Varanasi: Holy Shit!!….

(James) There was definitely an air of excitement as we loaded the bikes on our last morning in Agra. We were heading for our last destination in India – the holy city of Varanasi. After a quick breakfast, we set off with Fabian’s GPS in the lead. All too quickly we found ourselves in one of those streets that we’d come into Agra on, with almost total gridlock. It was mayhem! For twenty minutes we battled to move maybe 15 metres. I had a run in with a bus who’d decided that he could make it out if he simply drove slowly through me (cue much banging on his door and abuse) and Fabian got knocked off his bike by somebody pushing a fruit cart! We were so jammed in a metre behind him that we couldn’t even climb off the bikes to go over and help him! Eventually, we made it through and found ourselves riding passed Agra’s fort. We had to smile at each other as we knew a really simple (and quiet) way out but of course satnavs so often just plot the most direct route. Still, we were soon heading across the river (where we were denied our last view of the Taj Mahal by the smog that shrouded the city) and out of Agra. Varanasi was over 600km to our east and certainly wasn’t going to be reached in a day but perhaps, if the roads weren’t too bad, we could be there the following evening.

The roads were actually pretty decent dual carriageways making for good progress, the only things slowing us down being the trucks driving the wrong way down the road, one of which almost took out Fabian as he pulled out to overtake,  and of course, the numerous accidents we inevitably came across.  Oh, and one hyper aggressive disabled beggar. You wouldn’t think it possible but as we rode along, I (riding at the front) could see a man up ahead sitting on the edge of the outside lane next to the central reservation. The trucks (that all seem to use this lane to drive in) were missing him by centimetres but it didn’t seem to bother him (the speeding drivers weren’t too bothered about him either) as he held his hands out. We were approaching  at about 80kph when he clocked us and quickly scurried crablike across the lane on his hands, forcing me to dive towards the inside lane and power past him. Em, riding behind me, did the same but poor Fabian, who is more cautious rider, started to brake instead and this, combined with the fact that he was third in line and 50m behind Em, was enough to allow the fearless beggar to select an intercepting course and force Fabian to take severe evasive action into the hard shoulder. The beggar just didn’t care and we watched our mirrors in horror as Fabian broke heavily into the side of the road and eventually disappeared from view. Our only thought being that he was now lying injured in a ditch, we quickly stopped and I was just turning round to ride back up the highway to help when Fabs’ headlight reappeared from the bushes. Thankfully he’d managed to save it and had had to start riding away with the beggar effectively refusing to let go of his leg! Not the best strategy to illicit our sympathy as, had Fabian gone over, the beats would have been his most likely reward!

We’d set Kanpur, which at around the 300km from Agra represented the halfway mark, as our target for the day but having reached it by early afternoon we decided to press on and take advantage of our good progress, which in doing so would make for an easier day tomorrow. Besides, it wasn’t totally out of the question that the road further east might deteriorate requiring a third day to cover the distance. Not long after 4pm, and with another 80km covered, we decided to start looking for somewhere to stop for the night as we’d only seen one hotel all day. We did manage to find one place but it was a genuine toilet (we’re pretty hardy these days but when we start talking about setting up our tent in the room to avoid touching the bed or carpet you know it’s bad!) and the guy, who’d obviously never had foreigners as potential guests, reached for a number and came up with one 3 times more than we were prepared to pay. Needless to say, his roadside hole is still awaiting its first international clientele. We decided to press on towards the town of Fatephur and utilise Fabian’s satnav to find a hotel on the eastern edge of town so we could make a quick escape in the morning. The satnav, of course, wasn’t playing ball and, with darkness rapidly falling, we had to pull over to let Fabian know that we’d just passed the exit for Fatephur (the satnav still estimated that we were some 20km short!) We turned around, rode back down to the exit and quickly found a hotel right by the road. It looked very nice but was closed; however, some locals sitting outside told us there were a couple more further down the road. It wasn’t exactly easy to see now as the street was in pitch darkness but, having pulled over a few hundred metres further down, we established that the completely  immaculate and luxurious looking building we were outside of was actually a guesthouse. There was absolutely no way in the world that we’d be able to afford it but we asked the man outside just to get an idea of prices in this tourist free area and were shocked when in broken English we heard ‘300 rupees’ (just over £4). We assumed he meant 3000 and so asked again, even getting out three 100 rupee notes to confirm. It was definitely 300 rupees. We couldn’t believe our luck and didn’t even bother haggling, just wanting to be in our rooms before he realised his mistake. We were in for one more surprise though as we entered the building. It appeared as if two different people, with entirely different visions of what they wanted (and entirely different budgets), had built the hotel. One had taken responsibility for the exterior and the other, the interior and neither of them had ever had a chance to see what the other was doing! Stepping through the grand double doors (having climbed the marble stairs outside) we were greeted with a long wide corridor/hall with a plain floor and walls that ran the length of the building. On each side were six plain doors which each led to a very simple, run down room with a skanky small bed in it. The hall and rooms reminded us exactly of a prison and it was hard to believe that we were in the same building we’d stopped outside of (our bikes, on the other hand,  were enjoying being parking on immaculate white marble and in considerably more luxury!) We had to laugh as we got our silk liners out of our bag (to be used when we don’t want to touch the sheets!) but quickly discovered that, by comparison, we’d lucked out; Fabian called us across to show us his ‘clean’ sheets which quite frankly looked like somebody had died and decomposed on them! The only thing missing was the chalk outline of the body!

