Sunday, 17 November 2013

Varanasi; Our first step into India.

Varanasi. When I thought of Varanasi before I had visited, it conjured up images of chaotic streets, vibrant colors and even more vibrant people and that's exactly what we got.

As our first destination in India we were both a bit apprehensive about it, especially since most people (including our guide book) had told us that Varanasi was well, how do I say it, a little (no, a lot...) crazy. There were also numerous stories in the press before our arrival about the rape of western travelers which had really scared us and in fact we were going to cancel our trip to India and try to go somewhere else but luckily for us we decided to take the chance and see the country that had intrigued me for such a long time.

On our way to Varanasi, our packed jeep made a stop at a tiny village for some of the people to have a cigarette. It was over 40 degrees celcius and our jeep didn't have any air-con or windows in the back (where we were sitting) so this rest stop was just what we needed. Once we got out a crowd formed around us. It seemed that the whole village had come out to take a look at us. It was such a crazy moment. Both myself and Jason are used to getting stared at living in Korea but these stares were so different from what we were used to. Usually it's young kids that would stare and try to talk to us in English but here in this tiny village we had old women, young boys and everything in between just stare, no words were spoken. They seemed so intrigued by this group of foreigners that had randomly stopped in their town. We stayed there for about 15 minutes trying to communicate with them and it was a wonderful introduction to the country.

Once we arrived in bustling Varanasi we realised just how chaotic it was gonig to be, there were horns beeping everywhere, so much noise!! We eventually made it to the guesthouse that we had prebooked and were thankful that we didn't have to be wandering the streets looking for accomodation. We were also very thankful that our room was very clean and more importantly had working electricity and air-con! We were the only people staying in the guesthouse during our entire stay. Mainly because it was off season and only fools would travel India in the crazy heat.


Varanasi.


 Although what we quickly realised about travelling in India in the off season is that, even though the heat can be unbearable at times, there are hardly no tourists around (Indian or foreigners) and the tourist sights (including the Taj Mahal) seemed quieter which we truly appreciated..


Sometimes our only companions on the ghats were dogs and goats.

After getting settled into our guesthouse we ventured out into the streets of Varanasi to explore. Our guesthouse was situated in a residential area and it was so awesome walking through that area and seeing the daily lives of the people around us. We also found that the streets were quite small and the cows were absolutely huge so trying to pass them in the small laneways proved difficult at times.

A woman selling fruit in a
lane way near our guesthouse.

One of the many many cows in Varanasi.
We made our way down to the rivers edge and came across a group of extremely fat bores that scared us a little, walked a little further and witnessed the beautiful sight of buffalos, children, adults and dogs bathing in the Ganges. It was such a unique feeling to be standing there watching what I had always dreamed about seeing. I truly was living out my dreams!

Jason looking out at the Ganges.

They were HUGE !


A girl watches on as people and buffalos try to cool down in the Ganges.


People splashing around in the Ganges.


That evening we went for a sunset boat ride of the Ganges, this brought us along the river for an hour and allowed us to get a closer look at the many different ghats in Varanasi, including the burning ghat.
The burning ghat is named so because this is the ghat where people are cremated and their ashes are released in to the Ganges. It is a very honorable thing to be cremated here and people come from all over India for the privilege. In the next couple of days we got closer to that particular ghat and learned more about it.
Me helping our boatman to steer.


Myself and Jason take over.
Jason taking in the beautiful buildings of Varanasi.



Varanasi during sunset...so beautiful!

...and again.

After our boat ride we managed to get swindled out of money by the boatman and then when we stood our ground against him suddenly a group of men were surrounding us. We grudgingly gave our money and left with a bitter taste in our mouth.

The next day I was pretty apprehensive about leaving the guesthouse and exploring after what had happened the night before. But what I quickly learned about India is that no matter how the day before was, you can NEVER predict how your day will turn out. We ventured out and ended up having a wonderful day exploring the back alleys of Varanasi with the cows, monkeys, pigs, water buffalos, birds, rats, people and only god knows what else. It was truly a magical experience.


A very inquisitive goat.


A man praying next to the Ganges.

One of the many beautiful buildings in a city that is
widely said to be one of the oldest cities in the world.

Man and buffalos live in harmony together.

We also made our way to the train station and booked our first Indian train journey up to Agra. We ended up having to stay in Varanasi for an extra couple of days as the trains were booked up but we didn't mind.
That evening we found out that $1,000 had been taken out of Jasons bank account in Vietnam, since we didn't even go to Vietnam on this trip we were even more surprised. But after many phone calls to Jasons bank in America we managed to get the money back luckily!

The next day we decided to go out and wander around the ghats during midday. We thought we would be ok, and Jason was, but I could barely walk, I felt faint and we had to retreat to the nearest cafe and spend a couple of hours in the shade playing cards. This Irish girl really can't handle humidity or extreme heat (especially when there's no swimming pool).

After our rest we walked onwards and suddenly found ourselves right near Manakarnika (the burning ghat) and had a man stand with us and tell us more about it. It was very interesting to hear about the different wood that the families buy for cremations, different woods cost different prices. There are also three levels at which cremations take place on the ghat. The lowest level, near the rivers edge is where people from lower castes get cremated. The next level is for the middle caste and the highest level is for the highest caste. There are bodies being burned here constantly. It was so interesting seeing the bodies wrapped up in blankets being paraded through the streets on a stretcher towards the ghat and then seeing the body being placed on the burning fire. Only male relations of the family are allowed to be at the cremation, I think this is mainly because at one stage it was popular for women to throw themselves into the flames as a declaration to the person that had died. It usually takes between 8 and 10 hours for a body to fully burn.


The smoke to the right of the photo is a cremation.

The rest of our time in Varanasi was pretty much spent lazing by another hotels pool during the height of the day and wandering around the different ghats in the evenings when it got cooler.
We really enjoyed our time in Varanasi, it was definitely an eye opener and was also the perfect way for us to jump right in to India. But we were both very excited to leave for our next destination...Agra and of course the Taj Mahal!

Accomodation:

We had pre booked in to Rahul guesthouse after reading positive reviews on trip advisor. Unfortunately an air-con room in India is usually more than double a fan room so we spent about $30 a night. But it was a beautiful room with a TV and really nice bathroom. Also during the power outages the fan continued to work which was a life saver.
We did have one small issue when we received our bill for laundry and found that we were grossly overcharged for it. But after having a discussion with the manager we managed to get the price down.

Website: http://www.rahulguesthouse.in/

Trip-advisor reviews: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g297685-d1450944-Reviews-Rahul_Guest_House-Varanasi_Uttar_Pradesh.html


Getting there and away:

From Lumbini we caught a bus that brings you near the border. We didn't prebook it and jumped on it about 8:30 am. It doesn't bring you right to the border so once we arrived at the border we had to hire a cycle rickshaw to bring us the rest of the way. All of the rickshaws seemed to have a set fee and wouldn't budge when we tried to haggle.
Once we were into India we happened to see some other foreigners standing next to a jeep. They were waiting for more passengers going to Varanasi so we agreed on an amount and it brought us into Varanasi. The journey took about 10 hours total.

Leaving Varanasi: We went to the train station on our second day in Varanasi and found the room for foreigner bookings. Trains book up early in India so try to book as early as you can. We had to wait in Varanasi for 5 days total until we found 2 2nd class air-con tickets (we had wanted 3rAC but these book up so fast that it was impossible)

Varanasi.

Beautiful Varanasi at night time.

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