 3.5 hours away. Then, there was no bus to Dharamshala. Instead, we got on a bus to Gaggal, which took another 4 hours. We were still 12km away, and after waiting over an hour eventually got a taxi and got up to Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamshala - where the Dalai Lama lives and all that) and collapsed into Pawan Guesthouse, and I fell asleep to the calming tones of BBC world news, something I hadn't seen or heard in many, many months.

I woke up, turned over, and saw snow capped ridges, mountains, and forests, and a sky as blue as could be. (Considering everyone in Amristar who'd came from there had said it was raining and hailing, I felt very lucky.) Like Darjeeling, I thought. It was like coming home, I was so glad I decided to make the extra effort to come up here - it has been magical. From the Sikhs' holiest place to the seat of the Dalai Lama and scores of Tibetans in exile, these have been two of my favourite places in India. But I must save my time here so far for another post, as I must get to bed - this is already extremely rushed and I have to get up early to hear the Dalai Lama's teachings in the morning.