We were keen to get going in the morning and were on the road before 8am. Our progress was a little slower, though, as most towns we passed through seemed to be centred on the highway and, quite honestly, it’s hard maintain a decent cruising speed when people have set up market stalls in the fast lane! However , we made it to the outskirts of Varanasi by lunch time and rewarded ourselves with the promise of a shower and a chance to relax with plenty of the day still left. Fabian took the lead as he’d programmed the co-ordinates of our hotel into the satnav (third time’s the charm, right?!) but quickly we found ourselves riding down deeply rutted and pothole-filled dirt roads. This continued for 20 minutes or so as we inched along in the heavy traffic before we came to halt at a level crossing. We turned off the engines and watched in amusement as hundreds of locals all piled up to the front on either side of the tracks, blissfully unaware (as usual) of the obvious problem they’d face when the barriers came up. Sadly the barriers didn’t come up and after 20 minutes or so waiting it became clear that they were broken. We knew we needed to cross the tracks but it was anyone’s guess where the next suitable crossing might be, but eventually a local on a small bike told us he knew of a way. We followed him and soon found ourselves riding alongside the tracks and past slum houses on appalling dirt roads that quickly became just pure off-roading. Having somehow made it back to a paved road without anyone coming off, we arrived at another level crossing and  found ourselves in a more quiet and green residential area. We rode through it until we arrived at a crossroads where Fabs informed us that our hotel was somewhere within 400m of our location. With no street signs and no obvious sign of a luxury looking hotel (did we tell you we’d lucked out and grabbed a bargain?), I volunteered to ride around and locate the hotel whilst Em and Fabian waited. I headed off… but found nothing. Even stopping to ask several rickshaw drivers failed to yield a positive response and I returned 20 minutes later, with no clearer idea than when I’d left, to find Em and Fabs hidden amongst a crowd of 50-odd onlookers.

