Chapter 16 The One With The Golden Temple and More Ketchup Sandwiches

 We were dropped by our taxi (with a single wing mirror and the worst driving yet) late on the 21st after miraculously navigating 2 flights and 3 buses to arrive in the city of Amritsar. Famed for its golden temple, Sara and I were excited to see this spectacle of Sikhism and according to our lonely planet guide, hotel grace (our bed for the next two nights) was opposite! This kind of direction however was not enough as the golden temple is a huge walled space surrounded by odd purpose built shops and cafes all in the same style and stone – it was like that bit in shrek where you see Lord Farquad’s kingdom and everything feels very fake or like a theme park style village where everything looks the same. After managing to navigate our way through busy streets packed with people, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, horse drawn carts, motorbikes and dogs (all packed in about 30 seconds of walking) we finally reached our hotel – shout out to the McDonald’s worker who drew us a map! Having taken at least 25 mins on the phone to try and ask the simple question do you have a room for tonight for two people, Sara and I were dubious we had made a booking. Thankfully we were ushered into a room with the style and scent of an unkempt old people’s home but Sara and I were happy to see a bed either way and for £4 a night we weren’t gonna complain! It was run by Anil, a guy who slept fully clothed in the lobby and looked constantly as if he was angry/in pain/about to cry so it was very difficult to have a conversation with him without feeling as if we had made him upset! 
That evening we ventured out to lord farquad land to grab some food and headed to Neelams a tiny Punjabi restaurant for an incredible feast! Our first veg stuffed HUGE dosa (like a thin and crisp but chewy pancake) was so delicious!! Stuffed we too a stroll into the centre of these streets to take a peek at the temple. Unsure as to the protocol around entering we watched from the beautiful marble courtyard as Sikh men in gorgeous coloured turbans bathed their feet and walked through a huge arch way towards the glittering inner temple – a beautiful marble structure coated in gold leaf. To see it properly Sara and I decided to get an early night and leave early the next morning.
The 6am buzz of my phone alarm woke us both and our room was freezing! The first time we had been cold all trip! We dressed and headed back to the marble courtyard wrapped in jumpers and scarves where we left our shoes in a huge collection point, bathed our feet at the entrance and covered our heads with scarves. Then in the same darkness and silence that we had seen the temple the night before, we descended the staircase to reach beyond the outer walls into the main temple compound. The focus of the space is the beautiful golden temple itself, floating upon a huge pool of water the ‘Amrit Sarovar’ or pool of nectar from which Amritsar’s name is derived. Ringed by a marble walkway, the tank is said to have healing powers, and pilgrims come from across the world to bathe there. We took the marble walkway and peacefully walked around the glittering spectacle past people washing at the pools edges and sitting or praying, pressing their heads or hands against the white marble walls. We joined a long causeway filled with people silently queuing into the temple it’s self and I closed my eyes to listen to the singing coming from somewhere in the compound that echoed through the space. Slowly, voices around me began to join in, chanting softly as we stepped gradually forward toward the temple. After maybe an hour queuing and listening to this song impassioned singing we were inside the golden temple itself where people rushed to give money, coloured blankets, offer prayers and simply touch the railings surrounding devotees in the center. As we were squeezed out into the calm surrounding this tiny gold island I was overwhelmed all of a sudden. It felt so humbling to be a part of so many incredibly sacred moments for so many people. More so than any other religious space did I feel like I stood out completely but was made to feel entirely welcome – not even through obvious gestures but simply by feeling so comfortable there to witness such powerful devotion. Then as the sun streamed in over the walls, reflecting off the gold leaf and the sacred pool I couldn’t help but cry. Just feeling so privileged to see this space with so many people that held it with such esteem was unbelievable so I wondered what it would feel like for a Sikh who had travelled miles to experiencing just what I had happened to visit. With the sun overhead the space became filled with colour as more people streamed through so Sara and I slowly made our way back out onto the outer walkway feeling totally exhilarated. We sat for a few minutes where a group of men began to play music and sing and it was just beautiful! 
