Everyone warned us about Varanasi. They said it was an overload to the senses, a place where everyone is being born, dying or washing. Well, it's partly true, but after so long in India the impact has lost it's punch for us.
We arrived on the overnight train from Agra, once more barely sleeping and emerging from the station at around 11 o clock. A nepali man met us, and led us to the foreign tourist office so we could book our train to the Nepal border. Friendly guy, but annoying after a while. The train was fully booked, but had a few first class seats left, so we splashed out a little and grabbed them (I say splashed out, they were pretty cheap). More on that later.
The rickshaw dropped us south of the Old City, and after turning our noses up at the few guest houses down there, we headed into the hustle and bustle of the Old City. Small alleyways filled with people, motorbikes, cows, dogs and filth. A good test to see if you can keep your bag, I had an old woman attempt to get into mine but was foiled by my hand firmly over it already.
Soon after arriving, we found a decent enough place that was willing to accept Rs 300 per night. Called Urvashi Guest House, it had a comfortable bed and a clean room, but lacked hot water, sometimes even lacking any water, electricity and came with a rather nasty smell whenever the water was switched on. So, I would recommend having a walk around and looking at other places too.
Varanasi seems to be Indian-guy-looking-for-wife central. We had guys proposing their love to Aya while I was holding her hand and being particularly rude and insulting to me. The girls had a much nicer time of it, I only found one or two Indians who were not nasty to me the entire time I was there.
But, onto the good things: we found a place called Blue Lassi, recommended by Lonely Planet and rightfully so. This little shop churns out some of the most amazing tasting drinks I have ever tasted, certainly the best lassi I've ever had. Also worth a visit is the Ghats, the bathing spots along the River Ganges. The burning ghats are particularly solemn places, and you are able to walk right up to the fires if you wish, but you'll need to talk your way past many money grabbing fake workers who tell you they are employees and you have to give money to them. Don't.
If you want to escape the constant drain on your energy that is the touts and scammers, walk south along the ghats and find a boatman who's willing to take you for a ride up the river. We went with a man named Baloo, who perches next to a white hut on the Pandey Ghat. Friendly, cheerful and yet surprisingly quiet, he'll row you back and forth, giving you information on what's going on if you'd like it, and allow you to enjoy the serenity of the Holy Ganges if you also wish to do that. He charged Rs 50 per person per hour, which is a fair price (we were offered Rs 250 per person per hour by another guy).
We met a Japanese woman named Kao. I almost wrote girl there, and it seems to be a condition with Japanese women to act like they're teenagers. Cheerful, shameless about their passions (mainly photos) and chatty, you wouldn't put them at their correct ages if you met them in the street. She came along with us for (another) lassi from Blue Lassi, and then we grabbed some food before we climbed onto a rickshaw and sped off towards the train station for our first class train. The downsides to meeting Kao were that she only spoke Japanese, so Aya and her chatted away happily for half the day leaving me to look around at the scenery in relative peace. Sorry, did I say downside?
A picture I snapped quickly of birds taking off in the morning sun.
So, the First Class carriages are an old breed. They don't make them any more, and we're in 'Section D', a 'coupe' of two beds in a small private compartment and a lockable door. No Air Con, but wider beds than usual and really a very awesome way to travel, especially with the wide window that opens like the lower classes, giving us all the benefits of standard sleeper plus more! Awesome.
And that's about it. I'm sat on said train now typing this as we approach Gorakhpur, our final stop in India. From here, it's a few hours north to the Nepal border, and then we will have left India. Kind of exciting to think it's a new country we're about to enter. It's been a fun journey through India, and we'll be re-entering it near Darjeeling in a couple of weeks. For now though, Nepal awaits! First stop: Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha.
Oh, and one last thing: this blog has just passed 4000 page views! Thank you so much!