Published: January 17th 2009January 7th 2009
Our first stop in Northern India was Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the holiest places in all of India, with thousands of Hindu pilgrims coming each day to bathe in the sacred river, the Ganges (never mind that the faecal colliform levels are absolutely though the roof). Whilst the whole city is absolutely filthy, covered in litter, sewerage and animal by-products, it is also fascinating.
We cheated by getting a plane from Mumbai to Varanasi to avoid a 36 hour train trip. After being extorted out of 450 rupees by a prepaid taxi, our next problem was actually finding our elected hotel. The old city is a labyrinth of narrow streets filled with beggars, cows, motorbikes and general filth... definitely not the best place to be lost in carrying huge backpacks. However, we knew that we were staying near the main burning ghat, Marnikarnika ghat, so it was a matter of hanging around until we saw a dead body wrapped in orange fabric being carried through the alleyways on a stretcher bed and then following until we lost sight of it, then waiting for the next one. Surprisingly, this is a very regular occurrence. Eventually we reached our hotel, which
was the equivalent of a jail cell, not that we really minded considering we were paying about $1.70 a night for it.
Every night the Dasawamedh ghat plays host to an elaborate ceremony consisting of puja (prayer) and dance, so after checking that out and trying to avoid people attempting to get us to go on their boat or silk shop (the hassling in Varanasi and Agra, the two cities we visited in Uttar Pradesh, is the worst by far we have experienced in all of India) we headed to dinner. Emerging from our restaurant an hour later we found Varanasi absolutely cloaked in darkness. Varanasi by night is seriously shady - there were no street lights, groups of seedy characters hang around in the alleys and we got charged at by a bull (again!!). As a result we decided not to hang around too late at night again.
The next day we wandered along all the ghats, past people bathing, doing laundry, playing cricket and just generally hanging out. If you can stand the constant hassling, with people following you and not leaving you alone, Varanasi makes an excellent spot for people watching. The burning ghat (Marnikarnika
Ghat - no photos allowed) especially, heaped with mountains of firewood, is absolutely fascinating. Bodies are cremated 24 hours a day after being doused in water from the Ganges. It is the most auspicious place for Hindus to be cremated and looks completely out of this world.
Being New Years Eve, the place we were staying decided to put on a free dinner for all guests. So after a good night consisting of food, a few beers, dancing and socialising I jumped into bed for what I thought would be a good night sleep. Unfortunately for me this was not so as mere hours later I woke up to find I had contracted the infamous Delhi Belly. It was not fun, and the days that followed were probably some of the most painful of my life. Squat toilets, broken plumbing and food poisoning do not mix at all. I could barely move for 36 hours and all this was made even worse when the following day, Merric was also struck down by food poisoning (also after eating at the hotel) so we were stuck in our hotel room which was now absolutely filthy for another day, both barely being
able to move.
After 4 nights in the hotel of death we were well enough to get out and immediately upgraded to something liveable (with hot water!!! - very useful when it is 5 degrees) whilst we waited for a train to become available so we could get the hell out of Varanasi (we had to cancel a whole lot of previously booked tickets... thus losing a fair bit of money). Still fairly weak we spent the remainder of our time in Varanasi hanging out in our hotel room, with the occasional boat trip and visit to the bazaar thrown in. When a train to Agra finally became available (many were already booked out or cancelled due to the fog) it was 3 hours late departing from the station and somehow managed to arrive in Agra a total of 11 hours late.
What I have written really makes Varanasi sound like an awful place to visit. It’s not at all, in fact we really enjoyed our time there whilst we were healthy. Unfortunately, getting bad food poisoning really tarnished our time in the city and we both felt that we couldn’t start to get better until we left.
So, onto Agra! Agra is famous for one thing - being home to the Taj Mahal. Despite the actual city of Agra being nothing special, we managed to pack in a whole lot more in our two days there.
About an hour out of Agra is the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, one time capital of the Mughal Empire built by Emperor Akbar as the “Perfect City”. The perfect city however had one flaw, a poor water supply, hence was abandoned after only a short time. Unfortunately for us, we made our trip out on an extremely foggy day (as seen in the photos). Despite this however, we had a great day looking through the old palaces and mosque. We also checked out Agra Fort, another display of Mughal architecture which was built as a military structure by Akbar, then later made into a palace by his grandson, Shah Jahan (the guy who built the Taj), who was then later imprisoned in the fort by his son when he seized power. It was pretty cool and definitely worth a look.
And finally, the Taj Mahal. It is absolutely everything it is cracked up to be and completely worth
the 750 rupees we paid to get in (about $25 - Indians pay about 33 cents). For me, it was nothing short of spectacular and easily the most beautiful building I have ever seen - neither pictures nor words do it justice. Unfortunately the fog which refused to clear until 11am destroyed my dreams of seeing it at sunrise, without thousands of other tourists hanging around, but what can you do? The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his second wife when she died. I can only hope that someone will build me a tomb half as grand when I die.
It’s also funny how you can’t even escape scams in the complex of the Taj; we had a gardener offer to take a photo of Merric and I together. We took him up on his offer and next thing we know we are being dragged all around the gardens for photos with ‘special views of the Taj Mahal’. Of course as soon as we were off on the expedition we knew he was going to want ‘something for his troubles’ but we couldn’t walk away because he had my camera in his dirty hands!
Of course when he finishes he turns around and demands 500 rupees. We gave him 30.
Next stop is the state of Rajasthan, which is where we are now. We like it a lot and are having an awesome time (and spending too much money). We ended up getting a bus to Jaipur rather than a train even though it was longer because we are over trains being hours late.
Hope you are all well and had a better start to the New Year than we did! Miss you,
There are more photos below