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October 13th 2011
Published: October 21st 2011
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The bad hearts are there, but I believe that they are in a small, poor minority. One thing is sure: They are much the most interesting people in the world--and the nearest to being incomprehensible. At the very least they are the hardest to account for. Their character and their history, their customs and their religion, confront you with riddles at every turn--riddles which are a trifle more perplexing after they are explained than they were before. , it makes our own religious enthusiasm seem pale and cold. - Mark Twain

Varanasi was quite a sensory overload. An active, alive, and holy place, everyone we talked to before and during our travels had strong feelings about the city, both for and against. We both really wanted to experience it, to enjoy it, to allow it to stand out from the other places we visited. I have a feeling that we might have given it short shrift, as we were both feeling tired and mildly unwell by this point. I'm glad we visited, but it wasn't quite the high point we were hoping for.

The river was lovely, and we enjoyed traveling along it by boat early in the morning, watching the people who visited the ghats worship and bathe. Lots of cows and goats as well, plus a fellow with a pet monkey. The ghats and the streets leading up to them were interesting, full of shops, rickshaws and people performing the funeral rites for loved ones. We witnessed a cremation, and I was able to set alight a little flower boat with a candle for my loved ones and my spiritual well-being. One of the high points was our hotel, Ganges View, which came highly recommended and for good reason. Quiet, peaceful, beautiful, a wonderful spot to recuperate from our travels and enjoy the view of India's most holy river. In the evening there was a lively religious procession that went past our hotel to Assi Ghat, with plenty of music.

Hindu pilgrims come to Varnasi from all across India to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges or to cremate their loved ones. Every day about 60,000 people go down to the ghats to take a holy dip along a 7km stretch of the river. Along this same area, 30 large sewers are continuously discharging into the river. There has been some work done to improve this situation, including a handful of electric sewage pumps - this in a city with frequent power cuts, many of which we experienced during our stay. Although distressing, the situation of the Ganges seems to me a telling description of India as well - full of sacred aspirations and yet profoundly dirty and neglected, ancient practices intermixed with and in many ways unable to cope with modern problems, overwhelming in terms of scale and history and issues waiting to be addressed.

To catch our train towards Darjeeling we had to travel to a station in the next city. For this we were able to take a shared auto-rickshaw - what's six people and a driver in a vehicle made for two? No problem! This experience, however, confirmed my suspicions that the city of Varanasi does indeed have India's worst - or bravest - drivers, which is no small feat. In India, everyone drives as though you had ten minutes to catch your train. Lanes here are a suggestion only, as are signs and traffic lights, if there are any. Streets are shared by everyone, humans, animals, buses, trucks, taxis, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, people pulling carts with goods or other people. Cows, dogs and people sleep on the median. But none of this is any reason to slow down. In fact, Indian taxi drivers only ever slow down for two things: cows and speed bumps. Everything else merely moves out of the way, even when you're driving at top speed into the oncoming traffic. In the dark. In the fog (smog). With no working headlights. Like we were on the way to that station. Luckily our horn was working - what would a vehicle be in India without its horn? - and we were able to alert everyone who might be in our path of our impending approach. Strangely enough, neither of us have seen a street accident of any kind since our arrival. It's the kind of miracle that only India could produce.

On our way to the NJP station it became clear that our good India train luck had finally run out. We caught our train, with plenty of time actually as it was running late, but almost wished we hadn't. I've been on plenty of trains but this was by far the nastiest and least well kept. I took few photos as you'll want to eat again eventually. Let's just say that we were clearly outnumbered by the non-human creatures that surrounded us, and although exhausted had difficulty sleeping without fear of being crawled upon. And in an upper-class compartment! It was enough to shake my faith in Indian Railways. Hopefully this will be the only train to compete with the unsanitary conditions of the Egyptian railways.

Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 25


Chai at the ghatChai at the ghat
Chai at the ghat

This chai was served in little clay cups.

26th October 2011

Worst train of the trip.
It was the filthiest out of 10 trains we were on. Complete with random vendors, beggars, and several different species of roaches.
10th November 2011

OMG, that train is nasty!!!!! What the heck?? :( Oh man. That sucks!

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