Then following the crowds further we were told it was time for breakfast – by now we had been at the temple for about 3 hours – time had flown by! Copying those in front of us we each dutifully collected metal thali trays, spoons and bowls and seated ourselves cross legged on strips of cloth on the floor of a big room within the temple outer walls. Men with buckets of rice, dal, aloo Gobi, chapatis and this sweet potato tasting delicious thing filled our plates. The food was incredible – so tasty but WOW so filling. We polished our plates with chapatis and handed them to more volunteers who were working to prepare meals for us and the other 60,000 visitors that would also be fed for free that day under the Sikh principles of generosity and hospitality. We left so wonderfully happy and so far I would say for sure that this was one of the best places we had been!
The other ‘must do’ in Amritsar we were told was to visit indias border with Pakistan so having sat down for chai with a local taxi driver we negotiated the price to get there and after some confusion found ourselves bundled into a shared cab of about 9 people and the angriest driver I had ever met- our drive involved him getting out to shout at passers by and try and push more people into his car!! Relieved we pulled up on a road with signs to the border and walked through extensive but completely lax security to be directed to football stadium style seating by decorative gates at the border. After over an hour just sitting watching the seats slowly fill up on both sides with plenty of Indian pop music playing, a kind of hype man dressed in all white appeared and started to amp up the crowd, cheering into his microphone and the crowd really did respond!! Soon this weird parents relay style race with the Indian flag appeared on the road at the bottom of the stands but this was clearly part of the spectacle. Then as what we could only presume were Indian classics began to play the crowd including the women involved in this race went crazy and began dancing and singing. Sara and I were just looking on dumbfounded! Eventually the real border closing ceremony began. This was so bizarre as about 10 pompously dressed Indian and Pakistani soldiers did a kind of high kick dance off with lots of tense music and before we knew it the show was over! We headed back in our angry drivers cab and exhausted from sitting in the sun all day went pretty much immediately to bed. Of course we managed to squeeze in a dinner of Kulcha at the famed brothers dhaba restaurant where for about 80p they sold this INCREDIBLE naan stuffed with chickpeas, herbs and potato with sweet pomegranate seeds and drenched in butter!!
The next morning we had a little lie in before a final trip to the temple for some less spiritually awakening but none the less important go pro shots. I haven’t yet mentioned this but sara is by now making a feature length film of our trip which, if technology allows, I will upload on here!! We grabbed breakfast (another kulcha and a very sweet lassi) at our favourite restaurant Neelams. Then with our penultimate flight soon departing we headed to Amritsar airport. As I had secretly hoped it was ketchup sandwiches again on the flight which made a great free lunch! 
We landed in Delhi and took the metro to where we hoped our train station would be but were confronted with a crazy busy road. Eventually however we managed to navigate our way to the most horrible place we had visited so far. New Delhi train station was packed with incredibly poor families spread on rag sheets surrounded in old food waste and puddles of miscellaneous liquids. We were hassled more than ever before and the smell was unbelievable. This I suppose was the India we just hadn’t yet seen! We left the main station area as soon as we could and I was conscious not to make eye contact with the people packed in to the reservations hall as the guilt was pretty overwhelming without having someone telling me I was rich and white and could spare money. We found our platform and asked as many people as we could if we were in the right place, determined this time to get the train right! Out of no where, right on time our express train pulled up and we hopped up to our wonderful berths – finally a train with seats that were officially ours! Settling in we snuggled up with fleecy blankets, luxuriously soft pillows and clean sheets and were bought cups of soup and breadsticks to add to our picnic tea of crisps and dairy milk! Feeling full I was ready to fall asleep before our stop a few hours later but we were bought trays of curries, chapatis and tiny ice cream tubs so we stayed awake before eventually reaching Jaipur at 1am! By the time we got to the hostel I don’t think I could have fallen asleep faster – greeted with a clean comfy pillow we both were exhausted!
A

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