Sunday, July 28, 2013


We were quite excited about our visit to Udaipur as we had heard that it was a relaxing place, and we were well in need of some relaxation. We weren't disappointed.  The bus journey from Jodphur wasn't especially long but was painfully uncomfortable, however we located a good guesthouse that had been recommended to us and settled into a room with a large private balcony with a lake view.

Udaipur is a beautiful, fairly small city surrounding a man-made lake which is overlooked by the 16th century City Palace. In the middle of the lake is a luxury hotel named the Lake Palace which is famous for being the setting for the James Bond film Octopussy. The city is on higher ground to the rest of Rajasthan and so is slightly cooler, and the surrounding area is much more green than the desert landscape which we had become accustomed to over the previous couple of weeks. One nice feature of the city is that many buildings have paintings of Rajasthani-style elephants on the walls which brighten up what might otherwise be a fairly plain street.

We spent the first day there doing … not a lot. We made the most of the views and good people-watching from our guesthouse's rooftop restaurant and lounged on our balcony enjoying the lakeside breeze.

A lakeside homage to Octopussy

We also finally treated ourselves to massages; whilst previously travelling in Thailand and South East Asia we had enjoyed regular Thai massages, but unfortunately had found massages in India to be relatively expensive so hadn't had any. We had been recommended a reasonably priced place to go to in Udaipur (we were assured that the owner would tell Monique that she reminded her of her daughter and consequently give us a discount, which proved to be accurate) and we each had a full body massage. Mine was really good as I was massaged by two people at the same time; they must have seen me and thought “This is a two man job”. Monique's masseur paid a little too much attention to the buttock region for her liking; perhaps she sensed some tension from the uncomfortable bus journey.

Possibly our best discovery in Udaipur was a bakery. For some reason every bakery in India seems to be branded a 'German Bakery' despite the fact that Germany isn't renowned for its bakeries. So far on our trip each of those so called German Bakeries has sold produce that looks great but tastes pretty awful – dry, bland and too sweet. Even so, it's difficult to resist trying something when you fancy something sweet and are optimistic that this one might be good. This time, however, things actually tasted like they were supposed to taste. Hallelujah! We immediately made plans to return before leaving the city.

That evening we stopped by the lakeside to enjoy the lakeside at dusk before heading to the guesthouse. After sitting for a while Monique pointed to something flying overhead and asked “Is that a bat?”. I looked at the huge winged creature she was referring to, laughed and replied “Of course not, unless it's some sort of giant killer bat – it must be a bird”. We then watched in awe for about 30 minutes as a stream of thousands of what turned out to be (non-killer) fruit bats streamed across the night sky in a long line. A really unexpected sight.

Fruit bats flying over the Lake Palace

City Palace at night

The following day we finally got around to doing some sightseeing and visited the Palace which was very interesting, thanks largely due to our decision to take a guided tour. There was quite a lot of excitement amongst the palace staff, as the prince was test-driving a number of cars that day, and so 5 or 6 Porsches were parked in a line inside the entrance to the Palace. We opted against paying an extortionate additional $10 each to see the royal crystal collection – imported all the way from an exotic sounding place named Birmingham!

We also took a cooking class – something that I had been particularly keen to do whilst in India. Having eaten good food at a tiny family restaurant (more like eating in their living room than in a restaurant, complete with helping the children with their English homework on the adjacent table) we took an early class with the owner. We learned how to make chai (something which, after spending 31 years years in England and never having drunk a cup of tea, I have acquired a taste for) an aubergine curry and chapatis. It wasn't the best cooking class but worthwhile nonetheless – I will definitely be making home-made chapatis in the future.

