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A capital with a capital 'C'

Asia » India » National Capital Territory » Delhi - 4 to 6 March 2013

sunny 30 °C
View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

As the protest march (see: Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi) was now north of Mathura on the AH1, we made a detour onto the Yamuna Expressway, a massive six-lane motorway opened just six months earlier. It was almost deserted and we scurried at previously unheard of speed towards Delhi.

Possibly, as this was a new road, drivers weren't yet fully aware of it. Perhaps the tolls were too expensive for most. Or, maybe, as it starts in Uttar Pradesh and passes through the state of Haryana, albeit briefly, before reaching the National Capital Territory, its emptiness may have had something to do with separate vehicle taxes payable in each of the three states.

Our driver, for example, had a Rajasthan-registered car with tax already paid in Uttar Pradesh. He didn't usually go as far north as Delhi and had been a bit reluctant to take us there from Agra because, at the Haryana tax point alone, he had to pay around Rs.3,000 (£37/US$56/€43). That's a lot of money when you consider it's more than we were paying him for a whole day's rental, all-in. (Don't worry, when we found out about this, we fixed it with my friend Vijendra, with whom we'd booked the rental, to reimburse him.)

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The almost empty Yamuna Expressway. If you should only stop on the left shoulder, what's the stationary lorry
doing on the right of the carriageway (with warning cones next to it giving no warning whatsoever)?

Whatever the reason, it was clear that people weren't accustomed to using such a fast road anyway. Despite signs urging use of outside lanes for overtaking, vehicles were still driven in any lane, undertaking rather than overtaking, plodding along in the middle lane, roaring along in the inside one. Frequent features were overloaded lorries with broken axles and cars with overheated engines, their drivers squatting in the road with spanners in their hands or sitting on fences beside the road. There were signs of inevitable collisions between speeding cars too, although fortunately on the opposite side of the central reservation.

The 165 kilometres of the Yamuna Expressway from Agra to just south of Delhi, were constructed by the Jaypee Group (an enterprise started by one Jai Prakash (JP!) Gaur). They must have made a small fortune from it because they're busy adding several ribbon developments along the expressway. A world-class 18-hole Greg Norman golf-course and what they term a 'Wish Town' with a vast township and three golf-courses, all called 'Jaypee Greens', were in advanced stages of construction. We also spotted the Buddh International Circuit (formerly the 'Jaypee Group Circuit'), which hosted the Formula One World Championship in 2011.

*****

The growing skyscraper skyline of Delhi soon came into view and we then began to wind our way through heavy traffic to the low-rise residential suburbs.

Outside the homestay we'd chosen for our two-night stay, we bid a reluctant farewell to Yadu, the tall, quietly-spoken, smartly-dressed man who'd been our driver, guide and translator for the past three weeks. Without a shadow of doubt, he'd been the best driver I'd ever had on my journeys around India and he served us exceptionally well. As he has aspirations beyond his present role, he may not stay a driver for ever but, should you need a car in Rajasthan, feel free to ask me for his full name and contact details.

The nation's capital of over 22 million people is the second largest metropolis in India after Mumbai. By day, its roads are a choked, congested, carbon-dioxide-filled car park. It's sometimes colourful, charming and even capricious. Above all, it's crowded, chaotic and characterful. It's a capital city with a capital 'C'!


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Mind where you're walking - pavements (sidewalks) are often uneven and manholes sometimes don't have covers.
The sellers of coconuts, flowers and whatever often have their living quarters in the trees behind their stalls.

With only one full day to spare, we had to limit ourselves to seeing just a few things that would give us a feel for this huge place. We walked a bit, took tuk-tuks, tried the cheap and surprisingly good Metro, and even rode on a cycle rickshaw or two. We saw a great historic place, an equally great modern place, and spent far too long among the amazing markets of Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar.

The historic place was in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, the remarkable Qutub Minar.

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This 12th century, red sandstone and marble tower, the tallest in India, stands over 72 metres (238 feet) high. Originally, it may have been used as a watch tower. On the outside, it's inscribed with intricately-carved inscriptions from the Qur'an (Koran). Inside, it has stairs but, alas - because the views from the top must be fantastic - it is no longer open to the public. A power cut in the tower once turned out the lights and caused a stampede in which dozens of children died. It's been closed ever since.

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The tower's also been damaged by earthquakes and lightning several times over the years and now leans, Torre di Pisa-like, some 60 cms (2 feet) from the vertical. I guess that's still not bad for something this ancient!

Within the complex is something even older - believed to date back to around 400AD and only brought here in the 10th century. It is a tall iron pillar estimated to weigh six tons and notable for the fact that it's never gone rusty. I'd read about a good luck tradition requiring you to stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it. It must have been in an old guidebook because there's a fence around it and you'd now need the arms of King Kong.

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There's also a remarkable mosque, the Quwwat ul-Islam. Its intricate stone carvings of idols and figurines on cloister columns, not normally present in mosques, illustrate the Hindu/Jain past of this complex.

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Next, we crossed the city, weaving our way through heavy traffic on a white-knuckle tuk-tuk ride to the Lotus Temple.

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The lotus is a traditional symbol of peace, purity, love and immortality, and this flower-like temple was built as the Indian sub-continent's mother temple of the Bahá’i faith. It has won numerous awards for its undeniably eye-catching, unique architecture.

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Nine is a magic number in all things Bahá’i, so the building's 27 'petals' are arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides, it has nine doors and it's surrounded by nine reflective ponds, which give the impression of a lotus blossom floating on water.

Bahá’i is what's known as a monotheistic religion - belief in the existence of only one God. The temple therefore welcomes people of all religions to worship within its tall central hall. It can hold as many as 2,500 people but there's no altar, no pulpit, no talking - just peace and quiet for personal meditation.

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It's estimated that, since it was built in 1986, more than 90 Million people have been here, making it one of the most visited buildings in the world. Around 13,000 come here every day - including large parties of adults and school children of many religions.

Most of our day, however, was spent among the ridiculously chaotic and crowded markets of Old Delhi, by far the most fascinating way to see the real life of this city. We do love a good market!

Strangely, we saw very few other foreigners anywhere among the narrow streets during the whole afternoon. We did see tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws, buses, police traffic officers sitting in lofty towers half-asleep, and lots and lots and lots of local people buying, selling and transporting all manner of goods. It was sometimes difficult to walk along what little footpath existed and impossible to see what might have remained of the historic buildings now covered in gaudy signs and miles of electricity cables.

