Typed up: on Amritsar-Chandigarh bus Posted from: Internet cafe in Mussoori
From Bikaner we went to Amritsar. It sounds pretty innocuous written like that. At 9:30pm we were at the train station to take a sleeper train to Bithande. This train didn’t have any of the fancy classes, just plain sleeper. In theory this just means it was the same as the sleeper we took from Delhi. In practice it wasn’t just lacking AC but also basic cleanliness. The floor was sticky, everything dusty, and sitting around in the beginning I saw one cockroach and one mouse.
The people we shared our little compartment with were very friendly, though. They spoke virtually no English, but gave us a few of their bananas and it took a lot of declining not to share in their other food as well. They were also absolutely first rate snorers. Anton has nothing on these guys. While the train was moving the noise was drowned out to not be a problem, but it felt like we couldn’t go 10 minutes without stopping for some reason. I assume most of the stops were for railroad crossings, but definitely some were to let other trains pass as well.
The bottom line is that neither Danielle nor I got any sleep that night. We “got up” a little before 5:30 because that’s when the train was supposed to arrive. At 6:30 we rolled into the Bithande train station, which was nice enough. A short tuk-tuk ride later we were at the New Bus Stand where research had shown there was a decent hotel where I’d planned to recover from our train ride. We sure needed that recovery, but the hotel’s reception was closed, as was that of a neighboring place. Not sure what else to do, we got on a bus to Amritsar.
To get on this bus we used the universal method of wandering around the bus station looking lost and asking “Amritsar?” As it happened a bus was to leave at 7, so we didn’t eat breakfast or anything. It was a regular bus, meaning it would pick up people until the aisles were full (sticking knees and elbows in the side/head of people who happened to be sitting in an aisle seat), and drop them off virtually anywhere. So we did a lot of starting and stopping.
We did enjoy a spectacular view of the Bithande nuclear power plant on our way out. The plant was on the other side of a glassy lake, and the 4 evaporator towers were lit by the rising sun. Out of town we got our first look at the local scenery: farmland. It was neat for the first half hour, but the scenery remained pretty static throughout the almost 5 hours we sat on that bus. We did get to get off the bus for 5 minutes at a dirt parking lot. The men got out and peed right there, while a group of women went off to do their business elsewhere.
In Amritsar we were ready to walk, and rebuffed half a dozen offers for tuk-tuks and rickshaws respectively. Perhaps we should have taken one. The traffic was atrocious and above all loud. But it was only 1km to the Tourist Guest House, which provided decent lodging at a low price. It even had wireless Internet which I made good use of to research (what else?) which camera I might want to buy.
Upon our arrival we set off to the Crystal Palace Restaurant which our book describes favorable. Unfortunately it is not where the map indicates it is, so we spent some extra time wandering the streets. We did happen upon a street lined with bicycle shops, each with a lot of shiny new bicycles parked out front. The food was good as expected, and we spent the rest of the day taking a nap, waking up for dinner, and going back to bed again.
In the morning we got up a bit early to see Amritsar’s main sight: the Golden Temple. This temple is named because a ridiculously large amount of it is covered in gold leaf. After covering our heads, depositing our shoes, and washing our feet, we entered the large temple complex. Around a large square pool was a wide marble walkway, which in turn was surrounded by a large white structure covered in domes and other decorations. There were also tons of plaques on the white structure. The ones I was able to read in English all referred to some monetary donation given by or in honor of a member of the military.
On an island in the middle of the lake was the golden temple itself. We joined a large crowd of Sikhs shuffling down the walkway towards the temple. Inside there was as much gold as outside. We also saw the holy men whose constant recital of the holy books was broadcast throughout the complex. It was another wonderfully decorated temple, complete with inlaid marble, carvings, and of course gold.
Later that day, we took a tuk-tuk to the border to witness the India-Pakistan border ceremony. This is probably the strangest thing we’ve seen on our trip. We walked the last bit on foot, and were directed to the grandstand next to the road that runs from one country to the other. On the street, women from the audience were dancing to loud popular music being blasted from many loud speakers. A bit to our left we could see the actual border with a fancy gate which was closed.
After a while the dancing was declared over, and the real event could began. The MC (wearing civvies) came out, and explained (in Hindi) what was going on. Then he held the mike up to India’s yelling specialist who said “Aaaaaa…aaaa…aaa…aaaa” and so on for what felt like 30s. Meanwhile a guy in Pakistan was doing the same thing. After a bit of this there was some MC-exhorted yelling. I don’t know what was said, just that the MC said “Hindustan” and the crowd gave the appropriate response. I assume the response is something like “knocks your socks off” and not “is everybody’s friend.”
Then the funny walks began, as soldiers took turns speed walking to the border, turning just short of it, making sure to kick out their legs in as ridiculous a way as you can imagine. High kicking was part of it, and of course boots were stomped as loud as possible. Then there was some kind of dance with the lines the flags were on. The flag man from each country would toss his coil of rope out, and then coil it up again. It looked like some formalized way of pretending you have trouble with the rope, preventing you from lowering your flag, trying to trick the other guy into lowering his flag first which presumably means he somehow loses face.
This whole ritual was frequently interrupted when the MC got the Indians to yell more things. The Pakistanis did basically the same thing, although their walking/turning/kicking dance was a little bit different. The entire thing seemed totally ridiculous. It was most reminiscent of trying to pump up a crowd before a sporting event. I was unable to find the history of this ritual, but I imagine it must have been something like the following.
A said, “Let’s be friends and lower our flags together every day.” To which B must have replied, “Good idea.” After doing this a while, A thinks “I bet if I walk really funny, B will be impressed and realize we’re better.” “Wow! He’s doing a funny walk! I’ll do the same thing tomorrow.” “Damn! He can walk funny too. I’d better stomp my feet.” “I’ll stomp my feet and kick high. That’ll show him!” “What if I get some crowd support?” “I know we can get more people than that. And I’ll give them giant flags to wave.” And so on… I just wish they would take this to its logical conclusion and turn it into a nightly talent show that displays the best in athletics, music, and dance that each country has to offer. As it is it feels like a middle school pissing contest.
For honesty’s sake I should add that apparently the two sides talk to each other and decide on what the ritual should be. Several years ago they toned it down a bit in an attempt to make the theater “less aggressive.” Anyway, it was fascinating to watch, but I don’t think it makes either country look good.
Back in Amritsar the next day, we spent some time just wandering down narrow bazaar streets. It was Sunday so not as busy as usual, but still fun. Among the fun images we saw was a room full of men sewing away on Singar [sic] sewing machines. We wandered through a narrow street with sari and cloth shops on either side, very colorful. A jeweler was busy at work using some machine to create small shaped pieces of gold. I really enjoy the feel of these markets. It’s a lot more fun to have everything hanging out front of a store than it is when the same stuff is displayed behind a glass window.