India Overland and Varanasi

Seeking further views of the beautiful mountains of Nepal, we decided to travel overland from Pokhara into India along with three of our friends from the Annapurna Circuit. The bus trip to Sonauli on the Indian border had fantastic views of lush green rolling hills and passed through many tiny villages.

The border between Nepal and India is not heavily patrolled as the two countries have good relations and residents are free to pass across the border. Our first overland border crossing felt very strange as we are used to airport security. In contrast, here it looked surprisingly easy for travelers to sneak across amongst the chaos on the road, with no luggage checks. Cows, trucks, touts and all forms of taxis made the crossing very hectic, but we managed to negotiate a "jeep" to take the five of us to Gorakhpur, the nearest large town.

The jeep, which was actually a hatchback, was very squishy for the five of us with our backpacks! The driver was not very helpful and tried to swindle us out of more money on a couple of occasions, but with persistence we managed to get to Gorakhpur for the agreed price. Our first impression of India was the Gorakhpur railway station, a huge space completely filled with cows (and cow shit), people lying on the concrete, men urinating against many walls, and touts trying to convince us to follow them to a cheap hotel. After looking around for a while we finally found the right queue to buy our desired train ticket and bought Sleeper class tickets to Varanasi.

Indian trains are an amazing institution - 14 million people use the system each day and this figure doesn't include metro systems in individual cities. Indian Railways employs 1.6 million people! There are eight different classes for travel from basic to first class. The differences include air conditioning, beds instead of seats, comfort level, density of beds per carriage, and provided meals. The class we managed to get was the second cheapest and the cheapest with a bed, with 8 beds arranged in a space of about five metres by three. No bedding or meals are provided. Despite the number of ticket classes that cost much more than our class, our trip was quite comfortable and hassle-free. The train was relatively clean and the beds were small but serviceable. The main problem with this class is the lack of luggage storage space.

The first place of interest we visited was Varanasi, the Hindu holy city where the Ganges river purifies souls. The city is arranged around dozens of ghats where concrete steps lead into the river. Here people come at all times of the day to wash themselves. Unfortunately, the plumbing of the city dumps raw sewerage directly into the river, making bacteria levels thousands of times the healthy limit for swimming water. This doesn't stop the locals from drinking the holy water directly from the river though!

The other main function of the river is concerned with Hindus who have passed away. Hindus believe in cyclic reincarnation, but they consider a person who is cremated and scattered in the Ganges to be happily released from the cycle. We visited one of the ghats that is used for cremation, and saw the holy fire that has burned continually for over a thousand years. This fire is used to light the bodies which are placed on piles of wood. Only special wood is used which is extraordinarily expensive for most Indians. The bodies are covered in material but it is still confronting to see them being cremated. Before the cremation, they are paraded through the streets and then dipped in the Ganges to purify them. Only men are allowed to attend the ceremony as women are said to cry too much.

There are five types of people who are not cremated here. These are: priests, who are already holy and do not need to be purified, children, pregnant women, lepers, and the physically handicapped. These bodies are wrapped, tied to a heavy stone, taken out on a boat and pushed into the river. We were told that sometimes the cord breaks and you can see bodies floating down towards Bangladesh. This fact, along with the masses of visible rubbish in the water, makes the swimming and drinking of the water even more remarkable.

The city around the ghats is an amazing maze of incredibly narrow and tall alleys crammed with stalls, people (often touts and beggars), cows (of course) and motorbikes. This makes navigation confusing and quickly distressing. The top of the city is covered by monkeys, who noisily scamper around on the tin roofs in large groups. We were confronted by one who wanted to steal Georgia's curry! We were very surprised by its fearlessness and aggression.

We took a couple of boat rides along the sacred Ganges at sunset and sunrise, careful to avoid contact with the water, which was an interesting experience. We saw many people swimming, playing, washing and praying in the water, and after sunset we saw a ceremony which was attended by many people both on land and in the river. The ceremony was interesting but much longer than it needed to be.

No comments: