|Crossing the border into India was a breeze - in fact the Indian immigration only consisted of a man at a desk on the side of the street! While we were looking for the bus to Varanassi, two Israeli guys asked if we wanted to share a taxi. So off we set in the smallest car possible in the heat of the day with bags all over us - not the most comfortable of journeys. However once we got to Ghorakhpur, we were transferred to a larger jeep which was only slightly better as one of the drivers was drunk and continually wanted to talk (he only drove for about 5mins as he was too slow and the other driver got annoyed with him. Anyway, we finally managed to get to Varanassi at about 11pm in the pitch black.
The first impressions of India on our drive to Varanassi, were not really that much different from Nepal, except it was dead flat! The rice paddies were all being harvested by hand with people living in thatch roof shacks. The other main difference however, was the number of people - my god this is one populated country. We wouldn't go 5m without seeing someone in the fields or walking along the roads. In fact driving was a bit of a nightmare due to the shear number of people on the roads, walking, playing, cycling, on rikshaws or playing cricket. This was compounded by the cows - they are everywhere here.
We woke up the next morning in the old town of Varanassi which lines the riverbanks of the Ganges, and thought we would venture out to see some of the sites. Well....everyone told us that it takes a few days to get used to India...............my god, it is so filthy and dirty here. Cows, dogs and goats walk in the narrow alleyways leaving their excrement behind them and of course there is also human excrement as well. As well as this, there is rubbish everywhere as well as many children and lame people begging. So it was rather an eye opener for us even though we were sort of expecting it. So first impressions have not been good.....maybe we will get used to it soon (I hope!).
Anyway, the old town is basically a maze of narrow alleyways that cars cannot fit down -however there are plenty of men on motor-bikes who think they own the lanes! There are also temples everywhere a little like Kathmandu, with marigolds and rice offerings in front of them. The shops here are just tiny little rooms with a window onto the lanes - how the shop keepers fit inside them I am not sure. But there are numerous sari and silk shops, jewellery shops, and men selling curd (yoghurt), paan (a mixture of betel nuts and leaves for chewing, and religious tat.
We eventually made our way out to the banks of the river, only to be accosted every 10m by..."hello sir, you want a boat?"....."hello sir, you want massage"........"hello sir, you want postcard"? Sometimes you just wish you had a big 'NO' tattoed onto your forehead - not that that would actually help you here, as you need to say no about 20 times before they leave you alone!
Once we got past this however, the river banks were actually a good place to sit and people watch, as pilgrims from all over India come here to bath in the river water which is considered sacred. Of course there are also buffalos being washed in the river, washing being done, dead cows floating past and lots of excrement from the streets is washed into it. Apparentely there are 1.5 million faecal coliforms bacteria per 100ml of water in the river (water that is safe for bathing by western standards, should have less than 500!). So not the cleanest of water bodies, however this does not affect the way the locals feel about the river.
The river is lined by ghats (steps leading down to the river), behind which are many temples and of course, crematoriums. However we did not see any burning bodies - the one in Kathmandu was sufficient for our liking.
One of the best ways to view the life on the river is by a dawn boat ride - at least the local salesmen cannot hastle you on the boat! So I dragged Shaun out of bed and off we went to the nearest Ghat. After finding a man and a boat and agreeing a price we were off. The sun rising over the Ganges and lighting up all the Ghats and temples was quite magical and it was certainly a pleasant way to spend the morning. Needless to say plenty of photos were taken and lots of people watching undertaken.
All in all, Varanassi has been a bit of a culture shock – one which we are still getting used to. One thing that certainly has not taken us long to get used to however, is the food. Shaun is in heaven here with curry being available three times a day! He has also sampled the local ‘Kingfisher’ beer which by all accounts is pretty good ($3US for a large bottle).
Tonight we board our first Indian train which is an overnight sleeper to Agra….