We decided to get away from the crowd so we could find somewhere quiet to get the laptop out and recheck the hotel’s details, and having written down the full address I went and asked a few people. One word in the address, Sarnath, stood out and they all said we had to head for some sort of gate, one I had managed to find on my first attempt to find the hotel. Remembering where it was, I led the group to the gate where a policeman said we needed to head down the road where, having taken the first right, we’d see a sign for Sarnath (hopefully not in Hindi). This we did and, having ridden for 10 minutes or so constantly shouting ‘Sarnath?’ to anyone I found myself alongside, was shocked to find a sigh saying ‘Sarnath – 11km’! What? Could this be right? Maybe there were two Sarnaths? How could Fabs’ satnav be wrong by 30km?! (In fairness to Fabian, it not him but the satnav that was consistently feeding us duff information!) Regardless, we had little choice but to follow the directions down roads that were absolutely rammed in a way that only seems possible in India. Soon the tarmac disappeared too making the edging along a bit trickier as sometimes there was a huge hole where you wanted to plant your foot for balance (remember this is still in the middle of the city). After an hour of this, it was really starting to get a bit irritating and painful (Em was reporting a serious case of the dreaded ‘clutch-claw’ from the constant stop-starting). Things came to a head when, having taken a right turn at a junction, we found ourselves on a wide dirt road that was doubling as a construction site (a multilane flyover to run along our road was being built overhead but the road was still in use). We were at a standstill and hadn’t moved for about 10 minutes when I was hit hard from behind and the bike started to go over, and no doubt would have, but so closely were we packed in that I fell into Em and between us we struggled to drag the bike upright again. Having done this I turned round to have words with the idiot who’d hit me only to find it was a police 4×4 pick-up with about 6 heavily armed men in the back all watching me. I’m afraid to say that this was the final straw and I completely lost my rag and, aiming both barrels, let fly with a barrage of abuse at the driver (Em: I’ve rarely seen James so irate – “What the f*** do you think you’re doing? You’re the f***ing police – you’re supposed to look after people!! You’re a bunch of f***ing idiots!” Quite right too. He’d only just got started and continued to become quite creative in his tirade. People were staring by this point… I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone stand up for themselves against the police!) The police in India seem to spend their time either sleeping under trees or bullying locals, so this foreigner abusing them came as something of a surprise and they sat there in shock not too sure what to do as I continued, spurred on by their complete inability to stand up for themselves. Frankly, they were pathetic. When 20 minutes later they passed us at the side of the road, they glared at us only until we looked back at them, at which point they quickly looked away. As I said – pathetic!

We eventually arrived in Sarnath, which is an important focal point for Buddhists (Buddha gave his first sermon here some 2500 years ago), and found it to be pleasantly green and quiet with monks going calmly about their business. We pulled up at the impressively large gates of our hotel and rode in. It was quite clear that the owner knows someone who is an expert with ‘photoshop’ as, whilst the building was roughly the same shape as the one we’d found in photos on the internet, that was where the similarities ended. A quick inspection was followed by the sound of 3 bikes disappearing back down the road and in less than 10 minutes we’d found ourselves somewhere else to stay with safe parking (although, in all honesty, given that we were surrounded by Buddhist monks we weren’t too worried!) Having showered and changed we went to find something to eat which was surprisingly hard – apparently the monks don’t really hit the town in the evening! One thing we did notice (it was hard not to) was the amount of mosquitoes everywhere; there were swarms of them, and they were big! Em and I blitzed them in competition when we got back to our room (we don’t get out much!) The final score was James: 41, Emily: 19 – my extra reach being the difference apparently….

The following morning we took a rickshaw (a brand spanking new one, we didn’t know they even still made them!) into Varanasi and having got in as close to the Ganges as we could, started to walk down the maze of narrow dirty lanes until we reached the river itself. Varanasi, for those who don’t know, is the centre of the universe for all things Hindu, and the Ganges river is at the heart of the city (something about it coming from or giving birth to Shiva or so Em says, but she can’t be sure!) The travel guides rave and wax lyrical about the spirituality of sitting at the ghats, taking in your surroundings, and watching the world and the river in all its majesty go by. The reality isn’t quite as rosy. For starters, the Ganges is dirty, very dirty. Recent tests on the river have found that in every 100ml of water there are 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria! Water deemed safe enough for bathing (not drinking, just bathing) should be lower than 500!! The river isn’t helped by the fact that over 400 million people live in the Ganges basin and along the ghats in Varanasi, some 30 large sewers spew their contents directly into the river. The result of this is, unsurprisingly, a river that is quite literally septic, that is so say it is totally devoid of dissolved oxygen. Hindus come to Varanasi for a few reasons. One is to die and be cremated there as they believe that in doing so they will achieve moksha, freeing them from the cycle of reincarnation. They also come to bathe in the Ganges which apparently washes away a lifetime of sins (not sure if this includes driving like complete tits, but personally I think it would take more than a quick wash in the river to satisfy me!)

