Varanasi has been on my wishlist for a long long time. I dunno, I think the draw was the promise of peace and tranquility on the banks of the mighty Ganga, and the rituals surrounding the burning ghats that have always peaked my interest. So when my travel plans allowed me some time to visit India, Varanasi was right up there in terms of places to go. Another top item on my list, is to travel by train where I can. I’ve been on overnight trains in Thailand many moons ago, traveled through the Andes in Peru, traveled in Europe too of course, and as many of you know, I traveled across Canada by train when I landed there as a permanent resident some 17 years ago. There is some kind of magic in train rides I find. It’s the slow pace, the rhythm of wheels turning and the sound of the whistle, it just appeals to me. I resolved to do my traveling across India by train.
The booking of train tickets as a foreigner on-line can be a bit confusing, so I decided to wait until I got to Kolkata to book them. Of course this entailed sitting down with the train booking guy, having a chat, some tea and slowly go through all the trains I wished to take. Two hours later, once we had figured out the cost and which trains were available to tourists, a ‘boy’ was sent running off goodness knows where to get the tickets. The following day my tickets arrived and I was all set.
I got to Howrah Train Station, the oldest and largest train station in India, with 23 platforms. It was teeming. As soon as I stepped out of the taxi, I was surrounded by coolies – the porters that carry your bags to your platform. Trouble is, I had no clue which platform. I need not have worried, once I told him my destination and which class I was travelling in, he took off like a bat out of hell and promptly deposited my bags in what to me was the middle of one of the many platforms, and motioned that my carriage door would stop here – pointing to an empty spot on the tracks. Hmm. I paid him my 50 rupees (about 80 cents) and sat tight, waiting for my train.
One train came into the platform before mine and I figured out how the system worked. Each carriage is marked as to what class it is (first class, class 2 with AC etc). At each door, there is a list of each person travelling in the carriage and which berth they were allocated. This was far easier than I thought. And no, I am not setting you up for a horror story. It really was that easy. My train arrived and sure enough the door of my carriage stopped in the exact spot the coolie said it would (they clearly know their stuff!) and I hopped on with my bags, found my berth and settled in.Tthere are 6 sleeping berths in each compartment, kind of like sleeping in a caravan with drop-down beds from the wall. Fortunately I got a lower bed so no climbing of ladders for me.
I was paired with an Indian family travelling with a small baby. Do I hear you groan? Well I did, but throughout the overnight journey, it was the mother and amma who were more of a problem, not the baby!. Both the 9 year old boy and 6-month old baby were woken every hour during the night to see if they were OK. It meant no one (except the husband) got sleep, and the baby was incredibly grumpy being woken up all the time (as I was!). I arrived in Varanasi at 6am, 20 mins ahead of schedule, crept off the train with my bags, and found another coolie to carry my bags across 6 platforms and an overhead bridge, to the station entrance. The hotel was picking me up and a few other German girls from the train (we were easy to spot) and we arrived at the hotel by 7am, which included a 10mins walk through a labyrinth of 2-person wide laneways to the hotel. I checked in, got cleaned up and went for breakfast.
Wow, what a view from the rooftop restaurant! My hotel is located on the quieter of the ghats – Mera Ghat and a walk down about 30 steps leads you right onto the ghats. Really amazing to see the Ganga flowing right by. In between mouthfuls of breakfast, I took a few photos and just soaked in the calm and tranquility. It’s hard to explain, the pace is s l o w and everything feels so restful and soothing. I resolved to head down to the ghat and meditate. It’s Tibetan Bon I practice (the sixth spiritual school of Buddhism) but nevertheless, Varanasi is known for it’s religious acceptance. When I say it was a powerful experience, I cannot really describe the feeling. All I can say was it was probably the most fulfilling meditations I have done – Thomas my instructor would be proud.
I rested for a short time after in my room, and had planned to attend the evening aarti (puja) on the neighbouring Dashashwamedh Ghat but then …. I began to not feel well at all. Yes, after 8 months in SE Asia, I was fortunate enough to avoid funny tummy until now. It knocked me for six and it is only today I am eating a meal for the first time and feeling a lot better. As a result, I have not seen any of Varanasi! I leave on Saturday for Delhi so I literally have two days upon which I can explore Varanasi. In a way I was grateful I had booked a week here, I am unsure how I would have managed an overnight train ride to Delhi without access to a western toilet. Thanks to Esha in Nepal for her food recommendation to help settle my digestive system (ripe bananas and yogurt) – it worked!
So now I have to work out the top things I wanted to do in Varanasi and do them in two days, which is probably the length of time most people stay here. I am finding many of the tourists are in India for 2 weeks, it’s just not enough time to really experience it … so if any of you out there are considering a visit, do portions of the country in each trip …. because you will want to come back.
The few photos I took I cannot post on this unsecure wifi – I suppose WordPress is just protecting me. But I will try to find a secured connection in the next day or two. If not, you’ll just have to wait until I reach Delhi.