After almost a month in the Indian Himalayas, where it felt like we were in a totally different country with blue skies, clean(ish) streets, and cool weather, it was time to return to low land India.
For most of our time in India, Rand arranged our schedule to avoid extreme heat, but for this final leg we had to head to Delhi to catch our flight to Spain, so there was no way to get around the 45 C (100+ F) temperatures that plague the area in June.
We flew from Leh to Jammu and as soon as we left the mountains the sky became a sickly gray. Upon leaving the aircraft, the oppressive heat overwhelmed us.
We made our way to the train station where we would catch an overnight train to Amritsar, the home of the famous Golden temple. After some difficulty (many of the hotels near the train station wouldn’t take foreigners) we booked a hotel room to spend the day in to stay out of the heat.
That night we weaved our way through crowds of people at the train station with the strong urine stench filling our nostrils. We were grateful that this would be our last overnight train ride in India. But it wasn’t exactly an overnight trip. It arrived in Amritsar at 2 am.
We had splurged a bit and booked rooms at the Lonely Planet recommended, Grand Hotel, which is just across from the train station in Amritsar. We stumbled into our rooms just before 3 am, turned on the A/C and went to sleep.
At 7:30 am there was a knock at the door. Sierra stood there bleary-eyed.
“Our air conditioner turned off and it’s so hot in our room we can’t sleep.”
I went to the front desk and eventually got the A/C in the girls’ room to stop shutting off.
Awake now, but definitely not rested, I looked around the hotel. It was not as “grand” as I expected. Perhaps it had been 60 years ago, when it first opened. The triangle shaped courtyard filled with palm trees was lovely, but the rest of the hotel was nothing special. The WiFi only worked in the lobby, where the fans did not help much with the flesh-melting heat.
Still we spent most of our time in Amritsar at the hotel. The city is not known for being overly pleasant and honestly, it is really pretty gross. At one point we were walking down a street near the Golden Temple, dodging garbage and poop and manky water-filled gutters with flies swarming everywhere. I announced that I was pretty sure I was contracting hepatitis just by walking down this street. Then we looked over and saw a mangy, stray dog drinking the cloudy, stagnant gutter water and all gagged a little.
Not trusting the cleanliness of the local restaurants, we also ate most of our meals at the hotel. There was a McDonald’s near the Golden Temple, but it only served vegetarian options perhaps due to it being located right outside the Sikh temple. But besides french fries, what is the point of eating vegetarian at McDonald’s?
India/Pakistan Border Closing Ceremony
We managed to drag ourselves out into the heat for the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony. And man was it HOT!
We arranged a taxi to the border, but were dropped off a kilometer away. We followed the crowds of people walking on the road towards the border. Eventually the lines became separated by gender, so the girls and I said goodbye to Rand. The line was at a stand still so I ran back to take a picture of the sign. Before I returned the line started moving and fast, people were practically running. I jogged to catch up with the girls who were almost swept away in a tide of Indian women.
We walked and walked, then were pulled aside and told to walk on the other side of the median. As foreigners we had been separated from the Indian nationals. We kept walking, but slowed down to wait for Rand to catch up. I talked with a Chinese woman who was traveling by herself.
Rand caught up to us and we made it to the border together only to be separated again for the security pat down. I was asked were we were from and had to show the front of my passport. The girls weren’t asked for theirs.
From there we were guided to a small foreigner section of concrete bleachers. At 4pm, the stone stairs felt like an oven. It actually burned our butts to sit down. The ceremony wasn’t scheduled to start for another hour or more, so we retreated to some shade just outside the arena.
At 5pm, we were ushered back in. Music was playing from loud speaker. The seating area on the Indian side was packed. On the Pakistan side, the bleachers were empty, but rows of chairs near the gate were filled with a small flag-waving crowd.
Cheers erupted from the Indian side as members of the crowd ran in front of the bleachers carrying Indian flags. A line formed as more and more people vied to run with the flag. Strangely, I got choked up watching the Indian get so excited about their country, which I have to admit seems like a kind of horrible place to live.
A group of foreigners got a chance to run with the flags and garnered a big cheer. We thought about joining in, but the line was very long.
Kali and Arwen did join in the dance party of mostly Indian women and girls that formed after the flag running ended.
When the official ceremony began everyone returned to their seats. Soldiers in tan uniforms and red plumed hats marched and high kicked towards the border. It was difficult to see, but it seemed like the same thing was happening on the Pakistani side with soldiers in blue uniforms and plume hats.
Eventually the gates were opened and the flags were lowered. At one point a soldier from each side crossed into the other country and then returned. Then the gates were locked for the night and the ceremony was over.
Despite the heat, I was glad we got to experience this event and even more grateful for the wallas selling ice cream and cold water.
The Golden Temple
When we got up at the crack of dawn to avoid the heat at the Golden Temple, there were already crowds gathering on the temple grounds.
We removed our shoes and covered our heads with scarves (Rand brought a hat, but had to borrow a bandana), then walked through a small pool of water to clean our feet before entering.
At the center of a large square pool of water stood the Golden Temple, which as the name suggests is entirely gold on the outside.
Rand and the girls didn’t want to wait in the long line to see the inside, but I did. There were two lines, but there didn’t seem to be a difference, so I got in the left side. Unfortunately, this line went much slower than the right side. The only difference I could see between the two lines was that the right side entered the side door and the left entered the front.
After waiting about a half hour, I was almost to the entrance. Then chanting could be heard from the loud speaker and the lines stopped moving. After 5 minutes of chanting, everyone in line knelt on the ground, so I did, too. Another 5 more minutes of chanting and everyone stood up and the lines began moving again.
Inside turban men played musical instruments while others waved feathered fans in the air. The walls were painted marble, some with the same designs as the Taj Mahal.
Visitors milled about. I followed some up a set of stairs to a balcony that overlooked the musicians. Another set of stairs led to the roof top. I tried to peek over the golden railing to see if I could spot Rand and the girls, but the railing was too high.
After making my way out of the temple, I rounded the pool where Sikh devotees were bathing near the water’s edge. I found Rand and the girls, who informed me that they had been asked to take photos with a dozen groups of people.
Before retreating to the hotel, we visited the site of the Amritsar massacre. In 1919, during Ghandi’s time, thousands of Indians gathered for a meeting in Jallianwala Bagh park. The British military found out about the meeting and fired at the unarmed civilians through the entry gates, trapping the Indians in the walled park, killing hundreds and wounding thousands.
We viewed the memorial and the martyrs well where people jumped to their deaths to get away from the shooting.
We were stopped several times on our way out to pose for photos.
But we made it back to the hotel before the heat got too oppressive.
I have to admit at this point we were ready to leave India. Despite the beautiful, exotic, and interesting places in this country, the crowds, heat, hassle, and dirtiness make it a difficult place to travel long term.
Good thing it was almost time for our flight to Europe. Unfortunately, our last stop was one of the most crowded, dirty, hassle-filled places in India: Delhi.