Though I had been in Chandigarh for 6 months, I had not travelled much within Punjab. The pull of the hills had been strong, and I had used every free weekend to travel to places in Himachal Pradesh. However, with parents visiting and my traveller mom already having been to Shimla and Manali, we decided to drive up to Amritsar for the weekend. I was excited at the idea of driving through the Punjab countryside, and of visiting the Golden Temple and Wagah Boder. More exciting though was the prospect of all the dhabas on the way, and the legendary tales of gastronomy that I had heard that Amritsar was famous for! Capturing below the highlights of the trip – the drive, the stay, the experiences & the gastronomy – in case you too want to experience the brilliant trip we had.
The drive from Chandigarh to Amritsar is on great roads, and you can stay at 80 kmph (or more – I’m a safe driver!) throughout the trip. The distance from Chandigarh to Amritsar is about 240 kms, and we could easily do this distance in 5 hours, with a stop for breakfast. On the way back, there was a bad accident on the road, and so the drive took us about 7 hours, with the wait of stopping for the road to clear up & then choosing to take an alternate route.
The route we took is: Chandigarh – NH21 to Kharar – NH205 to Phagwara – Jalandar – Amritsar.
- There are a number of dhabas along the way. We stopped at one before Phagwara for a breakfast of Aloo & Gobhi parathas and glasses of Lassi!
- The countryside is flat and featureless, with fields on either side of a broad highway. The detour on the way back took us on narrow roads through small villages and right through the middle of the fields, a far more interesting drive than the highway roads.
- There is a bridge ahead of Kharar where you’ll cross the Sutlej river. You can spot a gurudwara on the other side of the bridge, and there is a drive through wooded roads once you cross over. This was a beautiful part of the drive.
- Between Phagwara and Kharar you will spot the Golden Arches, and can stop for a bite at McDonalds, KFC or do what we did – stop at Haveli, which has great food, entertainment for kids and some shopping!
- The route from Amritsar to Jalandar is on a two lane road with many trucks and aggressive drivers. This was a difficult part of the drive.
- We had to drive at night on the way back because of the accident. There was a lot of aggressive overtaking, with people driving with high-beam, and this kept me on tenterhooks.
- There are lot of toll stops on the way, and we must have spent about Rs. 500/- in tolls. Be ready with your pocket change!
- Look out for various palatial “castles” done in Tudor style on the way from Kharar to Phagwara. These have names like Bath Castle and Willington Castle!
- Keep your eye out for stretch limos – yes, stretch limos – in the villages of Punjab! These are used for marriages and parties, and we were lucky enough to spot a couple of these on the way.
- You may want to look at the ambulance before giving way – we saw many regular cars, even Maruti 800’s with blue VIP lights and the wail of an ambulance.
- I found many of the cars I saw on the road very interesting – cars with Canada flags, a few cars with a sticker that said “Mr. Singh’s Car” (um, who?) and cars blaring loud Bhangra music with heavy bass!
- We saw the weirdest, strangest house decorations I have seen – many of the houses seem to have what appear to be statues of footballs or large birds on top of the house. What are these? I do not know, though my guess is that may be used to conceal the disk antenna.
We stayed at a lovely guest house, Mrs. Bhandari’s Guest House, in the quiet and clean cantonment area of Amritsar. This is a wonderful estate, with well attended gardens, a play-area with swings and see-saws, and large rooms with high ceilings, patterned tiles and antique, wooden furniture. The estate itself has a lot of history, and it was interesting to read about Tehmima Bhandari, the fiesty lady of the house who used to live in Amritsar and go shopping in Lahore during pre-independence India!
- We stayed at Mrs. Bhandari’s guest house, at No. 10 Cantonment. The other hotels in Amritsar seemed very functional and business-like, and we preferred the laid back feel of this guest house.
- Things I liked:
- The rooms: high ceilings, patterned tiles, chairs you can sit on and ruminate and desks you can sit at and write, no television, outdoor verandah with tables to sit at, massive bathrooms with bathtubs and walk-in closets – all of this, with the modcons of the wonderful invention of air-con!
- The garden, play-area, the swimming pool and the buffaloes! : great for kids of all ages! I loved walking through the garden path, which had the scent of flowers. The play area with the merry-go-around, swing and see-saw was great for my daughter. There is a clean swimming pool; unfortunately, we didn’t know about this and hadn’t taken our swimming gear and so couldn’t go for a swim. They also have buffaloes on the estate, which is great fun for children.
- The staff: the staff were polite, helpful and great to talk to. I loved that they were not fawning, like the over-trained staff in some of the new hotels.
- Things I didn’t like:
- The price for food: The room rates were Rs. 2500/- + tax, which is a great deal for the stay. However, the food prices at the guest house seemed expensive for this room rate – Rs. 50/- for a cup of tea, and Rs. 450/- for a lunch of rice, dal and roti seemed expensive.
