A Travellerspoint blog

December 2016

3 days in Varanasi

Mayhem on Ganges (Ganga)



There isn't a more Indian city then Varanasi, and you feel it as soon as you step of a train. The smell, the noise, the traffic the hustle... Even after spending two months in Nepal and a month in Indian North East, Varanasi still is very much capable of giving you a culture shock.

How long should you spend in Varanasi? Well, you can stay there for ever, and some people do. But unless you are planning on going full on hippy 3 days is then optimum time that I can handle.

Where to stay

On my both visits to the city I chose to stay at Mushi Ghat. It's 15 minutes away from the burning ghat, hence tends to be slightly quieter. Back in 2010 there were only two guesthouses: Shiva and Baba. This days they seem to multiply and they all nested one on a top of another. This time we stayed at Shiva's, a really nice family run guest house with pretty impressive rooftop restaurant.
Cost: 550 RS for a double, with a bit of bargaining.

Day 1

River Cruse
Having a boat cruse on Ganges at sunrise is an absolute must and an essential part of everybody's visit.
There are plenty of people who will try to sell you the ride, including your guest house owner. As usual the best thing is to just show up at about 5 am at the Ghats and negotiate with a boatman. Actually someone who pretends to be a boatman, who will pass you on to another fake-boatman and at the end you will end up with this young captain. I named him Andrew after my nephew.
We have negotiated 200 RS per hour and agreed for a two hour trip. You can keep the cost down by finding more people at the ghats and shearing with them. Don't go for any per person fees, agree the entire amount in advance.

The ride takes you over to the new modern Crematorium, burning ghat, sunk castle and back. The best thing about the boat ride, is that you get to observe daily life going by in the ghats. You see people going for dip just few meters away from body remains and what not being dumped, and right next door there is a "shitting ghat" where everyone goes, well for a holy morning shit. Everything looks so chaotic and yet perfectly organic.

This is the prime reason you came to Varanasi, the city's life revolves around the Ganges or the holy mother as it's often refereed to. My personal favorite is the laundry ghat.

The handshakes. I must say I fell for this one on my first visit. Some dude tries to say hello and shake your hand. The handshake seamlessly transforms into a hand massage. Then before you know some other dude starts to massage your shoulders, and the show goes on...

Night Show
Every night a show is performed at the main ghat as a thanks to mother Ganges. A good hour spent, especially watching the tourists. I dveloped a new hobby - taking pictures of tourists who are taking pictures.

Day 2

Banaras University
A very impressive complex which looks like a maze of campuses, alleyways and living quarter. You only need a couple of hours for your visit. Just grab some food and have a picnic in one of the parts. Sure as hell you will soon find a bunch of students hanging around you eager to have a conversation.

Burning is for Learning, Cremation for Education. When we went to see the burning ghats up close we were approached by one of the "workers" (expected) who really wanted to tell us all about the ghats the process and so on. We didn't fob him off right away because we actually wanted to listen and wanted to see where this will take us. He kept repeating Burning is for Learning, Cremation for Education which although rimes really doesn't make any sense.
Apparently that guy works for charity (who else?) which helps poor people who can't afford the fees to get cremated in the holiest of all places. One can only be cremated using sandalwood, which is priced at 3000 rs per kilo. This is the part where I struggled to hold my smile back. Sure as hell the guy asked us how many kilos of sandalwood we would like to donate! I like the sales pitch, don't mention the money, it's all about the holy wood :-). We managed to get away with 50 rs which I think his story was worth. And to say the least he didn't back down easily. We actually found ourselves running trying to loose the guy in the street maze.

Day 3

Sarnath - the place where lord Buddha gave his first preaching upon enlightenment.
This is actually a very good day out. The place is somewhat similar to Lumbini - Buddhas birth place in Nepal.
There are a lot of tuk tuk drivers who are willing to take you there for 500-600 Rs for a day trip, which is a rip off taking into account the place i only 13 km away. You can catch a van to Sarnath from the main road parallel to the train station, the price is 30 RS, but prepared to be ripped off, you are in Varanasi after all, being ripped off is a noble thing to do - creates job places.
After you visit the Stupa, there is a network of temples around from every Buddhist country. My personal favorite is Japan.
These women are clipping grass with scissors, and your though your job sucked...

