With just 36 hours in Amritsar, I was up and out early, GT-bound. After the chilled-out traveller hangouts of Manali and Mcleod Ganj and a bunch of one-goat Himalayan villages in between, the bustle of Amritsar was a shock - almost Delhi-lite. Obviously a busy commercial town rather than just tourist centre, rickshaw journeys in the narrow alleys through the garment district were a highlight to remember. I'll happily confess to a Temple limit of 1 per year on my travels - they hold no interest for me, and I have never been even a vaguely "spiritual" person, so I approached the experience with a not-entirely-admirable "Golden Temple, TICK" mentality. If not enthusiastic about spiritual centres, I'm happy to go with the dress code so, head covered and narcotic-free, I joined the line for a ritual foot washing.
These were definitely compulsory requirements - as I waited in line a six-foot plus Sikh guard stood temple-side of the footbaths, holding a full-length spear which came down lightning fast to block the path of a man who, for whatever reason, obviously thought his feet were clean enough already, thank you - they weren't.
After a couple of slow circuits of the temple complex to take it all in, the serenity of the place did start to eat through my assumed indifference for this particular faith's ground zero. As well as those publicly bathing in the lake, many Sikhs had simply found a quiet piece of shade where they practiced their devotion without demonstration, noise or fuss and, having thought the GT was a tourist magnet, I was surprised not to see another westerner inside the walls.
Although I had missed the early morning light, the white marble, the water and the jewel encrusted island all suited the harsh, flat cloudless sunlight - it seemed inappropriate to wear sunglasses in the complex and I was glad I didn't.
Unwilling to risk a cultural wrong turn, at first I avoided following the crowds onto the island-like centre of the complex. But, in a perfect confirmation of their reputation for friendliness, a young Sikh guy realised my hesitation, took my arm and led me forward onto the walkaway to the temple proper, where priests chanted and sung from the sacred scriptures which form the focus of the experience. We drank a symbolic sip of water from the lake, as did everyone, and were given a small piece of communion-like sweet pudding as we left the walkway.
I left thinking the Golden Temple was a very, very cool place all round, and highly recommended.
Having swapped hotels to smooth my railway departure the following morning, next on the Amritsar to-do list was the famous border closing ceremony at Attari-Wagah. After being offered silly prices for the 30km taxi ride out there (700rp!), I was considering my options when an auto-rickshaw driver called a cheery greeting to me outside the hotel, before NOT offering his services to me. Intrigued by such entrepreneurial ennui, I asked him how much he would charge for a spin out to the border and 300 rupees was the answer. I'm sure I could have got a better price, but he was going to have to sit on his butt and wait for me for a couple of hours, so this seemed perfectly fair.
One quick side trip for him to pick up some fruit from his brother's market stall later (got to get supplies in for such a long trip!), we were speeding (yes, the traffic isn't that bad!) out of Amritsar, border bound.
The ride out to the ceremony on the needle-straight highway to Pakistan made up in atmosphere what it lacked in comfort, air conditioning and seatbelts - overtaking a tractor which itself was overtaking a cow, with traffic coming the other way always puts a smile on my face. Fairground ride over, we agreed where to meet after the main event, I bought him a coke and then departed to eat my way towards the border via the food stalls which lined the final few hundred metres of Sovereign India.
Absurdly entertaining as the floor show of stomping guards and slamming gates was, there were of course more serious themes in play here - these are both young nations, full of politicians happy to use crude nationalism for their own ends, and noisy ritual posturing like this can hardly improve relations - the Florida-flat landscape around us had been used several times in the previous half-century as a perfect invasion corridor.
Geo-political chin stroking aside, the ceremony does provide a perfect contrast of the two nations.
Just like my country, the UK, India is a far from perfect nation - the legacy of the caste system, the struggles of women to achieve equality, the poverty of countless millions, but half an hour before sunset at the Attar-Wagah border, you just have to stand back and admire the place, the people and the attitude - there were school trips, family groups, middle class Indian tourists and everything in between - colour, life, noise and energy - a microcosm of a nation inside one mini-grandstand. Before the martial antics, parts of the crowd invaded the road and sang and danced the final twenty minutes before showtime. On the Pakistani side? Rigid lines of sinister black-clad guards and grandstands empty but for a handful of men. No women, no children, no colour. I've never been to Pakistan, so I really shouldn't form an opinion based on looking across the garden fence, but the contrast between the two sides seemed total and absolute. Show over, my rickshaw driver left me at the hotel an hour later with a big smile and a big tip - nice guy.