- The musty smell in the rooms: There was a bit of a musty smell in the rooms we were staying in (perhaps they had been closed for a while?), and this caused K’s allergy to act up and she had a bad bout of sneezing.
Overall, this is a brilliant place to have a leisurely stay over a weekend, especially if you have kids. Be warned though – your kids will probably not want to leave the house and go into the crowded marketplaces of Amritsar!
- It is impossible to ask for directions “Cantonment” and get people to understand you! Punjabis seem to say this as “Cunn ton nuh mant” with a heavy voice and a rolling sound – though I tried to imitate this when asking for directions, I was never successful!
In Amritsar, we experienced five sights – Khalsa College, Wagah Border, the Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh and the shopping in the old city. Of these, I enjoyed Wagah Border the least, with all its bravado and show, rousing the jostling crowds into shouts of nationalistic pride. In fact, I was more moved and felt more truly patriotic at Jallianwala Bagh, and felt a deep gratitude to those who had given their lives in a struggle so that we could enjoy freedom today. The Golden Temple was exquisite and divine, a truly beautiful and moving sight, especially at night. Khalsa College was the surprise of the package; we went in for a quick look since we were early for the parade at Wagah Border, and Khalsa College falls on the way, but we stayed on, marveling at the huge lawns, the beautiful architecture of the buildings and the cool and dimly lit marble tiled rooms inside. Shopping in the old city is an experience in itself, with shops for textiles, jewelry, dry fruits and of course, the famous Panjabi wadi and papad.
- Khalsa College, on the way to Wagah Border: do stop and walk around. There are wide lawns and beautiful buildings. I would love to study in a place like this!
- Wagah Border: everyone who comes to Amritsar, goes here now – and it felt like it!
- Plan to get there by about 4:15 (especially on weekends).
- You will have to park about 1 km from the entrance. There is a government approved parking place at the end; go there, rather than parking early where the touts tell you to. Leave your bags in the car.
- There are many vendors here selling water and snacks. This is a good time to get a bottle of water (they will tell you that you can’t get water ahead – but you can!). This is also the place to buy India flags and hats for the kids!
- There are large, jostling crowds at the entrance, waiting to get in at about 5:00 pm when the gate is opened. There is a special ladies line (not much better) and a VIP entrance (which we didn’t know of before – you may want to research this).
- Once you push your way through this gate, there will be a wild rush of people running ahead. However, there is another security check-point, where men and women will be made to stand in separate lines and will be frisked as they pass through security. The line for men moves faster, so I went ahead and waited for K.
- Once you pass through security, you will no longer have cell phone signal and will return to the dawn of society. You will survive through it. However, it is best to talk to people in your party and tell them about a place to wait at, in case they get lost.
- After security, it is a free-for-all run to the gates – there are two viewing galleries, with a separate viewing gallery for women. Since we were with parents, we were late and the galleries were packed by the time we go to them. There were still about 1000 people behind us it seemed, and it felt like an impossibility to see anything. This is where the women left us to go to the “ladies gallery” (which was also packed).
- We managed to clamber some stairs (we had about 1 sq ft space for our feet) from where we had a view of proceedings in the distance. My daughter was hoisted on my shoulders, and stayed there for the next couple of hours.
- It was seriously crowded – think Mumbai Local or Puri Jagannath or Khumbh Mela or your favorite bone-crushing experience – and it stayed like that for two hours.
- We saw the parade and heard the music, but it was all faint (maybe because I was faint!). There was a lot of wild cheering, but I couldn’t catch what the cheering was for.
- Once the parade was over, we met near the cafeteria where there was water, stale samosas and bad tea.
- Overall, Wagah Border was a bit of a let-down – good as a once in a lifetime experience, but not a great thing to go to with parents and kids, unless you’re willing to brave the crowds and push your way about. Do explore the VIP entrance if you are planning this.
- Golden Temple: this is the must visit place in Amritsar. In the heart of the city in its old area, the Golden Temple is serene, beautiful and could offer a lesson in crowd management to the folks at Wagah Border.
- We went to Golden Temple at about 9:30 at night. The temple stays open 24 hours a day, though things quiet down after 11 pm.
- There is a government multi-tiered parking complex about 1 km from the temple (beyond which vehicles aren’t allowed), which is where we parked. The parking is well organized, and they charge Rs. 20/- for parking.
- From the parking, we took cycle rickshaws to the temple complex. The rickshaws here were great – they charge Rs. 20/- to the temple and are great fun to experience.
- There is a spot to leave your slippers ahead of the temple, where they give you a circular metallic numbered token with which they can find your slippers later. Hold on to that token!
- From here, it is a 5 minute walk into the temple complex. There are lines, and though it is crowded, it was orderly.
- You will see the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, as you climb the stairs and enter the central area of the temple. It is a moving sight.
