A Travellerspoint blog

Strong Stomachs for Varanasi

sunny 34 °C
View Asian Adventure on TessAndRach's travel map.

Strong Stomachs for Varanasi

So onwards to the Holy City of Varanasi, nestled on the mighty Ganges River (or Ganga). We’d heard that this place was not to be missed but we were not entirely sure why.

We got an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) after the usual bargaining for a decent price (i.e. equivalent to what we’d paid the other way!) and arrived at Gaya station in plenty of time to catch our 14.30 Mahabhodi Express, the departure board showed an hour delay, tsk. A mind-numbing 3 hour delay was to follow. Stations in India are hectic affairs, people everywhere, nowhere to sit. So we had to do what everyone else did, find a spot on the floor and wait. And wait. This was not a pleasant experience, it was hot, smelly, many beggars kept coming to us asking for money, we saw children no older that 6 or 7 collecting waste from the tracks and many poor and disabled people actually living on the platforms. Although it was hard to watch, it did open both our eyes to how people have to live to survive and it struck both of us how incredibly lucky we are (we were aware of this but it is a different thing to see it). We could not give any money to any of them anyway as we had no change at all on us, only 500 notes which meant we couldn’t even buy more water as no-one will change them - a 1st World problem if ever there was one…

So onto the train we get. The 3 hour journey passed ok, we had little snoozes on the top bunk and arrived at Mughal Sarai Station to be immediately jumped on by tuk tuk drivers plying for our business to take us the 12km to Varanasi... A funny argument then started between two drivers who both wanted to take us – we kept saying we were not bothered which one took us as long as one of them did, they were both saying same price. This went on for 5 minutes before another driver came and said that whoever approached us first was to take us. So in we get with the first driver, the loser driver skulking off dejected, giving us a glare as he did!

The driver took us to within 800m of where we were staying. He couldn’t take us further as the streets were closed off to motorised vehicles due to the upcoming Durga Puja Festival then close to the river the streets are narrow alley-ways. Again, as soon as we get out of the tuk-tuk, a man attaches himself to us and tells us he’ll take us to where we are going. We try to shake him off saying that we know where we are going (Rachel’s internet on her phone finally started working so we had a map to navigate with). The guy doesn’t take the hint so as we are going through the little alleys, we stop at a group of policemen and this shakes him off. We are finding the attention from touts and tradesmen slightly annoying now, but we have worked out that a simple ‘no’ and a wave of the hand usually works. Also the most useful Hindi word we have learnt is ‘Chalo!’ meaning ‘Get lost!’ At no point have we felt threatened or in danger though, so mums don’t worry!

So Varanasi – where to start?! It was a place very different from the other places we’ve so far visited. The old town, where we were staying, was a maze of tiny interconnect alleys (you could touch both walls by sticking your hands out) and these alleys were quite confusing and you could easily get lost, although we’d always end up at a ghat (steps going down to the river) or a point we recognised. The alleys were mostly closed to traffic but occasionally an annoying moped or bike would squeeze past you. And then you’d turn a corner and a goat or cow would be staring at you (being a holy Hindu city there are many cows in Varanasi, and you know what cows mean, cow shit, everywhere along with goat, dog and people shit, it’s a pretty filthy city, not one for flip-flops)!

So we spent the first day wondering around, people watching at the ghats and going to the main ‘burning ghat’ where we saw dead human bodies being taken on bamboo stretchers and dunked in the river a few times before being burned on huge wooden piles at the edge of the river, their ashes then being scattered into the Ganga. This was not a sight for the faint hearted. Hindus believe that if they follow this ritual of being buried in the Ganga, they will have reached eternal happiness and that the cycle of resurrection will have been broken. We also learned that ‘pure’ people such as holy-men, children & pregnant ladies were never burned but heavy stones were attached to their bodies and they were taken out in boats to the middle of the river and sunk in the middle. So this 2km stretch of the Ganga is basically full of dead, decaying bodies, ashes and loads of floating flowers, candles and other ritual ornaments. And yet we saw hundreds of people bathing in it every day and drinking it, must admit that despite the heat, we were not tempted!

In the evening there are musical ceremonies on a couple of the ghats, this was really a fascinating experience of sounds, smells (incense) and colour that we really enjoyed. On the second morning we had the quintessential Varanasi experience of a sunrise boat ride on the river. We were up at 5am for this and it was well worth it, we have some great pics of the sunrise and looking back at the ghats from the river. All in all Varanasi was worth the visit, many places in India will seem quite boring in comparison, but 2 nights there was plenty.

We were due to leave Varanasi (Mughal Sarai Station) on the 18.25 North East Express. We decided to get a tuk-tuk to the station (12km away) at around 5pm but had not anticipated the traffic (not being tied to a work schedule, we have suddenly forgotten about rush hour!). So this ended up our most scary, hair tingling tuk-tuk experience to date! It took absolutely ages to get out of the city, then once we reached the open road the driver stepped on it as he knew we had a train to catch, Tess nicknamed the driver ‘The Indian Schumacher’ as his weaving in and out of the traffic would have been worthy of being on a Formula 1 circuit. Only it was no F1 circuit, the road was pretty bad so it was quite a bone-rattler, thought the tuk-tuk was in danger of literally shaking apart around us! But he got us to the station on time (we nearly killed ourselves trying to cross the road though) and we had 15mins to spare (always need time to find platform etc so we needed this).

However, when we checked the departure board and could not really make out what it meant - our train number was there but it said 1810 not 1825 and said “Status 0100”, did this mean an hour delay or it was coming at 1am, or was it leaving at 10past which was that very minute??? So we decided to go and ask a policeman if there was somewhere in the station we could get info. He just looked at Rachel, shook his head and turned away, helpful! Not bothered, we found the office of the ‘Station Master’. He told us to go to the ‘Ticket Inspector Office next door’ (this was an Indian next door, i.e. about four doors away 20 metres down the platform). The Ticket Inspector told us to go to the ‘Station Superintendent’. At this point it was getting ridiculous! But the superintendent at last was the most helpful and told us it was an hour late and gave us chairs to sit on in a little room with a fan, we sat there as 1925 came and went, then 2000, then 2030… finally he tells us “platform 3 in 10 mins”. So of we trot to the platform for train bound for New Jalpiguri Station (NJP), the Second Class Unreserved cars pass us as train pulls in and we comment on how we are lucky we don’t have to travel in those, with people literally hanging out of doors for journeys over 20 hours. Then the Sleeper carriages start passing by and look much the same, even though they officially only give tickets out for allocated berths – agh. It was a fight to get on the train and we had to shift some people from our reserved bunks (good old “Chalo” worked again here when one of them wasn’t budging), but we’d made it and were on our way to the foothills of the Himalayas, hooray.

Posted by TessAndRach 07:24 Archived in India Tagged varanasi

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.