Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Amritsar; Pakistani border & the Golden Temple

January 5th, 2008

Walking the road to the bus I couldnt quite make out if it was really early in the morning or really late at night. Despite having learned better Im compulsed to be early when I travel. Ive spent hours waiting in gates and terminals that just might add up to weeks in my life by now.

I sat, leaning against my pack beneath a big restaurant balcony, alone with the chilly darkness and a couple of dogs scrapping over some food on the ground, waiting for the bus driver to wake up and open the bus door. Considering he would be driving me down the mountain over the next several hours I didn't think I should wake him up!

When the door finally opened, I headed to the back of the bus, stashed my over sized pack and rubbed the chill out of my hands.

After a few minutes, a tall east Asian girl boarded the bus, and who I'd noticed around McLeod Ganj a few times. I couldn't tell if she was Japanese or Korean, there's a certain cross over in their looks, at times, that is difficult to distinguish. I looked over as her friend who helped her onto the bus gave her a hug goodbye.

I thought to myself, "Tall, beautiful, Asian girl... Just my weakness! After a week of working up an appetite for practice, this is the thanks I get? You're welcome Mara!"

She was the only other foreign tourist on the mostly empty bus and I considered approaching her to talk but then decided not to. I curled up on the seat and slept most of the way down, occasionally awoken by the bus tossing me in the air like a well done hamburger. (My own fault for sitting in the back.) Dawn was just beginning to light the low hanging blanket of clouds a pale, aqua blue when we stopped and I had to transfer buses.

The girl from the bus also got off and asked where I was going and it turned out we were both on our way to Amritsar so we became instant friends. Her name is Masumi and she is Japanese, after all. I told her I thought she looked Korean, especially with her bangs and thick rimmed glasses. She told me even Korean people mistake her for another Korean and would approach her, speaking in Korean. There is a gentleness about her, though, that distinguishes her, in my mind anyway, from the strong temperament of Korean women I'm used to.

After a few more sleepy hours on the bus, we arrived in Amritsar. Masumi already had a good idea for where a good place to stay was, so I followed her. Actually she already had a the next two days all planned out which was fine with me.

She mentioned catching a ride out to Wagah, on the Indian/Pakistani border, to see the nightly spectacle of the border closing. "Hmm, Pakistan border? Okay!" 

We piled into the back of a van with a few Indian families and headed to the border. It was a long ride through sparse land but the closer we got the busier things began to look. It was almost like being outside a soccer stadium, with vendors everywhere and a huge flow of people moving inward. The border itself actually felt a lot like a soccer stadium with bleachers set up on both sides, huge country flags being waved, and the two crowds in a frenzy, chanting back and forth at each other, "Hin-du-stan! Hin-du-stan!"  "Pa-ki-stan! Pa-ki-stan!"

With just about all the tourists on the Hindustan side of the boarder, I have to say I think the Pakistan side won in the battle of chants! Meanwhile soldiers on both sides marched back and forth, towards and away from each other, dramatically kicking their knees up practically to their faces, stomping around like madmen. They looked almost like Mupets with their complex facial hair and loud hats and the way their legs flipped up like if they were sewn on like Kermit the Frog's. After this went on for a while the two flags came down in simultaneous tugs and the voices quickly died down and we all headed back.

I'm not sure I would have ventured out here on my own but I'm really glad we did. Definitely a unique experience on this planet!

Back in Amritsar there was only one thing anyone needs to do, go visit the Golden Temple!
Known locally as Harmandir Sahib, the Temple of God, it is the most sacred place for Sikhs to worship, and houses their most holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib. It is meant to be a place of worship for anyone of any faith though. Originally, it was a small man-made lake in the forest, dug out by the fourth guru of Sikhism, Guru Ram Das but after the temple was built, the entire city of Amritsar slowly built up around it.

To enter, you must take off your shoes and socks, leave them in a giant underground storage space, wash your feet by splashing in a small pool of water in the white marble entrance way, then passing down a 'cathedralesc' stairway, you enter the walled complex of the Golden Temple. 

It was after dark by the time we got back from the Pakistani border, but it made it all the more marvelous, with everything lit up like it was Christmas. It's not the first time on this trip that I'm claiming something to be the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, but this is right up there with the Taj Mahal, as far as I'm concerned. 

Everyone in the temple seemed cheerful and happy. We met some adorable children who were lighting their puja along the edge of the lake, and everyone who passed smiled. It was really hard to tell if it was a special celebration or if the temple is just like this all the time, then when fireworks and roman candles started going off, it just seemed like, of course!

Completely dazzled, we circled the grounds, admiring every angle, every scene. At one point, a particularly distinguished, proud looking man, perhaps a guru, who's turban was wrapped just a few feet higher than everyone else's came up to me and began speaking in Punjabi, I presume. Soon, I was in the middle of a crowd that suddenly gathered to listen to him. Squeezed in a little too tight, I ducked and weaved under and around a few people and snuck out.

I found Masumi and we walked to the long causeway leading to the temple in the middle of the lake. The queue edged along slowly until we got up to the temple, were I was asked to put my camera away, which wasn't easy for me to do! I had hardly stopped taking pictures since entering the place! 

Inside the three story temple was a chaotic buzz of gold, bright red carpet, and people passing up, down, in, out, and all around, some lounging around, some reading, the murmurs of the voices blending into a single white noise.

All glittered out, we left back up the stairs, washed the black off our feet, got our shoes back and headed to the guesthouse, ready to do it all over again in the morning.

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