After a day-trip to a couple of nearby sights, which are worthy of their own blog post in due course, we took a sleeper train to Agra. Udaipur didn't match the other cities in Rajasthan for sights, but it was a really enjoyable and relaxing few days in a beautiful city that allowed us to re-charge our batteries before our final couple of stops in India.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


We needed to return to Ajmer—a town approximately 20 minutes away—to catch an onward bus to Jodhpur. A trip that should have been fairly easy and unremarkable, but was very much not. Firstly,we were taunted by a small child for missing said bus, which took off when we were only 100 yards from it. Next, we were told a bus would leave in 30 minutes. In actuality, it left in 20 minutes, which again we missed because we were embroiled in a 'discussion' with a restaurant owner over whether we should pay for a bottle of Sprite that: had a suspect seal, did not fizz when opened, and thus was not consumed. (The contents of said bottle actually turned out to be water, which—to be fair—I don't think the restaurant owner realized.)

Third bus lucky, we finally made it to Ajmer, where we finally boarded a bus for Jodhpur. The ride was not unbearably long, only four hours or so, yet it was remarkable in the fact it was able to produce such discomfort. Discomfort that was justified as soon as the city came into view. Blue and white buildings lurked in the shadows of the giant Mehrangarh fortress, which seemed to rise organically from a rocky plateau.

After a rickshaw ride from a scrupulous driver, who navigated the tangle of streets with relative ease, we arrived at our guesthouse. We quickly headed up to the restaurant, located on the terrace of our new guesthouse, for a sunset view over the city and sustenance (which was phenomenal and dire, respectively. It was without question—the worst thali ever—but with the sunset, who could be too upset? Besides, Jon bought me a pack of cookies from a nearby store, which were incredible.) It was one of those moments where we had to pinch ourselves, because where in the world could we dine in the shadows of a 450+ year old fort? (One that apparently features in the film The Dark Knight Rises. Haven't seen that film, so can't really comment on its appearance.)

The next morning we arose with the intention of visiting the fort and partaking of the zip-line/flying fox course that was situated on the surrounding hillside and went over the old fortress walls and moat. Does that sentence sound sufficiently awesome? Because it should. But words don't always suffice, so check out the video below.

So, you can understand our excitement, no? Now, in most parts of the world I'm familiar with, these sorts of shenanigans would be frowned upon. Well, that might be a bit unfair, because we have no ancient fortresses in the US of A to allow for direct comparison. But I'm sure if we did, there would not be a zipwire course on site. So reason number 1035 to love India: the encouragement of shenanigans.

Jon and I thoroughly enjoyed the course, which consisted of 8 wires, some jaw-dropping views, and good old fashioned fun. Right before the last—and longest zipwire—I might have whined slightly, saying that “The problem with the zipwire is that it goes so quickly, you're not able to fully appreciate the views!” Naturally, I got stuck in the middle of said wire, several hundred feet up, dangling over the moat. This gave me plenty of time to appreciate the views, as well as the precariousness of my situation. Now at this point it is worth mentioning there is a small but select group of individuals who—if they are reading this—will be thinking, “Will she ever learn?” Because I once fell 30+' off a zip line and broke both my wrists, because sometimes I like to make stupid life choices.

So, after becoming stranded approximately 50 yards from the end of the wire, I had to hand-over-hand the remaining bit until my progress became so imperceptible that a relief party was sent out to rescue me. *A fact I find rather embarrassing to admit in this public forum.* Aside from that little wobble, it was an absolutely fantastic time. (And no, Jon did not get stuck. And yes, I was happy about that, even though it made me look bad. Let's just say ziplining is never going to be one of my special talents, and I'm okay with that. Mostly. I think.) 

So after the zipwiring and two liters of water, we headed off to explore the fort itself, which was as amazing inside as it was outside. There were no disappointments here, even the audio guide was phenomenal. Good stories about the current Raj's memories of the coronation ceremony, which happened when he was four or so, after his father died in a plane crash. In addition, we learned it was one of the only fortresses in India that was never taken by force, although it did bear the (cannonball) marks of an unsuccessful attempt. I thought the sharp right angle of the fortress door was particularly clever, which mean that “war elephants” (a phrase that makes me feel very sad inside) could not gain sufficient speed to batter down the door. When construction for the fort began, a shaman-type cursed the its water supply, which sounds silly but was taken very seriously. So seriously it was decided a human sacrifice was the only means of removing the curse. For this reason, a man was voluntarily buried alive in the foundations of the fort to ensure an abundant supply of water, and in exchange, his relatives would always hold a position of prestige. 
Inside the Fort

As horrific as that is, there are sadder stories as well. The picture below is of a relief made from Sati hand-prints. Sati is the practice of burning one's wife/wives alive on her/their husband's funeral pyre. In the mid 1800s, fifteen women dipped their hands in red pigment, pressed their hands against the wall to leave their final mark, and—holding the sacred Hindu text of Gita—'voluntarily' joined the deceased Raj on his journey into the afterlife. I just want to pause to make it abundantly clear this practice is illegal and has been for quite some time, but that does not make it any less tragic.