Posted by dima.safr 08:14 Archived in India Tagged boat ganges varanasi ganga ghat sarnath banaras Comments (1)

Darjeeling toy train

A steam journey trough peoples backyards.


About the Train

According to Wikipedia:
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the "Toy Train", is a 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railway that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal, India. Built between 1879 and 1881, the railway is about 78 kilometres (48 mi) long. Its elevation level varies from about 100 metres (328 ft) at New Jalpaiguri to about 2,200 metres (7,218 ft) at Darjeeling. Four modern diesel locomotives handle most of the scheduled services; however the daily Kurseong-Darjeeling return service and the daily tourist trains from Darjeeling to Ghum (India's highest railway station) are handled by the vintage British-built B Class steam locomotives. The railway, along with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway, is listed as the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site.


It's not practical...like at all...
And it doesn't go (as of 2015) to New Jalpaiguri. A landslide has destroyed a part of the track between New Jalpaiguri and Kurseong, and now the train only runs between Kurseong and Darjeeling.
Realistically you can't (wouldn't) take the to get to Darjeeling. Once you got on a jeep at New Jalpaiguri it's just to easy to keep going till Darjeeling without having to get off at Kurseong and hope that you'll be on time for the train.
The best thing (providing that the track hasn't been fixed) is to take the train down and catch a jeep from Kurseong.


You have 2 options. To take a 3 hour round trip tourist train for 300 rs which is likely to be booked up, or to take an actual commuter train for 25 rs. The toy train is an actual train, run by Indian railway and a part of the IR reservation system.

And you though your job was tough...

The train moves with a quarter of jeep's speed. When you build roads and railways through the hills you have to make the most of the flat the space. And this is the most beautiful thing about the toy railway. It actually runs through people back yards. The local's are so used to it, that they don't pay any attention and in a way it feels like you doing a bit of reality TV.
This video should give you a feel, never mind my Russian commentary.


Posted by dima.safr 10:31 Archived in India Tagged train railway darjeeling toy_train steam_train darjeeling_himalayan_railway Comments (0)


Little heartland of Nagalend

Once upon a time Khonoma was a center of Nagalend's struggle for independence against British and subsequently Indian union.
Khonoman's are really proud of their heritage, and won't miss a chance to tell you about it.
Ironically being a heart of independence movement is now playing to Khonoma's advantage. Indian government has changed their tactics in fighting Naga separatists from hardcore military to economic. They have been pouring millions of rupees into Nagalend's infrastructure, and Khonoma received a massive 3 crore grant to be developed as the first green village. This involved painting all the roofs green, which subsequently burned out, so technically Khonoma is a grey village.

How to get there

We red that there was a jeep going there from the road leading in that direction. After scouting Kohima's jeep stands we came to conclusion that there were none. We bargained and managed to get a taxi for as little as 500 rs for 20 km drop. Later we learned that there was a bus, but it leaves Kohima in afternoon and departs from Khonoma next day, early in a morning. The best way is to take a taxi there and try to hitch a ride on return.

Where to stay

Home stays is the only option. There are a couple in the village and you are advised to google them up and call ahead. As always we didn't do that.
Instead we showed up at the village door. Yes every village in Nagalend has a door or at least supposed to have one. Shortly after we were met by a local drunk man who was far too eager to show us around. It's a real shame I can't find his picture.
He volunteered to help us with a home-stay and took us to none other than Khrielevo Savino - Village Association Chairman. I don't recall what it costed us exactly, but I believe the stay, dinner and breakfast landed us with a 2000-2500 rs bill, which by home-stay standard wasn't bad.
Once we checked in into our modest room the guy (sadly I don't remember his name either) volunteered to take us around.

What to see

There are a couple of standard places to visit such as Khonoma fort, which offers a good view of Naga hills around.

But as we were lucky to have our slightly intoxicated guide he gave us a full tour of the village such as:
Village council circle, for gathering of local elders.

Communal grounds

Communal hall with communal kitchen. This is where young man who reached certain age live after they leave their families and before they find their wives. It's worth noting that Nagas have very strong sense of community. A lot of decisions are taken by the council using direct form of democracy. And things such as repairs, well digging, upgrades are done by the entire village gathering up and contributing.

