Saturday, 29 November 2014

India: Amritsar

We were back in the comfort of sleeper class for our journey to Amritsar. We were very amused to realise how much lower our standards are getting, the longer we spend in India. Before arriving in India, we were pretty concerned about sleeper class - now we welcome it with open arms after the 'jungle car' experience!

Amritsar had long been on our list of must see places in India - we were very excited about visiting the Golden Temple after sooooo many amazing reviews and tips from fellow travellers along the way. We were approached upon leaving the station, as per, by a really nice man who offered to take us to our hostel for 60 rupees (around 60p). Despite his best efforts to get us to stay in a hotel he knew (which he tried to sell to us by saying it had running water - clearly not a standard inclusion in Indian hotels) we got to our hostel at a pretty decent time of day and were welcomed with lots of chai and a really welcoming atmosphere. We instantly knew we were going to love staying there. The hostel was called Jugaadus Eco Hostel and is pretty much, as far as we could find, the only hostel in Amritsar but that did not impact on the quality of it. The beds were amazing and definitely the comfiest we had slept in during our entire time in both China and India and there was hot water!!! To the average person this doesn't seem like much of a big deal but in India, hot water is very very rare and is appreciated more than you can imagine. After a long train journey, a hot shower was the most perfect thing. We were told straight away that we could use any food in the hostel and the washing machine for just a small donation to the hostel. The money is then used to buy more food and washing products etc. which we thought was a really good idea as it encouraged us to stay in the hostel and eat which enabled us to socialise more. Chai was basically on tap which was amazing for us as we've become pretty hooked on it over the last few weeks and have learnt to never turn down a cup! We also learned that the hostel run tours everyday - a market tour, a food tour, a visit to the Wagah border, and many more, which were run by the owner of the hostel, Sanjay - one of the nicest, craziest, and entrepreneurial people we've ever met. We can't sing his praises enough and our stay in Amritsar would not have been the same without him. He could not do enough for us, he answered every question we had with as much knowledge and information he could, he told us the most random of facts, and he also shared his experiences and life journey with us so by the time we left we felt like we'd known him for much longer than the four days we'd been in Amritsar.

The next day we decided to visit the Wagah border ceremony. This is a daily military practice that the forces of both India and Pakistan observe closing the border between the two countries. Every day at sunset there is a lowering of the flags at Wagah which has traditionally been the only road link between the two countries. We were so excited to see this so made sure it was the first thing on our list of things to do. The crowds are absolutely insane though. We were told beforehand that as non-Indian visitors we would have to sit in a foreigner section when we got inside, making us feel like VIPs. However, in the time between when we arrived by rickshaw and actually getting to our seats we felt like sardines in a tin being squashed between hundreds and hundreds of Indian people all in a hurry to get in first so pushing forward as hard as possible, elbows flying everywhere; it was so uncomfortable. There were separate queues for men and women and we were told that a mixed queue would never ever happen - another reminder to us of the inequality of women in India yet again. The locals didn't understand that we were trying to push through to get to the Foreign queue and made a point of pushing us and digging their elbows into us so hard whilst cursing us and holding hands to form a barrage so we couldn't get through. It was ridiculous. We were so smug when 5 minutes later, the guards called us right past them and around 100 other women to the front of the queue where we trying to get in the first place as the women watched on irately. Upon arrival, we found that the foreign seats were actually the best ones in the entire area which suited us perfectly. The only spoiler for us was, unsurprisingly, a group of Chinese tourists with cameras who could not understand that they had to sit down because they were blocking everyone else's view and kept trying to move outside of the permitted areas. They were also wearing ridiculously large hats which blocked out view even further. #chinanostalgia. The ceremony starts with a parade by the soldiers from both the sides, and is followed by numerous visitors getting the opportunity to take part in the ceremony by taking a flag of the country on which side they are located and running towards the gate and back. Sam and Bethan got picked out by one of the soldiers to take part. Although reluctant at first, they both had the best time running along with the flags - it was so much fun. After that there is a further parade by the soldiers of both sides and then the ceremony ends with a simultaneous lowering of both flags as the sun sets. Once the gates are closed, the ceremony ends with a retreat that involves a brusque handshake between soldiers from either side. It really is the most fascinating thing to watch, the soldiers are so flexible, one solider was raising his straight leg right up to his face! 

