A Bad Start in Varanasi

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January 10th 2020
Published: January 10th 2020
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Our Air India flight to Varanasi was delayed and we eventually got airborne an hour later than planned. The Khajuraho airport was large and modern but with no food outlets, too many boarding pass or security checks, and only two boarding gates, strangely enough, numbered Gate 6 and 7. When we finally boarded, and presented our boarding passes at the gate, everyone's name was manually ticked off a passenger list.

Disembarking from the aircraft in Varanasi, an official at the bottom of the steps demanded to see boarding passes, requesting Ginny to step aside when she couldn't find hers fast enough. When we did hand it to him he gave it a courtesy glance and waved us on. Why would boarding passes need to be checked when you're getting off a plane? Made no sense to us.

Thankfully our private transfer driver was waiting in the arrivals area with my name on a sign. It would take us almost an hour to get to our accomodation, we were told. Varanasi looked like any other Indian city, we commented as we drove through the streets, until a car passed us with a body wrapped in red and gold fabric strapped to the luggage rack on the roof. Most likely heading to the banks of the Ganges for cremation. Nope, Varanasi isn't like any other city....

Of all the destinations I’ve researched for this trip, Varanasi is the only one where so many first paragraphs start with the words - Brace yourself, Varanasi is not for the faint hearted! Described by Lonely Planet as one of the most fascinating places on Earth, Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, with a history dating back 5,000 years.

We have arrived in one of the most sacred, blindingly colourful and chaotic places on earth. A highly congested, crumbling maze of narrow alleys winding behind the waterfront ghats of the Ganges River, Varanasi is quintessential India, the city of your imagination. Once known as Banares or ‘The City of Light’, confronting the rituals of life and death here can be a powerful experience.

Pilgrims come to Varanasi to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters of the Ganges River, or to cremate their loved ones. It’s a place to be born and a place to die, hoping for liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats can be overwhelming. Getting lost in the impossibly cramped labyrinth, you are crowded by pilgrims purchasing flowers for puja (offering or prayer), grieving relatives bearing corpses, chanting priests sounding gongs, and sacred cows scavenging in the rubbish.

Our taxi stopped in the middle of the street and we were told we'll have to walk the rest of the way, about 500 metres, as the alleyway was too narrow for a vehicle. Our suitcases were pulled out of the boot and we headed into the dim chasm between the buildings with our taxi driver in the lead pulling Ginny's suitcase, me pulling mine, and Ginny with two backpacks. It had been raining, the fog was starting to close in and the paving stones were slick with a mix of mud, cow dung and God knows what else.

We walked for ages, thumping the suitcases over uneven pavers and around puddles and corners, dodging cows, pedestrians and beeping motorbikes. My initial thought was 'how the hell are we going to find our way out of here?' As it turned out we were only one alley back from the ghats but didn't know that at the time.

Finally we arrived at our accomodation, Backpacker's Park, not a good choice as it turned out. We were booked in for three nights and the two young men behind the reception desk asked us for full cash payment upfront, they had no eftpos they claimed. Already feeling uneasy, we refused, saying we would pay when we checked out, as was customary.

We asked to see the kitchen where, according to their Agoda listing, we could make ourselves breakfast to be enjoyed in their communal dining area. It was the pits, located on the top floor and open to the elements, fair game for every cockroach, rat and thieving monkey living on the ghats. A dried out pot of half eaten curry languished on the cooktop. We took one look and backed out, knowing we'd not be going in there again. The dining area was a construction zone, new flooring being laid, so also out of bounds.

None of the rooms had door numbers which was confusing. We both found used towels hanging behind the bathroom doors and my shower tap got stuck on hot, scalding hot, and I couldn't turn it off. I redressed, closed the door of the steamed up bathroom, and walked down four flights of stairs to ask for help, as there was also a power blackout. A generator was keeping the lights on, but the lift didn't work.

By this time I was stressed and cranky. Neither of us was happy with our rooms, there wasn't even as much as a drinking glass supplied. We decided to stay for one night as it was too late to leave by then. I booked us new rooms at Palace of the Ganges Hotel on Assi Ghat early the next morning and we were packed up and standing at the reception desk, ready to check out, by 7.00am. 'The boss is asleep' we were told. 'Wake him up then, if you want your money, as we are leaving now,' I replied. Needless to say, they did.

We were finally out of there! As we pulled the suitcases over the cobblestones back the way we come, I spotted the Ganges River through a narrow alley to my left. I realised then it would be easier to walk to Assi Ghat, via the ghats, so we thumped the suitcases down a steep flight of concrete steps and set out. Thankfully there were more down steps than up ones and we got to Assi Ghat in half an hour, and found the hotel with the help of a local boy. Even at that early hour, with suitcases in tow, we were asked several times as we walked the ghats, if we wanted a boat ride on the Ganges. They were prepared to heave the suitcases into their boats as well, but we declined.

I had to contact Varanasi Walks to let them know of our new pick up point for today's walking tours, and had sent them an email earlier. But we ended up locating their office, which I knew was near Assi Ghat, and telling them ourselves.

So, we're settled into our new room and things are looking up. Ginny told me today that her pedometer app has announced we have walked the distance from London to Paris in the past month. I'm not surprised...

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