We had been on the Grand Trunk Road since we left Peshawar, such a river of life that exists nowhere else on earth. After an hour at the check post we still had not moved, we waited for some high-ranking Sikh official to come and stamp our passports. After nearly two hours we were finally on our way. Trucks dominate, with belching smoke from their exhaust into the lovely green landscape; a truck passed us like there was no tomorrow, written on the back was a sign "God owns this vehicle phone 436829." We had finally arrived, India the land of the fabulous and the fantastic, the "Exotic East".
India was sweltering, even before sunrise. India mesmerising, exotic, colourful, exciting, frustrating, mystical and chaotic. What ever you want to call it, it was different. It was like we had landed on another planet. India is a country like no other, Sacred cows, Sadhus, ragged beggars, diseased dogs it was all here. India, the world's largest democracy and the second most populated nation on earth, is a place of immense history with a bewildering of cultures, languages, religions and customs. Just 29 km from the Wagah border is the holy city of Amritsar. Guru Ram Da founded Amritsar; followers of Guru Nanak (1538) flocked here for generations.
George had to drive through some very narrow lanes before reaching the hotel, which was called The Grand Hotel. After checking in, the beggars arrived at the entrance to the hotel. From the balcony we could see them waiting for us to leave. That afternoon after fighting our way passed four beggars who were hanging around in front of the hotel we were into India the real India. Sadhus and beggars scrounged annas from Sikh businessmen in the town.
Amidst the milling crowd in Amritsar one figure that really stands out is the person who wears a turban with no loose ends, he has a beard often rolled round a piece of what looks like elastic, a moustache and on his wrist a steel bracelet. His name is Singh. He comes from the Punjab and is a Sikh. All Sikhs are called Singh; they all come from the Punjab. The Sikhs pronounced “seeks” are not a race or caste but a religious order.
A group of us went by rickshaw to the Golden Temple, the sacred shrine of the Sikh religion. It was a two storeyed building, set at the end of a short causeway in the centre of an artificial lake, which bore the exotic name the "Pool of Nectar." The roof of the temple was decorated with a central dome, covered in gold leave and shining in the sun.
The whole place gave of an atmosphere of relaxation and tranquillity. To enter the temple we had to cover our heads with a scarf and discard our shoes. Inside the temple were paintings on the walls of Sikhs being sawn into two and other terrible tortures? One is depicting a painting of a headless man. Blood spurting from the stump of his neck. This was how the British persecuted the Sikhs; I felt that I should not be here
The Sikh's are a proud race, and great soldiers. They wear special underpants along with uncut hair, a silver bangle, a wooden comb and a silver dagger they are also very kind and friendly people. All around the temple are tablets stating the names of hero's of times gone past, Raj Sing from the Poona Horse Regiment given such an award for bravery.
After visiting the Golden Temple we headed back to the hotel. I found my way to go to the local railway station Amritsar. Steam locomotives always fascinated me, and I had heard that India had some very fine ones. A living steam museum, Britain had withdrawn steam from its tracks in 1968, where the last black five had left Manchester Victoria with crowds of fanatics witnessing a passing of an era. Yet here in Indian the Steam locomotive reigned supreme.
Indian railways move an average of ten million passengers per day, by 11,000 locomotives over 38,000 miles of track. I did not need a platform ticket and walked straight on to the platform. It was just like a railway station in England, the long platform, and the stationmaster’s office, the signal at the end of the platform.
The platforms were piled high with luggage, Indians who live, work, eat and play in the station. There were families sitting all over the platform waiting for the train to arrive. One family was brewing tea on a small stove while four young children were playing cricket at the end of the platform. Looking at this scene it was as though I was coming home, it was as though I had been to India before and this was my home coming, I wonder?
As I walked along the platform I could see the signboards hanging from the awning, displaying the information: Vegetarian restaurant, non vegetarian restaurant, first class waiting room, second class waiting room, ladies room, retiring rooms and a whole range of information boards right up to Station Master. The whole station seemed alive with people; it was as though half of Amritsar was on the move. Another sign caught my eye “Ticket less Travel is a social evil. “ Then I saw a cow slowly walking along the platform checking the rubbish bins for food. The cow that is considered holy among Hindus and can walk wherever it wants and is never disturbed. Cows are not actually worshipped as gods in India; there is absolute prohibition against killing a cow. In India it was easy to see the people who were the long distance travellers. They were the one's with the heavy steel trunks and sleeping rolls for their beds. At the end of the platform there was the water hose for topping up the steam loco with water, although now there was a man completely stripped having a shower under it.
There was no intimacy at all yet the man did not seem to care at all. Whole families seem to cook, eat, sleep and die at railway stations, as I walked along the platform there were another signs " Be Indian buy Indian. There is no substitute for hard work." "Protect Indian property as your own."
Boys walked along the platform shouting "chai, chai." sounding like a mantra from the Hare Krishna movement. These boys were selling tea for one rupees per cup, which was made of clay; one threw the clay cup away after drinking the tea. This system obviously kept some Indians in a job somewhere busily making more clay cups. Other boys were selling peanuts or newspapers. Nobody seemed to pay attention to the rules and regulations.
The stationmaster is the undisputed Sultan of the station, the raise of his hand can throw a huge long train into motion, and then there are the chai wallahs. Walking up and down the platform crying chai – chai.
At 17.20 a train slowly pulled into the station hauled by a huge locomotive belching smoke every where. It was the Frontier Mail, the 23 Up to Delhi. As soon as the train came to a halt there was complete pandemonium all along the platform, it was as though the world was coming to an end and this was the last train to run. Indians were fighting their way on to the train, at the same time Indians were fighting their way off. It would have been so much easier for those on the platform to let those on the train off first, but it was as though nobody had explained this to them. I later found out that those people were travellers without reservations and would fight to gain a seat for the journey ahead.
After watching the train depart bound for Dehli, I wandered down the platform. Indian trains are advertised as very reliable and very rarely late. One thing the Indians can thank the British for, a rail system that spans all four corners of the country. I stopped to check out the rail timetable. The romance of travelling on trains such as the Kashmir Mail, the Black Diamond Express or the Frontier Mail what a journey to take.
When I arrived back at the hotel, I met Russ and Steve who told me that they had booked a table in the hotel restaurant for later that night and that we would all stay up to welcome in the New Year. I wonder if Kiwi had made it to Dehli? "I am sure he had," said Russ.
That night we all sat round a huge table in the hotel’s dinning room and had a meal. All that is except Bill the Scotsman and Damian who had gone into Amritsar in search of women. Aussie John had said that," this afternoon they had got talking to a vendor in the bazaar who had told them that the women from the Punjab are of a very lusty nature and they had gone to try to find out?" We toasted in the New Year of 1975 with Pelican beer, and everyone was in a joyous mood. Was it us or was it this country called India?
Next morning was to be our last journey on the budget bus, in one way we were all happy that soon we would be in Dehli, but it was also sad that the journey was nearly over. We boarded the bus for the last time, George put it into first gear and we were off. We left Amritsar and took the road south to Ambala, through a countryside that was very dry. We stopped for a break and there was a large flock of vultures in the trees that were quite close to the road watching us, just waiting for a feed. The road began to fill with trucks; brightly painted and decorated at the top of one was a sign saying Public Carrier Horn Please. Use Dipper at Night.
We were now not far from the capital Dehli our final destination. We arrived at Connaught Place at 17.00, the main modern shopping centre of Dehli with the Indian coffeehouse on the corner. It was nearly dark, George recommended that we stay at a hotel in the bazaar area, as these are the cheapest. So he drove us down to the bazaar area stopping to see Ram's family on the way. It was five forty five as we left the bus to the smell of India. Strange, we had left the bus yet we all still stayed together. At seven Russ, Steve, Barry, Janet and I went to the Cellar restaurant for dinner. Russ and I celebrated as we tucked into our Chateaubriand for 30p each, what a treat this turned out to be. After dinner we took a taxi to the Ashoka hotel, Dehli's finest a marble edifice in a very grand style. We sat in the plush bar of the hotel as the barman served us Pelican beer and peanuts. We all reminisced about the trip and how it had affected our lives. "You should come to god's own Charles," said Russ.
“Tomorrow we will take you to see Subhash Goyal and see if he can organise an air ticket for you, “ as well as for Barry and Janet. It was very late when we arrived back at the hotel. We had to wake up the manager to let us in, as a huge metal door locked the hotel.
Something inside me told me that this journey was to be a milestone in my life. Soon I was in my bed asleep, content in what I had achieved so far.