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The Chandni Chowk area dates back to the 17th century and is renowned for the variety of its markets and their 'Indian-ness'. Here you'll find anything and everything - fruit and vegetables, mobile phones, authentic delicacies and sweets, tea and spices, nuts, dried fruits and chillies, lengths of fabric, and stunning saris and jewellery for everyday wear and for weddings. Down narrow lanes, shops - some more like large cupboards, sell books, clothing, shoes and leather goods.

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We became easily lost among the maze of a wholesale fabric market, stall after stall controlled by Sikh businessmen, piled high with materials of all kinds in every imaginable colour and pattern.

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We wandered for ages around the spice market, our eyes sometimes smarting from sharp scents emanating from piles of pungent spices. We watched porters carrying heavy cloth bags filled with nuts or spices from one place to another. We photographed retail sellers squatting amid their wares at the roadside - one of whom gave me some of his dried dates in return, and we chatted with the shopkeepers or bought some of their goods.

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Imperceptibly, we entered the Chawri Bazaar, another wholesale market, this time specialising in brass, copper and paper products. Wedding cards and invitations seemed to be a popular commodity here, although this seemed to be a good place to buy things like biscuits, bangles and all manner of vehicle parts too!

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There was so much to look at that I almost fell over a man making 'paan', a peculiar stuff that's chewed and then either swallowed or spat out as a red blob onto the ground. It's a habit-forming stimulant, so I'm told, and is usually made of cured tobacco, coarsely ground areca nut and various spices, all wrapped up in a leaf of the Betel tree and sealed with a smear of slaked lime. Not only does it sound disgusting, the areca nut is believed to be carcinogenic.

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Nearing the end of our afternoon, we passed the Jama Masjid, the largest and best-known mosque in the whole of India. Built at the behest of Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-17th century, its courtyard can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. We were hot and tired, so decided against visiting it on this occasion. We have to save something for next time, don't we?

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Instead, we opted to cross the road and have a meal at Karim's, a restaurant about which we'd read rave reviews. It was apparent that people don't come here for the ambiance or the décor - it's plain, bare and rather ordinary.

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It's the traditional Mughal food they're after and its reputation in this regard was well deserved. The restaurant has been here since 1913, so they must be doing something right.

And so we returned by ancient cycle rickshaw to the nearest ultra-modern Metro for the journey back to our homestay and an early night. We had to catch the Himalayan Queen leaving from Sarai Rohilla Station in the north of the city at 05.45 next morning!

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Accommodation:
Delhi, like most capital cities, can be extremely expensive. Backpackers might head for Paharganj, where hostel accommodation can be had for next to nothing - but, of course, for next to nothing you'll get next to nothing! Us oldies preferred to go for a homestay (bed and breakfast) and we found a very good one indeed.

It's called the Tree of Life and is well situated within a five-minute stroll of a Metro station in the quiet residential Saket area of the city.

Bedrooms are on the middle two floors of a modern four-storey apartment building served by lift. The friendly, young, English-speaking owner, Ashwani, lives with his family on the top floor and is usually available within a few minutes to provide information or assistance.

Two efficient young men provide luggage handling, breakfast and room maintenance services. The rooms are clean, well-furnished and have exceptionally good bathrooms, including showers that top-class hotels would be proud of. There's free WiFi too. Rates, per night for bed and breakfast, were a very reasonable (by Delhi standards!) Rs.4,500 (£55/US$85/€65) for a double room or Rs.4,000 (£49/US$75/€57) for single occupancy.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:23 Archived in India Tagged markets india delhi national_capital_territory Comments (0)

Off to join the Raj in their summer capital

Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Shimla - 6 to 9 March 2013

sunny 10 °C
View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

We'd spent yesterday amid the clamour and cacophony of Delhi's characterful monuments and charismatic markets. At five o'clock this morning, a more different view could hardly be imagined.

There was only the merest hint of daylight. There was a chill in the air. There were no buzzing tuk-tuks, no honking horns, not even a background hum of traffic. Apart from a dog barking somewhere in the distance, silence reigned.

We were on our way out of chaotic Delhi.

Despite the ungodly hour, one of the young men from our homestay kindly supervised arrival of our taxi and quickly installed our bags, some in its boot and the rest balanced precariously on its roof-rack. We sped through an almost deserted city, racing through red lights, crossing junctions without slowing down, not giving the handful of pedestrians as much as a second glance. Fortunately, our driver missed the worst of the potholes too - we feared for our luggage on the roof.

We arrived safely at Sarai Rohilla Station in the north of the city, with all our bags intact and with time to spare before our train's scheduled departure at 05.45. This was fortunate because we discovered that it was leaving from a platform some distance away - up a long, steep flight of stairs, across a bridge and down another equally-long and equally-steep flight of stairs - and there wasn't a porter anywhere to be seen!

After a super-human relay-team effort, our bags were hauled to the waiting train and we were soon on our way. In the relative comfort of an air-conditioned Chair Class carriage, we began the first leg of our day's journey to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas.

*****

Train travel in India is so incredibly cheap. Our journey today, for example, would be 305 kilometres (190 miles) in five-and-a-half hours from Delhi to Kalka, followed by another train for 100 kilometres (62 miles) in five hours from Kalka up to the lofty hill-station of Shimla. The total cost for three people, albeit with Senior Citizen's discount*, was a staggering Rs.1,330 (£16.50/US$25/€19). Yes, that's for three, not per person, and yes, it includes all service charges for online booking too. Okay, the seats could have been a bit more padded, the toilets could have been a bit smarter, but everything worked - our seats were reserved, trains left more or less on time - and I won't be demanding a refund for reaching our eventual destination ten minutes behind schedule!

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India has the largest rail network in the world and, while it clearly suffers from under-investment, resulting in the use of old rolling stock, it seems to be pretty efficient considering that more than 20 million passengers travel every day to 7,500 stations. Oh, and you don't often get people riding on the roof or clinging onto the sides of the trains like you've seen in old television documentaries.

Incidentally, if you want to avoid disappointment or standing in line at station ticket windows, I recommend buying your rail tickets online in advance through a company called Cleartrip. You'll be able to check train times and fares, make reservations and pay with a regular credit card. Be sure to check the India Mike website for all the details. To get your Cleartrip account, you must follow India Mike's instructions for each step absolutely precisely (repeat: precisely). Read the forum comments underneath those instructions too so you can avoid some of the pitfalls. You have been warned: if you fail to do precisely (repeat again: precisely) what India Mike says, you'll find the whole process very, very, very frustrating and very, very, very time-consuming. I speak from experience!

