Published: February 13th 2013
February 13th 2013
Finally an internet cafe that, though running on a backup generator, is actually boasting a fairly fast internet connectin!
The last few days have been some of the most surreal of my life. In Varanasi we enjoyed good food and some tasty Lassis - yoghurt drinks that are splendidly cooling after a warm curry (I look forward to my next visit to the Kirhton curry house in T. Wells to show off my new-found tolerance). On our last day Aneirin and I seperated from the fellow travellers we had spent a couple of days with, and set off on an admirably long trek from our hostel to the fort 5km away, then through rural villages to the other end of Varanasi, finishing with another long stint accross the whole length of Varanasi's wealth of ghats. We even discovered one ghat which appeared to be purely used to deficate on. At first we assumed it was dog faeces, but they were arranged too geometrically to have been laid by aniumals. We did not linger on said ghat. During this trek, we joined in another game of cricket. Choose not to believe me if you will, but I caught 2 and bowled 1 of the children out, and hit several sixes. I cackled victoriously as I swiped at their hollow plastic ball until i broke it. This was our cue to leave, and we all shook hands; I genuinely think on this occasion England beat India!
We taxiied from the the colour and noise of Varanasi to the peace and quiet of Sarnarth, 20km north of Varanasi and a site of Buddhist interest (Buddha gave his first sermon there, marked by a farily ugly brick stupa). Here, we stayed in a quaint little Tibetan monastery for 300R a night - a great break from the horns and hawkers and an absolute luxury to be woken up by the deep monotonous chanting of the happy monks next door, instead of the verminous howls of the countless ghat dogs.
We spent 2 quiet days in Sarnarth before booking our train for Allahabad and waiting at the station for it to arrive. It was at this point that our 'mare' became apparent. The train was delayed and when I went to ask why, the station superintendant informed me that it was too full. I joked that we'd have to travel on the roof. The superintendant nodded seriously. This boded extremely badly.
While waiting, a train drew alongside us which carried people from the Mela to Calcutta. On each side, at every possible ledge, 4 or 5 Indians hung limply from the side, attached in most cases by one incredibly skinny arm. As it screeched to a stop, the train regurgitated such a mass of human bodies on to the platform (most to indiscreetly relieve themselves) that we were positive that Indian trains enjoyed the same qualities as the tardis.
I have written pages upon pages on our journeys to and from the Mela which I will have to paraphrase here. First, out berth on the train was not inside the carriage. Instead, we set up shop in the 2x1m area between 2 carriages that we had seen exploited by the Indians on the Calcutta train. It is here that I must reassure family and close friends that we do not have death wishes - it was actually quite safe, we just had to tie belongings up and make sure we didn't fall asleep, for fear of falling forward onto the tracks below. The 3 hour journey took 12 hours. 12 hours in that small space. The temperature here drops to 3 or 4 degrees at night and with the wind chill, it was horribly cold. We spent a good part of the journey huddled behind my bag's raincover, which we were using as a windbreak, singing loud renditions of English songs to warm us up (I think the Indians in the carriage behind us were quite impressed, as it ended a long-running argument between a man and some shreiking women).
At 3.30 in the morning, we drew upat a station which had many tents by the tracks, and took this to be Allahabad station. It wasn't. We walked along a long highway that was absoulutely jam-packed with people for a good 5km, happy to be warming up slightly, and excited to see the Mela ground, which we knew was ahead due to the Biblical amount of atrificial light that polluted the air ahead of us.
As we approached one of the long bridges over the Ganges, we were exposed to the most breath-takingly awesome panoramas we will ever see. As far as the eye could see, which, without the day's haze was probably 15km, the were thousands of tiny lights illuminating the innumerous patchwork of tents - each one uniquely shaped and decorated until they blended together in the distance to form one long rippling blanket of fabric. The lights convulged on the horizon to form an unbroken line of vivid, sickly yellow that could and might have easily gone on forever. Above this, a throbbing orange haze floated over the event like a ghostly mirage, giving the scene a mystical, dream-like quality that was difficult to digest. Dotted here and there, large tents, towering flags, pillars, archways and temporary temples rose boldly from through the impermeable-looking light, casting long silhouettes over thier neighbours. Each temple had an affixed light display - flashing, swirling and dancing to attract pilgrims to prayer. Over the river below us, 5 or 6 pontoon bridges were serving as tributaries to the main Mela ground, and they too were thick with the never-ending flow of Hindus.
After much swearing, jaw re-affixing and general exclaimations of astonishment, we took a cycle rickshaw accross the bridge until the human traffic swamped us and we were forced to walk. Though we had only seen a very small area of the tented accomodation, it was starkly obvious that this was both the largest ever gathering of humans, and a population density so high that they must rival the skyscrapers of world cities.
I am going to try and upload some photos to completment the description above, but i don't think any form of media can do justice to the phenominal scale of the festival.
