Day 100 – Lahore to Amritsar (68 km)
Pakistan to India
It was with some nervous excitement that we began to get ready this morning, excited because we were going to be travelling to a new country, nervous because Dad’s bike is still a bit of an unknown element, with its less-than-ideal shock absorber. After a last breakfast with our hosts, we loaded the bikes and said our final farewells. Qaser, the mechanic who had been working on our bikes had been keen to join us for the ride to the border, and we met him just outside the gate and then were on our way. Dad’s shock seems to be holding up fine, but we will have to find a replacement quite soon.
The drive to the border was much quicker this time, and soon we were driving into the customs area, but at the gate there was a large crowd of reporters with cameras. They were clearly waiting for someone else, but for a while, it felt quite cool to be surrounded by photographers snapping away. Inside the building, things were surprisingly quiet, but we proceeded to the customs desk, and handed over our forms, and then sat back for the next half an hour while the forms were processed. Once that had finally been completed, we were taken out to the bikes, where to our frustration, we were required to completely unpack all of our bags and show the contents. At one point, the official even wanted us to open some of our anti-burn bandages, which was a bit of a problem considering that we only had two of them and they were quite useless if opened, but some quick talking on Shan’s part managed to assuage his fears. Eventually, after about an hour, we were done with the search and could repack our bags. Now it was time to go through immigration. This proved to be a bit of a problem, as we had actually overstayed our visa by about four days. Dad and John had gone to a different counter, and had each paid the penalty fee of $10, but the official at the desk we were at seemed to think this was a bigger problem, and while we waited, he and one of the higher-ups spent about ten minutes talking to each other and making phone calls. Finally, they asked us to come and sit in the office, and we were given a cup of tea while they discussed our situation. After about fifteen more minutes, they seemed to reach a conclusion, and declared us free to go, and we didn’t even have to pay the penalty fee. We were ready to leave Pakistan behind and move on to India.
As soon as we arrived, we were directed to a small building where we did the usual round of filling in bike details and passport numbers. Then it was on to the immigrations building. Fortunately, there was almost no-one else crossing over, and so we were soon at the front of the queue, and with a minimum of fuss, we were through and ready for customs. This turned out to be strangely the most efficient and the most time consuming of any customs office that we have had to deal with. It seemed like there was never a break in the taking down of information and the filling in of forms, yet somehow this ended up consuming several hours. Fortunately these guys didn’t require us to go through our bags, and so finally, more than seven hours after we started the process at the Pakistan border, we were all done, and ready to go.
There is almost nothing on this trip that feels as good as the first few minutes of driving into a new country. You get to leave behind whatever problems you experienced in the country that you are leaving, and are entering into something new, often with very little idea of what to expect. Everything feels fresh and wonderful and exciting. India was particularly special, as it is the first country that we have entered in a while that was free of border problems, and in every direction was lush green countryside. People everywhere were brightly dressed, and on the side of the road were flowerbeds bursting with colour. India is the palette where God mixes the colours of the world.
Driving along, there were a few striking differences. The most obvious one was the women. In the last few countries that we have travelled through, women were all thoroughly, sometimes even severely covered up, and often hidden from sight completely. Here, though, women were as conspicuous as men, beautifully, even sensually dressed. Within a few minutes of driving we had seen women driving scooters, a first for us on the trip. One particularly endearing sight was of two women engaged in a very serious chat, each riding on the back of their husbands scooters, while the two men rode side by side in silence.
The border post is actually not far from the city of Amritsar, our destination for the night. Amritsar is famous for being the site of the Golden Temple, an important holy place for the Sikh religion, which is strongly rooted in the area. It is also notorious for a brutal massacre that took place when a British regiment opened fire on a peaceful protest, killing hundreds and wounding many more. We decided that we would first go to the temple, where visitors may stay for free for three days, and then look around in the area if we couldn’t find anything. As we got closer to town, we started to see signs of the traffic for which India is legendary. At one point, we turned down a side street, and were confronted by an elephant that was having a serious meal on the side of the road. With some care, we managed to navigate around it, but it felt like it had set the tone for the rest of our trip. India was the country where ANYTHING is possible. As we got closer to the temple, the congestion increased dramatically, and soon we were practically crawling along, often just pushing along with our feet rather than actually using the engine.
We finally found our way to the temple compound and parked the bikes. John and I went to have a look at what accommodation the temple offered and some of the priests pointed us towards a door. Inside, we found a room, with basics beds crammed in along the walls, forming a platform on which were a number of blankets. It seems that everyone just picks a spot and lies down, even sleeping on the floor if there is no space. Although part of me was tempted to give it a try, just for the experience, practically, there was nowhere to store any of our luggage, or park the bikes, and so we decided to look a bit further afield. Dad and I tried a couple of places just down the street, but all of them were full. But on the next try, we found a really nice hotel, and booked ourselves in. When we went back to fetch the others and the bikes, we found Shan completely surrounded on all sides by people wanting to know who we were, where we were from, etc. People were also lining up for photographs with these exotic creatures, and we were happy to oblige.
