Day 3 : 4th October : Delhi to Amritsar.
After a great night of Commonwealth Games celebrations in Delhi, a great meal and a Kingfisher beer, and meeting so many nice people, I went to bed very happy. My first night in India.
I was up at 5am, and already could hear the sounds of Delhi waking up. All packed and an early breakfast, I was picked up at 6am by Ajay, my driver, who had given me a tour of Delhi the previous day. Off to New Delhi Train Station for the train north to Amritsar. The station was alive and busy at this early hour, with people arriving for work or making onward journeys like myself. How efficient are Indian Railways! My ticket was for Delhi to Amritsar, a distance of 448km, on the 7.20 am train, the 2029/ Swarna Shtbdi Express, coach E2, and First Class 1A , of cause !
The station was alive with people, passengers, station workers moving goods on trolleys, and of cause the station coolies in their red jackets carrying luggage. This really was the start of my adventure “Overland through India”, and my first challenge of the day getting my gear from the car to the train. Ajay immediately engaged a coolie, a bright young lad of about 18; we agreed a price of 200 RS, to carry my luggage to platform 1. I thanked Ajay for all his help and wished him well.
The young coolie asked me to follow him, as he put my case on his head and my soft bag over his shoulder. Those voices from home were coming back again “ You’ve got too much gear, how are you going to carry it ? “. I know, you are all right, but I have my coolie !
At 7am, train 2029/ Swarna Shtbdi pulled into Delhi station, with coach E2 stopping right in front of me by the sign E2, how good is that! I had noticed a white European girl with one big sack and a small day sack, and then I looked at my case, soft bag, day sack and camera bag, then at the steps up into my coach, hmmm! “Yes, Jane, Nick, Tom, Liz, you were all right! “ Well I got me and my luggage all on the train and stowed in E2 above my seat No.1 How very spacious and comfortable as the A/C circulated cool air around. The man who invented A/C is one of the greatest men ever.
At 7.20 exactly , the Swarna Shtbdi pulled out of New Delhi Station northwards to Amritsar across the green and lush plains of the Punjab, the “Bread Basket of India”. We first move through the urban sprawl of Delhi, a mixture of tidy new houses, old neibourhoods and shanty huts along the edge of the tracks, with a mixture of open streams/drains and with rubbish, with people, young children, pigs and cows, going about their daily life. This was an eye opening scene, and very much an aspect of India. Bust the states of Haryana and Punjab are prosperous states, occupying rich and fertile river plains that extend north towards Amritsar and the Pakistan border, and the mountains of Kashmir and the Himalayas.
The rural countryside of the plains of the Punjab is flat, green and lush, with natural waterways and manmade canals (built by the British). It is a huge agricultural area growing rice, maize, wheat and corn, with white egrets everywhere. I am travelling with a family from Kerala, a man with his wife and son, we exchange greetings and then engage in a great conversation about our families and lives, and of cause my visit to India. Then the door opens and an important uniformed railway official walks in, “Good Morning Mr Casey, Indian Railways are pleased to greet you, and welcome you onto our train. Have a happy journey”. Wow! He knows who I am! What a lovely welcome and greeting. Then a lovely lady comes in to give me a tray of sweets! No only one. Then a very smart Punjab man with a trolley, and he gives me some tea, the best tea I have ever tasted, and then some breakfast. My second of the day. How pleasantly unexpected.
Well I am travelling Class 1A ! Life on the Shatabdi Express just gets better. After spending the next five hours talking, reading, drinking, eating, dozing and zzzzz’s, I arrive at Amritsar Railway Station. I notice two tall Sikh Guards in uniform on the station platform holding a long pointed spear each ? I hope my train ticket is in order, and God help anyone without a ticket !
Yes you have guessed it, before I can stand up a collie has arrived to collect my baggage, God Bless the Keralan family who got this sorted for me. I got off the train and was blasted away by the 40oC and high humidity of the Northern Punjab. A/C Rules Okay !!!!
