06.10.2007 - 07.10.2007 35 °C
Our train pulls into Varanasi station roughly 3 hours late and sure enough, there's our contact waiting to take us to the "Hotel India", a half-finished hotel situated on the outskirts of town.
At the hotel we bump into a couple of Norwegian girls we met on the overnighter (and who I remember from Agra). In fact, for the two days we're in Varanasi we will meet more travellers than in the previous 2 weeks combined! Maybe its due to Varanasi being part of the well-worn Delhi-Agra-Varanasi tourist circuit as opposed to the hardier Rajasthani route. In any case, its refreshing to converse with someone new for a change! At a restaurant called the Ganga Fuji, over a few beers served from a teapot (don't ask - it's got something to do with concealing the beers from the Hindi chapter of the "wowser" brigade) we met Miriam who's on her 4th India trip, two Dutch guys who rave about their West African adventure, an Italian girl with a backpack heavier than herself, full of silver and trinkets to be smuggled out of the country, and other assorted French, Brits, Yanks, with the odd Aussie or two.
Varanasi is famous for its 60 or so Ghats - areas by the left bank of the river Ganges used for bathing and other rituals - and pretty soon we've arrived there by auto-rickshaw (or "tuk-tuk", to use the local parlance). The Ghats are a hive of activity, and it's from the main Dasaswamedh Ghat that we embark on our pre-paid boat trip down the Ganges (see photos below).
The Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning Ghat, and when we passed earlier there were two cremations taking place. A self-appointed guide explains that cremations take place around the clock, with each requiring roughly 200 kilograms of fuel to complete the task, the ash and remains being dumped straight into the river. It's not uncommon to see bodies floating by!
It's this last factoid that makes me extra cautious about accidentally going overboard. The Lonely Planet Guide states that the water contains something like 500 trillion coliform bacteria per millilitre (the acceptable level is 500 apparently) and I wonder to myself if the kids dive-bombing into it from the river's edge would have such a big smile on their faces if they had an inkling of this!
Dinner was at the Ganga Fuji (mentioned above) and then it was straight to bed.
The next day was spent chilling out at a rooftop cafe called the Puja, drinking beers, enjoying the commanding city views, watching a tribe of monkeys torment the locals, and updating our blogs. Hardcore explorers may scoff at our laziness, saying "How can you waste a whole day of sightseeing time?"
All I can say to them is this: After two weeks and 7 cities travelling on buses and trains, in 35+ degree heat, battling psycho-touts (plus a disagreeable bowel) at every turn, it was nice to finally have a bit of R&R. Besides, there was more fun and games awaiting us at Khajuraho. Stay tuned...!