When we eventually managed to extract ourselves, we guided the others to the hotel, and unloaded all the bags. It was already starting to get a bit late, and so after a shower, we decided to look around the area while there was still time. The temple was very crowded, and the manager suggested we go after dark, when the crowds subsided a little. One attraction in the area worth visiting was a memorial garden that had been built to honour the people that had been killed in the massacre. We found it with little difficulty, a plain brick face with a simple plaque, but when we walked down a narrow corridor, we stepped out into a large beautiful garden area, huge lawns with families sitting around for picnics, and people strolling along the paths between several small monuments. As we walked, we were frequently stopped so that people could take photos with us. After taking photos with one group of young guys, they shook my hand and told me I was beautiful. Shan has been getting that all the time during our travels, so I can’t deny that it was nice to hear it for once.
There was a sound and lights show that was due to take place, and so while Dad and John went to find us seats, Shan I continued to wander around, constantly greeted by people of all ages, including a group of small children who insisted that we come over and meet their mothers. In the background we heard the show starting, but it took at least another five minutes before we could extract ourselves from the never-ending photo shoots. When we got to the seats, we discovered that firstly, they really shouldn’t call it a lights show unless the lights actually change, and secondly it was all in Hindi, so we just had to listen out for the sound effects. It was actually quite haunting when it got to the part where the crowds gather and then the British regiment opens fire on them. But that could only hold us for so long, and so with the narrator still describing the event in earnest, incomprehensible detail, we decided to move on. On our way out, Shan and I met a mother and daughter from Montreal, who had taken a few months off to travel around Asia. We hadn’t eaten yet, and so invited them to join us for a meal at a restaurant on the way home. They had already eaten, but joined us while we ate, and we had a fantastic time chatting to them about their travels. Meeting fellow travellers is always a highlight for us, and we do so at every available opportunity.
In fact, we had met a young couple from Australia, Rob and Elisia (sorry about the spelling), who were spending some time in India, and we had organized to meet them at 8:00 to visit the temple. They were ready to go when we got back from supper and we headed out with another friend of theirs, Elise (spelling!). The temple compound is just around the corner from the hotel, but it still took a while to make it through the throngs of people that were there. I asked somebody if we had arrived for some important festival, but it seems that this is just what it is like all the time. The temple also offers free food that is served 24/7, but having just eaten, we decided to get it on the way out. Before entering the main courtyard, we were required to turn in our shoes at a large counter, where literally thousands of shoes must have been stored. Walking towards the entrance, we were also required to cover our hair, even the guys. Passing through the gates, we passed next a large covered area. I couldn’t see what was inside, but it sounded like a hundred Michael Flatley’s in a steel room full of cockroaches. It turned out that it was actually the communal eating area, and what we were hearing is the musical cacophony of the plates being washed, stacked or dished.
Stepping into the enormous courtyard, we saw that the temple itself was a relatively small building, but was surrounded by a large moat on all sides, with a bridge crossing over to it from the far side. Around the edges of the moat were steps leading down to the water, where people were sitting, sleeping, praying and few were even splashing about in the water, which we discovered was believed to have healing powers. We took a slow walk around the edge, taking in all the sights and sounds and smells. We paused to sit on the stairs for a while, and to admire the temple brilliantly lit and shining as though it were on fire. We were politely asked by one of the young priests on duty not to sit on the actual stairs themselves, as this was apparently only for those who were part of the Sikh faith. He explained some of the basics of Sikhism to me, while on the other side, a group of young boys took delight in trying to get as close to us as they dared, one even trying to sneak a tap of Shan’s bum. After the explanation was done, we walked round to join the queue to enter the Golden Temple itself. The queue was considerable, and barely seemed to move at all. Clearly this was a popular spot. After waiting in the queue for about fifteen minutes, and moving perhaps one metre, if that, we were found by our friendly neighbourhood Sikh priest, who made the very sensible suggestion that we give the temple a miss for tonight, as the place closed at 10 PM, and it was already after 9, and come back again in the morning. Our Australian friends were going to still be here for another day, so they were fine with that, and Shan and I very bravely decided that we would wake up extra early and visit the temple before we left the following morning.
As we walked back to the hotel, we experienced some of the most intense traffic I have ever seen. The roads were so busy that at one point, not even pedestrians could move, and we had to wait for a couple of minutes before some of the bigger trucks managed to squeeze past. Once we were back at the hotel, we exchanged e-mail addresses, adding to the list of new friends that we will hopefully get a chance to show off Cape Town to. Then it was time to get some sleep before our early start the next morning.