Day 15: Chandigarh, Shimla, and Amritsar

We departed from Leh and landed in Delhi on July 13th. Upon arrival in Delhi, we had an hour to kill before Avi and her mom were picking us up.

We ate samosas in the airport and milked our free 45 minutes of wi-fi. (The Delhi airport only authorizes 45 minutes of free wi-fi at a time.)

We left the airport to greet Avi and her mom. We waited for a few minutes at the car pick-up point when, to my delight, a smiling Avi came running toward us and gave me a big hug.

“I cannot believe we are greeting each other here,” said Avi’s mom.

It was a lovely reunion but cars were honking their horns at our driver so we hopped in the car and proceeded on our path.

Within no more than 10 minutes of driving, we were pulled over by some gentlemen in uniforms. The driver rolled down his window and exchanged a few words in Hindi with the officers, and eventually got out of the car to go talk with the uniformed men behind a tree. It was shady and weird and to this day we’re still not sure what it was all about, but we’re still alive so there’s that!

We were en route to Chandigarh and the drive ahead was 5 hours long. We stopped off at a highway-side restaurant called Haveli (a popular local franchise) at the recommendation of Avi’s mom. The food was cooked in classic Punjabi style, and it was downright delicious.

After about 5 hours of driving through agricultural landscapes peppered with Gurudwaras and turbaned men riding motorcycles, we finally arrived in Chandigarh.

Chandigarh:

Chandigarh was different than every other city I had seen so far in India.

It was very clean and very developed. The landscaping on the roundabouts was gorgeous. It felt richer than other cities. It was less chaotic.

It was modern. And it is, in fact, a very young city – Chandigarh was completed in 1960.

I had once heard someone say that Chandigarh is to India what Ottawa is to Canada, and I definitely agree with this comparison.

We had the luxury of being able to stay in Avi’s grandparents’ condo in Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar, a suburb just outside of Chandigarh. The condo building was called the Soul Space Mayfair, very chic.

We took an auto-rickshaw into one of Chandigarh’s markets. The market was different than other cities we had visited as it was contained indoors and there were no white tourists to be seen. I met a funny Punjabi guy who was trying to sell me a pair of knock-off Yeezy shoes for 2200 rupees ($44 CAD).

We ate street food on our way home. The food was called panipuri and it was essentially a crunchy ball of dough filled with spicy liquid. It instantly turned my stomach but Matt and Avi’s mom competed against each other to finish about 10 each. It was impressive!

Here’s a photo of us at the street food stand:

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The next day we visited the zoo. I won’t bore you with the details but we saw a bunch of animals including hippos, monkeys, zebras, jaguars, lions, and peacocks.

Here’s a photo of us on the lion safari:

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After the zoo, we went to a restaurant called Sindhi Sweets (another local Punjabi staple). It was so delicious that Avi, Vini and Avi’s mom literally cried after taking a bite of the dessert.

After dinner, I went to a custom-tailored suit shop and ordered a suit for $125 CAD. I hope it turns out okay, I’ll be going to pick it up later this evening. I also bought two Modi jackets.

Shimla:

We left for Shimla at 8:30am the following morning. It was a slow, beautiful drive up the mountainside. The towns along the hillsides resembled Cinque Terre, Italy.

Shimla was scenic and picturesque but unfortunately it was pretty foggy during our stay. At points I wondered whether we were in India or St. John’s, Newfoundland.

We shopped around in the market and fed the monkeys bananas (which we immediately learned that we should not be doing). It was a fairly uneventful evening but worthwhile nonetheless.

The next day, we took a “toy train” ride back to Chandigarh. The name is misleading – it was basically just a regular train. It took us down the mountain very slowly.

The train let us out in Kalka and we took a cab the remainder of the way to Chandigarh. The cabbie lied to us about having A/C in his van and, upon calling him out on it, he threatened to throw us out on the side of the highway if we mentioned it again. He would later bribe a cop who pulled him over in Chandigarh to verify his taxi licence.

We went to bed early as we were leaving for Amritsar the following morning.

Amritsar:

Amritsar was hands-down the highlight of my trip thus far.

Our plan was to leave Chandigarh and travel directly to the Wagah border ceremony, a daily tradition at the India-Pakistan border. We had to stop in at Lovely Professional University along the way as Avi’s mom had a meeting with some faculty members there. We had little expectation for this short detour, but it turned out to be a memorable experience in and of itself.