The 'mare' of the train journey was swiftly followed by the additional 'mare' in that we could not reach the hotels due to the crowds, and in any case they would have been booked up. By some minor miricle, we found a school down a side alley that had an invitingly open gate into a cold but covered courtyard. There were people inside, but we just silently stumbled into a dark corner to pass out at 5am, waking at 6am to find matresses and beds around the corner, in which we passed out for a further 2 hours.
The next day we used our residual energy to book a train ticket to a town near the Nepali border, and then walk the 10km or so to the Sangam (bathing area) which was also, of course, utterly rammed with Hindus.
We were the subject of as much fascination as the pilgrims were to us - we were constantly asked for photos with strangers and quickly grew tired of the thousands of staring eyes passing in the opposite direction. It did dawn on us that so far we hadn't seen a single tourist (overall we only saw about 20, some of them clearly magazine photographers) and therefore were enjoying celebrity status.
To further our cult-like personas we were also interviewed for national TV, during which we fawned over the majesty of the event, choosing not to mention the 12 hour journey or uncomfortable sleep and instead using as many superlatives as was possible to illustrate our joy at being partof the Mela. During the interview we were mobbed by curious Indians who fancied a slice of our fame; we hurried off afterwards to escape our new fans!
I cannot and will not describe the bathing scenes and general pandemonium of the next few hours as we traversed a small part of the river-side. How can I put into words the sight of millions of people? One part of the walk reminded me strongly of Wembley Way on matchday, and another of the huge crowds that flood Washington for inauguration day, but these two events can only boast 5- or 6-figure attendances; we were in the midst of 8- or 9-figure crowds.
We capped off the surreal day with a face bath in the Ganges (if not now, on the holiest day of the holiest festival at the holiest site for Hindus, then when?). As I emerged, dripping from the fairly horrible riverside, I noticed pretty much every pair of eyes around me were fixed on the silly white man trying to be a Hindu. Unsure of how to proceed, I put both thumbs up and shouted "KARMA," which seemed to do the trick.
Mare number 3 was probably the most cruel. Our 930pm train out of the suffocating city of Allahabad was bursting with people when we arrived. There was simply not one little piece of the human jigsaw that we could fit into. Every other train at the 3 stations we tried was the same. We tried bribing bus drivers, asking police, stopping cars and even considered nicking a tuktuk. No luck. At 1am with little hope of escape, we were coming to the harrowing realisation that we might be trapped in Allahabad forever. We met one tourist who had encountered exactly the same problem and was equally freaked out by the apparent total lack of freedom of movement for tourists. We resigned outselves to another rough night, and curled up on the concrete of Allahabad Junction station for anoher cold, sleepless night in the midst of the blanketed bodies of thousands of Hindus.
At 3am, with not a wink of sleep, we took the brave and crucial decision to try and jump on any train we could, even if it was in the same precarious position as the hanging Hindus we had witnessed. With a huge slice of luck that we have still not quite come to terms with, we managed to board a train for Patna - next to the Nepali border! We were walking aimlessly down a footbridge when the door to a train that was otherwise totally crammed opened, and revealed the holiest of sites - space. This prompted a huge feverish rush of people to try and crush themselves inside, but not before we had slipped in! The pure joy and relief that flooded through us was indescribable. If not for that lucky break, I am confident we would still be in the claustrophobic confines of Allahabad instead of the lovely plains of Kathmandu. We also heard via Aneirin's father that 50 people had died at Allahabad Junction just after we left. Scary, though we ae both certain that the total death-count of the event will be huge.
After another countless-hour-long train journey which we either spent standing up squashed into a door, sitting on the edge of the train door with our feet hanging over the tracks, or in our usual position between carriages, we arrived in Patna to the most deserved beer of my life - beating my post-marathon pint!
No rest for the wicked, though. We were due to board a 9-hour sleeper bus to the Raxual border town with Nepal, then after customs suffer on a 5-hour jeep journey to Kathmandu, in which the comapny had managed to cram 15 people! On the way, we passed a crowd of people looking over the edge - a jeep had just gone over. Police were carrying bodies up and though we craned our necks to see down the mountain side, we could not see the wreckage. We hoped the driver might adapt his driving style a little in light of this, but it was not to be. Safe to say, after that we did not sleep.
The first glimpse of the snow-capped Himalayas catalysed a huge rush of adrenaline in me - what a contrast to the horribly dusty and crowded plains of Allahabad. In 3 days we will be deep inside the 'roof of the world,' which will be a reward for the discomfort was have been though in the last few days.
In summary, in 72 hours we spent 40 travelling, 7 sleeping and ate only 4 meals. It has ground us to the lowest points of this trip by far, and has tried our confidence inourselves as travellers. I am fortunate to have shared the gruelling experience with Aneirin, who kept my spirits up when I was on the verge of frustrated tears, and visa-versa. We make an excellent team and it will be sad to see him go on the 26th.
All typed out very quickly - sorry for mistakes, ramblings etc but I must utilise this internet availability when I can. Plenty of things I have no time to mention too, so look forward to hearing those when I come home. Hope everyone is well and love to all as usual!