We than popped into a house of the legendary hunter. Who proudly displayed dozens of monkey sculls, sort of a modern substitute for traditional human sculls back from head hunting days. They looked a bit creepy and Dovile refrained from taking pictures of them, sadly.

And of course the famous big gun! This is an actual gun, in working condition and it needs two man to fire.

While taking us around our guide popped into a couple of houses here and there, emerging in a tad more drunk state after each visit.
In India when someone gets friendly and offers to help you normally expect an awkward conversation at the end where they will ask you for something at the end. Having said that, Nagalend isn't exactly India, our well drunk (by that point) guide gave us goodbye hugs and went to get some well needed sleep.

Posted by dima.safr 10:24 Archived in India Tagged naga home_stay nagalend kohima khonoma head_hunters Comments (0)

Majuli Island - Brahmaputra

The largest river island in the world (apparently)

On this trip we decided to venture of the bitten track and explore a bit of India's less visited North East. We jumped on a train and NJP Junctions and set of for Jorhat - the city right in the heart of Assam. We got of at Mariani Junction as Jorhat Town station is well connected to the rest of the network.
We quickly found a cheap hotel, there are a few similar ones around Solicitors lane near ASTC Bus stand. Jorhat itself is a dusty Indian town and probably not worth a visit in its own right. Our plan was to visit Majuli - an island on mystical Brahmaputra, supposedly the largest river island in the world and a cultural heartland of Assam.

Next morning we got a van from just outside the ASTC and went to Neamati Ghat to catch a ferry. Nemathi Ghat is a wonderful place in its own right. Just like any Indian public transport terminal it's full or organised chaos, where everyone seems to wait on something but no one knows what exactly is going on. We showed up at a supposedly right pier, there were a lot of people waiting but no one was able to confirm if it was actually the right place. The ticket counter wasn't going to open until the very last moment.
Suddenly everyone started to shift to the next pier, we followed them fighting our way through the crowds. Just as we reached the pier, the flow reversed and the moved back to the first pier. False alarm...

Finally when the ferry came it became free for all. In India you know better than letting anyone through and playing the "after you game". People were pushing and climbing over each other, it was wonder no one got knocked into the river. We fought our way on the top deck, luckily both of us are larger than an average Indian.

The top deck started to fill up, first with 2 jeeps and then with about 20 motorbikes stacked neatly as if they were puzzles. Than even more people got on. We managed to seize a small patch on the floor and sat down on our backpacks. The locals were staring at us, but in a good way with a warm smile. I guess for them seeing these two hippies taking this ride was as exotic as it was for us actually doing it. I remember thinking if the boat was to go under pretty much everyone was a goner.

There were a few buses and jeeps waiting to take us to Kamalabari. Now when I look at the map I can see at least two hotels on the main road, but it wasn't the case as I remember it.

You can't stay at a hotel

Right at the cross road there was a place called Mona Lisa Hotel. I thought well that was easy enough. But when I asked for a room the guy gave me a very puzzled look and said that they don't have any. I asked if all the rooms were taken, and he gave me another puzzled look and said that they don't do rooms. There it downed on me. I came across this before in rural Kerala, in some places in India Hotel means Restaurant, and Lodging means ... well hotel. Ideally you are looking for a place that says Hotel & Lodge. Makes sense right?

We found one guest house, you had to walk up to the main crossroad and turn right than walk for about 200 m and the guest house was on the right hand side.


First things first. You come to Majuli to see Satras or Xatras which is a type of monastery. We went to visit Kamalabari Xatra, which was a small and very neat and quiet monastery. No hustle at the door and the entry opened to everyone. It had a small museum which was a size of the bedroom with a couple of scrolls and other random artifacts. There was no one at the door so we popped in, just as we were leaving the guy popped out and charged us 50 rs for entry ticket. I thought it was a kind of scam, but hey it's for a good cause.

As it's not one of the places that gets a lot of foreign folks it's a kind of a place where you get tired from Namaste and How Are You thrown at you from under every bush. We also had to get used to being photographed and filmed. And I mean more than Indian usual...

You got to love Indian capitalism. You can be literally in the middle of nowhere and you will still find a massive billboard advertising for one of cell networks. Vodafone usually leads though.