As usual, I digress...

*****

Our journey from Delhi to Kalka on board the first section of the Himalayan Queen's route was uneventful, a means to an end really. Our journey proper started five and a half hours later when we transferred to the 'Toy Train' for the slow climb to Shimla.

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This narrow-gauge line, with track that's only 2ft 6ins/76 cms wide, was completed in 1906 and was once known as the 'British Jewel of the Orient'. It was an engineering feat that enabled the British rulers of the time to more easily reach what had become their summer capital. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - a good excuse, perhaps, for not being able to change it in any way by, for example, upgrading its uncomfortable, ancient carriages.

The train climbed lethargically uphill, around 919 curves, over 845 bridges, across 5 gated level-crossings and through 102 tunnels to Shimla's tiny station at 2,076 metres (6,811 feet) above sea level.

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It was an interesting journey with some remarkable views across lush valleys and hillsides dotted with towns, some of which were much larger than we'd expected in such mountainous terrain. The train stopped briefly at stations along its route, not so much for passengers to get off or new ones to board, but for those already on the train to buy food and drinks from little kiosks or vendors on the platforms, or simply to walk around stretching their legs and rubbing their numb backsides.

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It's always considerably cooler up at Shimla than in the cities on the plains below. The first British summer home was built up here in 1822 but, within 40 years, the British government in India had begun moving their administration here from steamy Calcutta twice a year, despite the fact that it was difficult to reach at that time. Until Indian independence in 1947, Shimla officially remained only the Brits' summer capital, but it seems that the government actually spent more time here all the year round than in Calcutta or, later, than in New Delhi. Many of those officials were 'unattached' and this, together with women choosing to retreat to the hill-station during the hot season, gave it a reputation for adultery or, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, 'frivolity, gossip and intrigue'.

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As the British presence grew over the years, so did the town's buildings. The upper levels of the town in particular continue to reflect that connection. There you'll find the white Christ Church as if transplanted from a English village, a mock-Tudor library and town hall, and even a Gaiety Theatre. Children in traditional English-style uniforms stroll to lessons at highly-respected educational establishments bearing names like St Bede's College, St Edwards School and Bishop Cotton School. There's even a girls' school called Chelsea.

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The lower slopes meanwhile are occupied by busy, typically-Indian bazaars and restaurants. There's a ban on traffic in the historic central area; here and elsewhere in the town, where the streets are narrow and steep, noisy auto-rickshaws, common in almost every other Indian town, are noticeable by their absence.

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*****

Most of the town lies between 2,100 and 2,300 metres (6,900 - 7,545 feet), so our first few excursions on foot were brief and breathless in the thin air. Smoking in public here is banned too, so the air was both thin and clean!

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Given the customary way of cremating dead bodies in these parts,
the use of 'any body', rather than the correct 'anybody', is perhaps a little unfortunate.

We found ourselves walking much slower than usual throughout our stay in Shimla - all the better to enjoy the sights and sounds of this bastion of the former British empire.

We strolled down from our hotel, through the Lakkar Bazaar with its rather touristy handicrafts and souvenirs, to The Ridge. Here, looking quite at home, is Christ Church (pictured above), together with space for little children to be thrilled by pony rides and for promenading honeymoon couples to gaze out towards the distant snow-capped peaks. This huge open square, beneath which is a reservoir supplying most of the town's water, is overlooked by a statue of Indira Gandhi (Nehru's daughter and the country's first and only woman Prime Minister) and Mahatma Gandhi (leader of Indian nationalism during the time of British rule).

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A little farther down, where The Ridge meets The Mall, is Scandal Point (so called because a Maharajah is said to have eloped from near here with the British Viceroy's daughter!). The Mall Road is Shimla's main pedestrianised street and is where the police, fire and municipal offices are all located amid shops and restaurants. Shimla is now the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh and it's thought that more than fifty percent of its residents are employed by the government in one way or another. The recently-restored Gaiety Theatre, first opened in 1887 - Queen Victoria's jubilee year - is also here.

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Farther down still are the Middle and Lower Markets. Here's where you'll find local people shopping in a congested vegetable market and among the steep, narrow streets with traditional little shops on either side. Everything here has to be delivered and collected on foot, so people carrying heavy gas containers and sacks of fruit and vegetables are an everyday sight.

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If, like us, you spent hours wandering these streets and couldn't face the trek back up to your hotel, there are lifts (regular electric lifts, just like in an office building!) at the eastern end of The Mall, which will take you down to a car park full of taxis.

It's a taxi you'll need to take you to the former Vice Regal Lodge, a mock-Tudor, baronial-style building high up on Observatory Hill just outside the town. It's now used as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. Built in 1888, it had things that were state of the art at the time - a steam generator, running hot and cold water, and electric lighting - Lady Dufferin, the Vicereine (wife of Lord Dufferin, Viceroy and Governor General of India 1884-88) used an electric light switch here for the very first time in her life! The views from the grounds are, as this Victorian lady might have said, 'truly splendid'.

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Another taxi ride - or a steep, two kilometre climb up a path from near the church at The Ridge, if you prefer - will take you up to Shimla's highest point, Jakhoo Hill. Not surprisingly, as it's 1,455 metres (8,000 feet) high, there are panoramic views from here towards the Shivalik mountains. There's also an incredible temple with the world's tallest statue of the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman - at 108 feet (33 metres) tall and weighing a reputed 1,500 tonnes, it's taller, higher and heavier (and certainly more brightly coloured - see photos) than the famed statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

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Appropriately, as Hanuman is the Monkey God, the place is teeming with monkeys, but remove and hide your specs, hold tight to your camera, and be sure to rent a stick from a man just outside the entrance to the stairway - these monkeys are known raiders and are distinctly unfriendly, baring their teeth threateningly if you dare to approach them too close.

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In winter, Shimla has snow and, in summer, snow's not far away! It's now Spring, the first daffodils are just coming into flower, and the snow only left the town a few weeks ago. A worthwhile excursion is on the road towards Tibet - a full day, past Green Valley, up to Narkanda, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Shimla.

