Wagah is a village 30km west of Amritsar, straddling the border between India and Pakistan. It’s the only open road crossing between the two countries. Every evening, the armed forces on both sides simultaneously perform an elaborate gate-closing and flag-lowering ceremony, which has become something of a spectacle for both Indians and tourists.
I arrive there at about 4.30pm, after the experience in the spiritual obstacle course that is the Mata Temple. I am directed by the guards to bypass the long Indian queue and go straight into the VIPs’ and foreigners’ stand, which is supposed to provide a better view. Except that, in the foreigners’ stand, a number of men – all of whom are tall enough to see everything from a seated position – seem intent on standing, so that they can record useless, unwatchable videos of everything, ensuring meanwhile that neither they, nor anyone behind them, sees any of the proceedings with their own eyes.
Apart from those few religions which started as conscious scams – Mormonism, Scientology – most begin when some well-meaning person has a sincere spiritual or moral insight, and tries to pass it on to others. But 99% of the human race are not in the market for sincere spiritual or moral insight. They just want something to bow down to.
I thought it seemed a bit of a shame to rule out the whole region just because of a lack of tourist spectacles, especially when it has such a strong cultural identity. I was keen to experience the Punjab for myself, and was already considering going off piste and looking for a couchsurfing contact in the middle of nowhere, when a better option was presented: my couchsurfing friend in Chandigarh suggested that I go and stay with his parents at his family home in Dhuri, a small town (a mere 50,000) in rural Punjab some 130km from the state capital.
At the station, I wasn’t sure which window to use: reserved or unreserved tickets? On the basis that I only had 15 minutes before the train, waiting on the platform, was due to leave, the queue for reserved tickets was much longer, and the two Europeans I spoke to in that queue were buying tickets for another day (and another railway line entirely), I went to the almost queueless unreserved window.
The man behind the counter was the same one I’d spoken to the night before, who’d said a first class ticket was Rs245 and I could buy it on the day. This morning, however, he told me there was no first class. Instead, I could buy a basic ticket for Rs40. Imagine, Britons, a six hour rail journey (London to Dundee, say) with tickets available on the day for 40p.
The bike, and associated kit, has been dropped off with the transport company to be sent back to Delhi. I’m still in cold, humid, rainy Shimla for another night.
So, it looks like I won’t be seeing the Himalayan moonscape of Kullu valley, nor the home of pop culture celebrity and theocratic feudal dictator-in-exile the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala. However, I will be achieving another goal that I thought I’d be missing out on: the Kalka-Shimla Railway. This narrow-gauge mountain railway, often called the “Toy Train”, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site umbrella of the Mountain Railways of India. I already had in mind a future trip to India based on travelling all of the narrow-gauge mountain lines (which, being a more sedate itinerary, could be postponed until middle or old age), so I’ll count this as a recce.
I’m planning to take the Himalayan Queen Express out of Shimla tomorrow morning, and end up back in Chandigarh by the evening. There, I hope to see the Rock Garden, and day trip to Pinjore, and then head up to Amritsar for a few days, before returning to Delhi.
After Mussoorie, I stopped over for a night in Chandigarh, the state capital of both Haryana and Punjab. My couchsurfing contact, Goldie, was a great host, but I was only using Chandigarh as a staging post, and didn’t really see any of the city. I intend to go back there and stay with Goldie again, on my way back to Delhi in a week or two. However, this time I was quickly on my way again to Shimla, the old summer capital of the British Raj.