After almost 2 months apart Ebbs and I reunited in India; first Delhi airport, 11pm at night, me with a in-flight vomit bag (full of vomit) and Ebbs looking absolutely dazed by the craziness that was surrounding him. The next morning we caught an early flight to Varanasi and our Indian adventure began! Varanasi is considered to be one of the holiest places on earth with millions of people taking the pilgrimage here annually to wash and pray in the holy Ganges. The city itself is absolute craziness with more colour, dirt, noise and crowds than you could possibly imagine. Cows litter the street, often blocking alleyways and spiritual Babas with orange beards offer you ganga on the Ghats. The air is thick with ash and incense, so much so that you can actually see it and the people here (much like the rest of India) will carry on about their daily, CRAZY lives as if you weren't even there. Although I had been in India for a month already, my time had been spent purely in the south, a region much calmer and safer than the north. Ebbs, having just flown in from Sydney was thrown straight in the deep-end (and behaved admirably) as Varanasi is known as one of the most culturally confronting places in the world. While I never felt unsafe during my time here, it certainly did test the rest of my emotions. This blog post I've done a little differently as I wrote a diary while I was here. So instead of the usual 'what to do list' I've just included my daily entries.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Singh Guest House which was a 2 minute walk from the ghats and the Ganges and was in a beautiful complex with gardens. Although our room was simple for $3 each a night I couldn’t have asked for more!! Better still, the restaurant in the hotel served cheap breakfast and amazing thali!! I booked it through booking.com a few days before we arrived and I couldn't recommend it more!!
How to get there
Ebbs and I flew from Delhi to Varanasi return for about $60 each way including luggage. From Varanasi airport we got a public bus (that leaves just outside the terminal) to the main train station for 50 rupees each and then a rickshaw to our hotel for 200 rupees. Flights are regular and inexpensive however I would definitely recommend the train. From Varanasi to just about anywhere in India there are overnight trains that run daily and are the fraction of the cost of a flight. We only flew because the trains were booked out (because I was super un-organised).
There are direct buses that take you to Kathmandu from here in 18 hours if you want to get to Nepal. Whilst in Nepal, I met many people who had traveled this way and although they said it was hell (as any 18 hour Indian bus ride would be) they said it was safe and cheap (which, when in India, is all that really matters).
After a ridiculously rough night on the streets of Delhi (literally), Ebbs and I were more than relieved to reach our beautiful hotel in Varanasi. Only a few minutes walk away from the entrance to the Ghats, our hotel was a sprawling complex with gardens and multiple rooftops. The room itself was spacious and had build in shelves on the walls which we later filled with candles. After lunch, during which Ebbs has his FIRST EVER THALI we wondered down to the Ghats for our first look at the Ganges. The first view literally took my breath away (which is a rare occurrence for me). The city itself sits high above the steps of the Ghats meaning the view down over the Ganges is vast and expansive. With no real plans, Ebbs and I spent a few hours strolling up the Ghats, talking to boatmen, watching people bath in the shallows and reading all the colourful murals and graffiti that was splattered on the walls and steps. Out of no-where a burning station appeared and I was completely stunned as I watched several families unwrapping their dead and placing them on open fire pits. I found the initial exposure to dead bodies quite confronting and while Ebbs (like a pro) watched on with interest and intrege, I cried and felt really sick. Ashes float through the air as the bodies burn and although I didn't smell anything unusual some people speak of the stench of cooking meat… Pregnant women and children aren't burnt on the Ghats as they are considered to be pure already and are simply dropped into the center of the lake with stones tied to them. This means it isn't unusual for a body or a limb to wash up onto shore or to float past you whilst on a boat ride. Luckily (or unluckily as my curiosity felt) we didn’t find any floating flesh (although we did see an entire (moldy) pig floating along the river... the mold has us very curious as to how long it had been floating for...
Hungry and still ridiculously exhausted from the night before we sought out a rooftop café to watch sunset and drink masala. We found the 'Ganges view guest house' which had (arguably) the best rooftop in the whole of Varanasi (and we just got lucky enough to find it first try). We sat on the roof, drinking tea and watching a million kites fly over the city's rooftops while the sun set in the background and the activities of the Ganges played out in front of us. It was a pretty magical afternoon.
