Kashi (City of Life)
Trip Start Aug 27, 2011
99Trip End Jun 01, 2012
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For once, I booked a guesthouse ahead of time. The train station in Varanasi is a long way from the cheap guesthouses near the Ghats of the Old City. Luckily my guesthouse included pick up from the train station and even though I arrived late, there was a man waiting outside my train carriage with a sign with my name on......perfect! I was warned by a friend that some Tuk Tuk drivers at the train station can command as much as 80% commission from guesthouse owners which in turn bumps up the price YOU will pay for your room or bed. Luckily, I find my cheap place on hostelbookers.
The guesthouse was comfortable but the temperature in Varanasi was not. It was hot! Super hot! It is also a dirty and unclean place to visit. This is evident in most busy Indian places of interest, but with the heat and dryness, it seem to make the experience that more challenging.
Old City is like a maze, narrow streets burrow off to different parts of the old city, different shops, vendors and different ghats for washing away sins or cremating loved ones. Of course, I would spend a few hours of my time in Varanasi lost in the maze of narrow alleys, but in turn, this just adds to the excitement and experience of the city.
Varanasi is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest places in India. Hindu pilgrims come to the ghats lining the river Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. It's a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), making Varanasi the beating heart of the Hindu universe.
The city is unique, whether you are witnessing the public cremation of a family's loved one, witnessing hundreds of people wash away their sins or constantly being pestered by touts, it a city to persevere in as the rewards are great.
A highlight of the experience is to wake up early for sunrise and hire a boat to paddle you along the Ganges to witness the 'washing' of sins from the pilgrims in the city. I was incredibly sleepy when I woke up and managed to barter my own boat for a low price and was taken aback by the experience. So many colours, so many people and so chaotic. I think the pictures paint the picture.
After the boat ride, I spent a couple of hours, walking along the ghats that line the Ganges. Of course I was approached repeatedly for tours, buying all sorts of items and even for a beard trim. I got talking to one jewellery tout, I told him I wasn't interested in buying anything but we spent twenty minutes walking together, talking about his life, cricket and my plans when I get home. It was great to converse with a local who wanted a break from selling his stuff.
I did venture along to a burning ghat. Photography is not allowed here, but the experience was pretty intense. The bodies are burned and dropped into the Ganges.
I spent a few days in Varanasi, enjoying the experience and working on the rest of my travel plan. I did find it fascinating to be walking along a narrow alley to walk alongside of pass by a cow or bull. I'm not sure on the correct etiquette on how to tell a cow to get our of the way or please, I'm in a rush....I'm hungry!! But cows are sacred creatures in India and seem to be looked after, although they do enjoy filling the streets with big stinky steaming cow pats!
Every evening, there is a ceremony on one of the main ghats. With the sun set and candles lit, the view is wonderful.
I ate most of my meals at a tasty German bakery. It had a roof top view during the day and at night, some cool drum and guitar music while you eat your dinner or drink your lemon soda. My diet reduced to barely two meals a day. The climate is so hot and for my last two nights in Varanasi, the temperature in my room was above 30 degrees!! I only felt like really taking only liquids rather than solids, but lemon and sugar pancakes always went down easily.
I left Varanasi one afternoon to take a shared Tuk Tuk to a different train station. On this part of my journey, I met a young trainee doctor and he helped me find the right platform and we chatted for a couple of hours while he was waiting for his train.
My next ride would take me east to Siliguri from where I will collect my permit for Sikkim and continue north.
Next stop, Sikkim.