Date of stay: March 2011
Where you stayed: A guesthouse near the Ghat River (mentioned in Lonely Planet)
Tour or pre planned: Pre-planned, not with a tour group.
Varanasi, located on the holy Ghat River, is a feast of culture. You will find yourself lost in a never-ending network of narrow alleyways, where traffic space is at a premium. Bulls, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, humans, humans on motorcycles, kids and street vendors all vie for the same space which is probably no wider than two metres. In extreme cases of alleyway traffic jams, I witnessed a kid squeezing the testicles of a bull to encourage it to get a move on.
Bulls often trot down the steps of the Ghat to take a dip in the river to cool down and people do their washing and scrub themselves down while others play street cricket. Tourists naively take photos of the public body cremation ceremonies on the river only for locals and police to pounce and demand money as it is not only illegally but spiritually insulting not snap pictures of the dead.
On the way to the hostel from Varanasi Train Station I met up with another Kiwi guy. We got a bicycle-taxi ride together to our hostel for about 30 rupees (40 pence, at the time of travel the exchange rate was 70 rupees to the Pound). It was a relaxing way to make your way to the main part of Varanasi even though it is pretty hard work for the guy cycling. What with two large backpacks and 2 blokes to tug along. It’s not relaxing however when a bus is rammed right up behind you and insistent on following at a distance of no more than 3 centimetres for the duration, accelerating and braking suddenly. The only protection as a back seat cyclist is a flimsy cover from the rain.
Walking along the steps of the Ghat we had to cross a stream of sewerage, I was wearing sandals at the time and in a moment of sheer clumsiness I slipped and fell onto the steps with my knee exposed to this green slime. I was a little worried that it would become infected but it turned out to be ok.
We stayed at a cheap guesthouse, the name now escapes me but it had genuine character and was only a short walk up from the steps of the Ghat, near a music shop. It was one of the main guesthouses listed in the Lonely Planet guide and I would highly recommend it. The owners were friendly and welcoming and it was close to some cafes. The room itself was a double room which I shared with my new Kiwi mate to save some money and was the equivalent of around 3 Pounds per night for the room, so between two of us it was only about 1.5 Pounds each. It had a large window which could be open right out, stepping out would lead to your death as there was no balcony. A ladder from just outside our room took you to the rooftop and there also a courtyard but the owner made it very clear to lock up the windows and doors before leaving as monkeys and baboons have been known to follow their curiosity and pinch the belongings of guests.
One time my mate went to use the bathroom outside our room when he was confronted by a massive angry gibbon that came out, pumped up his chest in an alpha male type pose, growled and hissed, then fled.
Nightly ceremonies mourning loved ones by way of a public body cremation takes place every night. You can view the ceremony by boat and take a ride out on the river for around 100-200 rupees depending on the guide and your salesman skills.
As we were walking towards the ceremony one night, a couple of street smart kids approached us and tried to sell a boat ride. We were pretty suspicious that the boat they wanted to take us on was actually theirs. However, we decided we wanted to see the ceremony and to go regardless of our doubts. We hopped on the boat and drifted out towards the ceremony.
After the ride, we felt hungry so we walked the streets to dabble in the local street food, which is a gem. It is a cheap, delicious and interesting experience. Samosas are 7 rupees, or around 10 pence, and are fairly spicy but hearty nonetheless. Fried potatoes, pakora and other favourites are abundant. There is nothing better than grabbing a few nibbles along your way from different market stalls and taking in the atmosphere of the streets.
One meal in a small dark and dingy room off the alley way consisted of curry, rice, naan and a kind of soup. It was a never-ending portion as the cook insisted that he keep filling our plates. We were grateful. The food was hearty and flavoursome and all up it was about 1 GBP. We duly tipped him well.
