Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Wednesday 22nd - The Golden Temple
Awoke to a sunny day with just a touch of haze and we took in the view from our room. Then somebody started moving empty beer kegs below the window. We had our first Indian power cut but only for two or three minutes. Breakfast made only one concession to Western tastes - hard boiled eggs. We made up for yesterday's lack of pancakes by having onion uttapams. When we checked out there was a pleasant surprise. Our original Lemon Tree quote had been exclusive of taxes and we assumed the same for the Ashok. We actually paid around 500 rupees less than we expected to - every cloud has a silver lining.
The car that we had booked with Mr Singh arrived promptly. The driver had no English so there wasn't a lot of chat so we just sat back to enjoy the ride. Chandigarh has a modern road system with 2 and 3 lane dual-carriageways, only tiny potholes and hardly any hidden chicanes. There isn't a great deal of traffic. As a result the driving is of a standard that would lead to life bans from any stock car circuit. Nobody is prepared to move over from the outside lane (racing line?) so progress consists of a series of undertaking swoops. The 45 minute trip to Ambala helped us remember why we like train travel in India. On the outskirts of Ambala we stopped for fuel. The driver got out and had a shouting match with the pump attendant who then filled up the tank. At no time was the engine switched off. Are we the only people to find this alarming? At least nobody was smoking.
We arrive at Ambala Cantonment railway station in one piece and in good time so we find the waiting room and read the paper. In D's view this is an excellent station as the bookstall on Platform 2 has Trains at a Glance and the mobile catering facilities are most impressive. In R's view the place is a midden, especially as we have to cross to the far platform for our train. We get there 10 minutes before the train is due to find that there are no seats and the platform information system isn't working. We do see a man in a green turban. Time passes and there is still no train and still no information so D is despatched to the Enquiry counter where he is given a classic Indian response of "Platform 7. Coming soon". Sundry other trains are announced as running one, two or even eight hours late- oh good.
Then it arrives in all its glory - train 12029, the Shwarna Shatabdi. We have front row seats in coach E3, plenty of legroom and luggage space and seat backs that remain where you want them to be. Under way again (30 minutes late) we have our complimentary water delivered followed by tea and biscuits. This is the life - there's even a power socket to keep the laptop alive. 249 km of luxury travel for less than £10 each. India is just wonderful.
By the time we got to Amritsar we were only 10 minutes late. We did a deal with a taxi hustler - it was too hot to mess about and you wouldn't get the time of day from a UK cabbie for £2. You may be surprised to learn that the Country Inn & Suites by Carlson is not a traditional Indian hotel but they offered a good deal. We are shown to our "City View" room (=overlooking traffic) which gets R's seal of approval. There is a handtowel. And working wifi.
Once it cools down a bit outdoors we set off to the Golden Temple. After walking about 150 yards we realise that we are rapidly reducing our life expectancy. We flag an auto and by the time we manage to cross the road there are six of them fighting over one fare. We go with the guy who makes the best pretence of speaking some English. He is a total headbanger who seems to know all of the shortcuts, including riverbeds, back alleys and footbridges. We take back everything we have said over the last two years about dodgy driving. This place really is mad. We are delivered into the hands of a teenage rickshaw cyclist for the last stretch which gives us our first view of the Golden Temple.
Leave Shoes Here it says - so we do. D has purchased a suitable headcovering in tasteful tango orange and R fits it with the help of an Indian lady. We walk up to the temple, wash our hands and feet before carefully descending the marble stairs. The place is stunning, full of people but peaceful. The crowd seem generally happy and friendly and there is a refreshing informality for such a holy place.
There is a certain martial tone to the temple as the walls have memorials and dedications to various military units and the crowds are watched over by uniformed, archaically armed guards. They seem to be pretty good humoured although two youths without head-dress are given a hard time.
We do a couple of circuits of the Holy Tank and then have a look at the dining hall. While we are dithering over whether to eat or not a young lady takes charge of us, along with her two toddlers, and hands us trays and bowls before ushering us upstairs and into the hall.
As D attempts to sit cross legged on the floor for first time in nearly fifty years, one of the servers takes pity and clears space on a bench at the end of the hall where we felt a little conspicuous, but everybody else just got on with things. The meal that you are served is very simple - a sort of potato daal with sweet curd and two excellent chapattis. And it's free!*
After eating one hands in ones tray etc and a squad of volunteers washes up in vast quantities. The cooking pots in the kitchen are huge - at least 100 litres each. There is another volunteering opportunity here - spud bashing.
We return to circuits of the tank. We see only one other western couple and we take each others photos. We are regularly stopped by Indian people who want to talk to us and have their photos taken with us. Why? D takes dozens of pictures from all sides and as the light fades the illumination of the temple takes effect. While we waited a Sikh man took it upon himself to explain a few things about Sikhism and the Golden Temple to us. At the end of this he asked where we were from. When we said Scotland he replied "Johnny Walker. Very good"
It was now quite dark and getting chilly so we got the last few photos of the temple and headed out. Recovering our footwear we were lucky enough to get an auto straight away who drove us back to the hotel at break-neck speed. We decided to take a beer in the hotel bar before having supper. We were the only customers in the place and were plied with complimentary peanuts and papads to the point where dining was no longer necessary.
What a great day. Almost forgot the piccy of D in his natty headgear. Wait till they see this in the Four Maries. We find out what is wrong with the hotel. They play Englebert Humperdinck muzak on a system that has loudspeakers in all of the corridors. Mind you, it didn't stop us sleeping.
* And before you ask we did make a respectable donation. D isn't really that mean.