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In winter, this is a small-scale ski resort but, even now in March, there's still snow on the ground here and at Fagu on the way. Spectacularly, however, it was the permanent snow on the Himalayas, to which we were now close, that provided such wonderful vistas along the way.

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*****

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this former residence of the Raj, its reminders of home and its very Indian 'today'.

Next stop: somewhere a little like Tibet - the residence of the Dalai Lama in exile, Dharamsala.

*****

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The view from my room at the Hotel Kapil (with the Radisson Hotel in the foreground.

Accommodation:
Our choice in Shimla was the really excellent Hotel Kapil.

It's an interesting ten-minute walk to the Lakkar Bazaar and 20 minutes to The Ridge - you can find hotels closer to the town centre but I guarantee that you won't find one better. The hotel's website makes unnecessary comments about its lack of facilities - these are actually part of its character and mean that it feels more like a private residence than an hotel.

The rooms are large and comfortable, most with their own sitting area, and they have really special views over the valley to the hills beyond. The management is extremely efficient and service from staff who smiled non-stop was outstanding. The hotel's kitchen provided top-class food at very reasonable prices, all meals being served hot and fresh in your own room. In fact, we ate one night at the nearby - and considerably more expensive - Radisson Hotel and, without any shadow of a doubt, the Kapil's food, service and prices were superior in every way.

For a Deluxe Suite and a Super Deluxe Double for Single Occupancy, we paid a total (for three people) of Rs.5,650 (£67/US$105/€80) per night, rooms only, including taxes. Meals were extra but very reasonably priced and very good value. Oh, and laundry was the least expensive of all the hotels at which we stayed during our five weeks in India.

*Since this time, the Senior Citizens' discount on all Indian Railways' routes has been discontinued for foreigners, although Indian citizens still qualify for this and for a range of other disability or military discounts on train tickets.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:12 Archived in India Tagged india shimla himachal_pradesh Comments (1)

Dhasa!

Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Mcleod Ganj/Dharamsala - 9 to 12 March 2013

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"I had hoped that some day I might see Tibet, the roof of the world.
However, until China returns the country to its rightful owners and stops brutalising its people and destroying its traditions, I'll make do with Tibet in Exile."

Mike Fossey, March 2013

In March of 1959, after an epic journey on foot over the Himalayas, Tibet's spiritual leader, Tenzin Gyatso - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, crossed through the Khenzimana Pass into India. Days earlier, in Tibet's capital Lhasa, the people had risen up against Communist China's occupation of their country for the past eight years. The uprising was brutally put down. The tiny Tibetan army was outnumbered and out-gunned. More than 85,000 were said to have been killed. Those members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguards who'd remained behind in Lhasa were publicly executed. Thousands of monks were killed and their monasteries destroyed.

The tolerant Indian nation offered refuge to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, a former colonial British summer hill-station and a place which already had some Buddhist connections. Tibetans had started coming here to live during the 19th century, establishing small temples and schools for its slowly-growing community. The Dalai Lama set up a Government in Exile and Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamsala) became his official residence. Just our luck - at the time of our visit to Mcleod Ganj he was giving some teachings in New Delhi, so he wasn't at home! Our arrival did, however, coincide with the 54th anniversary of the 1959 uprising!

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The 14th Dalai Lama

The Tibetan community has steadily grown over the years - so much so that Dharamsala is sometimes referred to as 'Little Lhasa', although the 8,000 Tibetan refugees who've set up home here often prefer to call it just 'Dhasa'. It has to be said that the Dalai Lama seems to have done a good job in creating a solid foundation for them, with financial support and establishment of good schools, organisations, museums and monasteries.

There are several Buddhist temples here. The largest - and, indeed, the largest one outside of Tibet - is in the Tsuglagkhang complex, in front of the Dalai Lama's residence on Temple Road. This was only a couple of minutes' steep downhill walk from our hotel, the Chonor House - itself part of the Tibetan culture so prevalent in Mcleod Ganj (see 'Accommodation' at the end of this blog).

*****

It was on our first walk down to Temple Road, on the anniversary of the Tibetan people's uprising, that we encountered a huge but peaceful march protesting about China's continued refusal to grant independence to Tibet. It was a good-humoured event, despite an unexpected but thankfully short-lived rainstorm, with much waving of the Tibetan flag, face-painting and slogans on placards.

Young and old, monks in their maroon red robes and trainers, school children in uniform, local Tibetans and even some foreigners all thronged the narrow lanes on the march down to Dharamsala.

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We decided not to join the march but, when the procession had gone, we discovered that the multitude of stalls on the long Temple Road were all closed, as were many of the shops. They were clearly run by Tibetans who were now on their way down the mountain or manned by Indians who, by coincidence, were celebrating the Hindu festival of Maha Shivratri on this same day!

Instead, we visited the near-deserted Tsuglagkhang complex. We went there a couple of times subsequently too, when it was busy with monks going about their business, the faithful prostrating themselves repeatedly, chanting prayers as they did so, and foreign visitors intrigued by all about them.

The temple is quite a modern structure, so lacking somewhat in atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. It contains a museum (which we should have visited perhaps, but we're really not into museums), a monastery which trains monks for rituals associated with the temple, the temple itself, a shrine with a huge gold statue of the Buddha and a massive chorten - a vast array of cylindrical metal prayer wheels bearing the 'Om mani padme hum' mantra. Paintings and wall hangings depict religious stories and fierce Tibetan deities.

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We didn't have an opportunity to speak with any of the monks - most are refugees from Tibet rather than born in India and speak only a smattering of Hindi or English anyway, and their monastic education is entirely in Tibetan. Their days are largely devoted to studying philosophy, history, geography and tantra. Having said that, we did see quite a few monks out in the town, shopping, eating at restaurants, talking on their mobile phones or just walking around.

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Propaganda posters are commonplace. One we saw related to the 10th Panchen Lama (the future Dalai Lama) who was kidnapped by the Chinese government and whose whereabouts are unknown. Others depicted the plight of Tibetan refugees or voiced the claim that a million Tibetans had been killed since China occupied the country, destroying 6,000 religious and cultural centres.

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In the town itself, one side of Temple Road is lined with stalls selling handmade necklaces, trinkets, woollens, leather goods, 'singing bowls' and Tibetan handicrafts of all kinds. Hard bargaining is the order of the day here. On the other side are dozens of small shops selling slightly more expensive articles, clothing, scarves, thangka paintings, souvenirs and the like. Amid this busy scene, all life is displayed - occasional beggars, a small troupe of Langur monkeys, women working on building sites, and even our hotel receptionist on her lunch break.

