Published: October 26th 2011July 16th 2011
Our next stop, Varanasi is quite a city. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and perhaps the holiest. It is regarded as one of the seven pilgrimage sites for Hindus. It was the birthplace of Bhuddism, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Sikhism can also find its roots here in the city. There is also a large Roman Catholic, Jewish, Moslem, and several dozen tribal religions here. The city was founded almost 5000 years ago and people have been travelling here for worship and learning throughout the millenia.
The city is located 1/2 way between two rivers that flow into the Ganges. Hindus complete an 8km round trip from one river to the other as part of the pilgrimage rite. The belief is that bathing in the Ganges river can relieve a person of their sins, and that dying within a certain ancient and powerful area within the city will ensure Moksha will be obtained, or a final release of the soul from transmigrations (something like an end to the cycle of reincarnation).
Early Morning Tuk Tuks
The train pulls in early in the morning. The station is huge, several dozen
platforms, due to the sheer volume of pilgrims who come to Varanasi each day to bathe in the Ganges river. On the way out of the station, a tuk tuk driver slyly starts talking to us as we walk off the platform (I'm pretty sure they're not allowed in here). Other drivers yell and follow us across the parking lot towards the road. There's a 'prepaid' tuk tuk counter with about 200 tuk tuks parked beside it. We chose to ignore the persistent man yelling at us to not use the prepaid. We choose the prepaid route, thinking that we'll actually get to where we're trying to go. Somewhere near the centre of the city, near the river, there is a cluster of hotels listed in our guidebook.
Our driver thoroughly rips us off on the way to the river to get to our hotel. He actually takes us somewhere different than the hotel we had in mind and asks for more money. Apparently our chosen hotel is in the congested ancient heart of the city, and tuk tuks cannot go there. He tell us we'll have to walk on our own for at least 1km to get to
our hotel. The hotel he takes us to is in roughly the same area and just as nice, so its an ok ripoff, I guess. Our hotel has a huge, quiet garden and restaurant that is quite nice compared to the hustle and bustle of the city. All in all, it wasn't what we planned, but it worked out just the same (as per usual in India)!
The First Adventure
We quickly find that Varanasi is just as 'crowded and twisty' as other travellers describe it. We met a French couple before coming to Varanasi who told us to 'prepare ourselves' for the chaos of the city. There are also dozens of stories of theft, robbery, and other tourist scams, so I've definitely got my traveller's guard up.
After about a minute walking away from our hotel, we're lost on one of the hundreds of laneways and alleys. There's literally ONE main road that can handle motor traffic, about 500m from the water. Sandwitched between the road and the water, there is a tightly packed layer of houses, laneways and temples. Several laneways run generally parallel to the river, twisting and turning their way from one end
of the city to the other. They tend to run in a straight line for about 100m before coming to a 'T' intersection, forcing the traveller to guess 'left or right?'. Dead ends exist everywhere. There are hundreds of laneways that cross the main parallel laneways, running perpendicular down to the river's edge and the inevitable stairs down to the water. At the end of most laneways is a Ghat (or temple and stairs) which lead down to the river. Each Ghat is dedicated to a different God, and has a more or less specific use. The Ghats to notice (according to our hotel) are the 'main Ghat' located about 1km from our hotel, and the burning Ghat, located mostly between our hotel and the main Ghat.
On our first venture out from the hotel, our goal is the main ghat, where we hope to meet some of the pilgrims and discover some of the religious rites used there.
After 1/2 hour of walking behind Trung, I notice his shirt is plastered to his back. That's right, its 45 degrees in the hot, humid alleyways and we're both drenched and quickly losing steam. There are hundreds if not
thousands of others jammed into the laneways. Everyone is wearing traditional bright orange, some wearing only sarongs, ready for bathing. There are dozens of 1/2 naked gurus and jain monks with huge dreadlocks and plenty of body paint and layers of prayer beads around their necks. The laneways (most paved in thousand year-old stone) are covered in a mix of mud, food, poo and other random piles of random. Try not to slip and fall! To make it more exciting there are dogs, cows and the odd scooter running through the people.
After a certain amount of time walking, shopping, travelling through the beautiful chaos (which has a very positive, festive atmosphere, by the way) we end up at a Ghat, which looks pretty big, so we decide to go down to the water's edge. The river is surprisingly huge, the opposite bank is really really far away.
My first impression of the water, the colour of milk tea, is that it is very very fast moving. The city is built on the outside of a large bend in the river, so the fastest waters are right at the bank. I personally would think twice about jumping into
such fast water. There are standing waves like I've never seen before, almost as if the water was being vibrated, the waves jump up and down constantly making a sloshing noise, but never staying in one place. A very chaotic looking river. There are river boats moving up and down the river, either fishing, moving parcels, or carting tourists around. The few boats moving downstream are going extremely fast, with their large festive flags flapping in the wind. The labourious journey upstream looks painful for those rowing, but realtively slow and easy for the motorized boats. All the boats are wooden.
My second impression, as we walked down the stairs is how muddy the river bank is. The Ganges carries a very large amount of clay silt causing the milky colour, and it seems that silt is caked onto the stairs and low flat areas on the river bank. The water is pretty low, so everything is covered in clay. Its sticky, slippery and pretty gross. Included in the clay is all the detritous that you would normally find in every country we've been to: plastic bags, candy wrappers, sticks and twigs, the occational large peice of hard plastic,
and of course, styrofoam.
An amazing sight opens up as we descend the stairs to the river's muddy edge. The city bends off into the distance, dissapearing around the bend. At every point, there are huge, extremely colourful temples and grandiose looking stairs down to the river. We can see in the distance the main ghat, with its thousands of people, and we can see, only a hundred feet away, the smoke billowing from the burning ghat. Moored along the entire shoreline are boats, boats and more boats.
We're able to walk along the riverbank at this point, jumping from Ghat to Ghat, they're next to eachother but rarely line up. There's either a gap, a step, or a smooth slope (which is tricky as its covered in slippery clay right down to the river). There's a herd of water buffalo, eyes and noses just sticking out of the water, and a couple of kids jumping from buffalo to buffalo out in the water. Every few hundred feet, there is a solid stone outcrop into the river, causing eddies in the dangerously fast water, allowing people to swim in relatively calm pools.
round a corner, hugging to a vertical stone wall just above the water, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of the burning Ghat. There are strict rules against taking photos in this holy place, it is where people take their loved ones to be cremated next to the river. Today there are about four pyres buring on the clay riverbank. They are roughly 7 feet long and 3 feet high, burning white hot in the center. I don't see any bodies evident right away as we walk past. There isn't much space down here, but there aren't many people so we easily walk by, within 50 feet of the pyres. The sweet smell of burning flowers fills the air. We're through there pretty quick, both of us not really interested in becoming involved.
Soon we find ourselves back in the thick of town, winding our way ever closer to our destination, the main Ghat. Eventually we stop for lunch at a place advertised as 'listed in Lonely Planet'. This can be found outside every restaurant ever listed in Lonely Planet, the world's foremost guidebook, but usually it means a 50% markup in price and good food. It is
awesome food, and we come across several backpackers, and also some people trying to learn sanskrit, and still more who came to Varanasi and stayed, to study Buddhism, Hinduism, or Yoga, and most are wearing 'flowy pants', headbands, beads, and have strange hair-do's. Its amazing though, everyone is from somewhere unique: Italy, Japan, US, Germany, Russia, Israel the list is endless and we're all sharing the amazing food at the extremely hot restaurant! Nothing like eating and sweating.
Finally we make it to the main Ghat, its about 7pm, the sun is setting, and there are thousands of teenage men wearing bright orange shorts and t-shirts. They're carring very shiny, tinsel decoreated sticks with recycled plastic containers hanging from each end. There is a large group already in the river, doing back-flips into the water, splashing, swimming, having a great time. There's also a huge group of boats ready to take tourists, and as soon as we arrive we're accosted by a dozen boat drivers trying to sell us a deal. We just want to hang out for now, so we politely decline everyone, even the guy who keeps at it. Trung bargains with him, but ends up getting
pissed because the guy won't come down in price. By this time I'm over it, and I've already headed back up the stairs to sit and watch the amazing party going on around me.
The boys seem to be headed through a rite of passage, and after swimming around, are filling their plastic jugs with water, I assume to take home after, just as I took home a jug of the ocean and a container of sand from our first family trip to Florida.
Just as in every other city we've been in so far, there are tons of curious people who crowd around, want a photo and a handshake and generally just want to say hi. Most know where Canada is, lots have relatives and name off a list of Canadian cities where their cousins, aunts and brothers are living. Its a great time had by all.
Eventually I get up the nerve to approach the water. I stand out like a sore thumb, not only with my light blonde hair, but my blue striped shirt and green shorts. Everyone else is wearing orange! I don't know if I'm allowed, but its time to go in
the water. Approaching one of the ramps in, I can see lots of random stuff floating, but its mostly flowers, so I cross my fingers, take off my sandals and walk in. Its super slippery but the water is warm. I only make it up to my calves, and I can't see my feet. About 5 feet away people are jumping into deep water, so I'm not really prepared to go any further lest I fall into the water face first, or slide down some sort of stairs on my ass under water. Trung let me know earlier the guide book says the water has more bacteria than sewage. I'm not sure what that means, but everyone else is swimming, drinking and generally being in the water, so how bad could it be?
