The soldiers seemed to be saying “Look at me with my big muscles, shiny braiding, ridiculously huge hat, and look, look how high I can kick my legs!” We weren’t quite sure what to make of the flag lowering ceremony at Wagah border between Pakistan and India near Amritsar but it certainly was entertaining. It wasn’t just us that thought so, 3000-4000 Indians thought so and so did about 1000 Pakistanis. The extra tall soldiers looked like a cross between posturing schoolboys in the playground and proud peacocks. Their red and gold turbans were crowned by fans of starched cloth, so ridiculously tall they defied the laws of physics. Their uniforms bristled with gold braid and colourful medals. Their trousers were cropped mid-shin so that their pristine white spats could be properly admired. Immaculately groomed and dashing, they certainly caught the eye. I wouldn’t want to mess with them though as they are members of the highly trained Border Security Force. They might be highly trained in combat but it was their impressive crowd-control skills that had to be used to marshall the masses through several security checks. Splitting the men and women for security searches, they were constantly blowing whistles and patiently reorganising the queues into military precision, a difficult task given the usual Indian crowd involves lots of pushing and shoving. We got there a couple of hours early to make sure we got a seat, while waiting we watched the tiny trickle of normal cross border traffic. Indian porters bringing people’s luggage and placing in it directly on the line dividing the two hostile countries, then the Pakistani porters picking the bags up and taking them on. At no time did anyone but the travellers stray across the white line painted on the road. Around the sides of the border both countries have built stadium seating for people coming to see the flag lowering ceremony. It’s so popular India is building even more seating, foreigners had their own seating area behind the VIPs.
The event started, as soon as the border crossing closed, with a compère whipping up the crowds by getting a group of women and children from the crowds flag waving and Bollywood dancing. Lucy joined in the dancing from our stand. The Pakistanis, just metres away from us, had their own “show” with a competing sound system. The whole atmosphere was carnival like, we felt that there was no aggressiveness between the crowds. People had come to have a good afternoon out and be entertained. First out came two scary looking special forces soldiers with body armour, machine gun and mirrored sunglasses. Marching up to the gate to eyeball their matching Pakistani counterparts just metres away on the other side of the line. Then came the red turbaned unit, including 2 female soldiers. With perfect choreography they marched up to the gate in pairs, with a variety of moves culminating in the most amazing high kicks, almost high enough to kick their turbans off. They were so enthusiastic with their moves that both sides had to straighten their turbans in the middle of their manoeuvres. Then the gates were flung open for more high kicks and some comically aggressive fist waving. All to a soundtrack of both sides competing to have the longest end-syllable of a command, there was lots of applause for the side that had the greatest amount of puff. Before the gate was yet again slammed shut with a bang. The Indian theatricals were perfectly mirrored on the the Pakistani side, their magnificent turbans were dark green and silver with a long tail. After 40 minutes of military dramatics, it ended with both flags being lowered in perfect unison before both gates were dramatically slammed shut.
Pakistan shaking its fist at India – and India shaking it right back.
It was a fascinating spectacle, I’m still not sure what to make of it. The two countries are still engaged in active aggression, especially in disputed territories like Kashmir. Yet they have this almost comical stand off every night, which ends in a quiet handshake between the guards. I was pleased to read that the border forces exchange sweets at Divali, Eid and National days. But yet it isn’t all fun and games, the ceremony was closed for a short while during recent hostilities in October last year.
The week started with an extra special arrival, my Mum game out to Delhi to join us for a week. It was wonderful for us all to see her again. As she has been to India several times, it took the pressure off of sightseeing and meant we could just enjoy each other’s company. She is such a seasoned traveller it didn’t phase her in the least, when after arriving on the efficient and logical airport express station at New Delhi, we got completely lost in the completely illogical train station above it. We knew we were within 500m of our hotel but couldn’t find a way to get there. Even after an overnight flight she listened happily to a child chatting in each ear, as we explored almost every corner of both stations trying to work out how to get over to the right sides of the tracks.