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Other foreigners, of which there were many around - most of them dressed like hippies in clothes that that they'd bought from locals dressed like non-hippie foreigners - seemed to be enjoying the street food and ice cream cones from the nearby shop too.

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There are one or two decent eating places, and even a coffee bar. I think Tibetans own a lot of the restaurants, shops and hotels in town and employ Indians to work for them. However, some of the restaurants didn't appear to follow any prescribed standards of hygiene - take a look at this (a)shocker:

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We tended to avoid food from street stalls too, but some of the Tibetan soup-like noodles and momos (dumplings, usually vegetable-filled and steamed or fried) looked almost good enough to eat!

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So, we ate mainly at our hotel, where we could choose western-style meals or Tibetan dishes with unpronounceable and eminently-forgettable names; it certainly made a change from the usual spicy Indian food we'd had almost everywhere else, although some still had a bit of kick.

*****

About 15 kilometres outside of Mcleod Ganj is the Norbulingka Institute, a peaceful retreat devoted to preserving the culture and art of Tibet. Norbulingka was the name of the Dalai Lama's summer residence in Tibet. At the Institute, a guided tour introduced us to this picturesque and interesting cultural centre, where Tibetan arts and crafts continue to be practised and a livelihood is provided for a few of the exiled population.

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We saw artists meticulously painting thangkas, some of which could take months to complete. We were shown one painting that had already taken many months of skilled work and which, after several more months of tiny brush strokes, would eventually be presented to the Dalai Lama. Patience was certainly a virtue here.

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Groups of mainly women, sitting on cushions at low tables, made appliqué embroidery thangkas, detailed little pieces being carefully folded, pressed and sewn together with hundreds of stitches.

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Elsewhere, boxes were being assembled then beautifully painted by hand and metal figurines and fretwork pictures were being carefully constructed using basic tools. There's a shop where all the fruits of the workers' labour are well-presented and can be yours for a not unreasonable price given their very high quality.

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The artists' studios were set among landscaped gardens with ponds and streams, flowering shrubs and giant bamboos, decorated here and there with strings of prayer flags.

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A Doll Museum, an unusual exhibition of intricately detailed and lifelike dolls, provides a reference point for future generations of the costumes worn by people in various regions of Tibet and displays festivals and religious events that form part of Tibetan culture.

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Of course, there's a temple here too, with portraits of all the Dalai Lamas lining the walls of its upper floor, together with a stunning gold statue of the Buddha and a few murals of scary gods.

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*****

I loved everything about Mcleod Ganj, despite the number of tourists and the holiday industry that has grown up around them. It was definitely a very different face of India, one I'd never seen before. And, it was almost certainly the closest I'll get to Tibet in this lifetime!

*****

Accommodation:
Although the most expensive option here, our stay at Chonor House provided the ultimate Tibetan experience in this Tibet-influenced town. Its location, up a steep, narrow side alley off Temple Road within two or three minutes' walk of the entrance to the Tsuglagkhang complex was very convenient, although returning up the steep hill after walking around town was, perhaps, not ideal.

It's part of the Norbulingka Institute, some of whose beautiful handiwork provides furnishings for the very comfortable lounge and paintings on the staircases.

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The hotel's staff are all Tibetan and it's decorated throughout with the most wonderful hand-painted murals depicting scenes of Tibetan life and wildlife. Its 11 bedrooms are all different; one thing they do have in common though is a lack of room numbers - they have names instead. Mine was 'Wild Animals of Tibet' and, sure enough, there they were, all over my walls - a panda, yaks, monkeys... There were even leopards on the key tag and the carpet was decorated with tigers. I'd arranged in advance for my brother and his wife, the bloggers Grey haired nomads, to have the room aptly named 'Nomads of Tibet', which was adorned with murals of the country's nomadic peoples.

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The rooms were spacious, very clean, and had good bathrooms, complimentary tea and coffee making facilities, a small fridge, a desk and chair, and free WiFi.

The restaurant served excellent food with many Tibetan specialities. Waiters seemed inexperienced and very laid-back, so service was sometimes incredibly slow but, hey, we were on holiday...

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We paid Rs.4,650 (£56/US$86/€66) per night, room only including all taxes, for the double and Rs.4,016 (£48/US$75/€57) for single occupancy. Meals were additional but reasonably priced.

I'd go back there without any hesitation.

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Farewell Chonor House. My brother David (left of picture) and me about to leave Chonor House
after receiving traditional kurtas (white silk scarves) from Dorma.
Picture courtesy of the 'Grey haired nomads'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:04 Archived in India Tagged india dharamsala himachal_pradesh mcleod_ganj Comments (0)

Pong stinks!

Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Pong Reservoir - 12/13 March 2013

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It's a long drive from Mcleod Ganj to Amritsar, so we'd decided to stop for a night at Pong on the way.

The journey from McLeod Ganj, down from the Himalayan foothills, across rivers and through valleys was probably the best part of this particular night stop!

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By the way, our destination wasn't 'Pong' the other half of 'Ping'. Nor 'Pong' the arcade video game. Not even 'pong' the disagreeable or offensive smell (although that's fairly close to the truth). I'm talking Pong the reservoir, the correct name for which is actually Maharana Pratap Sagar.

There's only one hotel, The Lodge at Pong. It turned out to be a carbuncle on the landscape with basic rooms, terrible food, dire management and a website that miserably failed to tell it how it was.

The view from the roof was lovely.

The boat ride on the reservoir was awful, as was everything else.

I thought about ending this blog right here, but you want to know more about why we didn't think much of Pong, don't you? So...

First, a confession. It was me who suggested adding Pong to our itinerary. Sorry, Janice. Sorry, David.

In my defence, may I add that:

- I hadn't been there before,
- we needed somewhere to break a long journey, and
- online research suggested that the reservoir had a reputation for its bird life - ideal, I reckoned, for a welcome rest and a spot of bird-watching.

There was a hotel there too, part of a group which also owned luxury hotels in Shekawati and Dharamsala, the latter being the residence of the Maharaja of Kangra. The one at Pong appeared to have a terrific view of the reservoir and promised on its website that this was 'a haven for resident and migratory birds' and 'you will enjoy a carefree boat ride...'.

How was I to know it was the runt of the litter and suitable only for those who'd given up the will to live?

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The concrete cube on the hill is where we stayed.

I'd booked our rooms by email four months in advance and reconfirmed them five days beforehand, yet when we arrived at the concrete cube on the hill it seemed almost as if we were unexpected. We offered our passports. The manager said they weren't required and didn't ask us to register - perhaps he preferred us to be non-existent, ghosts as far as the hotel's books were concerned and thus a nice little contribution to his back pocket.

We were shown to two rooms, one of which smelled worse than a sewer and had to be changed for another on the floor above. The other had curtains that, once upon a time, had been attached to the rail, and dirty windows that spoiled what could have been a great view towards the reservoir. Both rooms were bare and unloved.

We contemplated getting back in the car and continuing to Amritsar. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we should have.

However, we'd promised ourselves a relaxing afternoon and a boat trip on the lake so, after a mediocre lunch, we walked across farmland for about half an hour towards the lake, encountering only grass, mud and a few women gathering food for their livestock.

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It was hot, and so were we by the time we reached the muddy shoreline. There, a dilapidated vessel with faded paintwork suggesting it once belonged to the local Fisheries Department (perhaps it still did) waited to take us on our 'carefree boat ride'.

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Out on the water, the boatman insisted that we could only travel along a small area in the middle of the nearest part of the lake because there were fishing nets strung out along all the margins. There was only a cool breeze on the water - no birds! Just a handful of common cormorants and a gull sat on an islet and even Janice and David's powerful binoculars couldn't identify any birds on the far distant land.

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We've seen better on our local boating lake.

Thankfully, we returned to shore less than half an hour later and walked back to the hotel to cool off with a much-needed drink.

The only cold drink on offer was water.

We opted for tea.

Dinner that evening was lunch reincarnated. It obviously hadn't been good in its previous life as it came back in exactly the same form, right down to the last chapatti.

Afterwards, the manager enquired about what we'd like for breakfast. In the morning, it became clear that he hadn't passed on the information and we had to repeatedly ask the cook-come-waiter for every single thing. Breakfast took over an hour...

As we were about to leave, the manager appeared - in what were clearly his nightclothes - and scribbled the room and boat charges on the back of our food bill. Perhaps we did exist after all - in the restaurant anyway!

As they say: 'every cloud...' and our silver lining was simply that we'd broken the long journey without breaking the bank. Oh, and we'd enjoyed the view, at sunrise, during the day and at sunset.

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This last picture is the view of someone's washing hanging out to dry beside the hotel entrance.
It was there when we arrived - and still there when we left the next day!

*****

If you search Google for 'Pong', you'll find just an arcade video game and a supplier of smelly cheeses. Long may that continue!

*****

Accommodation:
The Lodge At Pong. Don't even think about going there.
Most of this blog is my one-star TripAdvisor review.

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:30 Archived in India Tagged india pong himachal_pradesh Comments (1)

A City of Silly Walks and Sikhs

Asia » India » Punjab » Amritsar - 13 to 15 March 2013

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A lot of water has gone under that proverbial bridge, but my memories of the amazing things we did, the great people we met and the wondrous places we saw remain as clear as the day. Well, most of them do. Any that are a bit murky are quickly brought to mind by my camera, which has a photographic memory!

Copious photos and videos, you see, are my crutches as I don't write down things as I go along - perhaps I should as it's said that 190,000 brain cells die each day and, at my age, I can't have many of them left.

Anyhow...

Our incredible five-week tour of Incredible India was now drawing to a close.

We'd seen the slums of Dharavi and the opulence of the Taj Mahal. We'd enjoyed the relative tranquillity of wildlife reserves and the chaos of crowded city markets. We'd encountered the dust and heat of Rajasthan and the cool, thin air of Himachal Pradesh... It had been a very rewarding return visit for me and a true eye-opener for Janice and David, those India-virgins the 'Grey haired nomads'.

But we still had a few more days and still a few more of India's wonders to see...

*****

We couldn't wait to leave Pong. Moments after our luggage had been loaded into the car, the hotel manager had appeared in his night clothes and we'd paid the bill that he'd scribbled on the back of the restaurant chit (see: 'Pong stinks!'). Our driver had spent the night in his car and was eager to be on the road too - after taking us the 130 kilometres (80 miles/3 hours) to our final destination, he planned to drive the 200 kilometres (125 miles/5 hours) back up the winding mountain roads to Dharamsala.

So, waving a fond farewell to the trousers and t-shirt still hanging on the washing line outside the hotel entrance, we wound our way down the track to the main road and on to Amritsar in the state of Punjab.

We knew we'd reached the outskirts of Amritsar when the car started to do battle with a growing number of bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, lorries, buses and pedestrians.

At a particularly busy junction, our driver unexpectedly pulled into the kerb and asked us for the name of our hotel (Golden Tulip) and its address (GT Road).

'Ah, this GT Road. Which way?', asked our driver.

'No idea - it's our first time here!', we replied.

'Kolkata or Lahore?', the driver added.

It transpired that GT Road was short for Grand Trunk Road - an historic trade route, which starts in the east of India at Kolkata (Calcutta), runs through Varanasi and Delhi to Amritsar, then crosses the nearby border to Lahore in Pakistan, before continuing up through Islamabad, over the Indus River to Peshawar, and through the Khyber Pass to Kabul in Afghanistan! Hence the question, I guess.

Fortunately, I knew our hotel wasn't on the way to Calcutta - so Lahore it had to be!

We stopped several more times for him to ask tuk-tuk drivers the way to 'Gordon Toolup?', 'Gooden Truloop?', 'Gowdown Trawlap?', all his enquiries receiving quizzical looks and shaking of heads. Eventually, we asked someone ourselves (in English) and were soon at the smart entrance to the Golden Tulip Hotel.

The city of Amritsar is a mere 32 kilometres (20 miles) east of Lahore and thus very close to India's western border with Pakistan. Half its population was once Muslim, the other half Hindu and Sikh. The arbitrary line drawn on the map in 1947 by Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer working for the British rulers who were about to give independence to this piece of the Empire, went right through people’s homes, dividing fields, pastures and villages. This 'Partition', as it was called, resulted in religious clashes and the inevitable movement of Muslims to Pakistan. Similarly, Hindus and Sikhs were forced to move out of Pakistan, many settling in Amritsar. Today, all faiths live in harmony here, Islam now the minority, followed by Hinduism, but with the majority following Sikhism. Indeed, Amritsar has become the spiritual centre for the Sikh religion.

