Happy new year!
Maybe I should have made an offering to the mother rivers yesterday as the gods are punishing me this morning. The weather which was glorious yesterday has turned absolutely foul with thick mist and a constant light rain.
I take an auto rickshaw to the bus stand followed by another 3 hour bus journey from City Lines bus stand to Varanasi with nothing new to add.
The main bus stand in Varanasi is only 300 metres from Cantonment railway station where the vast majority of travellers with (unlike me) the nous to book tickets way in advance arrive.
I read there is a tourist office at the station. It seems sensible to head there first as I have no hotel booking and I have decided to stay in the thick of things alongside the Ganges. There is an enormous cow in the station concourse languidly pissing on the floor as travellers scoot around it.
The office has a tourist policeman outside and is manned by an extremely helpful guy who calls various hotels on his mobile to ask for available rooms. Varanasi is an incredibly popular place and most of the choices I make are full. Eventually a couple of guest houses with space are found and I am shown on a map where to be dropped by an auto rickshaw.
Next is the first thing I always do on arrival: the exit strategy. Next door to the tourist office is a rail ticket reservation office specifically for tourists. Booking my onward travel to Ayodhya proves to be a breeze. Whilst in the ticket office another tourist arrives and he is a little agitated. He asks me where I am going and I answer. He then asks if he could talk to me privately. I don’t want to speak to the guy full stop and I am just paying for my ticket so I ask him to wait please. He must be Israeli as I don’t think the word wait is in his vocabulary. He tells the story that his ticket from Delhi to Varanasi has cost him 120 US Dollars from a travel agent and he has just discovered that it should have cost 800 Rupees. He is here to complain. Quite why he is complaining to me is beyond me and the guy manning the ticket office has a “You are a pillock and I don’t give a shit” look on his face. Apart from that probably the easiest, most civilised arrival I have ever had in India.
Outside the station is the prepay auto rickshaw station where rates are set and much, much cheaper than following the first driver that approaches you. 60 Rupees gets me a ride to Chowk where the rickshaws can go no further.
The weather is, as in Allahabad, foul. I am dropped at the edge of Chowk and must make the rest of the way on foot. An Indian city dry is simply dusty. Add water and the dust an liberal dollops of cow shit mingle to make a thin, sticky layer of rust brown slippy slime. Not pleasant.
Chowk may well be a fascinating place to wander around getting lost but with a bag, in the rain with cack underfoot searching for a hotel it’s more of an endurance test. I am looking for 2 guest houses. The first is by Schindia Ghat and has a “luxury” room for the massive sum of 1950 Rupees a night (about £25). The other is close by and has rooms at 200 to 300 Rupees.
After ages and much asking for directions, this area is a rabbit warren of little lanes and snickets, I find the Schindia guest house and get a chance to look at this “luxury” 25 quid room. The room is in fact great with a soft bed, ensuite and a balcony overlooking the Ganges. £100 for 4 nights accommodation is not huge but it is breaking the conditions of the trip. They have no other rooms free so I make to trudge on to find the next guest house.
As so very often in India when you make to leave other options become available. I plan to stay 4 nights so they ask me to look at another room which apparently they rarely let out. We slog up 5 stories to the roof top where they are in the process of building 5 new rooms but have only finished 1. The room is fine although the bathroom is outside a few paces away and is a hot water in a bucket job. There is a gate to which i have the key so no one else can come up. It’s 650 Rupees per night (£8) so I book it for 4 nights.
The view from the roof top which is now my own private vast balcony is astonishing.
The rain has stopped but the mist remains but I overlook Schindia ghat with tens of Indians immersing themselves, huge temples to my immediate right and some 50 metres downstream is Manikarnika Ghat the “burning” Ghat and, as I watch, on an elevated platform, 2 bodies are being burned. Much, much more on this in a later post.
I have had a short, sharp attack of Delhi belly to the point where I had to pop an Immodium in order to survive the bus journey. I am treating it with starvation for a day and an early night. I guess considering what and where I have been eating off the street for over a week it’s hardly surprising that I am not immune.