On the way back to the city we visited the craziest Hindu temple EVER. It was just ridiculously wacky and went on forever. It was basically like a mad house that you find at a funfair and really reminded us of the one that they visit at the end of the movie Grease during the final few scenes at the fair. Every few steps took you into a different type of corridor filled with pictures and statues of numerous religious figures and was filled with reflective wall tiles and lights etc. You left by walking through some watery corridor which lead to the main worship area. Outside the temple there were many children getting their head shaved completely bald. One lady was kind enough to explain the concept of this for us. Within the Hindu religion it is tradition to shave the first growth of hair to signify freedom from any past life. It was very interesting to see this, the poor babies were not happy about it at all! So sorry to say that we didn't catch the name of this temple so it may be a little hard to find for yourselves if you were wanting to visit. 

The next day we were chatting to some of the other backpackers at the hostel who recommended we went on the food tour, run by Sanjay himself. Sanjay then explained to us that for 100 rupees he would take us on a walking tour around the local village where we could sample all of the local delicacies whilst also taking in the sights of the local markets and neighbourhoods. As major foodies this was the perfect invitation and we needed no further persuasion. We genuinely enjoyed the whole day and felt like we learnt a lot about the local food, how it was made, and the history behind the food traditions. Again, Sanjay made the tour by imparting all of his knowledge as a local - he took us to places where we never would have visited ourself because of our lack of knowledge of the local language and also because they are not necessarily tourist spots which was definitely a good thing because the food was soooo good and the prices were set at what locals would pay. We especially liked that the owners of the places we visited are recognised as some of the best at what they make and could charge so much more money when selling but choose not to because they are happy with what they have. It makes you really appreciate what you have and what you take for granted. We tried so many different foods, many of which we hadn't heard of before, and can't remember the names of but there was one very strange dish which consisted of glass noodles and ice cream - yummm! Aside from that, we ate pretty much everything we were given very very quickly - a good sign of good food! Along the way we were talking to Sanjay about himself and he told us that he had spent his life working in bars and running bar crawls around Europe so had gained knowledge of what different people want and look for in different places which helped him get an understanding of the type of guests he would have at his hostel and it has definitely worked in his favour. His understanding (and contribution to) British humour was spot on! He had also worked at numerous hostels which again you can see in the functioning of Jugaadus - it works perfectly and was the most welcoming and atmospheric hostel we had stayed in so far. When he told us he had only opened the hostel 4 months ago we refused to believe it. It felt like it had been there for years and years which we wasted no time in telling Sanjay. The tour ended with a glass of chai - we told you it becomes a habit in India! 

On our final day, we visited the famous Golden Temple, (formally known as the Harmandir Sahib which translates as Temple of God) the central religious place of the Sikh religion. It is famous for welcoming everyone regardless of race, class, or religion and is viewed as a symbol of human brotherhood and equality. This alone was enough to make us appreciate the effect the Temple has on everyone that visits it but upon actually entering the grounds you can actually feel the atmosphere change - despite being incredibly busy because yet again we managed to visit during a festival (typical us) - a certain degree of calm falls over you straight away. It really is an incredible Temple; the gold of the exterior is so bright and glows so much in contrast to the white buildings that surround it. Whilst we did not go inside the temple itself because the queues were so large and we had limited time because we had to leave later that day, we have heard that it really is a magnificent spectacle. Another amazing thing that happens is that every single day at the temple, 10,000 people are fed by Sikh volunteers, and anyone who visits the temple is welcomed into the kitchens to help prepare food for everyone, and to clean up afterwards. Any person of any religion is welcomed to eat at the temple, reinforcing the importance of equality within the Sikh religion. Apparently the pots used to cook the food could fit around 10 people inside - hard to imagine its scale really! We were so interested to learn more about this religion as the majority of our time in India so far has been in Rajhastan which is predominantly Hindu. There is a moat that surrounds the temple which people bathe in to wash away their sins and it was so peaceful to watch as people sat and prayed along the water's edge. We really loved this place, and as far as temples go, this has definitely been the best one we've seen so far!

Our time in Amritsar was short but most definitely one of the most interesting and educational of our time in India, made even more special by staying at the Jugaadus Eco Hostel, with Sanjay as host. We can't recommend it enough!

Wagah Boarder
The Gate Separating India and Pakistan 
Before the ceremony they played music for the ladies to dance
Sam brought to the front of the queue to run with the Indian flag
Bethan getting involved in the action
Check out those hats!
Sunset and the ceremony can begin

That's got to hurt!
Little girl getting her head shaved at the temple
Crazy mirrors inside the temple
Golden Temple

Food tour time!
Random stop for some ear cleaning 
Lassi shop
Water Balls - make a hole in the ball then dunk it in the horrible green water
Ice cream and noodles, hmm. 
Last stop - chai :) 
You've been great Amritsar
Happy Wanderers

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