After awhile I notice Trung has been talked into getting some sort of massage. Its starting to rain a bit, so I decide its time to head back up. After I go find him up the stairs with some guy pulling on his arms (lol), I let him know there's a big rain cloud coming, which you can see in the distance. It rains every evening
here, so its not much of a surprise. I head back to the little restaurant we passed to get a coffee and wait out the rain. It usually comes heavy for an hour and then its over.
When the rain is finished, Trung somehow meets me again and we head back to the main ghat. The plan is to get a boat to take us back upriver to our hotel. Seems better than walking, and the sun has temporarily come out at sunset, which is exactly when you're supposed to take a boat ride.
The cheapest we can get from these guys is 50 rupees each (about $1.50) to take us upstream and drop us at our ghat (the Aussi Ghat). The boat tours usually leave from the main ghat, run up to the burning ghat, then turn around and drop people back at the main ghat, but we're clear with our boat guy that we want to go just one way, twice the distance, up to the Aussi Ghat. He says 'ok, ok, we go to Aussi Ghat' and we jump in the boat and we're off... oh wait, no, we wait 1/2 hour for other customers.
A family joins us for the boat ride, so there are about 8 of us in a tiny wooden rowboat on the crazy fast moving river. A 12 year old boy joins the old man at the oars, both pulling with all their might. Its still not enough to get us going, so for most of the boat ride, the 12 year old is up on the sides of the wooden boat, grabbing boats, lines, walls, whatever he can grab that's attached to the shore, and labouriously pulling us along in the water. It looks like a hard, crazy balancing act, always just an inch away from falling in the water and being sucked under the other boats tied to shore.
The city looks amazing from this vantage point. Several of the temples are thousands of years old and rise up 7, 8 sometimes at least 10 storys from the river, built into the bank.
To make things a bit more interesting, I see a large floating thing approaching on the currents. Its whitish grey coloured. I think it must be a pile of garbage. Its actually a dead cow. Dead for a while now, and it
smells like the worst smell you could think of. As its bloated, putrid carcass slides past the boat, the family and Trung and I put our shirts over our faces to mask the smell, and the kids start crying. SO gross... About 20 minutes later, a pig floats past. I'm on the verge of gagging from all the death smell, but somehow make it through. A couple of people in the family are spitting in the water, apparently they're pretty close too...
After about 45 minutes we reach the burning Ghat, and go about 10 feet past, then the two gentlemen ferrymen announce that we're turning around to go back. At which point, Trung is adamant that we wanted to go all the way up to the Aussi Ghat. The guy says we can't go all the way up there, its way too far. Then he offers us 1/2 price to get out here, at the burning Ghat. We've already been, but its more than 1/2 way home, so we can just walk from here, and agree. Fine, lets get off. He drops us at the end of one of the stone outcrops attached to store. After hopping over
the guard rail, thankful to be on solid ground again, I notice that we're not actually attached to shore. Oooohhhhh jeeze.
Theres about 15 feet of open water between the island we're on and the shoreline. To make it a bit worse, the four funeral pyres are set up directly in our path to shore. We'll have to walk between them to get past. I can't see the bottom through the water, but my initial impression is that it's not very deep. A hunch confirmed by a guy who walks out to the island, apparently to have a cigarrette.
Trung says in a low voice 'this is my worst nightmare'. He's avoided the Ganges like the plague this entire time and refuses to touch the water. Its actually kind of an impressive sight in the fast approaching twilight. The fires are very very bright and sparks are flying up into the night. I don't think there are any bodies on the fires at the moment.
At first I go to test the waters and look for a way across. Seems the smoking guy came at an angle but had to pass super close to one of the
fires. When I get a second look at the causeway we have to cross, I can see balls of 1/2 burnt and charred fabric and other random things in the water. There's flowers, ashes, peices of wood, and hopefully no bodies. It seems the fires get pushed into the water when they're burned out, along with anything else that didn't get quite burned. Right into the path of where we have to walk.
Trung doesn't come close to the water, instead he tries to wave down boats passing by. A few wave back, but nobody stops. There are some boats tied to the guardrail, but there's about 20 in a line tied together and they're all downstream. We can't quite pull them over to us because of the force of the river. By now people on the store (I assume to attend a funeral) have noticed a couple of tourists out on the island and are sending the occational cat-call and laughing.
