December 19, 2014 – December 24, 2014
With our Indian visas in hand, after our week long wait in Kathmandu, we arrived finally at the town of Sonauli on the border between India and Nepal. We were finally about to step foot into one of the countries we had been anticipating the most, India. We have bumped into many fellow world travelers along our journey and all who had traveled through India had stories to tell, some good some bad. We really weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but we knew it would be unlike any other country we had been to before. Love it or hate it, we were about to experience the craziness that is India.
Our first stop would be the religious city of Varanasi, the center of the world for the Hindu religion. We took a bus from the border to the town of Gorakhpur three hours south. We were informed when we boarded the bus that there was a “baggage fee” which I was immediately suspicious of as this is a common tactic used by buses around the world to wring a little extra money from dubious foreigners. But it was a tiny fee and it was our first bus ride in India and we were not sure whether there really were baggage fees or not so we agreed to pay. We had only larger bills and no small change so we asked for change, which was a mistake, the kid stared at the money wide eyed and gave us some money he had, which was not enough to cover the difference, and said he needed to go in search of some more change. We never saw him again. We only lost about US $1.00 so it was no great loss. But a good lesson to only give exact change to people who can easily wander off. Try to break larger bills at your hotel or at restaurants.
It was late when we arrived at Gorakhpur so we stayed at a cheap dumpy hotel across from the train station. In the morning we hopped on a train south to the city of Varanasi. Our train was two hours late, and became our first of several experiences with late trains. Northern and central India gets very foggy in the winter, particularly at night and in the morning, creating thick soupy fog. Sometime so dense you cannot see across a street you are standing on. As a result the trains have to move at a crawl, or not at all, and it is not uncommon to have trains running up to 20 hours late, or just canceled altogether.
We traveled “Second Class AC”, or just “2nd AC”, each person gets their own bunk to lay down in, one atop the other like bunk beds. The lower the class you travel the more people they will try to stuff in increasingly smaller spaces so 2nd AC or higher (if available) was the only way to go for us.
Varanasi – The city by the holy river
Varanasi is a one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has been continually inhabited and used primarily as a religious city since the 6th century BC. It is in fact the center of the universe for the Hindi religion, and the city was founded by Shiva himself. The sprawling mass of buildings centers around the river Ganges. The exact spot on the river is considered to be a holy “crossing place” where the gods can come down to Earth. It is also widely believed that anyone who dies in the city will instantly attain enlightenment. As a result many people who believe they are coming to the end of their lives travel to the city to spend their remaining time there. Cremations take place in the city on a constant basis as a result.
We arrived in Varanasi and took a tuk-tuk to our hotel near the river. Tuk-tuks are three wheeled half car half motorcycle taxis and are the most common taxis you will find anywhere in India, ferrying passengers all over the cities. Outside the train station we found a prepaid taxi stand which had posted prices for various destinations. As negotiating can be annoying, especially if you don’t know what something is supposed to cost, like a taxi ride to an unknown destination in an unknown town for example, we thought it would be a good idea. So we asked for a ride to a part of town listed on their price board and were immediately quoted a higher price than was posted. We pointed out the discrepancy and they lowered the price to the correct amount. We learned to always pay attention and get prices figured out ahead of time as taxis often try to charge more than what is pre-paid or agreed upon.
Ghats – Holy Steps Along The River
Once checked into our hotel we went out to explore the city of Varanasi. The old town is centered on the shore of the Ganges river and along the entire length of the river bank for several kilometers are ancient stone “Ghats”, which are essentially stone stairs rising up the river bank out of the water, used by religious pilgrims and locals primarily for religious ceremonies and bathing. However by wandering along the ghats you can find they have far more uses. They are used as a play ground for kids playing cricket, washing clothes, artists painting, people doing yoga, snake charmers, beggars, people offering boat rides, wandering cows and far more. Perhaps the most shocking use of the Varanasi ghats however are at the two burning ghats, where daily cremations are performed.
Since Varanasi is such a holy place for Hindus it is considered fortunate to die there and to be cremated. There is so much demand for cremations that firewood is piled 50 feet high in places near the burning ghats and cremation fires are burning all day everyday. By one account from a local as many as 350 or more people are cremated each day, and their ashes placed in the river. Not everyone who dies is cremated however, the bodies of pregnant women, and people with certain diseases along with those who cannot afford cremation are buried in the river without cremation. Though we didn’t see any, it is apparently possible from time to time to see bodies floating down the river. Any foreigners approaching the burning ghats will often be met by a local religious man overseeing the operation and will give a detailed description of the entire process of preparing the dead and funeral pyre and entire cremation process including how long the process takes, which is three hours. Just know that they will ask for a donation when they are done. Since the bodies are wrapped and covered with wood, we did not find the open cremations to be as shocking as we had anticipated.