The only damper on our educational journey and sightseeing extravaganza was the staring and the photos. Several men stuck their stupid camera phones in my face and started snapping away. When Jon took a few photos of me, a couple of guys rushed over to take the same picture over his shoulder. It got so bad that at one point, I actually covered my entire head with my shawl. But then I felt stupid because I couldn't see anything, and who the hell did I think I was anyway? Michael Jackson's offspring? When one is so hot and sweaty and generally gross-feeling/looking, you can't help but to think this attention is some kind of perverse mockery. In actuality, many of the men we encountered were simply very uneducated and believed that all Caucasian women behaved like those they have seen on certain corners of the internets that are available to those 18 years and older.

After finishing our tour, we found a quiet corner of a square to watch some traditional dancing and music. Unfortunately, our peace was quickly broken because some idiot decided to park himself two foot in front of me to leer. When Jon stepped between us to tell the man to “stop staring at [his] wife,” the man actually walked around him to continue to ogle me. And then shiz started to kick off, and for a nanosecond I thought there might be a fight, but the man's relative intervened on his behalf, and tempers were cooled slightly, but it was all very apparent it was time for us to exit stage left. Which we did, with a stop on the blissfully quiet ramparts and temple on the way out.

The next morning we woke up suitably refreshed, in part thanks to a relaxing rooftop dinner and some well deserved beer. Our plans were to check out the market area, an ATM, and the Umaid Bhawan Palace on the outskirts of town that was built in the 1920s as part of a job creation project. Which I found particularly amusing, “Yo! You don't have a job? No money to put food on the table? Come build me a palace!” 

The market was nice, but similar to those we had frequented, so we didn't linger long. The ATM was splendid due to the AC that is present in most of the vestibules. Jon and I like to pretend our banking takes longer than it really does so we can prolong our visits to those frigid little booths. “Wanna check our bank balance again?” (wink, wink)
Umaid Bhawan Palace
Markets (near clock-tower) and palace
Our trip through the palace was enjoyable, but not nearly as enjoyable as watching the tourists inside of the palace, who seemed to enjoy taking photos of themselves next to random crap like a glass case full of oil lamps, a large painting of a horse, or maybe a cutlery set. And who wouldn't want their photo next to a display case of old coins? (I was in absolute stitches watching the bizarre photo-taking extravaganzas.)

One of the real highlights of the palace was a collection of very old and decidedly yummy cars, which included several Rolls Royce Phantoms from the 1920s and 30s. The exhibit also included a tragic beige Beamer from the 80s that had definitely seen better days.

So our time in Jodhpur was coming to a close. We had one last evening meal on a terrace, trying to soak up the view as much as possible, hoping it would imprint itself on our memory. It is definitely one of the most spectacular views we have come across in our current trip to date.  

Now, this post is mostly a wrap, but there is one final issue I'd like to address: the moo cows. Now it should be mentioned at this point that navigation through the winding streets was assisted by using a herd a cattle as a proxy for where to turn. This herd lolled about on the cobblestones about a hundred yards from our guest house, and contained one particularly ornery cow that aggressively headbutted us on our way home one evening. Both the aggression and the cow poo meant I did not particularly enjoy running Moo Cow Gauntlet. For this reason I insisted on walking a slightly longer route around to avoid the herd. As we were walking home one night, I was contemplating Moo Cow Gauntlet, and I thought it might be nice if the cows could congregate somewhere that was more out of the way, maybe have a dwelling in a place that was not so heavily trafficked.  Then I thought, “But where would the cows go? Where would they live if not in the intersection?” And that is when I realized I have been in India too long; when I can no longer recall that cows live on farms.

