Thursday, September 03, 2009


After years of saying he had absolutely no interest in traveling to India, Ulco is here for the second time in just under a year. Last year we spent two weeks traveling through Rajasthan and this time decided to do something different. I was going to plan something in advance, but a few days before he was scheduled to leave for India, Ulco informed me he had a cough, a sore throat and perhaps a fever, and as they are doing checks on swine flu upon arriving in India, it wasn’t entirely clear if Ulco was going to be coming or not. There was the possibility of a few days in quarantine if he was feverish and coughing upon arrival. But it turned out to be bronchitis and he arrived exactly on time.

This trip we decided to start in Amritsar and then decide where to go from there. The reason we chose Amritsar was for the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs. We also opted for the train and off we went to the New Delhi railway station to buy tickets for the 07:20 train the following morning. The only problem, which we discovered after traveling to the station was that tickets can only be bought for trains of the same day or we could make arrangements through the tourist desk which conveniently closed about four hours before we arrived. We had no choice then but to go to an agent who told and showed us that the train was sold out, but he could get us on the train using one of the quotas of tickets for tourists, military, VIP, etc. We put down a deposit and then picked up the tickets the next morning and discovered that the tickets were about two thousand rupees and the fee for the government approved travel agent was also around two thousand rupees. In any case, we ended up with seats on the train and pulled out at exactly 07:20 on Monday morning.

We arrived in Amritsar in the rain and grabbed a rickshaw to the Golden Temple where we would look for a guesthouse. On the train we had a bit of a discussion about where to stay. I wanted to stay at the Golden Temple itself, a place Lonely Planet describes as “more of an experience than a hotel”, but Ulco was not having it. He was being lured by the posters for the five-star hotel and tried to tempt me with ideas of massages and lingering by the pool after a swim. We settled on a guesthouse which was about fifty meters or so from the temple complex, checked in, had a quick lunch and made our way to the temple itself.

We checked our shoes, washed our feet and covered our heads with the touristy orange bandanas which read “Golden Temple” and soon, without any of the normal security checks that come with visiting almost any other place, we were inside the complex walking along the Parkarma, a marble walkway that borders the holy pool in which the temple itself seems to be floating. Prayers being said or maybe better put, sung by four priests inside the temple, filled the complex as people bathed in the holy waters or just sat next to the pool, some chatting with friends, some in meditation or lost in thought while others studies their scriptures and teachings. Guards in traditional uniforms strolled as well, making sure children behaved and giving directions or information.

The Golden Temple itself is reached from a causeway named “Gurus’ Bridge” and people are let inside in small-ish numbers. The line moved quite fast and there was very little pushing and shoving. In fact, I would have to say the whole experience at the temple was one of the most enjoyable I have had as a tourist in India. Nobody tried to sell us anything, nobody wanted money. Everyone wanted to talk with us, ask us questions and share about the temple, what we should see, the best times to visit and when to sit and stand during the prayers. We were made to feel so welcome and everyone was so genuinely nice. It was a far cry from Pushkar where we were conned within minutes of arriving, or Agra where the peddlers are worse than the mosquitoes. Even walking through the tiny and winding streets of the city, we had similar experiences. Children came up to us with hands held out for shaking and bight smiles everywhere. I hate to say it, but sometimes being in India, when someone is nice to you or comes up and wants to start a conversation, the first thought that goes through my head is “what do they want from me?” This was a completely unexpected pleasure.

We visited the temple complex several times, midday, sunset, sunrise, and each time it was just wonderful and different and relaxing and beautiful. I am so looking forward to going back one day very soon and just spending more time in such an amazing place.

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