We set off in search of somewhere for dinner and found ourselves at the Ashkok Restuant (write this down because OH BABY) on the corner of the main road behind the first cremation spot. Our dinner cost $2 each and we ordered a ridiculous amount of food, we both agreed that this was the best food (for flavor and value) that we had during our entire stay in India. It was so good we went back every day (we looked for other places but none had prices that compared).
We woke up at an ungodly hour and stumbled our way down to the Ghats for a sunrise boat ride. Finding a boat is super easy, there are hundreds of them all lined up along the edge of the Ganges with many owners who are very keen to 'show you the river'. Hiring a boat should cost 100 rupees per hour and the typical sunrise row takes about 2 hours. We were taken down the Ghats, watching everyone going about their daily, early morning rituals, bathing, washing clothes and praying. At around 7:30 the sun rose, hot pink and fabulous, hovering on the horizon and lighting up the river. Hundreds and hundreds of seagulls (no idea where they come from??) fly over the boats creating a pretty magical backdrop.
After breakfast at the hotel we spent our morning exploring the Old city darting in and out of its tiny backstreets and alleyways and every now and then breaking out onto the Ghats for a breath of 'fresh' air (and some personal space). The alleyways are tiny and, at the risk of putting you off, are literally covered in shit. Human, dog, cow, bird you name it its there and it smells. Unfortunately, you don’t get used to it (every now and then you think you are but then you stumble across a particularly bad bit and you're triggered again) but I guess that’s part of the fun. As we were still exhausted from our night in Delhi we spent a lazy few hours in bed before heading to the main ghat for the evening ceremony (which was interesting but I'm still not sure if legitimate or just for tourists) we didn’t stay for the whole thing and headed via the cremation ghat back to our trusty Ashkok restaurant for a tasty meal before bed.
We watched sunrise again, this time from the ghats (which was just as beautiful). After breakfast we headed in the opposite direction to the day before, walking along the main road towards the Vishanham temple in the university. The walk took about 40 minutes but was super interesting as we stopped for street food every 10 minutes, bought oranges and apples from old ladies draped in fabric and observed some of the craziest social interactions imaginable (3 men arguing (aggressively with lots of spitting) over what appeared to be a basket of goats and 3 pears??). The temple was pretty impressive although if you have limited time in Varanasi it isn't a must see. We drank fresh orange juice for 50 cents and headed back into town on a bicycle rickshaw (I don't recommend these as they are slow and a little awkward). After lunch, (at the Askok restaurant obviously) we decided to share a Bangh Lassi from one of the many lassi stores in the old town. A bangh lassi (for those of you who don't know) is a yogurt dish usually presented with pomegranate and pistachio that is infused with Bangh (a kind of weed). They are legal in most parts of India and are often labeled as a 'special' lassi or a green lassi. Although Ebbs and I halved one, my enthusiasm for anything dairy (especially yogurt) meant that I ended up eating the vast majority and 40 minutes later I found myself in a bit of trouble. Ebbs and I went up to our favorite rooftop for tea and sunset and as the sun disappeared on the horizon the prospect of getting home through the shambled streets began to scare the shit out of me. I realized that we couldn't sleep there for the night and that I actually had to go down stairs and walk the 15 minute walk through the craziness of Varanasi to get home!!! NO!! Ebbs laughed at me and told me I was being stupid but I was genuinely petrified. I convinced myself (with Ebbs' cruel aid) that a man was following me down the street and that at any moment a car was going to explode and blow us up or someone was going to jump on my back and gouge out my eyes...Needless to say I made it back in one piece and somehow managed to order myself dinner and get myself into bed without serious injury.
On our last morning we arose in the dark and went out on a boat again, this time rowing in the opposite direction. The sunrise was spectacular just as it had been every other day. We had a flight at 3pm so we spent a lazy morning exploring the streets and had one last meal at our precious Ashkok before getting a public bus back to the airport.