Another interesting cow story before I wrap this one up. When we were leaving town, on the way to the station, our rickshaw driver was clearly eyeing up the cattle as we passed them. It was if he was waiting for something. He was. He stopped the rickshaw as a white cow approached us on the street. As it neared us, he reached into his change box, pulled out a stale poppadom (i.e. cracker), fed it to the cow, patted its nose, and drove onward to the bus station. 

Because they didn't fit nicely in the narrative I have constructed above, I'm going to shove in these photos that Jon took below, which is somewhat awkward, but whatever.  The kids in Jodhpur really enjoyed mugging for the camera, and it was kind of interesting to see how inventive they are--making a playground from an urban space.  You'll get to hear from Jon shortly, and he'll tell you all about Udaipur. 


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pushing on to Pushkar

From Jaipur we took a relatively short government bus journey to Pushkar, having heard good things about it from a British couple we had met in Jaipur and subsequently discovering that it neatly split up the journey to Jodhur.

Pushkar is one of the oldest living cities in India. It is another pilgrimage site, this time for Hindus planning to take a blessing (puja) in the lake said to have been formed as a result of Shiva crying so much following the death of his wife, Sati.

After Delhi, Amritsar and Jaipur we were relieved to find that Pushkar is a really relaxed place. The majority of the town consists of a road running around the lake which is occupied by shops, guesthouses and roof-top restaurants offering views of the lake, and a maze of small alleyways off that road.  The city is surrounded by mountains which can be seen in the distance all around the lake.

For the budget-friendly sum of ₤2.50 per night we got a room in a guesthouse with fantastic views of the lake and the various ghats where people take 'holy dips' and receive blessings. In fact our guesthouse directly overlooked the ghat where Ghandi's ashes were spread – a pretty grand site if you can overlook having to walk right next to a public urinal to enter/exit the building.

We initially planned to spend only one night in Pushkar, however we were quite taken with the relaxed and happy vibe and decided to stay for 2 nights. While we were there we wandered around the shops, which were refreshingly (relatively) hassle-free, and visited some of the various temples. One temple of particular note is the 2000 year old Brahma temple; curiously although Brahma is the Hindu deity of creation, and perhaps comparative with the Christian god, he is not a popular deity with Hindus, who seem to prefer Ganesh, Shiva and Krishna, and has very few temples dedicated to him so this one is pretty prominent.

The food served at the various restaurants we tried left a lot to be desired, however the lake views and the relaxed atmosphere made up for it. We did have one good meal, however; an excellent veggie thali at a restaurant where we spent the evening with 3 Americans – 2 student actresses and one aspiring film-maker.

The atmosphere around the lake where people were taking their dip in the various ghats and receiving puja was really pleasant. People seemed really happy to be there, and the feeling was infectious.

One downside of Pushkar, however, was the presence of numerous con-merchants. I have deliberately refrained from using the phrase 'con-man' because a number of said con-merchants were children. Around the lake area children would force you to take some flowers from them to take to the lake for a blessing. On arrival at the lake men purporting to be holy-men would then offer to perform puja at the cost of a 'donation' at your discretion, only to subsequently insist on a minimum payment. Luckily we were warned about this and didn't fall for it.

We were, however, much closer to falling for a different con whereby particularly grubby and sad looking children would ask you to buy chapatis to feed them and their family. We were initially drawn in by the believable children who seemed genuinely hungry, however we don't generally give money to beggars for fear of encouraging reliance on the practice (or in this case encouraging the parents of the children to allow or endorse it) and something didn't feel right about the children being insistent as to where the chapatis should be bought from. We offered the children pens for school, which they declined. Feeling bad about that we then purchased some packs of biscuits; however when we offered them to the children who approached us they were also declined, and we were informed that they were “bad for [their] teeth”. Clearly this wasn't right – starving children turning down sweet food. We later learned that the children persuade people (including Indian tourists) to buy a pack of chapati mix for them, and they then subsequently return it to the salesman in return for their share of the money.

