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India – Varanasi

Holy Cow!!

sunny 42 °C

If India was a first date, you would be wondering how you managed to be at dinner with Shriek . When you first arrive you immediately notice the dust, rubbish, cow pats, ever present touts, relentless traffic, vehicle horns, smog and incredibly poor people. It takes a few days but slowly you look beyond all of these first impressions and start to see the throbbing pulse of the billion people calling India home. Various religions, sub cultures and historical beginnings make a unique melting pot of people who when you give them time will be the friendliest people you meet (If they are not trying to make money off you).

Those first impressions welcomed us as we left the Delhi International Airport. We had arranged a pickup service from our guesthouse and initially the pickup guy was nowhere to be found. We were expecting an onslaught of touts to harass us, but actually at the airport we had very few people come up to ask us where we were going. Eventually our ride turned up and we buckled up (metaphorically speaking) in the back of his little Suzuki van and took in the experience.

No longer beginners at this travel game, we think we are quite used to the hairy traffic and crazy drivers that the world has thrown up, but I personally think the Indians might just take the cake. Ignoring road rules (if there are any), squeezing past other cars, wrong way down roads all at high speed is nothing new to what we have experienced but India does it faster, closer and with even more human traffic around than anywhere else we have been. The drive took us to the guesthouse past slums, cows and so many people. That was the thing that I first noticed, people are walking everywhere. The major highway from the airport had countless people sitting in the median strip, walking between the full speed traffic seemingly oblivious to the world around them. China may have more people, but we didn’t see the amount of people crammed in to one place like it is here in India.

So we began in the heaving mass of a city that is Delhi but we didn’t want to linger long, so the first morning we headed into the central the railway station to try and sort out some train tickets. So many people say that the way to get to know India is on the railways. It has one of the biggest train networks in the world and India Railways is the world’s largest employer with 1.5 million staff on its books. That’s got to be headache for a HR department! The railways are the way that all Indians get around the country so most trains sell out 120 days in advance when the tickets are released to the general public. Fortunately the railway know that tourists need tickets on much shorter demand, so they usually hold back up to 20 tickets for the popular train routes which get released 48 hours before the departure just for tourists. We found the tourist booking office at the railway station and managed to get some sleeper class (ie cattle class/bottom of the titanic class/for the adventurous traveller as a website described it) tickets for the following day to Varanasi and then onto Agra for a few days after. It was relatively simple process that seems to work well enough for us.

After that we decided to see a little bit of Delhi, starting with the Red Fort. Built in the 1600´s for the emperor it takes up a large chunk of the old town. We weren’t too worried about going inside so just got a few pictures from the exterior before walking past the large Jama Masjid mosque and through some interesting streets back to the metro station. The streets were lined with identical shops for a block or so. So if you wanted some copper pots and pans, just come to this one block and there were 20 shops selling the same pots and pans out of the front of very simple little shops. It was the same with the mechanics (all seemingly replacing worn out car horns – this is no surprise once you have spent a day or two walking the streets) It was a good way to appreciate how the day to day life works in the city of 15million people.


We caught our sleeper train out of Delhi bound for Varanasi as the sun was setting over the outskirts of the city. The train wasn’t as bad as we were thinking. When we booked the tickets, the man said that our area would have other travellers in it, and sure enough there was a French couple and Korean pair in our little enclave of six bunk beds. As we were sat there a train guard brought around a bit of paper that said that the sleeper trains were not safe at night, you should chain your luggage to the seats and avoid talking to anyone about your travel plans. Righo then!


Along the aisle of the train were a further two bunks in our area and there was a young Indian guy on one of those bunks. He said hello to me and we started chatting. Despite the warning paper that we had read, I felt fine talking to this guy, mainly because his English wasn’t too great. I always find that the con men always have great English, as it helps them with their scams. As it turned out, the guy was very friendly, and was very grateful to be able to practice his English with me. He told us to sleep with our bags to keep them safe and told us what Varanasi was like amongst some deep discussions about the world. It was also our first introduction into the strange custom that Indian people have where talking about money is not a problem. Our guide book said that this was the case, but it is still strange to have someone asking you how much you earn in your country, how much your plane ticket cost and all other things that westerners consider rude to ask a person about. Had we not read about this, we would have been thinking that we were being sized up for someone to rob us. We have experienced this custom everywhere we have been in India! The guide book says to take it as an opportunity to ask the same back to the people to understand their life too.

We awoke as the train pulled into Varanasi Station and we had a pickup organised with our guesthouse again. The auto rickshaw raced through the crowded streets as we overtook cows and other vehicles like a race car. The historical part of Varanasi has tight lanes weaving through the buildings down to the river where no vehicles can get to. So we abandoned the rickshaw on the outskirts of the old town and walked the rest of the way to the guesthouse. It was lucky we had the driver to follow, as I was lost within minutes of getting setting foot into the alleys.

