As the bus rolled down the high hills of Mc Leodganj to the crowded city of Dharamsala, the temperature rose and the air became polluted again. On the edge of the narrow road I spotted poor families living in tents. I saw many settlements like this in rural India.
I transferred to another bus in Pathankot, a cross point where one road followed north to Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, my bus took the highway to the south. The speakers blasted upbeat Punjab music and men were wearing colorful turbans. I felt excited. Pakistan was less than 20km away.
In the middle of the highway we spotted a huge crowd of people. As the bus slowed down to look over inside the circle, we saw a shocking view of a Punjab man lying dead on the road next to his crashed motorbike. He was bleeding from his leg. The crowd shoved the bus away and the circle closed again.
Amritsar is the holy town of the Sikh religion. It required all men to wear a turban and never to cut their hair. Their mecca, the Golden temple was located in the center of the city. Before entering the compound we deposited our sandals; shoes were considered filthy and not allowed even in plastic bags. I had my feet forcefully “purified” in a shallow pool of water where 10000 others washed their feet and went inside.
Around the Golden temple, pilgrims purified themselves in the pool and performed religious rituals. There were colorful koi fish swimming elegantly in the holy water.
I walked to the pilgrim center and checked into the foreigner’s room. The Golden temple accepted even backpackers as pilgrims and accommodated us for free and fed unlimited food 24 hours.
Officially foreigners were only allowed to sleep up to 3 nights but some travelers took advantage of this place and stayed longer making the beds unavailable. I was super exhausted to find other accommodation so I slept on the floor. In the courtyard hundreds of Indian pilgrims slept on the floor outside. It is said that more than 40,000-100,000 pilgrims visit the temple everyday.
That night I wanted to eat something other than curry. So out of all places, I entered my first McDonald’s in India. It was a vegetarian store since it was close to the temple; eating meat was forbidden in the Sikh religion. I had a paneer (cheese) fry burger set which was absolutely terrible; greasy and later gave me diarrhea.
The next day I went to have lunch at the temple cafeteria where I was overwhelmed by the amount of people working in the kitchen. There were at least 100 people just washing dishes. I was impressed to learn that all of them were volunteers including little children.
They had a system where they cleared out the eating space every 30 minutes so I waited in front of the door until it was our turn. More people turned up every second and the place became like a concert hall.
When the door opened, the crowd rushed like bulls and I almost broke my finger by tripping down and supporting my weight. This was the real hunger games.
Inside the cafeteria were rugs with a plate in front of it. Everyone ran to get a spot like children playing musical chair. Soon the servers arrived with big metal buckets in their hands and poured curry in a hectic manner. After 5 servers passed I had a full meal in front of me. It was simple and healthy food.
The servers came to deliver seconds and thirds. As I took time finishing my plate, our time was up and the next thing I knew, they splashed water in front of us to sweep up the floor. It’s a true Indian experience.
After the meal I went downstairs to get some chai. In this temple they served free flowing chai from the tap; every man’s dream. I expected it to be watery but it was surprisingly good.
When I finished my chai, I walked towards the temple to discover its beautiful face at night.
On my last day in Amritsar, I took a jeep to the Pakistani border to see the changing of guards ceremony that is held everyday before sunset.
Here, military men (and women) on both sides took down their respective flags from the frontier line while competing in various techniques of marching. It’s quite comical to see them raising their knees as high as they could with a super serious face.
Before this main act, there was an opening performance of yoga by local children. To be honest, it wasn’t that impressive but the Indian audiences fanatically praised every pose they made.
When the MC turned on the blasting rhythm of Punjab music and invited all women to come down to the arena, I thought I was watching a Bollywood film. There was so much enthusiasm and intensity in the air. The Indian patriotism was at its peak.
Unfortunately I didn’t catch so much on the Pakistani side. There were maybe less than 100 people in the audience seat. The number of Indians completely out sized them. The military men dressed in black which I thought it was very cool.
A few days before I visited this ceremony, there was a deadly bombing in Lahore, a large city on the other side of the border which killed 75 people. I wish that one day I could visit Pakistan in order to complete my Central Asian road to the Karakoram highway. That’s my dream.
Next evening I took a night train from Amritsar to Rishkesh where I grabbed my backpack and started my journey on land towards Nepal. I had no idea that this trip would be so hard.
*a small Hare Krishna shrine in downtown Amritsar