It isn't the slightest bit surprising to encounter con-merchants in Pushkar as they are everywhere we have been in India. It has got to the point where we feel that we can't trust anything we are told because we have been mislead and lied to so many times. However, it was particularly disheartening to experience this sort of behaviour in such a holy, and pleasant, place and for it to involve such young children who should be learning the right way to conduct themselves.

The only other real negative from Pushkar, apart from having to leave so soon, was my discovery upon preparing to leave that a friendly lizard whom we had found in our room, and in retrospect was a bit pale and slow-moving, had expired on my bag. I just hope he was Hindu.

Negatives aside if we weren't pushed for time to fit in everything we wanted to see in India then we would happily have spent another day or so relaxing in Pushkar and soaking up the happy vibe. Still, with batteries recharged a little our next destination was Jodhpur.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

All about Jaipur

Our next stop was Jaipur, one of the largest cities in Rajastan, which is called the 'pink city' due to the uniform color adopted by the buildings of the city. A moniker which is, quite frankly, wrong. While my observational skills are not always the must acute, I think the even the colorblind might agree Jaipur is most definitely the distinctly superior color of terracotta orange. Originally painted this color to mimic the look of red sandstone at a fraction of its price-tag, it has thankfully sustained this color scheme for about 280 years.
Keeping the 'Pink City' pink terracotta orange
We arrived in Jaipur on an overnight non-AC sleeper bus, stewing inside a glass vestibule that very much resembled a terrarium. Due to the aforementioned lack of AC, and indeed—oxygen in general, as well as the seething throngs of noisy fellow passengers, we slept little during the night until sheer exhausted triumphed, and sleeping became the only method of temporarily escaping discomfort.

Fortunately, we had reservations at a highly recommended guesthouse, that naturally, had lost said reservations. Not that this mattered at all—hooray for the low season! We checked in, ate a delicious meal—our first in nearly a day—and headed out to the common room to use the happy-making wifi. While Jon used the laptop, I browsed through some of the information stored on the hard drives of the shared computer. The first document I pulled up had some fairly useful travel tips for Rajastan, but it was nowhere nearly as awesome as the next document I pulled up. This appeared to be a history of correspondence between a male Indian national and a German woman. Taking places over a series of months, it detailed the planning of an Indian marriage between the two, the postponement of said marriage due to a lack of auspicious dates, and the inevitable request for 'nominal' financial support (i.e. 20 Euros a week) in the interim. I felt a little bad for reading it but not, because I didn't know either party, and who copies and pastes these emails to a word document then saves it on a shared computer? Really?

The next morning, we had planned to make an early start for a walking tour of the old city. However, for a multitude of small reasons and one big one (i.e. laziness), we did not. Fortunately, the area were ventured out to was the shopping district, which was situated inside the ancient city walls and consisted of a series of shared walkways. Without this respite from the blazing sun, we may have packed it up and headed home. I am relieved to say we had the strength to persevere. Strength which may or may not have come in the form of fresh lime sodas. 

Our first stop was Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of Winds, which is phenomenal. Built in 1799 to house the Maharaja Singh's harem, it was designed to keep its occupants cool in the harsh heat of the country while simultaneously keeping Purdah—which is the practice of ensuring women were kept 'safe' from the gaze of men who were not their husbands. (Bleh.) I think the building itself looks remarkably like a terracotta bee hive of sorts, which is fitting because with all those ladies the Raj must have been one busy bee.  

When we arrived at the palace, we saw a couple who shared our fifteen hour bus journey o' fun from Amiritisar. After chatting for with them for awhile, it was nearly 1 before we properly explored the building with the assistance of our audioguides (<3). By the time we left the building—which it must be said was startlingly breezy—it had become face-meltingly hot. So we stocked up on some H20 and headed off to a second Jantar Manter like the one we saw in Delhi—its entrance was part of a combination ticket. 

