"That is a very lovely Pakistani costume you are wearing, sir". The smiling Indian customs officer doesn't want to look in our bags, but makes me feel a little self-conscious in my shalwar kameez, and after the usual form filling we enter India for the first time in 10 years. Well, okay, apart from five days in July to get our Pakistan visa. We head straight to Amritsar which is spiritual home of the Sikhs. It might be an illusion but the Indian Punjab looks wealthier than its Pakistani counterpart. Our guidebook says that 60% of India's wheat and 40% of it's rice is grown in the state, thanks to the plentiful rivers coming from Tibet and the Himalaya.
The city centre is full of pilgrims and a smattering of national and foreign tourists who come to visit the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' most holy place. The temple complex is busy and well-organised, with accommodation and dining halls, a garden and shops which surround the tank (or Lake of Nectar, which is how Amritsar translates) in which the temple picturesquely sits. Pilgrims walk around the lake stopping to pray, the men sometimes taking a ritual bath, and many queue to enter the ornate gilded temple in the centre. There is the constant drone of men reciting the words of the holy scriptures in a sing-song accompanied by tabla and harmonium. It's rather soothing. The whole atmosphere is relaxed and reflective.
Outside on the streets it's a different story. There is the usual bustle, street vendors and touts, cycle rickshaws and motorbikes, beggars asking for alms, traffic police waving and whistling pointlessly. There is food available to us - no more Ramazan to contend with - delicious vegetarian Indian dishes and ice-cream shakes. We take a cycle rickshaw at one point, but immediately regret it. Our rickshaw wallah is an old man and he struggles to carry us far on the flat. We get out early and walk, vowing never to use one again. Two minutes later we get an offer we can't refuse and we're back on a perch, rattling along with everyone else. Wherever we go, we are approached by rickshaw wallahs, including one man in a beard, print dress and heels, looking like Klinger from M*A*S*H.............
We take a couple of local buses northwards to Dharamsala. The roads are busy with all kinds of traffic - our first bus driver seems determined to take priority and blasts his airhorn with gay abandon to clear a path through - donkey carts, rickshaws, mopeds, trucks, minibuses, pedestrians, cyclists, water buffalo and cars. Its not a dull ride, and we have fun spotting signs as we pass like the company called Alchemist Ltd. and the 'Mushroom Training Centre'. The second bus climbs gradually along tree-lined ridges up to Dharamsala. We carry on up to McLeod Ganj, the village above where there's a collection of hotels and restaurants and a temple complex next to the Dalai Lama's residence. This is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the focus for the thousands of Tibetans now living here. His Holiness is regrettably not here to receive us, but James our long-time travelling companion is. He helps us locate our inner energies and reinvigorates our chakras by taking us to a bar to celebrate our reunion with a gin and Limca.
The next day we are feeling the spirit, but a cup of tea perks us up. We prowl the narrow streets and dodge the buddhist monks and nuns in their burgundy robes, checking out the tourist shops and stalls and perusing menus offering not only Tibetan and Indian food, but Italian, Mexican and Thai too. The place has a musty damp air and it rains frequently in the afternoons, but the climate is fresh and comfortable. Signs advertise Reiki, Tai Chi, Regression Therapy, Massage, Hindi lessons. There is the sound of drums and tuneless cymbals clashing, mantra music at a cd stall, the click of carrom being played obsessively by young men. At the temple complex we circumnambulate in a clockwise direction. In one of the shrines we recognise offerings of dried nuts, digestive biscuits, Happy Cow processed cheese as essential trekking food - presumably all the pilgrims had to give. The wallpaper is covered in the most graphic, gory and colourful illustrations I've seen for a while. There is a photo portrait of His Holiness looking, with his large tinted glasses, like a benevolent gangster mafia boss. The monks in the courtyards putter about or gather to discuss and debate forcefully and ritually the most intricate and complex matters of philosophical thought and opinion. I caught one arguing "...Capello needs to revert to 4-4-2 if he's to get the best out of Gerrard."