The good, the bad and the ugly – a week in Punjab

The Golden Temple

First the good. The Golden Temple in Amritsar was one of the standout highlights of this trip so far, perhaps of all the trips I’ve ever made. Surrounded by a maze of chaotic, filthy, medieval lanes and alleys, it’s a haven of tranquility, even when it’s buzzing with hundreds of devout pilgrims. I’m not religious, but there’s something intense and moving about being in a place where there is a unity of purpose, where everyone is intent on the same thing. You can’t help but be swept away by the fervour of it all, with the temple itself reflected in the pool and musical chants being broadcast all around.

The Golden Temple

I also learned a lot about the Sikh religion, how it came about in reaction to the caste system of Hinduism and how one of its main tenets is equality. To this end, the temple offers free lunches to anyone who wants to eat and this can number tens of thousands every day. It’s fascinating to watch the almost military operation as many volunteers help out and the sound and clatter of metal thali trays being washed is incredible.

The Golden Temple
It’s fun just to walk around the pool, watching pilgrims bathing and praying. Priests sit in rooms chanting and passing huge fans over the holy books. The people are very friendly and curious and are keen to stop and chat. The first question is usually, “What your country?” I went back three times at different times of day, and each time it never failed to impress.

The Golden Temple at night

Now the bad. Chandigarh is the complete opposite to Amritsar. It’s a modern, clean and ordered city, but that’s about all it’s got going for it. After Partition in 1947 Punjab lost its capital Lahore to Pakistan and so a new city was ordered, and the commission went to Le Corbusier. Like all planned cities it hasn’t aged well and I found it soulless and sterile. 

Chandigarh city centre

The one saving grace is the Rock Garden built over many years in secret by Nek Chand. He built a maze and warren of passages, in direct contrast with the ordered grid of Chandigarh. He peopled it with statues and sculptures made out of the debris and rubble from the villages demolished to make way for the new city, old bits of crockery and coloured bangles. It’s an astonishing outdoors gallery and has more style, wit and creativity than the entire city.

Sculptures made from bangles at the Rock Garden

Finally, the ugly. Just a few kilometres west of Amritsar lies the Pakistani border. It’s now a tradition for the border to be closed at dusk with pomp and ceremony and it’s become a tourist attraction. Stadium seating has been built and Indians and Pakistanis sit on opposite sides and wave flags and jeer and boo each other. Absurdly dressed guards strut their stuff in high-kicking marching which reminded me of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. 

Statues and broken plates at the Rock Garden

It’s supposed to be good-natured, but I found it jingoistic and unappealing. With tensions high between the countries and real violence a frequent occurrence, it seems odd to encourage such nationalistic sentiments. 

Wagah border ceremony

All in all, though, I’ve enjoyed my week in Punjab. It’s very different from Himalayan India. It’s hot, dirty and crazy, but rewarding. You just have to adapt to a different rhythm and deal with the hassle. Momos and thukpas are no longer to be found, just tasty, fiery Indian food. I’m off to Delhi next which is going to require all my patience and nerve. When I’m snarled in traffic or being hassled by a rickshaw driver, I’ll try to imagine myself back in the calm serenity of the Golden Temple.

Pilgrim at the Golden Temple

A perfect relaxing retreat in the Saal valley – five nights at the Orchard Hut in Himachal Pradesh

Corn drying on a roof in the Saal valley

I haven’t seen another tourist for a week. In fact I haven’t seen many other people at all. Which is pretty amazing for India, one of the most populous countries on earth. For the past five days I’ve been well off the beaten track, staying in a family guesthouse outside Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. The only way to get here is to climb a steep track up the mountainside. It’s another world from the pizzas, apple pies and wifi of Dharamsala, yet only a day’s bus ride away.

Fruit and veg shop, Chamba

From McLeod Ganj I caught a direct bus to Dalhousie at, yet again, the crazily early time of 6.30am. It was a local stopping bus, mercifully uncrowded for a change, and I was the only passenger going the whole route. Dalhousie is another British hill station, named after its founder. It’s just a ridge lined with houses and hotels, without a real centre or soul, and I found it a rather dull place, lacking in character. It’s very popular with weekending Punjabis though. 

Temple bells, Chamba

The next day I moved onto the small town of Chamba, a couple of hours away. At less than a thousand metres above sea level it’s the lowest I’ve been so far. The cool Himalayan towns were far behind me now. Here was the heat and dust of India, the exotic Hindu temples, the open drains, rubbish scattered everywhere. And the stares. I’d forgotten how much Indian people stare at tourists, completely unabashed. But then there’s also the warmth and friendliness you encounter and genuine curiosity.

The Saal valley

After a night in Chamba I was ready to move up the Saal valley to the Orchard Hut perched high up on the mountain. It’s been the perfect place to wind down for a few days and feast on fabulous home cooking. It’s away from the road, but there are a few small villages and farmhouses on these slopes. Much of the land has been terraced and irrigated with local spring water. Corn is a main crop here and thousands of ears can be seen on rooftops lying out to dry. Down below on the road, milk is delivered by a guy on a motorbike with two churns strapped to either side.

The Orchard Hut and the incredible view

The Dhami family that run the Orchard Hut also have an organic vegetable farm, as well as fruit orchards. By employing local people, they provide an income for up to twenty families, so it’s great knowing you’re supporting such a venture. There is also a trekking hut right at the top of the mountain, a thousand metres higher up with excellent 360 degree views including the Pir Panjal range and across into Kashmir. I couldn’t resist the opportunity of hiking up to spend the night there. 

Sunset at the trekking lodge

Sometimes you chance upon a place where you want to linger, especially important when you’re travelling for a long period of time. I think I’ve recharged my batteries sufficiently to tackle the chaos of Amritsar, home to the famous Golden Temple, my next destination. If you want to stay at the Orchard Hut, you can check out their website here.

Bravo, the Dhami family dog, joined me for the trek