Day 2 - Festival

Somehow we managed to make right for Assam Majuli Festival, which we didn't even know existed. Which was held at a village 5 km away at Sri Sri Auniati Satra (mid-November).
As always with Indian celebrations it's amazing how much noise, scent and color there is. We just wandered the streets, ate a lot of sugar sweets and drunk litters of tea. And of course more photo sessions, pretty much everyone wanted to have one taken with the visiting celebrities. i.e. us...

Posted by dima.safr 10:05 Archived in India Tagged boat river island festival ferry brahmaputra assam majuli Comments (0)

Dzukou valley trek-Nagalend

A paradise in India's long forgotten frontier...


Not many people, even in India, heard of Nagalend. As a matter of fact it was almost impossible for a foreigner to visit Nagalend until 2011, when an incredibly bureaucratic and restrictive entry permit was scrapped. Tucked away in India's North East on Burmese border Nagalend was truly cut off from the rest of the world. This is just to give you an idea of where the place is.

A few words about Nagas. Nagas are not Indians. They look nothing like Indians, don't speak Hindi, don't practice Hinduism and don't regard themselves as Indians whatsoever. They are tribal people of Mongolian origin, made up of 16 independent tribes who speak mutually unintelligible languages. Most of the Nagas have been converted to Christianity and Nagalend is the only state in India where English is official language. We visited Nagalend late November, and it was an odd filling to see shops selling Xmas decorations. I think if we didn't pay in rupees we would not known that we were still in India.

We red about Dzukou Valley and it being a place of great significance. But it was hard to find much else.
A starting point for Dzukou valley trek is on Kohima to Manipur "highway" 20 km away from Kohima and just past Zakhama village. We couldn't find a bus or a jeep going over there, and decided to start walking and hail a transport once we were out of the town. Well that didn't work out well, we only saw two buses passing by and non of them stopped. Hence we ended up walking the entire 20km stretch on a dusty road. We stopped at a few places for tea, and every time when we said that we were going to Dzukou valley we were told "it's very far, don't go there".

It took us about 4 hours to reach a trail head at Zakhama. As soon as we started walking we got lost. It's really hard to navigate as there isn't a reliable offline map of this trail. I normally use Maps Me, which served me well all around the world, but Nagalend is really poorly mapped out. Add to this numerous trails which crisscross and not having many people around and it becomes really easy to stray off course. Your best bet is to keep finding people and asking them to put you in the right direction. Once we passed the first section of the trail (with all those other crisscrossing trails) the way became quite obvious.

It's a very steep trail through a rhododendron forest. I have messed up my knee a couple of weeks earlier during a jeep ride around Sikkim, and it quickly became a very painful climb. It takes about 2 hours to reach the top of the ridge and get out of the rhododendron forest. You can't really see anything during the climb, and it builds a suspense. What is so special about that valley anyway?
You think that until you get to the top and this just opens up in front of you...

Endless, gentle, rolling hills covered by a carpet of dwarf bamboo create a surreal feeling of being in a movie like Lord of The Rings.
Dzukou is a valley on the top of the mountain plateau and it looks nothing like the Naga hills it's surrounded by. A few years earlier there was a massive fire raging for several days which destroyed most of the trees.


It took us another hour to get to the shelter which is made up of 2 solid building, an outdoor kitchen and a gazebo. There is water source right next to the shelter.
While the buildings are solid from outside, there is nothing more than a concrete floor is inside. If you are planning to sleep there, you will need a sleeping bag and a mat, other-vice you will freeze to death on the concrete floor. Especially if you do it in late November, and don't be fulled by thinking it's India it's hot. At an altitude of 2400 meters night temperatures drop below zero.

One negative thing I have to say is about the amount of garbage which is dumped into a hole at the back of the shelter. And the number of rats that come with it. They really need to workout a better system.

I believe you pay 100 rupees per person to use the shelter, but the keeper wasn't there so we were up for a free night.

An hour later a group of about 20 local village youngsters turned up. They were laying a 10 km pipe from a water source up on the mountains down to their village.
They scooped some water in the shallow well and boiled a tea, which they kindly offered to us. We had a little chat. They explained that this was a very Naga thing. They generally have a very strong sense of community. It's normal for a whole village to do things together for common benefit.

