First stop Amritsar.
I arrived in Amritsar in the Punjab in northern India on Monday evening after one of those dreary airporty days. I must have earned some good Karma while in the mountain kingdom because after bidding my Bhutan Buddha boys farewell at the airport I found a welcome surprise for me at check-in: an upgrade to Business Class. Whacko!
I thought it might have been Go India’s way of making up for sending me on that unnecessary plane trip to Delhi last week, but all they’ve put on record about that is some bullshit excuse about it being unavoidable, certainly no apology or offer of compensation. And the flying has otherwise been economy on the four-country tour.
Anyway, I wasn’t looking that gift horse in the mouth and I spent a pleasant hour or so in the nice, quiet, sunny, intimate lounge, blogging away contentedly. And I had no trouble getting a comfy window seat on the Himalayan side of the plane. When I emailed this pic to myself just now, I noticed my iphone has located and named it as Sagarmatha, even from this distance and altitude. Interesting that the GPS is using the indigenous Indian name for Mt Everest when even the locals go along with the British one, named after surveyor George Everest who worked most of his life on the Great Trigonometrical Survey of the early 1800s which established the height of the mountain. He wasn’t entirely undeserving; for one thing he didn’t nominate himself for the honour and also he favoured using local names. He would have called the world’s highest mountain Chomolongmu if he’d known that’s what the Nepalese called it. But they weren’t letting foreigners into their country at the time so they missed out.
I still think both Sagarmatha and Chomolongmu are better names for the mountain, just as Uluru is a much better name for that great red monolith in central Australia until recently named after a British surveyor who never even went there!
But I digress, as usual. Back to the day’s flying. For some reason the plane left half an hour early, which was a teensy bit of a bugger because it curtailed my contented blogging and also meant I had to spend the time saved in the less congenial ambience of Delhi airport instead while I waited for my connecting flight to Amritsar.
The picnic was most definitely over. No upgrade for Annie at Delhi, just an extra half-hour, which expanded into an hour when the flight to Amritsar was delayed, in a big noisy departure hall where you could only get 45 minutes free wifi, grumble grumble. I even bought an actual book – the latest Frederick Forsyth thriller ‘The Fox’ – to pass the time.
My hotel is the Radisson Blu, a generically typical hotel not worth a photo. I divided yesterday morning between writing and a couple of hours in the gym, which was cool and quiet and I had it all to myself. The other mostly Indian tourists here are more attracted to the swimming-pool, but it’s too hot, unshaded and glary for pale Tasmanian me.
New guide Param, who’s fully Sikh (geddit, kids?), came with driver Ashu to take me into town for lunch. (Whereas in Bhutan it was all meals included, here in India it’s all breakfasts, and either lunch or dinner is at my own expense.)
Then it was a 45 minute drive to the village of Wagah on the border with Pakistan, site of a huge stadium where every night crowds gather to watch the flag-lowering ceremony. On the way, growing along the highway in abundance alongside the numerous Indian military installations, is a roadside crop of marijuana that would definitely get its picture in the paper in Australia when the cops came to burn it. I didn’t spot it; Param pointed it out. Apparently the locals don’t use it but foreigners sometimes pick it, which made Param chuckle. I had a momentary impulse to pull off a head or two but….nah.
We got to the Wagah border stadium about 4. The ceremony proper starts at 5.30 but you have to get there early to get a good seat, because 15,000 people come every day to see it!
I spotted a Ladies and had a quick pitstop – 5 rupees for a clean-ish sitdown – in anticipation of this 2-hour spectacle. There’s no entrance fee but you do have to show your passport. I was supposed to end up in the foreigners’ stand where there were plastic chairs but somehow I got swept up with a crowd of local folks and ended up sitting on concrete steps in the Outer, which was at least shaded.
I had been worried about having to wait 90 minutes for the main event but it was just such an astonishing spectacle I didn’t get bored or cross. Young men worked the crowd with ice cream, iced water, iced coffee, chips and popcorn. I realised I was in the middle of a big extended family group, as food and babies were handed up and down the rows, barefoot boys climbed up and down seeking one another out and many hugs and kisses were bestowed across generations and genders. Nobody spoke English! They weren’t unfriendly to me but must have wondered what I was doing among them rather than over in the foreigners’ enclave. I thought of moving, but at that stage the foreigners were still in full sun and I was in shade.
The whole scene was a riot of music and movement as well as colour. The very good sound system was playing stirring martial songs, and videos in praise of the Indian military ran on giant screens facing the crowd. It was highly sophisticated entertainment. I shot lots of video but it’s very time-consuming to process so I’ve saved the best for the grand finale.
At about 4.45 a long line of youngsters queued up to take turns running around the stadium floor waving the Indian flag to the roars and cheers of the crowd.
At about five anyone who wanted to could go down to the flat and dance to the music. At regular intervals a fine tall Indian soldier with a microphone would gee the crowd up – all in Punjabi, of course, not a word of English – calling for cheers and chants of ‘Hindustan – vhan dey!’ – a patriotic cheer a la ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie!’ It was in fact like a major sporting event, but not at all commercial, despite the Bollywood overtones. It’s free to all comers, happens every single day, and the purpose is purely to engender love for the military and the motherland. And the crowd LOVED it!
At five-thirty the gaudily-garbed soldiers came on, prancing up and down the flat and marching up to the gate on the other side of which the black-clad Pakistani soldiers and a much smaller and more sober crowd had gathered to watch.
There is real tension between India and Pakistan at the moment. In February an Islamist terror group killed 40 Indian police officers in a suicide bombing and since then there have been military jet scramblings and even retaliatory strikes because India says Pakistan either can’t or won’t control border terrorists. I half-expected that this highly choreographed exercise in stylised sabre-rattling might have been cancelled, but it went ahead as it apparently always does, with the Indian side intensely more flamboyant and jingoistic than the Pakistanis.
Eventually I did make my way over to the foreigners’ stand for a better look (and an early getaway to my waiting driver) and here’s the video I posted on YouTube.
On the way home we stopped at a wayside grog shop – a dusty shed with a big freezer – and I bought a 650ml bottle of Kingfisher Punjabi beer for 180 rupees. You pay more than twice that for a 300ml bottle from the minibar. And by Christ that first beer tasted good.
Tomorrow, the Golden Temple, which gets 100,000 visitors a day!