The next stage of our cycle tour was underway, we cleared customs at the Pakistan, India border with relative ease. Immediately after leaving the border we amusingly passed signs of roadside stalls advertising “English Beer and Wine” quite a shock after almost three months alcohol free (we shared a bottle of red wine whilst dining with an Italian diplomat and his wife in Islamabad). The perfectly straight rode to Amritsar provided views of green, fertile land being worked by Indian farmers, setting fields alight and ploughing the black ashen remains back into the soil, the scythe of northern Pakistan had been replaced by tractors and combine harvesters. Tall, distant chimneys emanating thick clouds as red bricks baked in huge kilns. I noted the religious transition from the largely Muslim population of Pakistan to the Sikh populace of Punjab, India as we passed white and golden domes of Sikh Gurdwaras sitting proudly above all surrounding buildings.
We were still in the process of nursing an episode of lose bowels and Jacob was also suffering from a fever and felt weak, so we agreed to check into the first available hotel, the City Hotel. We paid the reasonable fee and relaxed in the comfortable, air conditioned room. By far the most modern establishment we had stayed in since leaving the UK. Quickly learning the significance of the word “Dhaba” we immediately set out in search of the renowned style of Punjabi roadside restaurant. After sharing a portion of daal and roti we ambled back to the hotel feeling rather delicate, I collapsed on the bed with an increasing fever. The night that followed was spent mostly between the toilet and tossing and turning, sweating into the sheets. Jacob sweated so much so that he left a permanent salty, creased outline of himself stained into the bed sheet. We had no choice but to postpone the second leg of the cycle tour until we had both weathered the storm.
While recovering in Amritsar we visited the Sri Harmandir Sahib, more commonly known as the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara and most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism. We spent hours gracefully wandering through the grounds, sitting and enjoying the tranquility. We ate for free with thousands of other temple goers in the Langar and queued to enter the sacred Golden Temple. The interior was decorated lavishly, the walls were painted elaborately with floral designs and inscriptions, every archway, pillar and alcove was lined with a delicate golden border, circular mirrors were embedded into the ceiling, the marble floor was tiled with a geometric five, eight and twelve star pattern and a grand chandelier hung from the ceiling. Jacob and I found a quiet corner to sit and listen to the melodic Gurbani Kirtan music by the devotees, observing the ceremonious rituals of individuals. It was profound and felt deeply spiritual. I found it difficult to comprehend the importance of what a visit to the Golden Temple meant to devout Sikhs. I struggled to think of an equally significant moment of my life. We returned to the Golden Temple in the evening to experience the atmosphere under the night sky. The Temple itself and the surrounding buildings were so elegantly lit under the blanket of darkness.
The Golden Temple offers accommodation for pilgrims and an area reserved specifically for foreigners. Spending a night at the Golden Temple was certainly a must before we left Amritsar. We were offered a private room and a safe place to lock our bikes, the mattresses were firm and the room had ample space and storage. We unloaded the bikes and enjoyed a meal at the Langar where we met a young gentleman, Harman, the founder of a non-profit organisation with an aim to share knowledge of the Golden Temple and Sikhism with others. He showed us the Temple kitchens with their huge pots, able to cook obscene quantities of daal and other vegetarian dishes, I even got a glimpse of the chapati machine that is capable of pumping out 25,000 chapati per hour (Jacob was fed up with me banging on about this). He taught us about Sikh beliefs and rituals and answered all of our questions. He was such a genuinely nice guy.
Growing tired, we retired to our room to rest, we planned to wake before 04:00 to witness the morning ceremony or Asa di Var. That night I barely slept, tossing and turning all night. I woke before sunrise but had missed the ceremony. Upon returning to our room in the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something crawling across Jacob’s pillow, it was indeed the infamous bed bug. Horrified, we quarantined all our potentially contaminated clothes into a black bag. Packed up and left, we desperately needed sleep so decided to make our way back to the City Hotel where we soaked our clothes in hot water, showered and cringed over the thought of our bodies crawling with the evil cremlings. Jacob somehow escaped relatively unscathed. I on the other hand counted 288 bites covering my back, stomach and arms. The preceding nights were spent writhing in bed, itching, envisioning the tiny mites crawling over my skin whenever I felt the urge to scratch.
Whilst overcoming our shared poor state of health we took a tuktuk ride back to the Wagah border crossing to watch the lowering of the flag closing ceremony. I was naively expecting a well drilled, polished display, similar perhaps to the clinical performances of the Queen’s Guard. I was therefore somewhat bewildered to witness an extremely raucous event, where Pakistani Rangers and the Indian Border Force marched aggressively towards the border performing dramatic, can-can style high kicks followed by wide militant stances, enticing the ‘opposition‘. It felt more like a military circus than a 60 year long tradition, I couldn’t quite comprehend whether it was meant to be an entertaining, comical affair or if it was an age old ritual that had developed into a competition between each country. Regardless, the Indian and Pakistani audiences were having an exhilarating time, the crowd roared as the muscular Indian Border Security Force guard, clad in designer sunglasses and a bullet proof vest shouted over the microphone in motivation.
In an attempt to speed up our recovery, we decided a full day of rest was in order. We needed respite from spicy, oily foods and felt we would benefit from some ‘home comforts‘ and so we cycled to Subway for a salad-heavy foot-long and later cooked a meal of potatoes and mixed vegetables in an Italian, tomato sauce, exactly what we needed. We had been in Amritsar for six nights and although we enjoyed most our time there, our feet were itching (not with bed bug bites), the next stage of the cycle tour was screaming out to us. Since arriving in Islamabad over two weeks prior, we had been rather sedentary for too long. Despite still feeling weary, the next morning we dosed up on multi vitamins, loaded up the bikes and set sail eastwards towards a small hillside suburb of Dharmashala, McLeod Ganj.
Oh, it felt so good to be back on the road. We cycled with Amritsar in our wake, the landscape transitioned from noisy, busy streets to open, green farm land, then it struck me “We are in India!“