The trip to Varanasi was long and arduous and nearly did not happen at all. The approaching Diwali had taken the train system to breaking point. With no trains available to anywhere in the country all I could do is put myself on the waiting list and hope. As the day finally arrived I had gone from number 19 to 5 but no further. Chancing my luck I jumped into a shared rickshaw to Haridwar where the train would be leaving. There I sat with a group of people volunteering at a local orphanage. They all expressed an unwillingness to travel to Varanasi, especially independently but for me this was one of my most anticipated stops.
Two hours before the train left the website confirmed my seat. Relieved at not having to alter my plans and stay in Haridwar, I boarded the train tentatively, not entirely sure of my seat, carriage or even if I was allowed onto the train. As it went I was correct in my assumptions and the journey was very smooth. My berth buddies were especially friendly. One of them spent hours showing me photos and pictures on his phone and telling me his family history. At times there was to much detail however my listening skills were rewarded by receiving a helping of their food which was delicious.
The Lonely Planet describes Varansi as “one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and the most unapologetically indiscreet places on earth”. Arriving at night the later two were all to obvious. The horns were back in mass, the volume of traffic decided which side of the road they traveled and not street markings, sheer congestion caused huge pileups. I lost count of the amount of times different vehicles crashed into my cycle rickshaw. It seems to be an accepted way of breaking! After hearing various arrival stories I opted to walk along the Ghats to my hostel rather than chance the maze of the old city. It was a genius plan and worked perfectly but at times the hassle was almost unbearable. At one point a guy followed me for twenty or so minutes. If it wasn’t for the hilarity of his attempts to stay out of my eye sight it would have been quite unnerving. Nearing my hostel however I decided he would not be stealing any commission and politely informed him that I would call the police if I saw him again.
“I see, I see, no problem, I go.”
Was his rather wonderful response. Eventually I arrived and enjoyed a well deserved sleep.
Varanasi is one of those places where the guide book goes out the window. There are so many sights to be seen but they are to be sought out and found along the ghats or in the winding and disorientating backstreets of the old city. Being in Varanasi was never boring. A key reason for this was the sheer variety of the ghats. There are ghats for boating, religious ceremonies, washing clothes, drying clothes, buffalo bathing, fire displays, fishing and my least favorite, the lets try and fleece every last dollar out of every tourist who stops by. But no matter when you arrive at a ghat you are guaranteed to see something different happening. Varanasi is built upon the spontaneity of everyday life.
The most well known ghats are the two burning ones. Unlike in Nepal where you are sat a ‘safe’ distance away, in Varanasi your face might as well be in the fire itself. Pauline, an Irish girl who was visiting for one day, commented that it was at these ghats when you realised just how far from home you really are. How right she was, the whole process so alien to myself is so central to so many Indians. No more is this shown then in the buildings that overlook the burning ghats where elderly and ill people pay money to watch over where they hope in a few days time they will be burned. From the peace and quiet reflection of life and death as a body burns alone, to sometimes having Hindu Pop pumping out and the ‘untouchables’ playing out of tune instruments as loud as they could. From seeing a boy place a fire cracker under one of the fires and run away to watching for half an hour, three men attempt to scrape a burning corpse off of the floor and back onto the fire as the family sat and watched, unmoved. It was utterly fascinating and a tad disturbing.
Whilst walking the ghats and narrow streets is interesting enough, on three occasions I took to the river Ganges. Seeing the sunset was beautiful however sunrise and the burning red son was stunning. On the third occasion I visited the other side of the Ganges. I had to take a boat because they had not finished building the post monsoon bridge. I know this because I got three quaters of the way across to find a drop off. Some kind builders however told me to wait as they put another five or so rotting wooden beams in place. They then proceeded to give me a guided tour to the real dead end of the bridge. It was a real eye opener into the world of the Indian construction industry! When I arrived on the other side I got to go for a little dip into the Ganges, praying that I would not be stepping on any dead bodies. On dry land however it was clear why it is considered a no go zone. There were tons of vulchers which was cool because I have never been up close to one before however the attempted to blank out of my mind the reason that they are there in such numbers!
Everything in Varansi is multiplied many times over. The traffic, pollution, levels of humanity, size of cows/buffalo, litter, caste system, spirituality, to name a few. I was sad to leave it as it stands as the only city I can think of when I woke up every morning excited to get out and explore. Unfortunately however my trip was cut short early due to the only train I could get being during Diwali. I say unfortunately however in some ways I was happy because the fireworks and fire crackers were dangerously out of control in the lead up to Diwali. I dread to think what it would have been like to be there during it.
In a token gesture I thought that I would travel sleeper class. Unsurprisingly until the morning it mostly consisted of a handful of fellow tourists, which provided a good laugh but not the full sleeper class experience. By the time the train had pulled into Agra it was full of all sorts of food sellers, blaring music and a group of family acrobats performing for pennies.