This post is a tiny bit disjointed because I visited Amritsar in two chunks–them be the perils of doing improvised travel. Those of you who know me are going to be pleasantly surprised about my impulsivity, those of you who are actually fond of me are going to be a little alarmed by the recklessness.
I landed in Amritsar with it being my first destination being entirely on my own (Pokhara doesn’t count as I’d been there before). My plan was to essentially dedicate as much time as needed to the city given that I’d heard so many great things about the place and about the Golden Temple in particular. I had tried to schedule some trips further north in India for the last month of my visa, but when I used western sites like and Expedia and Flight Centre, the prices for flights proved prohibitive. So I settled on going to Amritsar and seeing what sort of ground travel I could figure out from there.
My first night in Amritsar proved to be remarkably fortuitous (given that things did end up working out in the end). I went off for dinner to the Brothers Dhaba, a restaurant known for its Punjabi food, though everything there is very good (take note of the dudes at the far table as they became integral to my travels):
A Punjabi specialty, kulcha, very similar to Naan but with more ingredients baked into the centre:
I had a number of meals in Amritsar and the experience was similar in each. The food really was splendid and some of the best I had in India, but only for the first few bites. Inexplicably, the flavour combination felt bland by the end of the meal, which is odd given the amazing start.
As I was eating, the two fellows sitting at the table at the other end of the restaurant figured out I was tourist (mostly because only idiot tourists take pictures of their food–secret agents trying to stay under the radar, take note). They introduced themselves and sat down to chat with me. It turned out they are both from Kashmir (which I would later learn churns out the nicest people in the world second only to Nepal) on their way back home for the winter holidays. Specifically they are both from Srinigar, a city I was desperate to visit. When I told them about my aborted plans to visit due to expensive flights, they filled me in on the awesomeness that is Spice Jet. The airline is a discount Indian carrier that for some reason does not show up at all if you try to book flights on western online sites: unfortunate given that they have killer prices. The two fellows gave me a ton of recommendations for places to visit in Srinigar and passed on their contact info to keep in touch. Interestingly enough, they told me that they are both medical students and although they are Indian they study in Pakistan through an exchange program between the two countries. Despite the posturing, the two countries don’t hate each other that much.
A photo of the two fellows:
They also recommended that I visit the Golden Temple at night, and I took them up on that idea. It’s amazing enough during the day, but at night it has to rank as one of the top ten places I have ever visited in my life. The hospitality is also tremendous and well organized. They have systems in place to check in your shoes and bags (no bags allowed inside) and even to provide a head covering, all free of charge.
More than anything, I loved the sense of community inside such a lovely site. People are taking baths in the holy waters en masse, and you can tell that they are just enjoying being there. It is a tremendously jovial atmosphere and people are getting fed and are worshiping there literally 24/7. And then there is the music–at least one set of musicians are playing all of time, two during the day.
Outside the complex:
After visiting the temple, I walked back to my hotel. I will offer this advice about walking around Amritsar at night: avoid travelling significant distances. Amritsar has pockets of space which are incredibly dense with people, but every 500 metres or so, there are HUGE gaps with poor lighting that are very isolated. Worse part is that it is impossible to figure out these poorly lit chunks from looking at a map. For example the area around the train station, which you would imagine to be well lit, is generally not, though there are lots of people around. Some shots from my walk back to the hotel which should give you a sense of this:
The following day I spent much of the morning figuring out how to book Spice Jet flights into Kashmir. This proved to be more difficult than anticipated, the main problem being that the major Indian travel websites do not accept foreign credit cards or do not do so within 5 days of the booking–Make My Trip and Yatra being the two best sites with amazing discounts. The second problem I encountered was that my hyphenated last name causes big problems on Indian sites, an unavoidable issue given that my name is hyphenated on my credit card so the verification failed on that basis as well. No problem, it’s a little bit more expensive but I finally managed to book the flight on the Spice Jet site directly. And you really can’t beat their prices, I booked my flight to Srinigar for $40 CDN per leg, success! Well …
You may be asking yourself, wait, isn’t Srinigar in Kashmir? And isn’t that region in a perpetual state of conflict between India and Pakistan? Did you look into whether it’s safe to travel there? Well … not so much. In my defence, if you’ve traveled through India, Srinigar is a well known tourist destination, how was I supposed to known that the Canadian government is not enthused about us going there?
Booking my flights and accommodation ended up taking the better part of my morning and afternoon, and once I was done I rushed off for a late lunch at Kesar Da Dhaba, another well known Punjabi food joint in the city. The decor is minimalist to say the least–the place is literally molded out of concrete. But there’s a reason that this simple place is always packed by people from all walks of life, the food was amazing. Well, for the first few bites (see above), but still, good:
After my late lunch, even though I was running a little late, I risked making a tardy run to the border crossing at Atari. There are a number of buses that leave downtown Amritsar in time for the ceremony for a decent price but since I was running late I shelled out about $24 CDN to get driven there by a taxi. Seems pricey but it’s a 45 minute drive each way and the fellow waits for 1.5 to 2 hours in Atari. You have to walk the last kilometre on your own. Make sure to bring your passport, I’m not particularly cool with this but they allow tourists to go into the VIP area which is closer to the border (either way it doesn’t cost a dime).
Ironically, even though that is the border between India and Pakistan, there is zero danger going there. The border crossing is quite famous because it’s the site of some daily posturing between Pakistani and Indian border troops as they close up the border for the day. But that massively understates the theatre in place at that crossing. Several people described the event to me in advance but I didn’t really grasp the extent of the odd daily performance until I was there.