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When you've been cycling around in traffic jams all day, you need to put your feet up!

*****

The only road-crossing along the 1,800 mile (2,900 km) border between India and Pakistan is the Attari Border Post at a place called Wagah. It's a border with a reputation like no other and we simply had to see it for ourselves. So, after being escorted to our rooms by the Golden Tulip's effusive manager (who, it has to be said, was trying far too hard to create a good impression, gushing with politeness and eagerness to be of assistance), we had lunch in the open-air rooftop restaurant.

Later, a taxi took us to Wagah, about half an hour away. We needed to be there well before sunset, when the national flags on each side of the border would be ceremoniously lowered and the gates closed in what we knew to be an unusual fashion.

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The taxi took us as near as it could to the crowds now making their way towards the security checkpoints, one for men, another for women. We'd been warned not to take bags, bottled water, mobile phones or even cases for our cameras, although the security frisking turned out to be quite perfunctory and friendly.

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There's a special entrance for VIPs and foreigners - alas, we were the latter. VIPs showed their paper passes to BSF (Border Security Force) officers - who were grossly overdressed in neatly-pressed uniforms, spats and ridiculous cockscomb hats - and were given star treatment with seating right next to all the action.

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We jolly foreigners showed our passports and were ushered into another area with tiered concrete steps a little further away, but with a far better view of the event than most of the thousands of Indians now streaming onto the neighbouring terraces. What followed was a show to rival patriotism at the FA Cup Final, although lasting only a little longer than the 45-minute first-half.

A cheerleader in a white track-suit provided the warm-up act, making announcements and whipping up the audience to make more noise. Groups of women and children ran up and down in front of the crowd carrying the national flag. Popular tunes, including Hindi film themes like the 'Slumdog Millionaire' hit 'Jai Ho!' were played at ear-splitting volume for everyone to sing along to. Women danced their socks off in front of the cheering crowd, smiling brightly and energetically waving their hands in the air.

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Chants of 'Hindustan Zindabad!' (Long Live India!) were echoed with 'Pakistan Zindabad' (and the occasional 'Allah ho Akbar') from behind the the green and white crescent-moon flag on the Pakistani side.

The Indian BSF officers pranced around at quick-march pace, adding high kicks that dancers at the Moulin Rouge would be proud of and which rivalled those performed by John Cleese in the Monty Python 'Ministry of Silly Walks' sketch. Women officers participated in the performance too - but only on the Indian side, of course. The tall, all-male Sutlej Rangers on the Pakistani side of the border, clad in sombre black outfits with matching silly hats, tried their hardest to emulate their Indian counterparts. Unfortunately, they lacked encouragement from a much quieter Pakistani crowd, whose numbers were a mere shadow of those on our side of the frontier.

Commands and bugle calls were long and monotonous. Crotch-splitting kicks from the BSF performers got higher and higher. The Indian crowds cheered and shouted 'Hindustan' at every opportunity.

Finally, with pompous, exaggerated gestures, the national flags were lowered in unison. Guards on each side then gave the briefest of handshakes, before slamming the gates shut in each other's face!

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Quite what all this had to do with border security I'm not sure, but it was an hilarious piece of pageantry and theatre that we wouldn't have missed for all the tea in Darjeeling!

Afterwards, it took longer for us to return to our taxi amid the huge and happy crowds than it had to get into the spectacle!

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If you have five minutes (and one second) to spare, take a look at some highlights of the amusing proceedings in my video at the bottom of the page - but don't do it yet, there's still more to come about what we saw in Amritsar!

*****

A small aside: In most Indian towns, giant hoardings and banners strung across the roads carry often bizarre advertisements. Some of them are more interesting than others:

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I noticed my follically-challenged brother taking a keen interest in this!

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Very 'interesting' for us oldies

*****

In addition to the religious strife caused by Partition, Amritsar has also been the site of some of Punjab's darkest moments.

In 1919, during the British Raj, there'd been a fear among Europeans living in Punjab that plans were afoot to overthrow British rule. A strike had been called by Mahatma Gandhi and this had turned violent in some places. Convinced that a meeting of up to 20,000 people in Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh public garden was about to become a major insurrection, the local British army chief, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, took a troop of army riflemen to the gardens. Inexplicably, and without warning, he ordered the soldiers to shoot directly at the crowd of men, women and children. Many hundreds were killed by the time the ammunition ran out - the precise number of dead is still unknown, but one estimate put it at more than 1,500. Dyer's disgraceful and never-to-be-forgotten action is thought to have been a contributory factor in eventually ending British rule in India.

We visited Jallianwala Bagh, now a well-maintained memorial garden with lawns and colourful shrubs, but left after only a short while. Wire sculptures in the form of riflemen, reminiscent of topiary, were strategically placed among the lawns. A sign in English and Punjabi script stated 'People were fired at from here'. An explanatory tablet described 'the non-violent and peaceful struggle for freedom of Indian people' and 'the tyranny of the British'. We're from a different generation of Britons, but felt decidedly uncomfortable being there.

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*****

The nearby Harmandir Sahib - the 'Golden Temple' - had been the site of a tragic event too, in 1984. A Sikh militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was accused of amassing weapons in the temple in order to start an uprising in his quest for a separate Sikh state. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, sent in tanks, artillery and helicopters, killing around 500. This, in turn, lead to increased tension throughout the country, assaults on members of Sikh communities and resignation of Sikhs in the Indian army and civil service. Ultimately, it lead to Indira Gandhi being assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards and more than 3,000 Sikhs being killed in the anti-Sikh reprisals which followed.

Peace reigns at the Golden Temple now, however, and we were welcomed at this, the city's most important Sikh shrine (known as a gurdwara) where more than 100,000 people come to worship every day. It's said that it attracts even more visitors than the iconic Taj Mahal. It certainly seemed that way when we visited it yesterday. I'd be lying if I said we'd planned our itinerary to be here on 14 March - the first day of the Sikh New Year - but what a fortunate coincidence it proved to be!

The roads were more crowded than ever as the faithful made their way to the temple to celebrate the start of the year 544 in the Nanakshahi Calendar (named after the Sikh religion's founder Guru Nanak).

