A Travellerspoint blog

August 2012

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

FINAL THOUGHTS
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 Comments (0)

Vietnam – Halong Bay

How Long... Ha Long

sunny 36 °C

Probably what I had been looking forward to most in South East Asia was saved till last. Ha Long Bay is a world heritage site and one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature. Legend says that the Vietnamese people called to the gods for a dragon to help them in battle with the Chinese. A mother dragon with her child dragon were sent from the heavens, but when they came to Ha Long Bay they gave up on fighting and stayed because it was so beautiful. Those dragons, you can never trust them!!

So our final overnight bus from Hue brought us into Vietnam’s cultural capital and historical capital of the North, Hanoi. Checking into a hotel we quickly scouted around for a company to spend a night on a junk boat in the bay. There are around 1500 boats that operate in Ha Long Bay ranging from super luxury to super terrible. As enjoying a night in the Bay is a once in a lifetime experience, we were keen to make sure we steered clear of the latter. We settled on a company who were good value but promising a high level of service. We will see if they deliver!

The bus picked us up from the hotel and an hour or so into the trip from Hanoi we made a shopping stop. Wasting 40 minutes sat around not wanting to buy any overpriced handcrafts, I would have much preferred spending this time relaxing on the boat. Getting back into the bus the landscape started to get more dramatic as we passed plenty of rice paddies framed with limestone mountains in the distance

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Out at Ha Long City Port, there were swathes of tourists and just as many boats chugging around making their pickups before heading straight out again. A lot of the boats looked less than seaworthy, in desperate need of a paint job and packed to the brim. We had sinking feelings ourselves that our trip might not be too good. Fortunately though as a boat approached the jetty, it looked promising and with relief we were asked to board the boat. There were only 14 of us on our boat which was a really good group size to make it not crowded on board but also friendly enough for a chat with someone. The fit out on the boat was very good too, high quality wooden interior, nice cabins with air-conditioning and some good sun decks we were instantly happy that our $55 was a bargain. Actually, we got told not to say how much we paid to the other people as some had paid double that amount.

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Our welcome lunch onboard

We immediately sat down and enjoyed a really tasty and filling lunch of seafood, fish, chicken and vegetables as we crossed from the mainland to the archipelago of 2000 islands that sit off the coastline. After finishing the lunch we got to finally sit on deck and enjoy the views as we started to weave in and out of the dramatic islands.

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We pulled into a bay where we stopped at a cave, known as Surprising Cave. The first thing we noticed was the amount of boats around. Any tranquillity of the place is quickly lost with hundreds of boats moving in and out to drop off loads of tourists. Unfortunately it becomes part and parcel of being an incredible place that so many people come to see it, us included.

After we got off our boat we walked up to the cave entrance and our guide told us the legend of the Ha Long Bay dragons and the history of the caves. Once we got through the first part of the cave, we found out why the cave is referred to as the ‘Surprising Cave’ before walking around the rest of the impressive cavern. We have seen a fair few caves on the year long journey, but even so, this one was still very good.

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Hmmm, surprising

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The view from the cave out to the bay was quite nice too and we got the obligatory photos before waiting for our boat to collect us again amongst the fruit sellers.

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Back on the boat we spent the afternoon kayaking around the bay for a short 30 minutes of allocated time before heading to an island where we walked up a few hundred steps to a vantage point over the bay. The view was great, even with the small armada of boats that were raiding the bay. We had a chance to swim at the island before getting back on the boat, however closer inspection of the water turned us away from that idea. The scenery of Ha Long Bay is stunning, but unfortunately the imprint that tourism is leaving on it is sad to see.

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We moored up soon after and enjoyed another good meal onboard and watched the sun set behind a big storm cloud which cast shadows across the sky before putting on a light show of its own. We played some cards into the night in the tranquillity of the bay before a comfortable sleep in the airconditioned cabins.

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As we were walking through the cave earlier in the day I was looking up at the ceiling and busted my toe on a step, leaving a bloody hole in the end of it. Luckily there was a Dentist on board... Mateo’s profession of pulling teeth also lends itself nicely to patching up toes it seems :-)

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We set our alarms for sunrise in the morning. It wasn’t bad, especially seeing it over the landscape of Ha Long Bay, but we should have got up about half an hour earlier to get the best colour of the morning.

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The rest of the day we got to just relax on the boat with only a quick stop on the way back to the port. The scenery for the two days was absolutely amazing and we had managed to get some good luck with our boat, but the crowded feel of the bay with all the boats unfortunately distracts you a little bit.

