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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)

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)

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