My old backpacking haunt of Pahar Ganj, the crazy phrenetic Main Bazar, hadn’t changed much in 20 years. But we chose a nicer hotel just outside, compared to the flea pit I brought my parents to when they visited me when I was 20. Mum reminded me of some of the more colourful parts I’d exposed them to back then. The Mughal Red Fort was just as impressive as I remember.
On our loop around northern India there was one place we really wanted to visit but it was a 450km each way side trip, with that in mind we decided to take the train. With the truck still out at the garage outside Delhi getting its new windscreen, it made perfect sense. We were up at the crack of dawn, stepping around the homeless people sleeping outside the station. Even so, compared to when I was here 15 years ago the place had been really smartened up. The first 2 hours of the 6 hour express train was a food fest: tea, biscuits, juice, water, vegies cutlets, bread and jam, more tea all included in the ticket price.
The women of India are always gorgeously dressed but I think the ladies of the Punjab are the most glamorous with their beautifully embroidered and bejewelled salwar kameezes of every colour of the rainbow. Alisha wanted to buy some simple fabric to sew, so we saw in the shops how each outfit starts out as 3 pieces of cloth. The decorated and elegant top part, brightly coloured trousers and the gossamer light dupatta scarf twinkling with embellishments and embroidery. All ready to be taken to the tailor and made up in a size and style of your choosing. I just wished I had the style to carry off such a beautiful outfit.
The “jewel in the crown” of Amritsar is of course the Golden Temple, the most holy place for Sikhs. As a building, with its golden domes and gleaming white marble decorated with precious stones reflected in the surrounding Pool of Nectar, the place is stunning. But it is the spiritual peace of the whole complex that really impressed me. Sikhs come from all over the world as pilgrims to pray and come together as a community. What particularly moving was when we were queuing up to cross the bridge into the actual temple itself we listened to the songs from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) being broadcast from the inside of the temple, suddenly there was a particular part of the prayer and the hundreds of people all around us joined in. The actual temple was tiny but the friendly queue patiently waited to enter for a short while. It was less busy in the top 2 floors of the temple, where people found a quiet corner to read or pray. We went back at night to admire it all over again in the dark. The actual temple is just a small part of it, the kitchen feeds between 60,000-80,000 people a day for free whatever religion. It is all organised and funded by the Sikh community and by donations, we had wanted to join them for lunch but unfortunately Mum and Alisha had picked up a bug and weren’t feeling up to it.
We loved the city of Amritsar, leading up to the Golden Temple were newly constructed boulevards that were thronged with people promenading in the evening. Our hotel was close on the edge of the bustling bazar, we walked through the narrow streets to find the Hindu Sri Durgiana Temple. Similar in design to the Golden temple but smaller, it is dedicated to the goddess Durga.
Arriving back in Delhi on Sunday afternoon, we joined the throngs enjoying a stroll through the park’s of colonial Delhi. Mum and I took the girls off to spend the pocket money that’s been burning a hole in their pockets since we arrived. Despite loving the beautiful things on offer all over the country the over-enthusiast salesmen in almost every shop has put them off buying anything. So they spent a peaceful hour browsing through the Central Cottage Emporium, it might have been more expensive but it was far less stressful. Steve on the other hand couldn’t face shopping so instead walked around colonial Delhi.
The following morning, Steve and I marched off on a mission to apply for our Chinese Visas. Our plan is to enter China from Northern Myanmar then drive west for an epic road trip across the Tibetan plateau before exiting to Kyrgyzstan. A great plan, now comes the complete headache of all the paperwork. We had thought that because we have to engage a guide to accompany us across the country and to get us all the necessary permits that the visa would be relatively easy to get. However the visa agency weren’t at all happy that we didn’t have prebooked hotels, even though we had a letter of invitation, so submitted our passports to the Chinese Embassy with the warning that we may get rejected. We will find out on Thursday. Picking up the girls and Mum we jumped on the metro (another new pleasant change to Delhi) out to the satellite city of Gurgeon, where more good things awaited us.