Having successfully (for the most part) made our way through the piles of poo that litter the narrow lanes, we arrived at one of the main ghats by the river and were greeted with the sight of dozens of people bathing and cleansing themselves in the water (the irony of this apparently lost on them) and sadhus, both real and fake, wandering up and down. We decided to take a rowing boat out on the river which would allow us the best view of the banks (Fabian wanted to choose a ‘location’ to do some filming for his website) and so having agreed a price, we set off. There’s no question that some of the buildings along the river bank are extremely grand and, even in their slightly run down state, pretty spectacular. Sadly it wasn’t the buildings that we remember but, rather unsurprisingly, the squalor. We passed both bathing ghats and the burning ghats where Hindus bring their dead for cremation or, in the case of some who cannot be cremated (saddhus, babies, pregnant women and those bitten by cobras….), to be put in the river. The sight we saw at one of the smaller burning ghats, quite frankly, appalled us. We sat in our boat no more than 10 metres from the bank watching a couple of funeral pyres burning, not a problem in itself, but  the surrounding scene did trouble us. Just 2 metres from our boat was a swollen and putrified body stuck and wedged between two moored rowing boats (apparently the authorities just chuck those deceased without the money to afford a funeral pyre in the river!), a dead dog was floating a couple of metres nearer the shore, 20 metres upstream a large sewage pipe was releasing a huge amount of fresh effluence into the river, whilst on the ghat in the midst of it all women washed their clothes, men washed and drank the water, and children swam, whilst above them another man sat fishing! Now, it’s nothing to do with education – even barely touched tribes-people in the depths of Papua New Guinea or the Amazon know about the dangers of body disposal etc – so to see this was pretty shocking. As the boat ride continued we saw several other bodies float by, including an old man releasing a dead baby wrapped in swaddling and weighted with a stone. Once back on shore, we walked to the main burning ghat, and standing on the stair above it counted some 17 pyres burning. Again what shocked us was what was going on around the pyres. People were just sitting around smoking and having a laugh, cows were rummaging through the piles of litter that lay everywhere, lots of huge rats were scurrying about and a couple of dogs were sniffing around and eating bits from a dying pyre! Frankly we found the whole thing utterly undignified and unspiritual and after a few minutes decided that enough was enough and headed back up the narrow alleys, passing perhaps a dozen families bringing their dead down to the ghat, just some of the estimated 400 bodies cremated each day. Hindus believe that their life is incomplete unless they have made a pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges at least once in their life. I suspect this is all they generally manage as I can’t help but feel I’d have died of some sort of infection within 12 hours of bathing, somewhat precluding a second visit.

On the way up we passed signs for hostels and guesthouses that we recognised from the guidebooks and that had come recommended as they had great locations with rooftop restaurants overlooking the ghats. Having seen it for ourselves, we remarked that we couldn’t think of anything worse than trying to have a meal in full view of it with the smell of burning corpses pervading everything. Having reached the main road we exchanged some rupees for dollars, which we would be needed to buy our Nepali visas at the border the next day, and having done it headed back to our malaria infested mosquito hotel to pack and dream of fresh Himalayan mountain air.

8 Responses to “Varanasi: Holy Shit!!….”

  1. julian in singapore says:

    The most epic blog yet!!
    The calm and beatiful surroundings of Thailand await!
    Lots of love from DadX

  2. Mama/kate says:

    Holy shit indeed! Still not too keen on India, then?

  3. Jackson says:

    ‘ah, shouldn’t have read that whilst eating my dinner. barrrrrrrffff!
    btw – tell Fabmeister to man up, he has been taken out by a fruit cart and a beggar!

  4. Estebel says:

    Perfect portrait of “Incredible India”. Hilarious, loved the title and all the details of the way to Varanasi and every hotel (“different reach”!). And Varanasi…well, if it were only pure fiction, but unfortunately, crude reality.
    We missed your invaluable help in depicting India to a couple “heading south” after Nepal.
    Take care and enjoy the Thai beaches…

  5. Martha says:

    James – weren’t you scared you’d be arrested if you shouted at the police?! Be careful, don’t do this in Thailand! xxx

  6. Jess says:

    Have the people that write the guide books actually been there?? How can they get it so wrong?? xxx

  7. Joanna says:

    Must say, just sounds like shit to me – holy, unholy or otherwise! Gives a whole new meaning to fishing on the banks of the river! Take care and lots of love. xxx

    PS The girlies are meeting up on Friday – will be thinking of you x

  8. Ashish says:

    Hi
    I am Ashish and I help run the website http://www.varanasi.to
    I noticed that you have written blogs on Varanasi and was wondering if you would like to submit your blogs for publication on the website. If you have any photos, which you would like to submit, we can put those in the “photo of the day” as well.
    Thanks a bunch,
    Ashish

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