Heading off from Delhi, my travel buddies and I took the Shatabdi Express train on to our second stop on our India journey – Amritsar in the Northern state of Punjab. The train was quite the experience, and it was eye-opening to rattle past the low income tenements that stretch through Delhi, and then later the farmland and villages that span between the two cities.
I really like travelling by train. Because Western Canada is so sprawling I haven’t had much opportunity to see my home country this way, but I have found that it an excellent way to travel while abroad. Not only is it fast and often pretty cost efficient, it allows you to get a peek at life outside the metropolitan areas that are the easiest and most popular options as a tourist.
There are a number of different classes on Indian trains, many of which are “rush seating” (which, for the record, looks very similar to being squished onto public transit during rush hour traffic). There are also “sleeper” classes, where you can reserve a bunk bed in a room of 4-6 for longer overnight travels. This is a great option if you are looking to save money and are travelling with a larger group (allowing you to book an entire carriage). We opted for a reserved seating class on the Shatabdi Express, which is about what you would expect if you have taken a train in North America or Europe. Rows of seating, four seats across (two by two), with restrooms and food service on each carriage. It feels very similar to being on a flight, just with a little longer travel time and better views.
When we arrived in Amritsar, we immediately headed for the Waga Border Crossing. Amritsar is just across the Indian-Pakistan border from Lahore. When the Indian and Pakistani guards are changed each night at this border crossing, the two countries put on simultaneous shows of pomp and circumstance in an effort to out-patriot each other. This has been cancelled lately, as India and Pakistan have been in an increased state of conflict and there has been a significant number of attacks on both sides of the border. As a result, the border crossing ceremony had been suspended until only a few days before our arrival.
The political tension was palpable as the stadiums on either side of the border yelled patriotic chants and songs. Both sides blared music and even had pump-up men out in full force. After a lot of anticipation, the elaborately decorated border guards came out for the change ceremony, stamping their feet and waggling their plumed turbans as they did a kind of dance off against members of the opposing nation’s guard.
After taking in all that excitement, we headed to dinner at Bhrawan Da Dhaba, a restaurant that has taken the concept of the original Dhaba (a roadside truck stop of sorts) and run with it. This spot is an Amritsari staple, and offers a number of traditional Punjabi dishes as well as a number of other North Indian options like vegetable sabzis (curries), biryanis, and various breads. In the interests of trying something properly Punjabi, we ordered a round of Aloo Kulcha Thali. Kulcha is a swirled, stuffed bread that is thicker than a roti or chapati, but not leavened like naan. It was the perfect combination of doughy and crunchy and was hearty enough to fill us up after not having eaten for most of the day. Our thali (the large circular tin plate filled with sample of different dishes) came with dal tadka, a light yellow dal spiced with chilies and cumin, and chana masala, a thick, heavily spiced chickpea dish. After filling up, we headed back to the hotel to call it a night.
The following day we started off by walking to the Jalian Wala Bagh, a memorial for the Amritsar Massacre. On April 13, 1919, the Jalian Wala Bagh (a large plaza/park-like gathering place) was filled with thousands of Sikhs celebrating the holiday Vasakhi. Without warning, the British opened fire on the celebrations, killing and injuring over 1400 people. The massacre outraged the nation and caused a nationwide strike that became an important milestone in India’s independence movement.
After this, we visited the Sri Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, the holiest temple in the Sikh religion. In the centre of the old part of Amritsar, the Golden Temple is a true sight to be seen. Entirely gold-plated, it is located on a platform in the middle of a pool of water called the Amrit Sarovar (after which the City is named). The complex that surrounds the temple is made entirely of marble and there are various spots throughout where the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, is being read all day and night.
As with all Gurdwaras (Sikh Temples), the Golden Temple serves Langar, a free meal to anyone who wants it. We toured through the industrial kitchens that prepare the mass amount of food needed to keep the Langar going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. After gaping at the massive instruments and amounts of food, we found a seat on the floor of the Langar Hall.
Later that day, we spent some time shopping for Jutti (shoes) in downtown Amritsar, and then went back to the Golden Temple to take in the view of the entire area illuminated with hundreds of spotlights. It is pretty stunning to see the entire complex lit up like that, with the Golden Temple sparkling away in the middle of it all.
We then headed back to Bhrawan Da Dhaba for dinner (what can I say? We liked it, and its super affordable). We decided to try another traditional Punjabi dish, but this time went for something seasonal: Saag and Makhi Roti. Saag is a heavy, thick dish made of puréed spinach, which is in season in the wintertime in Northern India. Saag is traditionally eaten with Makhi Roti – a thick corn flatbread. Even though we had asked for our dishes to be prepared wth oil instead of Ghee – clarified butter that is used with a heavy hand in North Indian cooking – our meal was quite heavy, so we decided to call it an early night and head back to our hotel for some sleep.
The next day, we started our journey to Varanasi. After a bit of a travel debacle involving some delayed flights and an unscheduled overnight stay in Delhi, we made it to the home of the Hindu god Shiva. If you’re thinking of flying in or out of Amristar in the winter, keep in mind that apparently it’s common knowledge that the City is often covered in a thick fog in the early morning. Try to book your flight later in the day, or alternatively keep yourself updated as to whether or not your flight as been delayed. The Amritsar airport doesn’t have much in the way of amenities, so it isn’t an ideal place to be stranded for a long period of time.
Situated on the left bank of the Ganges, Varanasi is a deeply holy pilgrimage site for Hindus. We started our visit to Varanasi with an evening boat ride along the river Ganges, during which our guide, AK, explained the Rituals of Death involved in a Hindu cremation ceremony. It was unreal and deeply moving to see family members watch their loved ones burning on the various funeral pyres that speckle the river bank. We then paddled upstream along the Ghats (sets of steep stone stairs that run along the Ganges) to watch the Aarti, a ceremony in which seven Hindu priests perform a bedtime ritual for the god Shiva.
The following day, we headed to Dashashwamedh Ghat in the early morning, in order to take another boat ride along the Ganges. From there, we watched the City slowly wake up, as people gathered at the river bank to bathe, pray, meditate and practice Yoga. We then walked the winding and cramped streets of the old City, while trying to dodge the cow dung, trash and flowers that littered the ground. Varanasi is nothing if not overwhelming. Crowded with pilgrims and tourists, there are hawkers, dogs, cows, rickshaws and bicycles everywhere. As my Dad adeptly described it when explaining the City to me, “Varanasi is like Delhi on steroids.” There is just so MUCH of everything everywhere all of the time. It can be a bit tricky to watch while you’re walking, dodge the traffic that tries to squeeze past pedestrians and take in the City, all at once. I definitely wouldn’t describe this place as low key.
After a brief breakfast pitstop, we went to the Mehta International, to see some of the intricate weaving that Varanasi’s craftspeople are famous for. The museum showcases a number of traditional machines that allow its workers to handcraft the detailed silks and brocades used to make wall hangings, pillow covers, tapestries, scarves and saris. We toured the museum and then picked up a few souvenirs, which all things considered were quite reasonably priced, considering the intricacy of each item. We then headed to the airport to catch a flight to our next location: Agra.
Let me know if you have been to Amritsar or Varanasi in the comments below 🙂