Awake to the clickity clack of the overnight train from Agra into Varanasi. Slept pretty well and with no reason to get up, slept through to 10 am. We arrive into Varanasi town and we have arranged a pick up from a driver from the hotel. A luxury you can afford in India and a somewhat essential service given the hasty offers for taxis and the scant knowledge we had of where we were going.
Varanasi is a bit overwhelming with the station packed, and road, once we are on it, quite jammed also. Taxi is stopped just outside the many laneways that make up the old town of Varanasi running along the Gamges. We are led through many alleys before we arrive at the Rashimi Guest House ‘A palace on the river’ which is not far from the truth. Set high above the banks of the Ganges we watch the monsoonal waters gushing downstream as boats ply up and down through the current.
Kite Runners of Varanasi
As I sat here writing this entry in the mid afternoon sun, the neighbourhood kids were flying kites from the many rooftops, looping their kites to capture their neighbours kite out of a scene reminiscent of the Kite runner. We sign up for a walking tour with local guide Papu (who also reminds you of one Babu Bhat from Seinfield). Papu tells us to meet him at 6 pm sharp! In a country so lax on timings and schedules, it seems Papu is one in a million, or in fact a billion more accurately.
We board a boat with Papu on the Ganges river, which I mentioned earlier is flowing at quite a pace. Our boat has no motor, only some thin wiry rowers on board. The only power preventing us from flowing all the way to Bangladesh. The Ganges having the reputation of some of the most putrid water in the world not helped by the many crematoriums up stream dumping ashes and partially burnt bodies into the river constantly. That along with all the agricultural and industrial waste makes for the creation of what we’ve deemed ‘Ganges juice’ the type of which we don’t want anywhere near our person.
We head downstream first up and arrive at the ‘burning place’ one of the mentioned crematoriums. Thankfully downstream and down wind of the River Palace. We devise a morbid game of left arm right arm attempting to spot some unfinished body parts rumoured to float by occasionally. We make light of this but the unburnt bodies are a result of poor families not able to afford enough wood to cremate their loved ones. Yet they would prefer they are committed to the Ganges regardless as this is the source of new life according to Hindu culture and Varanasi is a deeply religious place, a place for Hindu Indians to visit once in their life.
Heading upstream the rower’s arms are put to the task but they are performing well. Yet we are still wary of copping a face full of Ganges juice upon a slip-up or paddle splash. We arrive at another Ghat. A Ghat simply meaning an opening in the river bank usually where locals and Indian tourists come to bathe.
Being India, being Varanasi, there is a religious festival at 7 pm every evening. A ritual is performed with horns and candles which draws quite a crowd both on land and on the water. We also realise the majority of tourists are domestic tourists. Allison and Lesley let loose some tea lights to sail away down river in the strong current as an offering to the many gods ruling over the sacred river.
Back to the Palace and have a Kingfisher, appropriately, on the rooftop terrace accompanied with some plates of curry and naan bread. Papu has us up again at 6:30 am but after the eventful and informative afternoon, we are willing and able to join him.
Morning Ganges Cruise in Varanasi
Early wake up and straight to a boat with Papu. This morning we trawl the ghats watching people bathe. As creepy as that sounds the bathing is a very spiritual bathing. Despite the water quality, this is so sacred and apparently, no one gets sick. That is for the locals grew up with this water, for an unsuspecting tourist it may or in fact would be a completely different story. The dealbreaker was when a few guys were seen washing their teeth in the water though. A cleansing of the soul is likely the only cleaning going on.
It is an amazing spectacle though with quite vivid colours of shawls worn by the women, cleaning going on undercover with the men getting around in briefs made from white sheets. One of those occasions where as a tourist you don’t wish to intrude. Yet we were not gawking at them and we were the only boat on the water despite a few fishing boats and it was a very serene morning with the sun only just rising.
Papu has us back out on the streets soon enough. At this time we wonder how much we are up for by using Papu’s services. We try to broach the subject but Papu is more concerned about what reviews we will give him on Tripadvisor. Regardless we each give him 2000 rupees for his trouble which has made our stay in Varanasi memorable and informative and easy.
Our next stop is a train to Dehli. Another overnight train. This one we have only managed to secure 3 out of 4 tickets. However, a rule on Indian trains is if any of your party have a confirmed ticket you are all allowed to board the train! This policy is the reason why the 4 of us are now sitting in a 4 berth cabin with an elderly Indian man.
He having a ticket also and us 3 of 4 tickets. An awkward moment when we mentally do the sums and realise this is us for the night. Dave and Lesley graciously agree to share a bunk. The Indian gentleman quite polite and neat. Seemingly a businessman as he has a briefcase, and only a briefcase, his clothes, toiletries and business papers all fitting in perfectly!
We are travelling in AC1 business class which is a step up from our previous train trip and the difference is noticeable. But not as noticeable as the Indian gentleman. But this is India and if everything was orderly it wouldn’t be India and quite simply is part of the charm of the place. Things might not work exactly but they just work out.