The guesthouse showed us up to the rooftop which had views over the river and quickly started to sell us a boat tour along the Ghats with them. The price was a bit steep, but we thought it might be easier to just do this than go down by our self to find someone who would also try to overcharge us.

The sacred Ganga River over the rooftops of Varanasi

Varanasi is the most sacred of cities to the Indian people and thought to be one of the oldest living cities in the world with a continuous city dating back to 1400BC. Mark Twain wrote of Varanasi:
‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’

The city is the heart of the Hindu universe, with pilgrims coming here to die so that they can escape the cycle of rebirth and be eternally with the gods. The Ganges river is the almightily cleanser and the holy water to wash away sins and give over family members in cremations and water burials.

Since our first boat trip on the Ganges would be timed for sunset, we had the day to explore the laneways. The guesthouse recommended staying relatively close as ‘we were not experienced enough and could easily get lost’ so looked around close by and found a good place for food to get out of the streets and the cows who rule the laneways. We had inadvertently timed our stay in Varanasi for the month of festivals. Every weekend during July thousands of pilgrims descend on the city for the festival of Shiva where they wash in the river and take the sacred river water to the Shiva temples. This meant that the thin laneways were full of people dressed in orange (the colour of Hindu) chanting and moving from temple to temple. The colour and noise of Varanasi is really what makes the city a unique experience.

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When the afternoon came around, we headed out with our guesthouse owner and two Korean tourists to experience the Ghats from the waterside. The 80 Ghats are bathing steps that stretch all the way along the river bank. There are also a couple of the Ghats that are ‘Burning Ghats’ where public cremations are performed. Our guesthouse was located right near Dasaswamedh Ghat, which was alive with hundreds of people preparing for the nightly ceremony.


We hopped onto the boat which was being rowed by a young boy no more than 13yrs old. And he earned his pay as we slowly made our way upriver against the pretty strong current of the Ganga. On the way up the river the sights of pilgrims washing, preying and worshiping the holy river all awash with orange, incense burning and cremations taking place it was unlike you will see anywhere else in the world. We couldn’t do much else but watch and take in the scenes as the sunset added some more orange to the sky.

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A burning Ghat with cremations under way

Our boat rower boy finally got a rest as we turned back and let the river take us downstream back to Dasaswamedh Ghat ready for the nightly ‘ganga aarti’ ceremony. We added our boat to the many that were already parked up to watch the ceremony from the water. There was lots of fire, smoke and music of the hour long ceremony and watching all of the Indian people taking in the atmosphere was just as interesting. We finished off the night with a good curry backed with the smooth sounds of a sitar and drum at the good restaurant that became our safe place to eat for the time in Varanasi.

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It was back onto the river again early in the morning for sunrise. The river was a lot more peaceful with only a few people washing and starting their day down by the river unlike the crowds and noise of the prior night. We were passed by people carrying dead relatives covered in silk on their way to the burning ghat. The river had also risen in level a fair bit from the prior day but it was still nothing when the guide pointed out the watermarks on the buildings where the river can get in the worst of the floods. As we were paddling our way down past the cremations and early morning bathing the older boat driver for the morning said to us that we could drink the river water because it is sacred. Unfortunately blind faith doesn’t hide the truth for us. As sacred as the Ganges river may be, along the stretch of river at Varanasi there are 30 large sewers discharging into the water combined with heavy metals dumped into the river by factories upstream and decomposing bodies resulting in the water being septic. Water that is safe to bathe in (let alone drink) should have no more than 500 faecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water. The Ganges has 1,500,000 per 100mL!! Yeah I will skip the taste test thanks buddy.

Cremations under way

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Back on dry land, our guesthouse owner took us for a walking tour through the tight twisting alleys of old Varanasi. We went to a few temples and took in more of the city. Tanya was suffering with a bit of a chest infection so the guesthouse owner kindly took us around to a doctor who sorted her out with some antibiotics for only $8 consultation and drugs. The doctors clinic was very basic with a young boy on a drip in the little waiting room and a small examination room off the back separated by a thin curtain

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Interesting wood carvings...

For the rest of the day and the following morning before our train ride we just roamed the laneways, got lost and took in the bizarre sights which is really the best way to experience the city

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Everything is old school around here

Daniel – I wouldn’t ever describe Varanasi as a beautiful city, but simply the most unique experience we have ever had in a city. As far as an introduction to India goes, nothing illustrates the spirituality and culture as clearly as Varanasi does!

Tanya – Plenty of people have said about India ‘You’ll either love it or hate it’. Navigating our way through the filthy streets that I’d relate to medieval Europe, but doing so in extreme heat and humidity with a chest infection, Ill be honest and say that I was starting the trip off in the ‘hate it’ camp. But the vibrance of this city of life and death is something that we have not experienced in a year of travels. Maybe India is a place I could grow to love.

Posted by dbgomes 15:40 Archived in India Tagged india round_the_world

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