Lovely Professional University is a private university located in Jalandhar. We were escorted into the administrative building by a guard at the front gate. The campus was lush with green space and it contained every amenity a student could possibly ask for: a mall, restaurants, athletic facilities, housing accommodations, etc.

We were brought into the administrative building and led to Avi’s mom’s meeting room. Matt, Vini, Avi and I sat around twiddling our thumbs, not sure exactly how this meeting would unravel with us just sitting there.

Within moments, Avi’s mom’s colleagues entered the room and we were all immediately disarmed – as they started hugging each other and cracking jokes, it became clear that this meeting was going to be very casual.

We left the university and arrived at the Wagah border ceremony just in time. It was about 6:00pm and it felt like 50 degrees Celsius outside. And it was really humid. I had never experienced all-consuming heat like that ever before.

The ceremony was an impressive display of patriotism and culture. For context, this ceremony occurs on a daily basis and signifies the closure of the India-Pakistan border. Given the turbulent history between these two countries, this ceremony is intended to be a civilized expression of healthy competition. Each side of the border gets its chance to show off its pride and fortitude.

Each country’s army members performed what looked like a marching synchronized dance. It was nice to see that India’s ceremony was kicked off with two female officers marching strongly towards the border gate.

The crowds cheered hysterically and music blared from the loud speakers. Guards with sniper rifles monitored the venue from an elevated platform surrounding the India side of the border.

It was an incredible sight.

Following the ceremony, we made our way back to our hotel in Amritsar, just steps away from the Golden Temple.

Amritsar is a really cool city. It looked gritty and smoggy and urban. There was a certain vibe in the air, a spiritual frequency, brought upon by the presence of the Golden Temple.

We checked into a guesthouse for people who go on a pilgrimage to Harmandir Sahib, which turned out to be quite beautiful. After dropping off our bags, we went to see the Golden Temple at night.

I truly can’t describe how spectacular it was.

The first thing I saw was a vast, marble entranceway leading to a majestic, illuminated arch-shaped opening. Hundreds of people were scattered along the marble floor of the entrance, sleeping and meditating and resting from the heat. You could hear tablas and traditional Punjabi instruments droning from the other side of the archway, getting louder with every step towards the sacred establishment, gradually escalating the intensity of the experience.

We walked to the shoe station, where we handed over our shoes and washed our hands. Finally, we cleansed our feet in water as we stepped through the arch-shaped illuminated opening and into the view of the Golden Temple itself.

The temple emitted beautifully warm golden light into the air and surrounding holy water. It was such a peaceful sight. People were perched along the perimeter of the holy water, meditating and enjoying the view.

Here’s a photo:

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We arrived at the perfect time, as the volunteers were preparing to carry the holy scripture from the temple back into the adjacent building where it rests every night. The scripture gets carried on a golden carriage, decorated with flowers. The volunteers sang a chant while carrying the carriage into the temple and back.

Here’s another photo:

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We left the Golden Temple and finished off the night with the biggest treat of all: Domino’s Pizza. Large cheese pizza. Tasted identical to back home. It was amazing.

The next day, we went back to the Golden Temple to see it during daylight and, this time, we actually entered the temple itself. Every millimeter of the inner lining of the building was plated with highly-detailed, golden art. A group of men played music on the floor and community members threw cash donations in front of them. On the second floor balcony, people sat around and meditated along the walls.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t permitted to take photos on the inside so I have no photos to show you!

We proceeded to eat lunch at the langar hall. Serving the needy is a fundamental value in Sikhism so this meal provides food for anyone, regardless of age, gender, race or class, on a daily basis for free. The food was absolutely exquisite.

We sat on the floor in long rows and volunteers walked down the rows carrying vats of curries and rotis, dispersing portions on every plate with a spatula. If you wanted more roti, the convention was to hold out your hands so as to show a sign of humility.

Last but not least, just before leaving Amritsar we stopped into Jalian Wala Bagh. This monument recognizes the grizzly slaying of thousands of innocent Sikh people by the British soldiers upon their gathering for a peaceful cultural celebration when they were ordered not to gather in large groups.

In the following photo, the outlined holes in the brick wall were bullet holes from British guns.

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It was a heavy note on which to leave the city, but an important and disturbing historical reminder.

Now we are back in Chandigarh, laying low for a couple of days before heading to Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan. This trip continues to get more and more interesting. We’re all having fun, despite some minor tummy upsets…

Thanks for reading. Chat soon!

Dylan

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