The River Ganges
The river itself is a very holy place and the reason so many religious pilgrims come to city each year from all over India, and indeed all over the world. The river is thought to have special powers and healing properties to all who bathe in its waters and drink it. Supposed healing properties aside, this is a bad activity for foreigners to do and not recommended. The river itself is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Not only can you find bodies in the river, it is also used to dump trash, sewage and various chemicals washed into the river from farms. The worst danger however we are told is from the heavy metals liberally dumped into the river upstream by manufacturing and mining companies. The sight of the water and smell can at times be stomach turning and it can be difficult to watch Indians, especially children, bathing in and drinking the water on a daily basis. Be careful buying tea from vendors alongside the river as many take water directly from the river. For that matter be wary of any cheap riverside restaurants.
The river also floods each year depositing tons and tons of mud along the ghats, burying them each year in around 30 feet of mud. Each year the ghats are dug out again and cleaned for the pilgrims. When we arrived they were just finishing digging them out. Earth movers were working 24/7 filling and endless train of trucks with loads of toxic mud.
Daily Ceremonies – Sunrise and Sunset
Daily Ganga Aarti ceremonies are preformed along the length of the ghats in various places daily at sunset and sometimes at sunrise. All are welcome to visit and observe.
Varanasi From the River
One popular activity to do in the city is to take a boat ride along the riverfront. An hour and a half long journey by rowboat each way from one end of the ghats to the other. It is a great way to see the ghats and some of the ancient buildings rising above them from the relative peace and calm of the river. On shore you can find, actually you will be pestered constantly, by boat owners offering a ride in their rowboat. Prices quoted range from almost reasonable to ridiculous. A fair price is a few hundred Rupees or less, don’t pay anymore. The boats and the view are all the same. We went through our hotel and got a recommended early morning boat ride. One of the attractions along the river are the sunset ceremonies, which are performed daily and are quite elaborate. We woke up early for our boat ride and were soon reminded about the fog in the winter, we could hardly see the shore for the entire trip.
We were a bit disappointed with our foggy early morning boat ride, so we paid for a second boat ride at mid afternoon when the fog had disappeared and actually got to see the view. The foggy mornings we learned was only a winter time problem, with December and January being the most troublesome months. Seeing the ghats and the city by boat is a much quieter and peaceful way to see the city without being constantly pestered for money or to by something, as there are far fewer people trying to sell stuff in the middle of the river, I say fewer because yes there are some.
From the river you can see all the temples and the various ghats, weather permitting and get a much different perspective on burning ghats. There was also a kite festival going on while we were visiting and all over the city hundreds of children were flying handmade kites made from tissue paper and strips of wood attached to fishing line. There were so many flying and crashing all over the city it is not uncommon to be hit by one or have to step over the crushed remains of dozens of kites as you walk.
The Old City
The oldest part of the city, a maze of narrow streets filled with shops and restaurants sits just off the northern end of the Ghats. These small streets randomly twisting and turning around ancient buildings, temples and new construction are fun to explore. They are too narrow for cars to go down, which is a relief from the constant dodging of cars and tuk-tuks zooming around the city. Though motorcycles still try their best to run over pedestrians so be careful. One treat was the Blue Lassi shop, lassi’s are drinks made from blending milk and yogurt, and adding either salt or sugar, and sometimes fruit. Lassi’s can be found all over India and are a popular, cheap and delicious beverage. Occasionally processions on their way to the burning ghats would pass through these narrow streets.
Off to Agra and the Taj Mahal! -or- Train Delays
The train system in India is unlike what we have experienced in any other country. They have a great online system for purchasing tickets, which foreigners can utilize through Cleartrip.com, and little to no penalty for canceling tickets. As a result nearly every popular train route is sold out months in advance, as people buy many tickets knowing they will just cancel most or all of them. So if you want to actually ride a train you often have to get on wait-list. There are websites devoted to telling you the percentage chance you have of actually getting on a certain train with your wait-list number. We purchased wait-list tickets to Agra, our next destination, a couple weeks in advance and started out at wait-list number 15 and 16. We waited and watched online as the wait-list number dropped slowly the days leading up to our train, and on the day of saw it drop to wait-list 1 and 2. We ended up missing that train and had to spend an extra day in Varanasi. We purchased tickets which had just been released for a train the following day, and because of the fog our train was 15 hours late in arriving. So we spent a second unintended day in Varanasi. If possible try to book tickets well in advance, and if you are traveling in the winter when there is thick fog, delays of up to 20 hours are not uncommon.
We did finally get on a train and were off to Agra and the Taj Mahal for Christmas!