Varanasi – On the Banks of the Ganges

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January 1st 2011
Published: January 29th 2011
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“Yep... that’s our throttle cable”, said Richard very matter of factly. “Bollocks anyway”, I thought...

We were still one hour from the Indian/Nepali border at Sonauli, and we had only 2 hours to make it to our connecting bus on the Indian side of the border. And we still had to visit the visa lads on either side of the border to get checked out of Nepal, and then get checked into India... but now we could see our bus driver holding the removed throttle cable in his hand. A slight problem...

We had stopped at a roadside truck stop, with the usual local eateries, tire wallahs, and amazing mechanics on hand. I watched the mechanic, who was covered head to toe in oil and grease, jump underneath the bus with nothing more than a spanner. He removed some bits and pieces and lay them down on dirty strips of newspaper. After a few hammering noises, he shouted for a bigger spanner and continued working away. Nearly half our bus was nosily watching him, and he emerged after about ten minutes work, re attached the throttle cable and 'wallah' our bus was working again. The driver gave him about 50 rupees, which is the same as about 50 cent, and we were on our way! Labour here is so cheap it is ridiculous!


When our bus reached Sonauli, it was dusk, and we were still about 3 or 4 km from the border itself. Heaps of local cycle rickshaw drivers clamored over us promising to take us to the border, and myself and Rich got one each because of our big bags. I remember it being one of the eeriest rides ever, as the air was thick with smoke from burning rubbish, and I had no real idea where we were going. Lights from oncoming vehicles dimly lit the road, the cycle rickshaw has none, and Richard’s rickshaw kept disappearing into the thick smoke behind me. To be honest, I was quite relieved when the lights of the border town loomed into view.

We got through the visa process without a hassle, as we had gotten our visas sorted in Australia before we left, and we just needed to fill out a form and get a stamp. We had arrived, after walking under a gateway, rather unceremoniously into weird and wonderful India!

We still had to find our bus somewhere along the gloomy street and all we had was the name of a travel shop where we could collect our ticket. No one seemed to have any idea where the shop was, and we were in no humour for dicking around looking for it in the dark. Further down the street someone pointed us towards the right shop, and we found our travel agent's shop cleverly disguised as an internet cafe. In our 2 months in India we have been led on many paper chases, and we now have formidable skills in the area hehe.... next stop 'The Amazing Race'!
The bus was fairly similar to Nepali local busses, with flashing, colourful fairy lights lining the frame of the front window doing their best to distract the driver, pictures and a shrine for the god of choice, and local music blaring out from the speakers. I remember Richard smugly putting in his noise cancelling headphones... the langer;-) Needless to say they went right to the top of my shopping list!


We arrived at the city of Gorakpur where we would, unfortunately, have to spend the night. Gorakpur punches you square in the face with its sights and sounds, and is overall the worst place I have ever seen in my two years travelling. Step off the bus and what lies straight in front of us but a public urinal, aka a wall, with 6 guys straining the spuds, and the smell of urine stinging the nostrils. It was warm and muggy, our ears were under assault from almost non-stop horn beeping from the nearby road, our eyelids were putting up a great fight against the dust in the air, and our nose had to deal with the smell of burning rubbish which lingered in the air once passed the urinal/wall. Lovely.

Gorakpur is a major travel hub in India, and outside the train station literally every spare piece of ground had people and families sleeping in it. There must have been at least a thousand people sleeping on the ground outside, and even more napping everywhere inside the station. Indians love their naps, and seem to have an uncanny ability to pass out whenever and in whatever position they like, even face down onto dirty ground. It was midnight, and I don't think I've seen a busier, noisier place in my life. We wandered along the busy street trying to find a room for the night, and after our third try managed to get one. It was humid, grubby and gloomy, but we only needed a bed for about 4 hours.

First Train Ride

In the morning we groggily made our way to get our train headed for Varanasi. We climbed on board, and found our sleeper seats were already occupied by 2 Indian guys sleeping head to foot, in both our seats. It was 5am and we had to wake them up to get our beds...sorry guys. Unfortunately, I was on the lower bunk and after about 3 hours of sleeping the locals started banging on the bed because they wanted to lower the middle bunk above mine so everyone could sit around. Still shattered I angrily pointed at my ticket saying that I owned this bunk and I would get up when I felt like it. Trying my best to nod off, they just started sitting on my bed and resting their feet on me until I just gave in and let them put down the middle bunk.