Inside the Hawa Mahal

Jantar Mantar

We debated checking out the Royal Palaces, but decided against it due to its (comparatively) astronomical expense and the very blah-sounding description of it in our guidebook. The next stop on our walking tour was a minaret that offered spectacular views over the city and came highly recommended by our bus friends. It was a long, yet gentle climb, and both the views (and breeze) from the top were well worth it. Our intrepid explorer friend was a bit too adventurous, because he nearly plummeted to his death when he climbed out on the ledge for a better look.  We also caught some amazing cloudbursts.  

We let the market area a bit early with the intention of catching the sunset from nearby monkey temple; however this proved to be a difficult endeavor to say the least. Rickshaw drivers were only willing to take us there for approximately 5x a fair price, and we wasted precious time and energy haggling with them before finally packing it in and deciding to have dinner instead. Dinner featured an amazing ice-cream shake and a veggie burger with a side of six (!) fries all smaller than my pinky finger. Most amusing. We then headed back to the hotel, where we booked a tour for the following day to Amber Fort and Galta/Surya Mandir (i.e. Monkey) Temple.

Since our lunch/dinner was a bit on the stingy side, we headed upstairs to the rooftop restaurant for a bit more to eat. Although it wasn't the best weather, we had good company. We ended up chatting with an Australian girl who was traveling solo and in the midst of trying to emigrate back home with her Polish fiancee. (Needless to say we had a lot of empathy regarding immigration woes!) So altogether, it was an interesting night.

The next day, we were up bright and early for our tour. Our rickshaw driver was late and then it transpired he was contracting our job out to another driver. (Grrr....) While it was a slightly rocky start, we were just happy to be headed in the correct direction. After a reasonably short drive, we arrived at Galta/Monkey Temple, where we purchased provisions (i.e. peanuts) for the monkeys and the services of a guide (i.e. pseudo-professional monkey-shooer) before ascending the hill o' monkeys. To be accurate, it was actually more of a full on, proper menagerie of animals. There were goats, pigs, cows, and yes of course, monkeys. 

At first, I was slightly hesitant to feed the monkeys, as we've found the rhesus monkeys can be quite vicious. However, our guide/professional monkey-shooer suggested feeding a particularly obese monkey known to be “very friendly.” Whether his corpulence was due to his 'friendliness' or his girth simply slowed him down, I know not. But he was definitely a big boy. It seemed the people of Jaipur quite regularly fed the monkeys, which was good because there were approximately one bazillion of them, and I would imagine it takes most of Jaipur's resources to keep Mr. Chunky Monkey satisfied! 
Mr. Chunky Monkey:  "I remember when I was young and slim like you."

The views from the top were pretty amazing as well. After checking out a temple at the top, we wandered back down to head off to the Amber Fort. Which was amazing! Jon and I were really impressed with the amount of work it must have taken to build and its sheer size. The fortress itself is a bit more of a temple, with three inner courtyards that housed temples, a royal meeting hall, the royal residence, and a harem. (The harem featured an inside corridor--see below--that connected to each individual room, so who the Raj was 'visiting' could be kept a secret from the ladies of the harem.)

On the way back, we stopped and looked at some building out in the water. I think it had some relevance or importance, but I can't recall what that was. Then we were basically taken to a shop to buy stuff. I was annoyed greatly by this because we were paying far over the odds for the trip anyway, and we had our time cut short at Amber Fort because this guy wanted to make a commission. Yuck. We were dropped off at the Royal Albert Museum, which didn't house the greatest museum collection, but was situated in a really interesting building.

We then headed home to figure out our plans for the following day. After some consideration, we decided to stop at Pushkar—our friends from the bus said it came highly recommended and it was on the path to Jodhpur. If we didn't like the city, we figured we could simply hop on the next bus out of town. After we decided our next destination, we headed up to the roof to enjoy the views over the city that came free with dinner. We both really enjoyed our stay in Jaipur, and some of the things we saw there were truly amazing; we just wish the rickshaw drivers were a bit more amazing as well.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Having a riot in Amritsar

 We were initially unsure whether we would make it up as far north as Amritsar in Punjab; however, we decided we could make the trip when we discovered that it was only 6 hours from Delhi by train and decided to omit Jaisalmer (farther west and far too hot) from our itinerary.

