I came to India in 2008 from Central Asia, where I had visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, my plan to visit Pakistan as well had failed.

India

Delhi

Delhi comes as a shock. It starts with the taxi ride. To avoid all trouble, I take a prepaid airport taxi and still the guy tries all the time to talk me into bringing me to a different hotel (he gets a commission for that). And he drives badly, I can’t imagine him going around Delhi for long without causing an accident. As soon as we are closer to the centre and I know where I am, I leave the taxi, I rather walk. Old Delhi is too much for me, it is all full of people, the poverty is pervasive, people live, eat and wash themselves on the street. On top of all that comes the weather, it is hot and sticky. I have reached my air-conditioned hotel room and I have trouble convincing myself to go outside. Maybe I am bad at dealing with too many people, the situation reminds me of my first visit to China, I had the same feeling of being overwhelmed.

As I start to overcome my anxiety, I start to enjoy the city, the Jama Masjid right outside my hotel, the Red Fort, the Qutb complex a bit out of town. The street life just fascinates me, it is total chaos, a riot of colour, movements, sounds and smells. I make a pilgrimage to the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi. I am appalled by the poverty I see and even more by the “classiness” of India. I have seen different prices for locals and foreigners before but I have not seen separate ticket windows with widely different treatment. At the Red Fort a long line has formed for the tickets, right next to it no one is waiting at the foreigners’ window. No one seems to care, everyone accepts it as normal. At Delhi train station a big sign warns of touts and tells foreigners to go to a special ticket office. It is a nice office with air conditioning where you can apply for (you apply, you don’t just buy) train tickets. If lucky your application will be approved. Mine was.

Amritsar

Amritsar’s main draw is the Golden Temple, the holiest site of Sikhism. It is amazing. The most important part is the gold-plated Harmandir Sahib which sits in the middle of a man-made pool. The pool is surrounded by a broad walkway and around that are more religious buildings. Sikhs on a pilgrimage bath in the water. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly and welcoming. Sikhs pride themselves of being open and peaceful (although if things come hard on hard Sikhs might be as extremist as other religions). At the temple a tranquil atmosphere prevails. I just sit at the water’s edge and watch life pass by. Outside the temple are massive dormitories for the visiting pilgrims, including a small section for foreigners. It is free but a donation at the end strongly requested. The most fascinating part of the whole affair is the Langer Community Kitchen. It operates on two floors and the process is highly efficient. Mats are rolled out in long lines for people to sit on. While walking in you grab a plate and a cup. Someone walks past with bread and if you open your hands, some bread will land in them. Rice and daal are distributed from a bucket and water is skilfully dispensed from a watering can. Eat quickly please, others are waiting. After the people have left, the mats are rolled up and the floor is cleaned with a big German scrubber dryer. During this time the eating continues on the other floor. You take your dishes to the exit where they will be washed. The story repeats itself 24 hours a day, feel free to help. Several ten thousand people are fed every day.

I meet an Australian traveller and as she proposed to take the train to Rishikesh I join in buying the tickets. I get my first glimpse of the harassment women face in India, she wants a ticket for the highest bed, it is better to be away from all, she says. Before leaving Amritsar, we want to visit the border closing ceremony at Attari/Wagah. Pakistan and India were both part of the British Raj (as well as Bangladesh, the former East-Pakistan). As demands for independence increased in the 1930s and 40s so did the animosities between Hindus and Muslims. This led to the bloody partition into a mostly Hindu India (in truth India still has the third highest population of Muslims of any country) and Muslim Pakistan. Animosities have remained high until this day; they have fought several small wars with each other and by now they are both in possession of nuclear weapons. It is a pity as they share many common interests and cultural traits and could profit a lot from cooperation. At least a few border posts are open between the two nations. If my original plan to visit Pakistan would have worked out, I would have crossed this border. The border closing ceremony is one of the most bizarre spectacles the world has to offer. Half-open stadiums have been built on both sides where the people can watch and cheer. Hindu-stan, Hindu-stan, Hindu-stan (India in Hindi) is shouted on one side, the other answers with Paki-stan, Paki-stan, Paki-stan. The competition is performed by elite soldiers and involves walking towards the border in goose steps, certain dance-likes moves, kicking one’s feet as high up as possible and shouting as loud or as long as possible. In the end, the two flags are lowered simultaneously, folded and carried like a trophy to its resting place for the night. YouTube has several offerings if you are interested. It is hilarious but also a bit chilly as many of the spectators seem to take it very seriously. I feel a bit for the Pakistani side, Pakistan has at the moment major problems with Islamic extremists who commit suicide bombings every few days and there are a lot less people on the Pakistani side and they are being drowned out by the Indians. As foreigners we get special treatment with reserved seats close to the border gates. In 2018, I finally succeeded in my quest to attend the ceremony also from the Pakistani side.

We had taken a taxi to the border together with some other people. The driver tries to justify a high price for a short detour to the airport (which is along the way) by going an extra-long route. As we point this out to him, he denies it and then seems to take an even longer route to not lose his face.    

Rishikesh

I don’t like Rishikesh much. The setting, right where the river Ganges leaves the Himalaya, is beautiful but it is too touristy. The Beatles made the town popular for meditation and it is full of ashrams that are mostly frequented by tourists. Besides that, there are plenty of stylish tourist restaurants. The place is popular with Israelis so the internet cafés have Hebrew letters on the keyboards. I am short on time anyway and hop on a bus to Agra, the Taj Mahal is waiting.   

Agra

My bus arrives in the morning and I was advised that I could visit the Taj Mahal and the abandoned palaces of Fatehpur Sikri both in one day but that turned out to be wrong. I headed to the palaces first, sparing the highlight of the Taj Mahal for the afternoon. Mughal Emperor Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri and made it his capital in the 16th century but strategic considerations and the difficult water supply of the palace complex led to its abandonment soon thereafter. The ruins are in a good state and I love to explore them in detail. Transportation is also trickier than expected and as I get back to Agra only one hour is left for the Taj Mahal. Too short to justify the expense of the ticket. I enjoy the beauty of the Taj from the rooftop of a hotel, later I walk down to the river to have a closer view.

The express train to Delhi is operated like a plane, reserved seats and food is distributed. In India, eating vegetarian is a lot more common so the question is “veg or non-veg?”. I depart Delhi the same night.