In his latest blog, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler recounts a visit to Amritsar, one of India’s most iconic cities:
Their boots came down with a resounding thump. Then there was the briefest handshake across the border before the soldiers spun round and set off on another march clearly inspired by Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ sketch. When you’re wearing a particularly silly hat and trying to kick it off your head, Monty Python is the only thing that comes to mind. After being witness to the Mass Games at the gigantic stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, I used to say that if the outcome of wars is ever decided by whose army dances the best; my money was on the North Koreans. But after watching the Indian and Pakistan armies dancing around at the Wagah-Attari border near Amritsar I have a feeling the North Koreans may only be in for the bronze medal.
I came to India for the launch of the first 10 Lonely Planet India travel guides written especially for the Indian traveller. After my launching duties, which involved materialising on stage out of nowhere, (with a considerable help from a magician though), I headed off to Amritsar, close to the border between India and Pakistan.
The border crossing performance has become a major tourist attraction on both sides, but for more serious visitors the great Golden Temple is still Amritsar’s number one. I found a hotel a stone’s throw from the holiest Sikh temple. This way I was able to visit the temple at different times of day to appreciate its appearance under varying light. In fact my afternoon, night and early morning visits could also have been summarised as ‘seeing the temple under different types of rain.’ I managed to get everything from a light drizzle to a monsoonal downpour.
I also managed to fit in another prime Amritsar experience – the free vegetarian meal in the shrine’s Guru-ka-Langar (community dining hall). Everyday 60,000-80,000 meals are dispensed (can reach an astounding 2,00,000 on Sikh holy days), in an amazing production line comprising entirely of volunteers. I did put a contribution into the donation box against my free meal. Wandering through the brightly lit, crowded streets of the old city around the temple is another part of the Amritsar experience.
During my spell in Mumbai and Delhi for the launch, I interacted with the media a lot and I said that travelling by rail was an important part of the Indian travel experience. I’d like to say that at least one aspect of Indian rail travel has really gone through a major update, because I was looking forward to buying my train ticket online. Except I couldn’t, despite wrestling for hours with the Indian Railway website. If India’s airlines can sell you a ticket in a flash, perhaps the railways need to ask them how it’s done.
Tony Wheeler, along with his wife Maureen founded Lonely Planet back in 1973. For more history, click here.