There is a time when India no longer fascinates. And this moment arrived during our train journey from Khajuraho to Varanasi (also known as Benares).
Varanasi – the city is considered one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Dedicated mainly to Shiva, it is the city that receives the most pilgrims in India, and is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
The best wagon is the 3rd class with air conditioning. Small and not so air-conditioned. Only one passenger snores in the whole wagon: my neighbor below. So loud and irregularly that it wakes me up in the middle of the night and prevents me from going back to sleep.
Want to murder and bury him directly in Varanasi, the holy city where they come to burn the dead.
Fortunately, this ordeal stops at 6 am when it breaks. I try to take advantage of the remaining 4 hours, between waiting for our arrival (the train is late but we don’t know how long) and the confusion of the waking dream (did this neighbor really leave or is it going to happen again?). This will be our last train in India. And so much the better!
We are both on “Upper” benches. My feet are sticking out, imagine for JB… After 2 hours of contortions, he abandons wife and luggage before finding a “lower” seat free and will finally spend an excellent night 🙂
Arrived finally at the station, we do not find the driver of the hotel who is supposed to come to pick us up. We pay a rickshaw which, in front of the too dense traffic, drops us super far from the hotel. The 30 minutes trip by rickshaw to Varanasi makes us feel like 100 cigarettes in our lungs, so that JB feels like he has asthma. Who said that Paris was a polluted city?
In the middle of the people who follow us to hope to get a few pennies of commissions, crossing the alleys full of stores, we finally arrive at the hotel soaked in sweat, overwhelmed by pollution and heat.
For us, our super hotel (Alka Hotel, link Booking), known by all the guides and Tripadvisor, is like paradise after hell. It overlooks the bank (Meer Ghat) of the Ganges, where the wind refreshes the heavy air of this holy city.
We treat ourselves to a good (Italian) lunch and a well-deserved one-hour massage. Direction the main ghat where a religious ceremony takes place every evening at 7:30 pm. Like everyone else, we get on a boat to see the show from the river. The children jump from one boat to the other to sell us flowers to offer to the Ganges, chai or fresh water. We should have rented a seat near the stage instead because from the boat not only the view isn’t great but we also have to put up with the toxic smoke from the boats.
The women next to me plunge their hands in the sacred water of the Ganges (very dirty and stinking) to put some on their heads. This makes me jump 2m backwards because they also put some everywhere. I had been told “above all do not touch the water of the Ganges. Risk of fungus, skin diseases…”.
After a well rehearsed hour (the priests sing and dance, dance and sing), we return to the hotel, disappointed not to feel the solemn, religious, moved side read in the blogs. Everything is chaos, tourism and selfies (the Indians do it more than the foreigners).
Here is what we imagine to see
Here’s what you see, with the music playing on the speaker
On the other hand, the current being too strong, the water level being too high, we spend more time drifting than watching the ceremony.
On the way back, we notice that the stores sell empty jerry cans so that pilgrims can take the water from the Ganges home, not for their personal use, but for their temple.
Day 2 : Temples of Varanasi
We start our half-day tour in overwhelming heat. It’s only 32 degrees but the humidity makes it as hot as 40 degrees.
The guide comes to pick us up at the hotel and after 10 minutes in the small streets filled with small stores, policemen, dogs and cows, we finally arrive at the main street. He explains to us that our district (which gives on the ghats/bank) is the safest in Varanasi. The deployment of armed policemen in this neighborhood for fear of risks of terrorism is impressive (strong political tension between some Muslims and Hindus here). But why is this policeman reloading his machine gun when he sees us?
The car is fortunately air-conditioned. The visit is rather interesting but Hinduism seems to us very complicated, and the heat strongly decreases our intellectual capacities. At the end of two temples (out of the 4 to visit), we ask to end the visit earlier than planned to go back to the hotel.
On the two visited temples, the believers are less numerous than the tourists (Indians!), we see especially the selfies scenes rather than religious ones. We observed all the same: (1) kept in a bucket, the water of the Ganges flows over the statue (in phallic form) of Shiva, destructive god, then over the offerings. Pilgrims drink a few drops of this water and put some on their heads. (2) A kind of orange liquid flows over the columns and walls of a Hindu temple. Pilgrims put some on their foreheads. (3) Pilgrims surround a statue of an animal with a big ear. It is the messenger of Shiva. By entrusting him with your dearest wish, your message will be delivered to Shiva. (4) the Sita, the equivalent of the Christian Bible is carved in the marble of the temple. Some passages are illustrated by colored relief carvings, especially the one on karma.
