Sunday, November 15, 2009

Delhi to Varanasi

After a couple of days in Delhi we decided to get out and see a little more of Northern India before we headed onward to Tibet. We'd head some good things about Varanasi from some of our new travelling buddies Layla and Matt and decided to make it a stopping point on the way to Kathmandu. We booked a second class reserved sleeper on the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi and prepped ourselves for our first India railways experience.
The train left on time at 6:00 pm from New Delhi station and were set and excited. We found our car and it wasn't much worse than we expected. The manager of the hotel was shocked that we weren't traveling in the first class car since I assume he thinks that all Westerners are loaded and might only be traveling for a few weeks. We are neither so second class it is.
For those of you that have done Euro rail you might remember that there are doors on your compartment and the semi-cushioned seats, yeah well forget both those things suckers, these are sleepless slepers. The long seats are mildly cushioned and there are just "booths" where you and your bunk-mates sit/sleep. The hallway as you can see is right there at your feet (which hang off the end) and you are constantly serenaded by those nightingale-like tea sellers. CHA!!! CHA!!! all night. Well we make it to Varanasi by the morning and almost on time, which is a miracle as we would later find out, and make our way to our guest house.
Varanasi is claimed to be the oldest living city in the world, it is the spiritual center of Hinduism and through its heart flows the sacred Ganges river, lifeblood of India. Souds romantic, right? Well my friends reality can be a bitch sometimes. To be fair we arrived during a festival (Deepawali to be exact) so it was more crowded than usual, but I will count that as a plus. We stayed on Ahsi Ghat in a nice enough place with views of the river from our balcony.
Have you ever smelt, juniper incense? sounds nice, sure, but when you combine it with urine, cow/people/dog shit, a rotten river and cremating corpses, well let's just say it can lose its charm. The sights, sounds and smells of Varanasi were intense to say the least, and with all due respect to this ancient and sacred city, it was hard to appreciate it through all the clutter, stench and hawkers.
I know there are people that were enchanted with this place and I've heard many wonderful things, but it was really hard to get past the sensual assault to get down to it. Now you may say that it is my spoiled western view that leaves me incapable of appreciating the genuine spirituality of such an ancient place and be that as it may when you are watching a public cremation on the ghat and not 10 feet away there are 2 boys taking a poop in the river and 10 feet from that a man is washing his clothes and next to him the body of a dead dog is floating next to the guy brushing his teeth, well call me confused but the sacred value is either a bit blurred or so all encompassing that it permeates through every activity in life. I'll go with the latter I suppose.
Well I can't say that we weren't ready to leave Varanasi when we did so it was off to another sleeper train! This time e weren't so lucky with the on-time departure we experienced in Delhi (mainly because the train didn't originate it Varanasi. So our 0:30 train left at 3:30 and we waited at the train station for a good 3 hours. They were entertaining hours mind you. The highlight was probably the bull walking out on the platform among a crowd of train-waiters and watching him take a piss for about 2 straight minutes! This boy had to go, and a river flowed forth. Locals didn't mind, just roll your trouser legs up and keep on keeping on. Finally got on the train and was kept awake by some loon singing all night, seriously he sang the entire ride, drove me mental, but, hey, that's half the fun. got to the last stop on the train and off to a quick 3 hour bus ride to the border followed by another 8 hour ride into Kathmandu. The ride into Nepal was amazing, the mountains rising and climbing up up up and us along with them. As soon as we crossed the border you could notice the difference in the people. Genuine smiles and curiosity was written all along their beautiful faces and our smiles quickly returned.
More on Kathmandu next time.

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