Amritsar and Dharamsala

Hi everyone! I’ve been a bit behind in my writing here. Our story begins about a week ago, as the Golden Temple Mail train rolled into the station at Amritsar. As usual, there’s a selection of photos here and the rest up on Picasa.

Friday 23/3

After a fairly poor sleep on my second night aboard the train, I arrived in Amritsar just as the sun is rising. The Indian chap in the bunk opposite me who I’d been talking to on the train offers to show me a good place to stay at the Golden Temple, so I follow him past the hordes of touts offering various forms to transport to the temple until we get to the opposite side of the railway station, where there’s a free shuttle bus service. I remember thinking that this is one of the many ways that India is different from back home – there’s no way all of these taxi and rickshaw drivers would be able to operate in competition with a free bus service like that in Australia.

After arriving at the temple, the guy from the train showed me to where dorm accommodation was available and then disappeared off to do his own thing. Like most things at the Golden Temple, the dorms were operated on a “donation requested” basis with no fixed price. It was, well, cosy: I was in the area for non-Indians and there were maybe fifteen beds in a room, arranged so close that they were adjacent to each other. It might as well have been one giant bed. There was a basic bathroom with no shower, just a bucket of water and a tap, and that was about it. But it was clean, and being next to lots of other people made for an instant group of friends.

Backing up a bit to provide some background: the Golden Temple at Amritsar is the most holy place for the Sikhs. It’s absolutely beautiful, surrounded by a lake and made out of a staggering amount of gold. As part of the Sikh openness and generosity, everyone is welcome into the temple to give their respects to god, and free vegetarian meals are available any time between dawn and late evening. The general feeling at the place was impossible for me to describe properly – very peaceful, friendly and open in a way that was very welcome after the relatively high pressure of Mumbai and Goa.

After having a poke around the temple, I went off to see the one other major thing there was to see around Amritsar: the daily closing of the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, about 30km west of town. I went with a group from the hostel and together we witnessed the most bizarre and pompous ceremony I’ve ever seen. People running carrying massive Indian flags a short distance to the border and back, soldiers parading around and looking ridiculous, and then India and Pakistan lowered their flags together and closed both sides of the border gates.

Afterwards, we went out for dinner and drinks and general good times. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when we managed to cram nine people into a rickshaw between the restaurant and the pub.

Saturday 24/3 – Tuesday 26/3

Saturday was a travel day. I set off to catch the bus to McLeod Ganj (near Dharamsala), up at the base of the Himalayas, and home to the Dalai Lama. The first sight of snow-capped mountains far off in the distance as the bus crawled up the mountain was staggering. Western Australia isn’t exactly known for its mountains or its snow, so this was all new and exciting for me.

The other highlight of the day for me was meeting Erin a.k.a. Ely, a young American woman who defies any attempt at being described briefly. We got chatting while we were waiting for the bus to leave Amritsar and have quickly become good friends – even though she’d seen me at the border ceremony the day before and initially decided that I was somebody she probably wouldn’t like. She’d done her research on the Dalai Lama’s whereabouts and was planning to going to see his teaching on 1st April, something which I fairly quickly decided I wanted to do too. We ended up sharing a hotel room and making plans to travel together for a few days at least.

Monday was fairly laid back. We pottered around McLeod Ganj for a while, taking care of mundane things, and went to see a show by the “Lion Man”, a minor local celebrity. The first part of the show was traditional Tibetan dancing, which was okay. The second part of the show involved audience participation – whether the audience members wanted to or not – and was completely bizarre. At the very least it pushed our boundaries when it came to personal space. The pictures below give a rough idea of what it was like:

After the show, Erin and I met up with Guy, a chap I’d met previously in Varkala. He’d just returned from a couple of days of trekking, and his advice saved us from spending the ridiculous amount of money we’d been considering on a guided tour to where he’d just been to.

On Tuesday, we visited the Buddhist temple – the temple for the Tibetan Buddhists – and tried to find out more about when and where we could see the Dalai Lama, and whether we’d need to register in advance.

Overall, McLeod Ganj was a fantastic place to be. The mountain backdrop was stunning and the substantial Tibetan population made it completely unlike anywhere else in India I’ve been to. There’s also a wide selection of excellent food, including the restaurant of the hotel where we were staying (which did particularly good breakfasts) and a vegetarian Japanese restaurant which served better food than any vegetarian Japanese I’ve had in back home in Australia. The temple, too, had a very special feel to it; different from the Hindu temples scattered around India and very different from the Golden Temple too.

Coming soon: hiking up a mountain and sleeping in a cave…


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