After dinner we walked around some more and were asked to attend a wedding that night. We didn’t end up going to that one but saw another wedding on the street in a sort of colourful procession with greens and reds and yellows illuminated by the light. People walked through the street, kids carried lamps, and people sang and danced while a young boy mounted on a horse I dubbed the “Boy Prince” rode along. There was a band with trumpets and drums and the music was glaring, in your face loud. We were invited into the inner circle with the groom to dance with them. It was a very spiritual, yet strange experience. My mate and the groom “faced-off” with one another, egging each other on with the lure of rupee notes in their mouths.
One the way back to the guesthouse I completely lost my sense of direction and ended up down a series of dark alleys where only the dog, the night hunter, ventured. I could not believe that I had got myself into a position where I had been warned about the dogs in Varanasi and here I was with the stupidity to lose my way only to be cornered by vicious, snarling street dogs, looking hungry and howling at any gringo in sight. It was probably the scariest situation I have ever been in.
The next day I wanted to fulfill a dream of jamming on a sitar with some locals, I really wanted to try playing this beautiful guitar like Indian instrument. I wanted a spiritual musical experience. The day before, we accidentally stumbled across a music shop which offered such a service close to the guesthouse. It had sitars, those Indian drums which I can’t recall the name of, and conventional guitars. The owner closed the shop and we kicked off the jam. Initially it felt a little awkward to play this beast but once you get the hang of hit its great fun and you can strike some eerie notes.
The “chai” or local tea is a delight. Guys walk around everywhere going Chai Chai Chai Chai!” especially on the trains. It’s very sweet, milky and comes in a biodegradable sort of clay shot glass. There was nothing more simple yet relaxing than grabbing a chai and soaking in the culture, the intrigue and the humor on offer in Varanasi.
I saw a minor motorcycle accident during a bicycle ride from the Ghat River to the Varanasi Train Station. One motorcyclist had just clipped another, when my taxi came around the corner. The bikes were scattered on the road and one guy flew off his bike. An audience soon gathered and my bike rider pulled to a halt, I was curious as to what would unfold. Both were very lucky to have come away from the accident relatively unscathed, but rather than ask each other if they were ok and “kiss and make up”, they fought! One guy got hold of the other from behind and started elbowing him in the back. After a couple of minutes, the incident subsided.
My mate and I got haircuts one night for 50 rupees. I had annoyingly long hair that looked scraggy so I got a number 4. It came free of charge with a violent facial massage that aged me by about 5 years. We sipped on chai as he cut our hair. It felt good to have short hair again especially given the heat in India during the day.
Then the time came to leave Varanasi, a city that I had grown a soft spot for. But now it was time to make the journey to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal by train. It was very difficult to get a train out of Varanasi and make the necessary connections to reach Agra. So do make sure to make your reservation days in advance to ensure your seat.
I was looking forward to hearing the various street and train vendors. Each comes with its own little rhyme or jingle. For example, the “Chai Guy” who just says “Chai Chai Chai Chai” all day up and down the train and the “Tomato Soup Guy” who signs “Sooooouup, Tomato Soup… Sooooouup, Tomato Soup”.
The trains are a real gem in India but do be careful. I preferred at the time to take slums class to really see how they live. One train took 35 hours to go from Ahmedabad to Chennai in the south. There are a few things to note:
- It really is every man for himself, so do take care when getting on and off trains
- There were all sorts of cockroaches and insect and people sleeping on the floors while rats prowl at night looking for scraps
- The toilets were mainly squatters so do be prepared, it was real dirty
- It gets mighty cold at night so do take warm clothing and a blanket
- There is no “Food Carriage”, yes there is a kitchen but I walked up and down the whole train and you could not eat in a restaurant.
- The only kind of food you can get is curry, which is fine, but if you don’t like spicy food, take your own.
- If you buy water, keep it secure as my water would always be stolen or drunk by another
- Monkeys do come on the trains, be aware of your belongings
Would you recommend this destination: Yes
Would you recommend your tour: N/A pre planned
Would you recommend your hotel: Yes
Overall rating destination: 4.8 out of 5