I was picked up by a driver from the Hotel Namaskar in Amritsar where I am staying the night. I check in, freshen up, have a cold drink and a snack, then I am out at 3pm for a tour of Amritsar which Surgi has organised in an A/C car for 1000 RS, for the rest of the day and evening. We drive through the city and out onto National Highway 1, West ! Know my geography and sense of direction is good, and I know NH1 runs north from Delhi to Amritsar, then turn west towards the Pakistan border at Wagha. Well I think we must be going somewhere close to the city of interest, anyway after 25km later I see a big green sign, “Wagha Border Control - Indo-Pak”. I think to my myself “Oh my God”. I am blown away by this incredible surprise of actually being at this border. I’m greeted by what seems half the Indian Army of the BCR, they all seem to be 6’6”,very smart and handsome, very polite, and armed to the teeth.
A very tall Sikh Army officer comes up to me and asked me for my ID and Passport, which I produce in a milli second with a nervous smile and a dry throat. “Thank you Sir, please follow me”. Which I did, if he had said “Jump” I would have asked “How high”. I followed him through three further checkpoints and into an amazing scene, rows of tiered seats with hundreds of enthusiastic, cheering, chanting and flag waving Indians of all ages. The border crossing area had a huge Indian Gate at one end, and a huge Pakistan Gate at the other, and half way down this 200m area was two sets of gates. The VIP area I was taken to was only 50m from the actual border crossing ! Now I know what’s going on in this part of the world, but this was sereel and thought provoking.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and immediately had a multiple birth! I turned slowly around and was met by the smile of a lovely Indian girl of about 16 years old. “Hello, how are you”, I told her I was fine, with much relief. Then we engaged in a great conversation about me, where I was from, what I was doing etc. I soon was surrounded by the rest of her family. Well of cause I was a VIP at the Wagha Border Crossing.
Then it all kicked off ! First there were pairs of young teenage girls running the 50m with a giant Indian flag each, straight at the Pakistan Border Gates, with the hundreds of seated Indians cheering and chanting. Well two initial observations, first, do this pairs of flag waving teenage girls know what they are doing, and any potential risks?
Then second, you add several hundred cheering, chanting, shouting Indians to this scene. Are they seriously trying to wind up the Pakistan Army and supporters just 50m away through these border gates? It then steps up several gears, and I’m thinking that there is going to be a border incident in a moment. Stage right, a unit of the elite Indian Army BCR step smartly out onto the parade area, to the massive cheers of the crowd, a bit like an FA Cup Final cheer ! These giant 6’6” soldiers look like they mean business. The music is beating out and then one of the unit lets out this chilling war cry, and two of these elite troopers march aggressively towards the Pakistan Border with some fancy steps and moves designed to put fear into the opposing team, the adrenaline is pumping from these guys, who then stop, out stare and come to a “I’m holding my ground, not moving halt”.
Then the rest of this elite unit detachment take it in turns to “attack” the border gates with menacing drill routines that are intended to send the opposition shuttling back over the Khyber Pass. Now over the border, things are bubbling, they are not so well supported! But, the opposing team now responds, after taking all this patiently on the chin. They respond with similar drills towards the border gate, but they are met with the chanting jeering calls from my side, which I cannot repeat, let alone understand. This goes on for half an hour, then the unbelievable happens, the Indian BCU Elite send out two of the most stunningly beautiful 6’ female troopers to “attack the gate”, well the home crowd went mental!
Well, this attack, counter attack has been going on now for an hour, and thank God no blood spilt. Then suddenly the two inner border gates are opened! Has someone seriously lost their marbles? For the next half an hour or so we watch open “attack, counter attack” with even more impressive marching drill combinations going on between each of the opposing “teams”. This ceremony reaches a civilised finale with both “teams” seemingly respecting each other, followed by a simultaneous flag lowering, and dignified stand down. Then both sets of “fans” move away quietly home. I think India had a comprehensive “win”.
This is surely one of the most amazing sights I’ve witnessed in my life. Would it not be great if countries around the world could settle any differences they have, by doing some fancy footwork, ala “Celeb Come Dancing.”
Tomorrow I am off by road to Jogindar Nagar in the Himachel Pradesh until the 21st October Trekking and that big motor bike trip over those five high altitude passes from Manali to Leh. Best wish, Mike Photos to follow when I hit an Internet facility.