- The central temple square with the Golden Temple in the middle of a pool of clean water is serene and sublime.
- There are many pilgrims sleeping, meditating or praying on the sides.
- You can walk into the Harmandir Sahib, but we chose not to, given that we had had a long day and the parents were tired and my daughter was asleep in my arms.
- There is clean water being served in various spots around the central square; there is also a place to buy prashad.
- Once you exit, there is a spot where langar is being served. We got a langar of khicchidi which was literally quite heavenly!
- Jallianwala Bagh: very close to the Golden Temple, this is a must visit. Though the gardens themselves aren’t special, it was moving to see the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, see the well that women and children had plunged into when the shooting started, see the Amar Jyoti flame and visit the museum which has a history of the clashes leading up to the Jallianwala Bagh incident. This closes at 6:00 pm; the visit itself will possibly not take more than 45 minutes, unless you want to spend more time in the museum, watch the movie that is screened on the hour or view the sound-and-light shown in the evening.
- Shopping in the Old City: this is quite an experience, we didn’t have too much time for shopping however. I love the old city areas – whether it is Delhi’s Chandni Chowk or Hyderabad’s Charminar, I love wandering about aimlessly, stopping for street-food and then stopping to shop and then stopping for a bite again! Amritsar’s old city, just outside the Golden Temple is similar – a warren of narrow roads through which only people or cycle rickshaws can pass, filled with interesting shopping and even more interesting street food! Given our limited time, Kanchuki and her mom shopped for cloth for salwar suits and some sarees, while I looked at Amristari wadis and papads. A tip – we hired a rickshaw, and paid him hundred rupees at the end, and he took us everywhere – to the shops which he claimed had the best rates for cloth, the best saree shops and even the best places to eat!
- It was great fun reading the notice board at Khalsa College. In one very polite notice the principal had “rusticated the following five students for causing commotion near the college gate”. Apparently, 3 boys from B.A English had a fight with 2 girls from B.Sc Computer Science, and all 5 were to be suspended!
- It is impossible to tell the polite, sweet-talking cycle rickshaw drivers that you don’t want to see more. Much as we tried, they insisted on being with us while we ate breakfast, and then showing us around the best spots for shopping. It was quite a bargain for the price – but beware trying to get them off your back and walking the streets instead!
Yum! Lassi, Jalebi, Chhole-Kulche! I had been looking forward to the food on the trip, and it was really good – though it did have a few let-downs. I drank Lassi at breakfast, lunch and dinner; the one thing I now know for sure is that while all of them were great, there is a wide variance in Lassi’s and more have to be sampled by me before I declare the winner! I ate parathas and kulchas, and chhole at every stop, and these were delectable too.
The most poignant moment of the trip for me was the Jalebi’s I ate at Jalebi Chowk – they were crunchy, sweet but not overly so and piping hot, sublime and divine. There were tears in my eyes, of joy, but also of sadness – the jalebis I had eaten during my college days on Sunday mornings near the Gurudwaara in Chandi Chowk had finally met their match and had been dethroned from the position of the Best Jalebis in the World. How sad. Pass me another jalebi.
- Gobi and Aloo parathas on the way from Chandigarh to Amritsar, at any of the numerous dhabas. Quite yummy, and served with lots of butter! The lassi here was thick and frothy, very good.
- Lunch was at Pritam Dhaba near the Railway Station at Amritsar. It is a dark, dingy establishment – but the food was great. Hot parathas, and delicious chhole with paneer mashed into it. The lassi here was thin, but topped with lots of cream and butter. Yucky, and yummy!
- Dinner was at the famous Bharawan Dhaba. The place is clean, and the food is delicious. The chhole here was especially good, and reminded me of the flavour of the chhole kulche in Delhi. The lassi here was very thick and a bit too sweet for my liking.
- Langar prashad at Golden Temple. Simple, tasty, served piping hot, and divine!
- Jalebi and Jalebi Chowk: Stupendous. Do I need say more?
- Haveli, on the way back from Amritsar to Chandigarh: a mish-mash of Chinese, south-indian and chaat. Surprisingly good!
- Let-downs: Kesar da dhaba – I was looking forward to chhole bhature here, which they didn’t have on the menu! Further, we had gone at breakfast time, when the service was indifferent and we were told that nothing was available. Had to leave without a bite!
- Didn’t try: Ahuja lassi wala, supposedly the best lassi in town. He’ll have to wait for my next visit!
- The jalebis at Jalebi Chowk are made with pure Desi Ghee. No wonder they are heart-cloggingly good!
Overall, the trip to Amritsar was a very good weekend getaway from Chandigarh. The drive is pleasant and comfortable, the place we stayed at was fantastic, the experiences were worth the effort (I would go back for Golden Temple and shopping in the city), the food, especially the jalebis and langar, were great.
Happy tripping, and of course, do write to me at email@example.com if you want to get more details about our trip to Amritsar!