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Most forms of transport aren't allowed to go farther than the entrance to the street leading to the temple.
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In nearby streets, dozens of small shops sold trinkets, religious paraphernalia of all kinds and framed pictures of the Guru and the temple. Devout Sikhs follow what is known as the 'Five Ks': Kesh - the unshorn long hair; Khanga - a small comb used twice a day to keep the hair tidy; Kara - an iron or steel bangle worn on the wrist to symbolise life as never ending; Kachera - a type of underpants that double as shorts; and Kirpan - a small dagger to defend those in peril. These apply equally to men and women, except that women never publicly display their Kachera! Many of the shops on the way to the temple were selling Karas and Kirpans alongside a miscellany of other goods.

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People - us included - stopped to tie bandanas onto their heads as a mark of respect (hats won't do!), some having been bought from itinerant salesmen for a few Rupees.

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Nearing the temple, shoes had to be removed and left for safekeeping in a huge repository, from where we walked on coir mats to wash our feet in a small trough of water beside one of the entrance gates. The temple complex has four entrances, intended to symbolize the openness of Sikhs towards all people, regardless of race, religion, sex or creed.

Whichever entrance you choose, It's likely to be a bit like the 'ooh' moment at the Taj Mahal - such a wonderful first sight.

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Inside the complex, Sikhs prostrated themselves, gazed longingly at the shining temple building, and men stripped down to their Kachera to take a ritual bath in the fish-filled pool surrounding the gurdwara. Women too could bathe, more discretely, in a pavilion reserved for that purpose on one side of the pool.

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A queue of thousands bearing offerings waited patiently to reach the gurdwara along a covered causeway. There they would pray at the holy inner sanctum containing a copy of the Adi Granth, the earliest compilation of holy Sikh scriptures.

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All around, with barely a handful of tourists in evidence, was a wealth of bright orange bandanas, flowing costumes and a positive riot of colourful turbans - red ones, blue ones, black ones, yellow ones, small ones, tall ones, and absolutely blooming massive ones! Sikh men don't cut their hair, so there was an abundance of beards and moustaches too.

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We lost track of time here, walking at least twice around the complex with the sun glinting brightly on the pool, the gold roof of the temple and the surrounding white buildings. The marble beneath our bare feet was sometimes too warm for comfort. The colour was vibrant. The atmosphere was tranquil, reverent and joyful.

It was one of my favourite places of our entire five-week tour. And, it was a photographer's paradise!

Accommodation:
We pushed the boat out to spend the last night of our holiday at the 4-star Golden Tulip Hotel, conveniently located on GT Road within easy reach of the airport, the border at Wagah and the Golden Temple. It was a great choice.

The service was outstanding, with the management team making a point of speaking to guests and offering whatever assistance was required - somewhat effusively, as mentioned earlier.

It has around 50 rooms. Ours were spacious, clean, well-furnished and extremely comfortable, although a little strange in that the large picture windows, when the full-height curtains were pulled back, looked out onto an almost full-height white wall. Tea and coffee-making facilities, a fridge/mini-bar with two small bottles of water daily, and high-speed WiFi were all provided in the rooms free of charge.

A buffet-style breakfast was included and other meals were both excellent and reasonably priced. We paid Rs.3,500 (£42/US$65/€50) for a double room and Rs.3,000 (£36/US$55/€43) for a double used for single occupancy. Good value for money.

*****

You'll find that video of the ceremony at the Wagah border mentioned above by clicking HERE.
It's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!

*****

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This sums up my feelings about Amritsar!

Posted by Keep Smiling 04:12 Archived in India Tagged india amritsar punjab wagah_border Comments (3)

The many faces of India

An epilogue Asia » India - Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, National Capital Territory (Delhi), Himachal Pradesh, Punjab

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View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

Looking back on last year's five weeks in India, I cannot help but wonder why some people seem to have an inherent dislike for this crowded and polluted yet absolutely fascinating country.

Of course, I can understand how shocking it is to those from developed countries that such poverty, such chaotic and dangerous traffic, such unnecessary garbage strewn by the wayside is out in the open, for all to see. What I cannot understand is how anyone could allow the country's shortcomings to overshadow its welcoming people, its amazing religions, its wonderful wildlife, stunning architecture, flavoursome foods...

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.

James A. Michener

Much has been said of the paradoxes discovered by unsuspecting visitors to this incredible land.

Grown men walk hand in hand along the street - a sign of friendship, nothing more.
Kissing in public isn't allowed - but pissing in public is.
People from the North meeting people from the South have difficulty communicating with each other, so use English as their common tongue.
Cows that wander aimlessly around the streets are both holy and owned by somebody - but pigs are neither.

It is these very paradoxes, among many, many other things, that make it such a bewildering, interesting, 'foreign' place to those coming from a neat and tidy, sanitised world.

Here, tourists are walking wallets, sometimes getting bitten by mosquitoes and touts alike. But this is also a land where divisions between myth, legend and religion remain blurred.
It's where even cauliflower can be made to taste delicious, where a kingfisher is a bird and a beer.
Where food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand and the left hand replaces toilet tissue, except if you're naturally left-handed.
It's where bacteria gorge on the unprepared and unwary.

It's a land where sumptuous five-star hotels stand beside slums with open sewers, where a wealthy minority drive in chauffeured 4x4s past the poor majority surviving beneath sheets of plastic. Where traditional caste discrimination, politically outlawed, continues to be followed by the masses.
People use their time raising cattle, goats and children and the ever-expanding population will forever be just that.
And it's where the needs of 1.2 Billion people threaten the existence of the country's few remaining tigers, its national animal.

It's where temperatures soar and the earth turns to dust.
Where people walk knee-deep in water (and worse) when the monsoons arrive.
It's where tuneless music and honking of horns fill the air, where the vibrant colours of saris, turbans and practically everything else are the everyday norm.
And where, away from the metropolises, absence of light pollution means night-time skies are dark and stars are bright.

People you've never met before aren't shy about asking where you're from, your age, your job, how much you earn...
Strangers ask you to take their picture with your camera or take a picture of you on theirs.
Folk spend time repairing things we'd simply throw away.
Buildings look old because they are old.
The young skip school to play cricket and gladly invite you to join their game.
It's where people are infinitely happy with their lot, patient and easy-going.
Where, when you grow old, you dye your grey hair orange.

And it's where gentle, polite people who have very little will share it all with you, where 'visitor is God', where smiling is not frowned upon.

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Posted by Keep Smiling 10:04 Archived in India Tagged india faces epilogue Comments (1)

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