Once I allowed them to lower the bunk and started chatting to them the guys were much friendlier, and offered me some food. We arrived in Varanasi at about 2pm and with the help of the locals got off at the right station. We had nowhere booked, but a taxi tout spotted us even before we had left the train. He turned out to be very helpful and even let us use his phone to ring our hostels of choice, all of which were full except for uber expensive rooms. We agreed to let him take us to a few guest houses for a look, even though we know they (touts) get a cut. On route he asked us if we'd mind if he stopped for a quick cup of Chai. No problem mate, there's always time for tea! And man do they love their tea over here.


Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is a melting pot for all the major religions of India: Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Buddhism. The Ganges is the lifeblood of Shiva’s city, and Indians do everything from washing their clothes and bathing, to burning their dead and scattering their ashes in the water. Unfortunately it is also so polluted that it is septic! Dying by the Ganges is more or less a golden ticket to the afterlife, and there are many sick houses here with people willingly waiting to be carried to the next life. Powerful stuff. On our first walk down the banks of the Ganges we witnessed one of the ceremonies where the main relations pour 5 handfuls of water each from the river into the deceased person’s mouth, before wrapping the body in shawls and burning it. A sobering experience.

Holy cows wander the streets here, along with large water buffalo, dogs and goats, and they happily munch on street rubbish, and wander along the pathways untethered. Wait a minute... who owns these cows? I still don't know who owns these cows or where they sleep or get milked, but you see one at least every 30 seconds walking down the streets here. One of the many Indian mysteries...

Simply Bizarre

Another mystery is the incredible length of time it takes to do anything, in anyway, complicated over here, such as buying a sim card. We needed to get 2 pictures, and a photocopy of our passport and visa. Fair enough. We explained it to our hostel owner, who got us a rickshaw driver to drop us to the area to get these things. A quick trip up the road, and we had our 8 pictures, the smallest number we could get. Then further up the road for our photocopy, and for our driver to have a quick cup of Chai. No worries. Back to the phone shop to get our sims. Again no hassle. Then he needed to activate or sim using his super phone to top us up. You can't buy credit here like back home. They need to use their super phones to top you up. And you need to top up in totals of 333, 444 or 555...but NOT 222...because that’s bad. Depending on what you top up, you switch your pre-paid plan. Not a simple choice of plans like back home, but instead a mysterious web of different offers... We stuck to 444 and 555 for safety reasons hehe. Then we tried to get set up for internet data...which was a joke and a half and too long to explain, but in the end was worth it. Two Euros for 2 GB of data on a phone easily lasted me the 2 months, and was worth the hassle.

Before we got to the hostel our taxi man told us not to trust the hotel owners. Of course straight away on arriving at the guest house, our owner told us not to trust anything the taxi man suggested we do in Varanasi. Emm so who exactly do we trust here...and wait a minute he brought us to you??? Basically everyone wants to get involved in the tourist gravy train, so they want you to shop in shops where they get commission... not so bad once you know about it really, but just annoying when everyone wants you to come into their friends shop, or stop for a quick cup of chai. Every time you buy something someone else will ask you how much you paid, and scoff at you saying 'HAH...I could have got it for half that', like the guy from Father Ted....Cowboys Ted.....Cowboys!

Our guest house was only okay, but it did have a great rooftop restaurant that we ate in almost every day, easing ourselves into the Indian spices. We spent about 8 days in Varanasi more or less reading and planning what we wanted to do in the rest of India.

Bite the Bullet

Number one on our list was a bike trip. We were thinking about driving to Darjeeling and then down to Calcutta and back to Varanasi in about 10 days. We found it almost impossible to find anywhere willing to give us bikes for 10 days except for full deposit or giving our passports. Sod that.