They decide to push on to the next village and sleep there in a community hall.

We went to the kitchen, restarted the fire and boiled us some instant noodles.
We quickly ran out of wood and had to resort to burning some of the timber logs stocked around. I felt quite bad about it, but in a way it was a matter of survival. It was far too cold to sleep on the concrete floor. In a hind-side we could have used timber planks to build a sleeping platform raised from the concrete floor. But we decided our best bet was to spend the night in the kitchen, keeping the fire going and trying to get some sleep. That could have been the case, if it wasn't for the bloody rats. God they were freaking us out, those things don't sleep.

We were looking forward to sunrise and much welcomed rise in the temperature. And when the sun finally shed some light on the valley that what was saw....

We decided to go back a different way following the trail where the village guys came from. This would take us back to the main road just outside of Viswema.

A half way through I felt sick and started puking my guts out. My first thought was it must have been that tea they shared with us. The water well look very dodgy, but I saw the water boiling, could it be toxin poisoning? You can get poisoning from boiled water if there is a high level of toxin already built up there. I freaked a little, found an abandoned fireplace and started eating charcoal. Man... that stuff is gross, it's like eating sand and aftertaste won't go away for hours.
I than figured out that it must have been a Lychee flavored soft drink I just had. Dovile had only a sip and I downed the entire bottle, hence she felt a bit funny and I was well messed up.
Not sure if eating feast full of charcoal helped, but I like to think it wasn't in vein.

We reached Viswema in under 4 hours, and were told that if we walk back to Zakhama we should be able to catch a jeep to Kohima.

Posted by dima.safr 08:12 Archived in India Tagged trek valley bamboo naga dwarf nagalend kohima dzukou Comments (1)

Sikkim - India's secluded kingdom

Exploring India's less known North East


Not many people know that Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975. It was jammed in a limbo between monarchy and communist tendencies coming from both India and China.
Still it's a very shake state. China is next door, and even if no one in the western world heard a word of it there are some serious tensions there. Foreigners need a permit to enter Sikkim and if you want ti visit upper Sikkim then you will need to guide up and get another permit in the top of that.
Sikkim fills more like Nepal rather than India. People are Nepali, the language is Nepali, not many folks wanna hug and take your picture that is definitely more Nepali then Indian. Any one who spent an hour in India would understand.


Tea, train, town
On this trip to India I came with a bucket list, and since I never met anyone been to Sikkim it was surely on the list!
There are two ways of getting into Sikkim; one is via Rangpo checkpoint if you are going to Gangtok; another one is via a windy secondary road to Jorethang, if you are planning to to go towards Yuksom the ancient capital of Sikkim kingdom. If you chose the former you can get your permit at the check point (DO have your passport pic and a cope of your passport) the latter requires you getting a permit in Darjeeling . Of course we had to go the hard way.

Well, if bureaucracy wasn't invented in India it was surely perfected there; and Sikkim permit will make you believe that... big time!

First you need to go to a "Sikkim Travel Desk" at the immigration office, your hotel will be able to point you there. It's just apposite SBI (State Bank of India). Enter one dull, dark building ... find the desk where they process foreigners... tell them that you want to go to Sikkim (NO SHIT!), and wait to have your permit written out. Actually not as leniently as I made it sound. At the end you get your Sikkim permit written it out to you! Bingo... Well not quite, it still needs to be stamped by a magistrate to become valid. They tell you that you have to, and i quote - "get out of the building, turn left, walk down the stairs and turn right". That is about right apart from the fact that Magistrates office is about 2 miles away towards the Zoo.
You have o keep asking the shop owners how to get there. Once you inside keep on asking as there is naturally nothing there to help you point the right way. The good news is that once you have stamped your permit you are pretty much set to enter mystical kingdom of Sikkim.

