Friday, 24 February 2012
Thursday 23rd - Hindustan Zindabad
Amritsaris don't seem to be early morning people. The horns don't start blowing until about 6.15. Breakfast is pretty good including a tureen full of steamed vegetables without spicy sauce. D goes a bit mad for these. We take the chance to go up onto the roof of the hotel where there is a tiny swimming pool and a barbecue area. As this is still considered winter in the Punjab they are not in use. It does give us chance to see the Golden temple view from the hotel - spot the golden domed roof in the centre on the skyline. We are delighted that we were too cheap to pay extra for a room on this side.
We stroll along the Queens Road for a few minutes looking for somewhere to eat tonight before hailing an auto to the bazaar area. We are pretty early and many places aren't open yet but it does mean there are fewer crowds,less traffic and time and space to photograph some of the wackier signs.
Next stop is the Sri Durgiana. This is a Hindu temple set out on similar lines to the Golden Temple and known as the Silver temple because of the beautifully carved silver doors. Much less busy than its rival it would be pretty spectacular in any other comparison.
R was pleased because there was devotional singing in progress when we visited but, alas, no free lunch nor any olde worlde warriors. The doorman was a real comedian who decided to try on D's hat and then insisted that we take his picture while wearing it.
We went back to the bazaars which were now starting to do business. As usual there were different areas for different trades. The fabric area was very colourful, while the plastic seating area was not so interesting. Various artisans were plying their trades on the pavement including the hand making of galvanised trunks.This was a particularly noisy process in which the practioners appeared to take great delight.
R wanted to see if she could get herself some spangly shoes to go with her outfit from Kolkata. The guy pulled out all the stops but only one pair came anywhere near a good fit and the price quoted was astronomic. He even had a go at selling shoes to D. Fat chance.
We were repeatedly asked to take photos of stallholders which seemed a reasonable swop for pictures of their wares laid out for sale. As the sun reached its highest it became quite hot and we flagged an auto for the trip back to the hotel. He twice stopped for directions, the second time within sight of the target, but he was not prepared to trust D's directions. They way they drive around here it's doubtful that many live long enough to get a grasp of the city's geography.
We had booked a car to take us to Atari, about 30 km outside Amritsar. This is the scene of the daily frontier ceremony performed by both Indian and Pakistani border guards in front of partisan crowds on both sides of the border. As we neared the border we passed lines of trucks parked up in the queue for customs clearance. Our driver parked up and gave us our instructions before pointing us in the right direction. There was quite a mob building up at the gate, reminiuscent of an old fashioned football crowd. Some of the soldiers on crowd control duty wore splendid puggarees. The gate was opened for ladies first so R set off. D had to fight his way through the crowd to catch up when the main gate opened. There were several security searches before we were shown into the seating area for foreign guests. Don't get too excited - the seating was concrete terracing.
The border gates were surrounded on both sides by open air grandstands which were rapidly filling with colourful and noisy crowds. On the Indian side there was a professional warm up man in a white shell suit who was organising activities and exhorting chanting from the the throng. There was an unruly queue of women and teenage girls waiting to take their turn at running 50 yards towards the border while waving a large Indian flag - even grannies were having a go. Judging by the noises to our left much the same was going on over the border.
Eventually the parade squad marched on, one by one, to great cheers and applause. It included two very smart female soldiers. The drill was quite ludricous - Monty Python's silly walks would not have got a look in. Then the gates were opened and the squad marched one at a time to pull faces at their Pakistani opposite numbers, who were doing just the same. The crowd by now were roaring "Hindustan Zindabad" like a football chant. The ceremony was rounded off by the lowering of the two flags, a polite handshake between the two officers and a ceremonial crashing shut of the gates. The whole thing is clearly rehearsed and co-ordinated to the n-th degree.
All absolutely bonkers.
The VIPs were allowed out before there was a mad rush by the hoi polloi towards the gate. They were held back about 20 yards short by a rope across the road. We made our way back to the car along lines of hawkers peddling DVDs of the performance. Our drive back to town was pretty uneventful by Indian standards. We had consulted the usually reliable Lonely planet for a dinner recommendation and earmarked the Crystal restaurants just about 100 yards from the hotel. These are adjacent to each other, owned by different branches of a quarrelling family and , according, to LP equally good. Tonight they are both closed so we opt for our fall back, also recommended in the guide, Sagar Ratna.
This is on the opposite side of the road and crossing 5 lanes of traffic in the dark was easily our scariest moment so far. A small boy saw our difficulties and helped us across. Sagar Ratna was barely worth the effort especially as we still had to cross back again to get to our hotel. The meal was vegetarian, temperance and resulted in us collecting thirteen separate pickle/sauce bowls on the table. Part of our order was mixed vegetable pakora and R recommended the green beans which turned out to be deep fried, battered chillis. Ouch. Our Tripadvisor review will say something like Underwhelming but cheap. The first disappointing meal we have had in India. LP needs to rewrite its Amritsar chapter.
A quick online check of our reservation status for tomorrow's train tells us that once again we have been allocated a two berth compartment.