As Delhi had been pretty hot and this would be a daytime journey, we elected to splurge on seats in an air-conditioned carriage. This was a great decision. After we extracted the occupants from our seats we discovered that they were large and comfortable with plenty of leg-room. Even despite the noise caused by the numerous children (as ever, without any form of entertainment for the trip apart from playing music on their mobile phones without earphones) the journey flew by. When we arrived on-time we almost wished that we had an extra couple of hours of air-conditioned goodness.

There are two main reasons for visiting Amritsar: the Golden Temple, the most holy place for Sikhs, and the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony. Unfortunately, we took an almost instant dislike to the city. We had settled into the extremely large but basic room at our guesthouse, but the moment we left the premises Monique was met with staring on a whole new level to that experienced so far. Almost every man stared at Monique apparently unperturbed by her return glare, my presence, and—on occasion—the wife and children immediately next to them. These weren't 'innocent interest' stares either, they were lecherous, aggressive and combined with exchanges of words followed by laughter which made it absolutely clear their interest was sexual. Most disappointing was the number of Sikhs dressed in religious clothing, presumably on pilgrimage to the Golden Temple, acting in this was; not a great representation of the religion.

After a failed attempt to purchase train tickets to get out of the city a.s.a.p., and resisting the temptation to return to the guesthouse before the altercations I was finding myself in became physical, we visited the Golden Temple. The temple, unsurprisingly golden in colour (and with a dome made from real gold) sits in the middle of a square ghat surrounded by bright white buildings. The temple itself is very nice but it is the setting that is really genius; set against the pristine white background the temple really stands out and looks quite magical, and is also reflected in the surrounding water giving the impression that it is floating.

The temple area was packed with people who had made their pilgrimage to the sacred sight, with families sat all around, seemingly making the most of their trip by spending hours there to relax, appreciate the temple and enjoy the free food offered. Many people chose to strip off to take a 'holy dip' in the ghat. Although it is compulsory to cover one's head in the temple it is apparently ok to strip down to one's fake Calvin Kleins in full sight.

It was baking hot so we spent a good amount of time sat in the shade looking out to the temple and people watching. Unfortunately the queue for entering the temple itself was too long for us to go in before we had to take our pre-arranged car to the border-closing, however we planned to return before leaving the city.

The journey to the Pakistan border took around 90 minutes in a car shared with an Indian family. The purpose of the journey was to witness the ceremony which takes place daily to celebrate the closing of the border with India's not-so-favourite neighbour (anyone who has watched an Indian-Pakistan cricket match will understand there is not love lost between the two nations). But first we had to make it from our drop-off point to the border – no easy feat. The next hour and 15 minutes was spent scrumming with thousands of people incredibly eager to shut their neighbours out for another day. I have already hinted at my frustration with the complete inability of Indian people to queue; this was the anti-queue! Never at any sporting event, gig or festival have I had to physically battle with so many people to get somewhere. Fortunately for Monique there was a ladies only scrum to protect females from the inevitable male attention that would occur in such close confines, however that was only slightly more civilised. We were both happy for our extra height, because at least our heads were above the fray.

The scrum was patrolled by armed officials on horseback, however they were helpless to prevent a section of the scrum frustrated by the lack of progress from fording a barrier over and making a rush for the border en masse. Unfortunately I was part of that mass, and was faced with the choice of joining the riot and risk the wrath of the armed authorities or staying put and being trampled on. I chose the former (although it was a somewhat passive decision – I just went with the flow). The exercise was fairly futile as shortly thereafter we had to duck under another barrier and squeeze back into the scrum only 50 metres further to the front.

The reason for the hold-up eventually became apparent; at the front of the scrum was a metal detector which each person was required to walk through. As with every museum, mall and cinema in India, as each person walks through the detector emits a loud beep, displays a red light, and the person is waved through.

Post-scrum we were invited into the V.I.P. Section which is reserved for foreigners. When we settled our very important selves into location we found ourselves in a horseshoe shaped seating area packed with Indian people waving flags. The seating faced a closed gate. On the other side of the gate was a similar, albeit more subdued seating area full of Pakistanis. It was not clear from our viewpoint whether our Pakistani equivalents had fought each other to take their positions.