A body is brought down from the top of the stairs and set beside a fire while it is stoked and made ready. Its covered in beautiful gold cloth and flowers, but all I can think
of is that the body is going on the fire and the cloth will burn and go away and then it will be just a body on fire, 15 feet away from me. The body gets placed on top of the fire and I'm ready to leave before anything can happen, so I turn to Trung and say 'I'm leaving before that happens.' and start to walk out, trying to aim for a place between the piles of burnt stuff floating in the water. The clay is extremely slippery when wet and has some crunchy parts mixed in, and I almost fall into the water a few times. Trung protests and paces for a minute, but then takes off his boat shoes and starts the walk, $600 camera in tow. There's a few shakey moments and the crowd is loving it, but finally both of us are across and ready to vacate, just as the family comes down to say goodbye to their loved one.
Now, I was wearing sandals, so I didn't really have a problem walking away, aside from random bits of ashes between my toes. Trung on the other hand walked barefoot in the wet slimey
streets of Varanasi for about 1/2 km before he found a hose bib to wash his feet so he could put his boat shoes back on. We walked in silence most of the way back to the hotel, and promptly washed our shoes and our feet several times before we were satisfied it was all gone.
Neither of us slept that night.
Great, another train mix-up
The following day, we had another amazingly unfortunate train mix-up. In the morning we took it easy, had breakfast and found a tailor to make some shirts for us. We also found epic Ali Baba pants from the same guy to give as gifts to my Mom and our friend Ghislaine. His shop was at the top of a ghat with a window that looked down to the river. Our, um, seamsman? The guy to sew our shirts, was at the time doing his morning ritual swim in the river. The tailor had to yell down to the guy swimming to come up because he had customers. It doesn't get much more Varanasi than that. He promised to have them ready by the afternoon. We thought our train wasn't until the
following day, so we had tons of time, right!?
Wrong. After we left the tailor, I decided to head to an internet cafe to check our tickets that we had booked a few days earlier. Turns out, we didn't have time for anything, because our train was in 2 hours. I just laughed and said, yeah, time to go. Trung was decidedly less impressed.
It takes about 45 minutes to reach the train station from the hotel, and we were at least 1/2 hour away from the hotel, down the crazy twisty alleyways of Varanasi.
Trung decided to go for the shirts to see if they were finished, while I thought it would be a good idea to head back to the hotel to check out and pack. We separated, which was a complete mistake (at least for me anyways).
So here's me, trying to walk briskly down the alleyways with bazillons of people around, promptly getting lost because it all looks the same. I end up on some really quiet laneways, obviously not going in the right direction, and then dead end after dead end. Not only am I not going to make it to
the train, I'm not going to make it out alive! You can't even tell the directions on the compass, because you can't see the sun in the sky, the laneways are so tight and buildings so tall. Choking down the panic rising in my throat, I continue my brisk walk, now completely turned around and hoping for a miracle.
Eventually I'm nearing a street (THE street), I can see it off in the distance in front of me, but there's a herd of gigantic cows in the way. They walk in a line, and block out the entire width of the laneway. I manage to slip past three or four of the herd of 6 when the group of us make it in front of a shop. The shopkeep, as per usual, came out and slapped the closest cow on the ass. Great. Stampede. I'm in the centre, suddenly running with the bulls in Varanasi, sweat dripping, lost and about to be flattened by a cow easily as tall as I am (seriously how do they get so HUGE!?). I manage to pull a trick straight out of one of those ninja assassin video games and duck into a
doorway while the cows thunder past. By now I'm on THE street, but which direction is which?
Thankfully there's a sign for the Aussi Ghat, with an arrow. Modern highway signs, thank goodness! However, I'm walking, and walking, and walking, and still nothing looks right. I'm nowhere near where I should be. So I decided to do a light jog. By this time its like 1:30 and the train leaves at 2:45 or something. I try to get a tuk tuk to take me, but seemingly in the afternoon its siesta time and nobody is around. Light jog, light jog, 45 degree heat, my linen shirt is falling apart and the buttons won't stay on, so I'm turning heads, going open-shirt down the highway running in flip-flops while scooters and cars zoom around me.
Suddenly it looks right, there's my laneway! I make it back to the hotel, explain the situation quickly to the hotel manager, and head to the room to pack, which consisted of throwing everything into the bag and sitting on top to zip it shut. Trung shows up two minutes later, 'why is the bill not paid yet?' 'Not right now, Trung.' Thankfully, he's
more convincing than me and he's got a tuk tuk waiting outside.
We're both exhausted, sweaty, filthy and have paid the bill without really looking at it. We make it to the train station JUST in time, but the train is late leaving the station. As per usual. But WHAT an adventure! Wouldn't trade it for anything!
OFF WE GO, on the next 16 hour train journey! And what a clammy one, the AC eventually dried our clothes, but whew, so sweaty!
The train arrived at sunrise to New Delhi station. Delhi! Can you believe it!?
Next stop, Delhi!
There are more photos below