We see a group of foreigners dressed all in white with an orange scarf. The guide calls them a sect while they are just tourists who came for a spiritual stay in India (well OK, they were a little more peace & love than the others…). I notice a tourist in a sari but her sari is strange. It is much less bulky than the saris I usually see. I suddenly remember a passage from Lonely Planet advising women to wear saris properly and ask for advice. Don’t just wear the under layers of sari, it’s “half dressed” 😅😁
The guide takes us back to the hotel through the small streets. He greets everyone (he knows them all). Especially since he has an astonishing physical characteristic: he has green eyes. I did not ask him his origin because it makes me drunk to be called Chinese/Japanese so I do not want to get someone else drunk with his origin just because he has beautiful eyes.
By the way, now when someone says “China?”, I reply “Pakistan?” and he understands right away that I’m drunk with it 😁
The guide shows us a house in a small alley, full of cows. During the day they go around Varanasi, wandering and eating in the garbage cans, in the evening they come back. They are milk cows. I won’t drink my lassi (Indian yoghurt) carelessly anymore.
Speaking of cows, they are sacred but people still touch them. To chase them off the road, to keep them from eating the flowers, to make them move. They aren’t eaten, that’s all. There are also a lot of stray dogs, rather clean and fit, sleeping anywhere. Monkeys are everywhere (especially in height) but rather nice, besides, this morning a monkey threw paper sheets to us from a balcony. We saw, since our stay in India, only one cat. To my great despair.
Day 3: Return to Delhi
JB isn’t recovering from France’s defeat in the final of Euro 2016 but he is relieved to leave India, its overwhelming heat and overcrowding everywhere.
The hotel informs us that there are big traffic problems for the airport (the road is half blocked because of works) and advises us to leave 4 hours before takeoff. On the way, the driver explains us that there are no rules in Varanasi, no sense of priority, the one who honks the most wins.
He then opens the windows under the pretext that he doesn’t have much petrol left and that he will put the air conditioning back on as soon as he passes by a petrol station (the price of a cab differs if we take the air conditioning or not, and we paid for it!). 15 minutes waiting in traffic jams with the windows open is enough for both of us to protest that it’s better to close the windows and die of heat than to absorb the pollution at full lungs. By the way, a few hours later, I’m still having trouble breathing. The driver dumps us at the airport like two big guys, as soon as we went out he left, probably to look for another customer.
The trip from Varanasi to Delhi goes well. When we left the domestic airport in Delhi, we aren’t harassed by anyone (nothing to do with the international airport). We take a prepaid cab to join our hotel of one night, the road is new and almost empty, it is the first time that Delhi seems to me so calm.
Tomorrow, we take off at 6:30 am for Kathmandu. Following big problems (surely of staff), we received an email today advising us to arrive 4h before takeoff. 6h30 with 4h of advance = 2h30 #VDM.
We loved India, were amazed by its treasures. But it is definitely not the place where we see ourselves living or spending long vacations. Too many people, too much pollution, too much stress, too many peppers, … and impossible to find beef to eat #jeveuxunbigmac ! It was however a beautiful discovery that we recommend to all, especially since we were able to enjoy the bui-bui without getting sick.
Part 2: Practical Tips
How to get there
From Khajuraho, a train served Varanasi. The Friday train is the fastest. It is possible to go there by plane but flights are very rare in low season.
From Delhi, you can either take a train (very long) or a plane.
- Ask your hotel to pick you up. Or buy a SIM card for with 3G. You quickly get lost in the alleys of Varanasi
- To attend the religious ceremony in the evening (Dashashwamedh Aarti), it is better to pay for a conveniently located seat rather than watching from the boat. One does not see much and suffocates quickly because of the smoke
- If you are attending the cremations, cameras aren’t allowed
- Choose a good hotel and if possible near the ghats (like ours), because you will not want to take rickshaws every day in Varanasi (too polluted)
- 100 rupees = 1,3€
- Train ticket Khajuraho – Varanasi in 3rd class with air conditioning: 750 rupees/person
- Double room without air conditioning at Alka Hotel: Rs.950/night
- Rickshaw train station -> our hotel : 100 rupees
- One hour massage: 1200 rupees/person
- 5h tour with guide and driver: 750 rupees/person
- Boat to attend the ceremony (not recommended): 150 rupees/person
- Food: 150 rupees/person/meal
- Cab to the airport: 750 rupees with air conditioning
TOTAL: 9483 rupees or 126€ for 3 days, 2 nights, 2 people (not including the plane back to Delhi).
- Hotel Alka that we highly recommend (massage, restaurant, tour, cab: tip top) http://www.hotelalkavns.com/