Getting there

You need to be at the jeep stand as early as possible. The way the system operates; when you buy a ticket you get allocated a seat. The earlier you buy the ticket the better the place you get. And in Sikkim the place you get on a 3 hour jeep ride is a big deal. We got two sits on very back and braced ourselves for the next 3 hours to Jorethang. It's a really bad road, a lot of serpentine, and some really crazy driving too.
We crossed the river and stopped at the checkpoint. At that point Dovile was about to faint, so she welcomed the break. We got of the jeep and went into the office, they checked our permits and stamped our passports just as if we were crossing an international border.
Once we arrived at Jorethang we were told that next jeep to Pelling was not until 3pm.
We went to have lunch and popped into pharmacy to buy some motion sickness pills - VOMITSTOP. That was a brilliant idea and made our life so much easier over the next two weeks.

Halfway through the ride we had to stop at a small village and were explained that the jeep broke down. Suddenly a ring of experts gathered around the jeep, with everyone taking turns at giving their expert opinion. Every passerby felt obligated to stop and chip in, which in turn would trigger a wider discussion. There was no way we were getting to Pelling that day...
Well the tides have turned. The consortium of automotive experts managed to figure out the problem. It was a wire connecting accelerator pedal that snapped. Our driver managed to pull the wire out through the front and lead it back through the front window. In this way he could accelerate by pulling the wire with his hand. I never seen a man more pleased with his engineering! And he did get us to Pelling that night after all.
We stayed at a basic hotel where the jeep dropped us off. I don't remember the name of the place but it's the first one as you enter the town. We payed 500 INR, which was a good value considering everything is slightly more expensive in Sikkim.
Not the worst terrace view...

Trekking to Khechiberi Lake

The next day we set off to explore rural Sikkim by trekking 15 km towards secluded and holy Khechiberi Lake. You start by descending from Pelling towards the river. There isn't much in a way of signs or markings and maps are not supper handy either. Generally because Sikkim is so isolated and of high military importance it's not very well mapped out comparing to the rest of India or Nepal. Using the latest version of MAPS ME app that allows you pre-load offline maps is probably best. Prepare to get lost and be put back on the trail by friendly locals.

Once we crossed the river we bumped into a couple of wild orange trees where we stocked up on some under-ripe oranges.
Than we crossed a road, at which point the map told us we had to pic up a trail up through the forest. We quickly found a trail and went up just to realize that it lead to a clearing for grassing cattle. We went down, walked along the road and picked up another trail up which half an hour later got us up to a bunch of houses where we managed to find one soul who told us we were way of mark and had to go back to the road.

At this point we decided that we lost far too much time and energy trying to find that forest trail and our best bet was to follow the jeep road all the way to the lake.

We were recommended to stay at a place called Pala's Home Stay which is located on the top of the hill on the left hand side as you approach the lake. There are a few signs pointing you to Pala's and you have to climb some steep steps for 20-30 minutes before you reach the ridge.
Pala is a super-delightful 70+ grandpa, and the place is run by his daughters.
They charge only 500 INR per person which includes all your meals. And the meals are supper delicious.

The Cave

The next day we decided to stay put and explore a holy cave. The cave is located on the top of the hill overlooking Pala's place.
We walk through a very primitive village, which despite being on the top of the hill and right in the middle of Indian nowhere had a little shop and was fully electrified.
Check out this picture of a mum and a kid turning big stones into small. And you thought your childhood sucked...

It takes about an hour to hike up to the cave. The trail is well walked and obvious. Do take plenty of water with you as you will have to walk through some very hot and humid jungle.

Way to Yuksum

Yuksum is an ancient capital of Sikkim, place of King's coronation, major pilgrimage site and a starting point of Kanchenjunga trek. It's also as far as you can go without obtaining a special permit given only to guided groups.

It's only a 10 km hike, but it's made much difficult by the fact that the trail is not on a map and there are no signs whatsoever.

First we came down to the holy Khechiberi Lake.

We walked on the paved road back towards the junction until we saw first and only sign on the right hand side pointing to Yuksum.
You have to follow a general bearing towards Yuksum, passing a lot of local villages and keep asking for directions. Prepare to get lost and a lot.
We saw a lot of boards describing various investment projects into the local infrastructure. Seems like Indian government puts a lot of money into the region to keep separatist at bay and prevent locals from looking towards China.

We reached the town by late afternoon. There are a few sights that you have to see such as coronation place, a monastery and a temple with some massive prayer drums!

Posted by dima.safr 09:34 Archived in India Tagged home india trek lake jeep sikkim stay darjeeling permit yuksum khechiberi Comments (0)

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