I’ve gotta ask: have you ever dreamed of twisting the throttle and watching the road roll beneath you as you ride through a country unlike any other? You know what I mean–riding into a landscape that 1.2 billion people call home, and where sights, sounds, and smells come at you full force and non stop? Where absolute poverty plays side-by-side with the obscenely wealthy? Where you, the traveler, become intoxicated by the cultural cocktail being poured down your throat? Well … welcome to India!
The Show Must Go On
We are at the Wagah border in Northern India; we have little choice. There is only one road crossing between Pakistan and India that is open to foreigners. Our passports are stamped with our 68th country, and our entry into India is now official. I exchange a tired smile with Lisa as we walk past the modern brick immigration office and back to our bikes in the sweltering heat.
To our left, a large painted sign reads “Welcome to India, the largest democracy in the world.” Hanging out at international borders is normally not done, but this is India and “normal” doesn’t apply. We find two tin seats among the swelling crowd of thousands. It’s 4 p.m. and the show’s about to begin. Flag lowering is now considered entertainment.
The traumatic partition of India in 1947 ended the rule of the British Raj and saw the birth of two nations–secular India and Muslim Pakistan. Nearly a million people were killed in factional fury. Now, more than 60 years later, the old aggression is played out in a largely good-natured, daily ritual. The crowds cheer for their country while guardsmen perform a carefully choreographed contempt. The immaculately dressed soldiers strut and stamp like groomed peacocks in a wonderful display of mock rage. As the moment of flag lowering grows closer, the tension is palpable and the crowd’s excitement grows more vocal. With fans sprouting from their turbans like raised hackles, the guards lower their respective flags with impeccable timing. It all ends in a flourish with a quadrille of stamping soldiers and the briefest of handshakes. Then the gates are ceremoniously slammed shut. The border between Pakistan and India is sealed for the night.
Outside the border compound we’re jostled and cajoled into a small street café, and we enjoy our first cold beer since leaving Turkmenistan many months earlier. We can barely see the GSs for the clambering young men who swarm to have their photographs taken with the big bikes. With the day almost over, we plan to ride 18 miles due east into one of the largest cities in the Punjab State, Amritsar.
All That Glitters “is” Gold
Last night we settled into the “Tourist Guest House.” It’s 4:30 a.m. and the freezing outdoor air slaps us awake. Our painfully thin rickshaw driver pedals furiously wearing only a loose loincloth and a stained white vest, as though he doesn’t feel the cold or is hardened to it. We are racing the sun to photograph the Golden Temple as the first light of day shines onto this gilded shrine. The Temple is a giant complex of marble and gold, annually welcoming more visitors than the Taj Mahal. We kneel on the perfectly scrubbed, white marbled walkway and wait for the special moment. Our cameras fly into a shutter-clicking frenzy as the sunlight crests the fortress-like walls. Inside the holiest of Sikh shrines, the sense of tranquility is soothing, although to many, the Golden Temple might be better known as the world’s largest free eatery. Anyone can eat here–the vast kitchen and thousand-strong group of volunteers serve between 80 and 160 thousand daily lunchtime meals.