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Our plan for after the boat trip was to get ourselves across to Cat Ba Island which is the biggest of the islands in Ha Long so we could enjoy the scenery by our self for a while. While we were on the junk boat, we asked the guide for info of how to get there. Unfortunately in Vietnam, everyone can organise stuff for you and get a healthy commission from doing so. Therefore giving you information on getting somewhere by yourself doesn’t pay any dividends. So we first got told that he could sort out a hotel and boat over to Cat Ba (The most expensive way naturally). After we said that we wanted to catch the public ferry that we read about, he said it would be very hard and hotels would be full over on the island so we couldn’t just sort that out when we arrived. After constantly turning down his offers and friendly advice regarding how difficult it would be, we finally convinced him that we were happy to just get ourselves over there and all we needed doing was dropping off at an intersection on the road back to Hanoi. At our final lunch stop at the port, the guide told us that he couldn’t drop us at the road, and we would have to find our own way there (even though it was on the way!!). Fed up with misinformation and his offers anyway, we shared taxi to the docks where the public ferry departed from.

For about $2 each we got to Cat Ba on the public ferry (opposed to the $20 each that our guide could have sorted for us) and it wasn’t overly difficult after getting pointed in the right direction. Naturally we were the odd ones out on the boat, as it was full of Vietnamese with only 3 other western tourists on the ferry. The funny thing about the ferry crossing, is that it its route was probably even more impressive than the Junk boat route!

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The Cat Ba Ferry

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We had to negotiate a share taxi (with the other westerners) at the northern port on Cat Ba island, which quickly came down from 500,000 dong each to 20,000 dong each once we pointed at the sign that showed the bus fares to Cat Ba town should be 15,000. Once in town we rented 3 motorbikes and set off to find somewhere simple to stay on a nice quiet beach somewhere on the island. Before we set off, we wanted to get some ice for our carton of beers that we had been carrying around since Hanoi (we got it for the boat but was not allowed it on there as they had an overcharging Bar for drinks). The best ideas come when there is the greatest need, and we solved the problem of warm beers quite nicely...

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The moto luggage compartment, a perfect cooler box

We hit the road and drove out through some beautiful scenery. We came across a little cove with not another person around and parked up the bikes, got out some ice cold beers and enjoyed them on the beach with a swim to follow. As we were leaving town, Heloise was one of the other westerners who was on the ferry, and she had rented a bike too so she joined our little convoy for the afternoon.

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Our nice little deserted cove

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The 6 of us got back on our bikes and continued on looking for somewhere to sleep, we didn’t have much luck though by the time we reached the end of the road, so turned back to head for Cat Ba town for a place there. Unfortunately Heloise, had picked up a flat tyre on the last stretch of road, but we weren’t far from a place that could fix it. When she went to get her money and phone out of the storage compartment on the bike she realised that they were missing. She had left her stuff in the bikes while we were at the cove and someone must have opened up the bikes while we were down at the beach!

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Getting the tyre changed held us up from seeing the sunset, and we ended up riding back in the dark. We found a place to stay for a reasonable rate and good enough rooms before getting some food along the main road.

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Love a bit of ‘Fried Crap’ in my spring rolls

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View from our rooms in the morning

Back to just the 5 of us again in the morning we stocked up the bikes with more beer and ice and headed into the centre of the island to the national park. There was an hour walk in the national park up to a vantage point. It turned out to be the most sweaty, laborious walk that we have probably done in the year of travel with 38 degree heat and 90% humidity hard conditions to walk in for 10 minutes, let alone an hour of solid uphill. The inland views from the top were good, but not as stunning as they would have been looking off into the sea with the surrounding islands. We just welcomed the wind at the peak which gave us a moments respite from the sweat!

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Ice box and a cup holder too, i’m getting me one of these back home

We then stopped at hospital cave, which was an interesting stop. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese built a pretty extensive hospital in this cave with some smart defences and escape systems. We were shown around the cave and given the history, but the guide was a lot more interested in showing us his collection of coins and notes from around the world. He had a banknote from 38 countries in his wallet which he showed us, but it was his US$2 note from 1967 that was his pride and joy!

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The entrance to hospital cave

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The view from hospital cave

After lunch back in town, we headed back out to the west coast for sunset. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t as clear as it was the prior day, so we didn’t get too great a sunset. More ice cold beers made up for that however!

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On the final morning we headed over to some of the beaches close to town for a final swim before getting a ferry and bus back to Hanoi. We spent a final night together with nice food, incredibly cheap beers, cards and plenty of laughs as we all went in different directions the following day. Tanya and I caught a flight to Hong Kong, sorry to be leaving the other 3 behind after a great few weeks of travel with awesome companions!

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Seeing Halong Bay was a fitting finale to South East Asia in terms of the amazing scenery. Vietnam has been an interesting country with much more of a scramble for the tourist dollar making it so difficult to do things by our self. Luckily having our little group always made the difficulty of getting out on our own worth it every time!

Tanya – Halong bay is an absolutely stunning place and we wanted to get amongst the islands for the best possible sunset and sunrise views which had to be from a boat surrounded by the beautiful scenery. Although the Vietnamese don’t seem to understand independent travel, we finally managed to break away and the car ferry across to cat ba island probably provided the best scenery of the bay without hundreds of tourist boats.

Posted by dbgomes 04:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam round_the_world Comments (3)

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