December 01, 2000 GMT
Amritsar, the Golden Temple, Delhi

The border crossing the following day was about what I'd expected only in reverse -the officials on the Pakistani side were moneygrabbing and officious, whilst the Indian officers did not even attempt to ask for bribery or baksheesh, and even refused my offer of a biscuit. Although, to be fair, it was a Pakistani biscuit, and may well have been laced with cyanide, you can't be too careful. However, the processing of our customs documents on the Indian side was the funniest form of spectator sport.

The lady at the desk was clearly overwhelmed as she attempted to deal with the paperwork from 6 vehicles simultaneously, rather than one at a time. The result was that all the painstakingly filled out and checked and signed and countersigned and copied and signed again paperwork isn't worth a stale chapati, because the lady kept getting the passports and forms mixed up, so that different details were entered according to which passport she happened to have in her hand at that particular moment. So I think I have been listed as a Land-Rover-owning 40-year-old Dutch female, married with 3 children and a dog.

The border post is only a short ride from the city of Amritsar - and to my delight the traffic was no more insane than it had been in Pakistan, contrary to the horror stories we'd been fed by bikers who had previously experienced Indian highway manners.

Once safely ensconced on the lawn of Mrs Bandari's guesthouse (I have never ensconced a tent before, it's not nearly as difficult as it sounds), we took a bicycle rickshaw into town to visit the famous and much photographed Golden Temple. This is the holy shrine of the Sikh religion, where so much blood was spilt in 1984, as the Indian army stormed the temple to eject a the occupying force of hardline Sikhs who were campaigning for an independent Sikh state. (I think I got all that correct, if you are offended by any historical or conceptual inaccuracy, please write and I will issue a full apology to any and all ethnic or religious groups who are the least bit annoyed and feeling the need to go out and shoot people. DO NOT, REPEAT NOT, GO OUT AND SHOOT PEOPLE - THANK YOU.).

On the way through the busy streets of Amritsar, the differences between India and Pakistan were obvious and striking. Women on motorbikes, for heaven's sake! Brightly garbed and smiling, these butterflies on Vespas were scooting in and out of their turbaned male counterparts (and in general carving the guys up something shocking). I was taken by surprise by the strangeness of this - after the repressive Islamic female dress code, and the strict rules against women doing....well, anything.....This was very pleasing on the eye.

When one lady caught my eye I even found myself looking away shyly (A WOMAN! No eye contact, don't talk, don't look, all functional interactions are forbidden). This Islam-enforced reflex is one which I will be very glad to ditch.

And so to the famous Golden Temple itself. I am not going to go into raptures about the gorgeous architecture, or the way the evening sunlight gleams dazzlingly off the gold superstructure of the temple and dances on the ripples of the sacred lake which surrounds the building. What I want to talk about is the people and the atmosphere which pervades the place.

The pilgrims who visit the temple are very warm and open, and the atmosphere inside is similar to that of families out for a Sunday stroll, smilingly approaching confused foreigners to offer information and help. One old man told us, in broken English: 'Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Hindu - all religions are welcome here.'

I don't know enough about the religion yet to tell whether this is their doctrine or just wishful thinking - I will make efforts to find out....

The temple music is produced continuously by a band of musicians and a singer located inside the sanctum, and is a vast improvement on the ululating karaoke of the Islamic call to prayer, having things like structure, rhythm and harmony, all concepts which I'd almost forgotten. The warmth inside the sanctum is relaxing and welcoming, in contrast with the western attitude that holy places should be dark and echoing, and faintly damp. In fact it's a little like being invited into someone's front room - come on in, pull up a bit of floor and listen for as long as you like. Then go outside and sit by the waters of the lake watching the sparkly sunlight and occasionally being asked by people to take their photograph.

Yes, they actually walk up, plonk their colorfully dressed and very photogenic kids in front of you, and virtually insist on a picture. The first time I thought that they would ask me to send the picture by post, (and perhaps, a small cynical voice in my mind added, include a visa), but no, it was apparently enough just to be photographed. In an interesting reversal of the normal course of events, we were asked several times to pose with the locals as they took pictures of the quaintly dressed foreigners. I was happy to oblige.

Ken Duval with kids in India.

Ken Duval with kids in India

The last night of our stay in Amritsar was spent in the pilgrims' quarters adjoining the temple - travellers are permitted to stay up to three nights absolutely free and gratis, and you can even elect to eat in the huge temple refectory. The temple guards were touchingly concerned about the safety of our motorcycles, and mounted an all-night watch over them to ensure that bits did not go missing overnight.

The following day, we bid goodbye to Ollie, who planned to head southwest to Rajasthan, and Angela who was Kathmandu-bound.

Team Duval and I had other fish to fry, which entailed an assault on Delhi, a daunting prospect from the way many people had described it. But I couldn't help but feel a little rush of excited satisfaction as we stopped to ask directions on the road. I mean, how many times in your life do you get to say: 'Scuse me, mate. Which way to Delhi?'

Delhi! Huge, smoggy and polluted, crazily suicidal traffic, danger on every street corner, and....and...errr, well, not that bad actually. In fact, we passed through what I considered to be fairly orderly traffic with the minimum of fuss, and found cheap digs at the Ghadi Guest House near Connaught Place.

This hostel is mainly notable for it's entrance gate, which looks like the portal to the innermost level of Hades. 'If my mother only knew....', I commented, so Carol helpfully snapped a picture for me to send home.

Ghadi Guest House, Delhi.

Ghadi Guest House, Delhi

Our mission in Delhi was to research flight options to Bangkok, and I acquired a second mission when my battery (as is traditional) suddenly expired without warning.

I envisaged the usual two week delay, the futile interviewing of many uncomprehending mechanics whilst busting a gut trying to pantomime 'motorcycle battery', the inevitable overseas calls and extortionate couriering and customs fees to get a battery sent out from UK.....

Then Ken and I found one in a shop on the corner. Just like that. In less than an hour. Not just a 'well, we could bodge a bit off there and solder something on here and hit it with a big hammer and it should last for a week or two given constant attention...'

Nope, this was exactly and precisely the right size and shape, 14 Amp/hour, 12 volt piece of Exide lead-acid loveliness WITH guarantee, in it went with a self satisfied snick and started the bike first time. I was gobsmacked. This ran counter to the whole custom and tradition of overlanding, and I felt we had violated some important natural law.

Still. Never mind.

Having decided on a flight to Bangkok in March, we decided to travel separately until the flight date and meet up again to travel again together in SE Asia. Ken and Carol wanted to head to Kathmandu for Christmas with a good group of assorted hairy overlanders, whereas I had had entirely enough of freezing my nuts off (see Shandur pass, Lowari pass, Islamabad Campground Shower block) and wanted to travel in the Thar desert for a few weeks. I sadly bid them goodbye, for a while at least, and set off to the South West.

Posted by Connor Carson at December 01, 2000 12:00 AM GMT

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