On the India side it was a party atmosphere. Music blared out, people took it in turns to run towards the border and back with giant flags, and ladies danced in the open area in the middle. In contrast the Pakistani side was quiet and quite frankly didn't look like any fun at all.

India 1: Pakistan 0

However, if the purpose of the ceremony is a display of power by the respective border authorities then India scored an own goal. Already having failed to control the people entering the ceremony, the Indian 'authorities' subsequently demonstrated a complete lack of authority in the arena itself. People ran off with the giant flags, refused to sit down, and refused to move to where they were told. I witnessed one particular dispute where a border agent ordered a young boy to move from the ladies only section to the general section. When the boy was dragged to his feet by the agent his mother promptly told the boy to sit back down. After an exchange of words between the agent and the mother the boy looked from one to the other and sensibly opted to listen to his mother and sit back down. The agent then decided that that was where he wanted the boy to sit after all. On the Pakistani side of the border order was maintained and no flag was waved without express permission.

India 1: Pakistan 1

Perhaps the Indian authorities would have more control over their people if they didn't look so ridiculous. I'm not sure which element of their uniform is the silliest: the raised shoes (to ensure that their Pakistani counterparts aren't taller), the tapered trousers secured under each foot, or the cockerel-like hat adorning each agent's head. It goes without saying that all moustaches were pristine.

Words can't really describe the ceremony itself, hence the Youtube video below. After a lot of standing around and prolonged shouting over the loudspeaker each border agent takes it in turn to elaborately quick-march towards the border, kick his feet to, and sometimes above, head-height and stamp those same feet on the ground. Except it's even sillier than that sounds. One senior official in front of us busted out some moves that I can only describe as Brent-esque. All comments about similarities to the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks are entirely accurate.

We could only see brief glimpses of the Pakistani officials on the other side, however it appeared that they were wearing very similar uniforms except in black (are they the baddies?) and partaking in similar uber-cancan movements. On the ridiculous stakes it was a score-draw.

India 2: Pakistan 2.

The ceremony culminated in the gate being closed (for some reason it was opened during the border-closing ceremony – presumably because the Indian authorities would be unable to prevent their people from running over to Pakistan before the ceremony to pull moonies) and the respective flags lowered. After ensuring that no more Pakistanis would be entering the country for a few hours everyone left. Clearly tired from flag-waving there was no post-ceremony scrum.

Overall it was an insane and surreal experience, and one which I would thoroughly recommend.

Upon return to Amritsar we returned to the Golden Temple to see it at night, and I'm really glad we did. Without the extreme heat and with fewer stares it was a more comfortable experience and the temple glowed beautifully in the dark. Really quite a striking sight.

Around 11pm we attempted to enter the temple to see the inside. There was still quite a queue to get in even at that time (perhaps people were nervous to enter earlier in the day while they knew that Pakistanis were entering the country) and as we joined the queue a large section forced through the barriers and rushed en masse into the temple. Country border, place of worship, bus, train, restaurant...apparently it's just how one enters anything around here. We waited a while longer but the remaining crowd didn't move much, so we regrettably had to give the inside a miss.

The following day we had some time to kill before our sleeper bus to Jaipur, so we looked for something to riot. We ate lunch at a pretty posh restaurant and then made our way to a Jain temple popular for women seeking divine intervention to assist contraception. I can only liken the temple to a fairground fun-house only without the moving walkways. As with most Jain temples it was incredibly colourful, but unlike other temples it consisted of a winding path leading up and down stairs, through tunnels that could only be crawled through, in and out of animals' mouths, and through an area of ankle-deep water.

At various intervals there were the usual idols as well as coloured lights, patterned walls and wobbly mirrors. It was like something out of a cheese-dream about being re-born. After the border closing ceremony, however, it seemed positively sensible.

Overall Amritsar was a really quite unpleasant place with some truly remarkable sights which made the visit worthwhile and extremely memorable.