Our first day in Varanasi started with a nap. After brekka we’d gone up to get ready for the day and I had completely crashed out whilst Gregor patiently googled hotels.
Once I’d resurfaced we went for a wonder.
Varanasi is like no where else we’ve been. The Indians also say it is unique.
When you arrive at the train station there are big and busy roads, filled with tuk tuks, cows, dogs, people, bashed up cars, horses. Everything and anything. But the city seems to have layers.
As you get closer to the ganga you find yourself in the old city. Tall buildings with streets only a meter and a half wide between them, thought apparently this is still wide enough for motorbikes to race through! They wind in each and every direction, with signs painted onto the walls directing you to various guest houses and cafes. Flea ridden dogs set up camp in alleys and monkeys swing on the phone wires above you.
We love these streets… When we’re not being run over. They’re dirty and dark and funnel you into smaller and smaller spaces until you’re having a standoff with a cow. But it’s brilliant. Every corner brings something new. Travellers cafes, lassi shops, shoe shiners, sweet shops, large wood or gas fires with buttermilk boiling or perhaps litres of oil with samosas crackling away. I want a samosa. I’ve been warned that the street samosas are an excyway to get a fast track ticket to the toilet but I still want one. I think they look so yummy. Gregor thinks they look awful. He’s probably right…
We wondered to a french-indian Caffe Gregor had found whilst I napped. Adaa adaa. Runs by a French woman and her Indian husband. She had moved to India 8 years ago and opened up the cafe 2 years back.
The cafe looked out over the Ganges and was situated on the rooftop of the Baba Guesthouse. I had mixed veg and a chappati, Gregor had a fruit salad. We were both happy.
The guest house below looked good so we then booked ourselves in for the rest of our stay.
To get to the ghats in Varanasi you simply wander vaguely further into the old towns higgildy streets until you find what looks like a dead end. 9 times out of 10 you’ll then find steep stone steps leading down to the water front. Though google maps just shows a river it is possible to walk all the way down the Gangees from Ghat to Ghat. So that’s what we did. Most Ghats are used to access the Ganga and to hold arti ceremonies, two however have a different purpose. Families travel hundreds of miles to cremate their loved ones at the holy Ghats, bodies arrive wrapped in gold and orange material, like jewels, they’re then dipped into the Ganga, cloths are removed and they’re wrapped in a plain white material, the same that the workers and mourners wear. The body is then placed on the wood and takes several hours to burn. The ashes then fall into the ganga leaving the area covered in black with glistens of gold and orange. Bodies are burnt at all hours of the day, every day, with a flame that has been burning for decades if not centuries.
We didn’t take photos.
We planned to watch the Ganga arti that evening but it was much later than we realised and we were hungry so we headed for dinner and bed. Apparently I was still tired!
The next morning we had booked onto a walking tour of the town, a spiritual and cultural one.
Our guide was excellent, we both learnt a lot about the rituals held in Varanasi, we learnt a lot more about Hinduism and ended up walking for hours and hours.
After we left the tour we then ended up messaging the guide to go on a sunrise tour the next day.
We spent the rest of the day posting our cycling gear home. We’d already tried a few post offices but finally a girl suggested a larger office a bit further away. We took our bags and paid far too much for a rickshaw to the office. 400rs for approximately 1.5hrs of this man’s time? Outrageous. We didn’t mind, he was nice.
The rickshaw driver navigated incredibly busy streets with no road surface and dropped us off opposite the post office pointing at a small stall on the other side of the road. I took this to mean I’ll wait here. We went crossed the crazy road to the post office and a lovely man pointed us to the small stall on the other side of the road and explained that he was the parcel packer. So we crossed the crazy road and had the parcels packed. They wrap each one in a muslin cloth and stitch it closed, then sealing it with wax before hand writing all the information on it. It was pretty!
We crossed the crazy road and the kind man took the parcel and got it ready to post, he asked for copies of our passport, we didn’t have any so I crossed the crazy road to the small stall with a man and a printer and got copies. Then 10 pence lighter I crossed the crazy road and gave them to the nice post office man.
The nice post office man took my absence as a good opportunity to hint heavily to Gregor for a tip. The parcel we then on its way, and our rickshaw had crossed the crazy road and was waiting for us ready to take us back.
We wondered, we ate, we went back to the hotel to get some water.
I sent my water bottle to Aberdeen.
It turns out in all the running back and forth and quick pace of the packing I didn’t check the bag that I gave to go to the UK. I’m 99% sure that on the way over I’d popped my water bottle into the bag out of habit. 1kg of water and my favourite bottle. That’s about half the weight of the entire package!! 🤣😂 What an idiot!
That evening I really wanted to se the Ganga Arti. It’s performed all the way down the river at many of the Ghats, we’d been right in the centre of the crowd for the arti in Haridwar so I was hoping to find somewhere to eat with a view of it. It turns out this isn’t really a thing, we wondered all the way along the Ghats and when we reached the main, most famous, ghat we gave up and sat down on the steps with the growing crowd. A very persistent man kept trying to make us go to his balcony where he had set out chairs, 200rs each! I asked if he served drinks and he said no, it’s just a chair. It was 2m from my perfectly comfy step with an excellent view!? It’s amazing what crazy things some of the guys expect us to buy into!
After a few minutes on the stairs I noticed a sign to a small staircase advertising a cafe, we went to explore and found ourselves on a terrace overlooking the Ghats with only 2 other people present. So from there we watched the ceremony.
It was quite different to the one in Haridwar, there was less chanting, more fire, and definitely more tourists. The most striking difference, however, was that 70% of the crowd left before the performance was over! The crowds of boats all disappeared, which perhaps makes sense as they were tourists who just wanted to watch the fire, but all the Hindus began to get up and rush away into the markets before the prayers were completed. A huge queue began to form outside a stall with a man and a huge wok filled with buttermilk, and the chairs were packed away before the men left their stages!
By the time we had left the Ghats were almost empty! We moseyed to Lucy’s cafe for dinner and then bed.
On the final day in Varanasi we rose at 5am and walked down the silent Ghats to meet our guide at 5:30. We had excellent chai and then he took us to see another arti, the sunrise ceremony with young female running the prayers and mantra.
Then we hopped on a boat and our guide pointed out temples, rituals and explained the colours of the buildings, turbans and saris as we watched the sun rise over Shiva’s city.
It was a very peaceful experience, ruined slightly by the larger motorised boats filling the air with black smoke as our guy paddled again the current.
Once we were on dry land we relaxed at the Ghats before asking a cafe to do us a take out Aloo jeera and naan and grabbed a train to Lucknow.
We have both thoroughly enjoyed Varanasi. The streets are constantly changing. In colour, sound and smell. It really is a place to people watch. We were constantly harrased by guys trying to get us on their boats, and one odd man who persistently tried onto offer us a massage. Shouting up at us from our little view point. Later he even shook gregors hand and then began to massage it!? Even though we had said no so many times. The Indian culture doesn’t understand the word no. But when we got a break from this lot we were able to just watch the pilgrims, locals and tourists in their activities. Kids flying kites and playing cricket. Both making walking down the Ghats quite hazardous. The women washing and drying their sarees, monks reading scriptures in the sun or having a nap, full families in the water splashing eachother with the girls screaming as the boys dunked them, men and women drinking the water and performing rituals as the black smoke from the bodies of the burning Ghats blows downstream.
What a place.