I remember in one place Richie took an old Royal Enfield Bullet for a test ride. The bike shop man jumped on the back and Richie took off down the road, both of them without helmets, which is standard fair in India. About a minute later the bike shop guy was running up the road holding his left arm, as if he'd hurt it, and there was no sign of Rich. My blood ran cold. Richard is a better driver than me, but he had no helmet and they'd obviously had an accident. I asked the boy who helped us find the bike shop what had happened, as we ran down the road, and he said something about a broken arm.....FUCK. Rich has broken both his arms before, so this didn't sound too unlikely, but at least he was still in one piece I reasoned, as my brain pumped with all the possibilities. As we got closer I could see a big crowd and I was thinking 'oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck'. But then I saw Rich standing to the side with his arms folded and looking more pissed off than hurt and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Turns out some idiot had cut across Richards’s lane without indicating, to do a U-turn, and Richard went to jam on the front brake. He hadn't been told that the front brake didn't work as it was a shitty 30 year old drum brake, and by the time he went to use the other it was too late. He just clipped the back of the other bike and managed to stay standing as the bike fell over, but the dude on the back went flying over. No damage or anything, and we had learned two valuable lessons. Number One: Don't use bikes without testing the front brakes. Number Two: Indians can't drive for shit. Things happen for a reason so we decided to hang up our bike jackets for the time being, and do it by train until Delhi at least.

The Power of Friendship – Very Power

That day we had met a great kid, who out of the goodness of his heart tried his best to find us bikes to rent. We couldn't speak Hindi, so he did all the talking. At one stage he actually looked distraught and with his head in his hands said, “Oh no...What will you think of my country if I can't help you find bikes?” Indians have a great pride for their country, and some of them will go above and beyond to help you out. It really is one of the recurring factors that make India such a compelling place to visit. Once you get passed the touts, the man on the street wants to know you. He wants to talk to you, and find out all about you, “What country friend?”. He wants to help you and show you around his city and explain his culture, “Shiva is very power friend...VERY POWER”. He wants to treat you to a cup of Chai and make you try new foods, “Not spicy friend...hallo” They truelly find tourists fascinating and I'd say I've shook more hands and been in more photos than some ambassadors. It’s great!


One day we visited a slightly run down, but impressive fort, called Ramnagar. It overlooks the Ganges, and is reached by crossing a rickety pontoon bridge over the river. Our not so 'very power' rickshaw doggedly made it over the bridge and struggled up the muddy slope to the fort. Inside the fort had an impressive and bizarre range of weapons, including the most huge sword/cleaver I have ever seen and I still wonder how any man could lift the photos allowed inside though. Rifles, bayonets, daggers and elephant guns....I would bloody love a collection like this! The collection included hunting trophies, vintage cars, elephant palanquins and a rather shoddy stuffed crocodile. The fort had a nice garden and even its own temple, and we strolled around the decaying fort walls snapping photos and admiring the Ganges.


The same day we went to a very famous and important archaeological dig site called Sarnath. Buddha apparently came to Sarnath to preach about the path to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment. As a consequence, it is one of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world! A heap of old temple and monastery ruins were scattered around the place, and it was quite nice to be able to stroll along the grass, and over old ruins, as health and safety doesn't really matter here. One impressive stone tower stood overlooking everything, and it was great trying to imagine this place in its hay day.

Festival of Lights

We happened to be in Varanasi for a very big festival called Diwali or light festival, 'Its festival time you know', so along with other people from the guest house we climbed aboard a boat to observe the goings on on the Ghats, or steps leading to the river. All along the 4 or 5 km of the river were candles, a big firework display, huge throngs of Indians celebrating the festival, and boats everywhere on the river. It was great to be able to observe the goings on from the vantage point of the boat. It means many different things in each religion, but essentially is the victory of light over dark.

A few days before the festival I noticed lots of healthy looking goats, with pretty flower chains around their necks, and colourful paint splashed on their bodies. The Muslims were apparently going to sacrifice a whole heap of beautiful goats in honour of the festival. I don't quite like the idea of blood sacrifice, but apparently the price of the goats goes right up, with people spending nearly the same amount as it costs to buy a motorbike on a goat they are just going to kill....

So after our 'interesting' introduction to Indian life we made our way to the more laid back Darjeeling by train. It’s the famous hill station that the British used to chill out in during the hot summers... Famed for its tea along with its steam trains....Yes this would be a good place to relax:-)

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