Picture a fully functional border crossing between India and Pakistan–a big four lane highway that allows thousands of trucks to pass on through every single day. And then imagine a big gate between India and Pakistan that gets opened and closed every day. Where it gets weird is that both India and Pakistan have built massive stadiums at their respective sides of the border, stadiums that get totally packed every single evening at the time of the closing of the border.
Depending on the time of the year, there is a 1.5 hour ceremony shortly before sundown, to mark the closing of the border. Indian and Pakistani troops, in what can only be described as a highly choreographed event march in front of one another loudly stomping their feet and kicking their legs up with a fully extended leg to their foreheads (I’m not exaggerating, gymnasts would be impressed, these male and female soldiers literally kick their legs up within centimetres of their foreheads). Throughout the process, each side has an announcer riling up the crowd as if it were a high school pep rally, and there is even a military drummer on an stage playing a rock-style drum set whenever the troops are on the move. Overall it was a ridiculously fun experience, but unfortunately regardless of where you are seated it’s hard to see much at the actual border crossing but you will see lots closer to the Indian side of things. I apologize for the poor shots:
Let’s start off with the drummer:
Luckily there are plenty of extended video clips of the ceremony available online:
The next day I decided to check out some of the other religious sites in Amritsar, starting with the Hindu version of the Golden Temple, the Shree Durgiana Mandir. The temple is from the 16th century and is dedicated to the godess Durga. It’s not as well funded as the Golden Temple, yet but for the comparison, it would undoubtedly be an awesome sight in its own right:
An alley nearby:
After the Hindu temple I went off to the Jallianwala Bagh which is a large courtyard where the British massacred unarmed protestors in 1919. The most remarkable thing about the courtyard is its size, which rather than make the killing less horrific made it all the more so. It seems as if in an enclosed area, people would be able to better hide, morbidly, behind the masses of bodies. But the place is HUGE and also with very limited places of egress. Hundreds of people tossed themselves into a well to avoid the gunfire. In the end 1,500 protestors were killed or injured by British troops. The most disgusting thing about the massacre was that the British officer in charge, Colonel Reginald Dyer, subsequently testified at an inquiry that the number of casualties was only limited by the numbers of troops that he had available at his disposal. I.e. had he had more troops, he would have tried to kill more unarmed protestors to send a stronger message. The commander faced no sanction in Britain, but the Governor in charge of the region at the time (who green-lit the operation) was subsequently assassinated by a Sikh extremist–the assassin’s ashes were transported back to Punjab after his execution and are displayed in the museum.
Some photos of the site, starting with the only major route to enter and exit the large courtyard:
The weirdest part of the memorial–yes those are bushes fashioned in the shape of troops firing on people. Kinda in bad taste, but locals were happily posing next to them so what do I know?
The well. They pulled out hundreds of dead bodies out of this well after the massacre. Imagine your state of desperation to jump into a well to almost surely drown in order to avoid the more immediate threat of gunfire:
My next stop was the Golden Temple. I wanted to see it during the day and have a meal in their communal hall. A picture of the walk over:
Inside the temple, the bathing area:
Every single day, they feed thousands people of all faiths and income levels in the communal hall. To do so, they rely on donations and on hundreds of volunteers to peel vegetables, cook the food, serve the food and wash the dishes. I had a meal there and it was filling, efficient and a great deal of fun. I did get a teeny bit of the shits from it, but it was pretty much right away and I ultimately did not regret eating there for a second:
In the end, I would have to agree with my friend Simon Fisch, the Golden Temple is also one my my favourite places in the world.
That night, I had dinner at the Crystal restaurant. There are three restaurants in the same building with the same name, their menus are the same and they operate out of the same kitchen. The main restaurant on the first floor has the best atmosphere. Their specialty is chicken in their unique onion gravy, delicious:
Another shot of the walk back to my hotel to illustrate how dark the streets can get at night:
I took off to Srinigar the following morning for a week.
On my return to Amritsar, I went back to the Brother’s Dhaba for a quick lunch on my last full day in town. I just had a dosa so nothing special, but the desert was a local Punjabi treat called firni which is served with a thin topping of silver. Strangely enough the metalic taste goes really well with the yummy taste of the pistachio-like flavour and super thick tapioca-like texture:
My main activity that afternoon was to check out the Param Puya Mata Lal Devi Mandir which is a miniature version of a super-kitchy Hindu Disneyland–one of the coolest sites I saw in the country.
The facade of the place is unimposing:
Once you go inside, you end up in a maze of stairways and corridors that lead you through some really fun mirrored areas. I wish I had taken more photos, but the place is an active temple so it felt really awkward and imposing to do so even though the locals felt no such limitation.
I ran into an obstacle really quickly. The first stairway led to a corridor that had no passage way in sight and I was the only one in the immediate area. It took me a good five minutes to notice a small hole in a wall at knee level–to get through you had to go on all fours, a process I had to repeat a number of times along the way. I think it has something to do with forcing a gesture of humility before entering the temple.
The hole and the wondrous kitch that followed:
My friendly gods from Odisha:
My final stop in Amritsar was Khalsa College. It’s not particularly close to downtown Amritsar, but it’s still very accessible on local transport. I took my favourite Indian transport to date, an electric tuk tuk. It’s way more spacious than a gas model, but a much smoother ride and it makes barely any noise. The fellow didn’t even honk his horn once during the two hours I engaged his services:
I’ll leave you with my shots of Khalsa College: