Wacky Wagah (Part 1: Crossing the border)

Day 160: 26/8/19
Location: Amritsar, India
Miles Driven: 49

With only a few days before our Pakistan visa expired, it was time to say goodbye. Unfortunately for India, our arrival into the country did not provide a great example of the country or its people. Writing this several weeks later, I’m afraid to say that it set the scene for what was to come.

Driving into the Wagah border was a surreal experience. Predominantly only open to foreigners, there were no other vehicles at all – no queues of lorries filling up the last few miles of road before the border, no hoards of locals with their cars and roof racks filled to the brim of essential items (junk) to take across, we were completely on our own.

We completed all of the necessary paperwork on the Pakistan side, and changed some US dollars into Indian Rupees at a rate better than the current market rate. It was lucky we did this, as afterwards we found out that it was not possible to change money on the Indian side, and there was a cash only toll road just a couple of miles after the border.

For a more detailed description of this crossing, and all of the border crossings we have experienced on our trip, take a look here

Now onto the Indian side, we drove through huge gates that were surrounded by large stands for people to sit in. This is the location of the Wagah border closing ceremony that takes place every evening, and that hundreds of people come to watch each night. Whilst waiting for the gates to be opened, I asked to take a couple of photos. We then drove through to a small desk underneath the stands and our documents were checked. Our names, passport numbers and car details were written (by hand) in a huge ledger. We then drove on to the immigration and customs building.

From the same place as the previous photo. Looking back the other way towards Pakistan.

Our passports were checked and then two officials went with Chris to inspect the car. Whilst this took place, our passports were left on top of an open desk in the middle of the room. I was asked to sit down on the other side of the room, so I asked for our passports back. I was told no, we wouldn’t get them back until after the checks had been completed, and please sit down over there. I was reluctant to leave our passports unattended – there weren’t any staff at the desk and there were a handful of people hanging around, of whom I could not tell if they were staff or civilians also crossing the border. I said I would rather stand by the desk so that I can keep an eye on our passports. “Don’t worry Mam”, I was told, “your passports are very secure there, there is no problem”. I disagreed, arguing that they were not secure in the slightest, and there would be a big problem if somebody stole them. I was staying put.

I think the real reason that they wanted me to move to the other side of the room, was because of what I was witnessing whilst my little ‘passport argument’ was taking place. A Pakistani family (of about six people with at least 10 large bags) were walking through the border. The inspection of this family’s luggage was brutal. The officials were literally ripping open the bags, using knives to cut them open when ripping didn’t suffice. They pulled everything out of the bags and tossed it all onto the floor when they had finished. There were two or three officials on each bag, making it impossible for the family to both collect their discarded belongings and keep an eye on what was happening to their luggage. A couple of alarm clock radios (that had been ripped out of their previously unopened boxes) were confiscated, but otherwise there did not seem to be any illegal items in the luggage. I do not have the best poker face at the best of times, but I knew that the sign of disgust on my face was crystal clear. I couldn’t believe how little respect the officials were treating these people and their belongings. The unfriendliness between India and Pakistan is well known, however in Pakistan we had largely witnessed kindness, generosity, and respect. Unfortunately for India, this was my first experience of their people, and it was not shining them in the best light. Perhaps if we had crossed the border in the other direction, the same levels of disrespect may have been displayed from the Pakistani officials towards any Indian people crossing the border. However, I was already biased towards Pakistan and felt this hard to believe to be true.

Over an hour later, we were through the border and had a short 20 mile drive to Amritsar. Cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, pedal rickshaws, horse and carts, ox and carts, cows, people, dogs; everything was everywhere. It was absolute chaos. About a mile from our hotel we took a wrong turn. As we were driving back down the same road again, a car overtook us without leaving enough space before pulling in. Their bumper caught on our super strong steel bumper, and it ripped off. I don’t think they even noticed what they had done. We continued driving, thumb constantly on the horn, and after a few more cars and motorbikes had driven into us, we made it to the hotel.

Our hotel room was £11 a night, so we treated ourselves to room service. The majority of the menu appeared to be deep fried and/or smothered in oil.

Day 164: 30/08/19
Location: Amritsar, India
Miles Driven: 6

The 30th is my (Charlie’s) birthday. I decided on a celebratory McDonald’s breakfast. When we got there we discovered that not only did they not serve breakfast, they also did not serve beef. We knew beef is not eaten by Hindus (the most predominant religion in India), however with 20% of the huge population non-Hindu, we were surprised to find that even McDonald’s didn’t sell it. I enjoyed my birthday McDonald’s veggie burger and chips, but it was not quite the delicious breakfast of sausage and egg McMuffin with hash browns (or failing that a cheeseburger) that I had in mind.

Our first ride in a tuk tuk!

In the afternoon we visited the Golden Temple, a Sikh pilgrimage site that every Sikh tries to visit at least once in their lifetime. Open to everyone regardless of their religion, over 100,000 people visit the temple every day. Whilst it was extremely busy, it also felt peaceful, especially in the midst of the chaos of the rest of the city. We walked around the supposedly purifying waters (known as the “Pool of Immortality-Giving Nectar”), going into numerous different shrines in which men in glass boxes read from the Adi Granth.

The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple

We also visited the Langar, the community run kitchen that serves around 100,000 meals to visitors per day. The Golden Temple provides free meals and up to five nights of free accommodation to anyone that wants it. The meals are cooked by volunteers and paid for via donations. We walked into the large eating hall, and sat on the floor in rows, each with our metal plate, spoon, and mug that we had been given at the door. The meal-time process has to be one of the most (or perhaps the only) organised system in India. Men walked along the rows with huge buckets of food in one hand, a large ladle in the other hand, and slopped the food into the different sections of the metal plates. Another man provided chapatis, and the final man rolled a huge tea dispenser along the line, pouring tea into each person’s mug. They then moved along to the next row. A few minutes later, the procession began again, plates were refilled until you wanted no more. The food provided depends on what has been donated that day – for us this consisted of yellow slop, green slop, chapatis, and rice pudding for desert. The yellow slop was yummy, the green not so yummy, and the rice pudding was perfectly sweet. When you finished, you took your plates to the noisy washing up area, someone quickly mopped up all the splatters of slop from the floor, and the eating hall filled up once again.

Dinner time in the Langar
Rice pudding on the left, the not so nice green slop in the middle, and the tasty yellow slop (all gone) on the right.

We had left the meal until last so that we could make a quick exit back to the hotel if needed. However, surprisingly there were no repercussions to this very Indian meal. This was especially impressive considering that anyone can walk in off the street to the Golden Temple to help prepare the food. A good birthday all round.

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