Last Sunday of the Month, and that means it’s time for – ‘Destination of the Month!’ Yessir, today I am taking you to the holy city, where the Ganges flows (barely, as it’s full of effluent! 😊) and the pilgrims flock in India, a few hours from the Nepalese border, that’s the city known as Varanasi!
Varanasi is a city that will assault your senses, so you have been warned, and it’s not a city to step into lightly. But it is a city that will leave a markable impression on everyone who visits, no matter your reason, which is why it is March’s ‘Destination of the Month’.
You can get to Varanasi by various means – you can fly in, take the train or if you are a masochist you might try bus travel in India (I jest, bus travel has come a long way in India and the top buses can be exceedingly comfortable). I arrived when I visited by train. The station is not central to where you want to stay – you want to stay somewhere near the famous Ghats on the Holy River Ganges. So you will need to negotiate an auto-rickshaw (or whatever they are calling it these days, the term ‘tuk-tuk’ seems to be common, once only used in SE Asia).
And that’s your first challenge, because you’ll need to work out what is a reasonable price. Walk away if you’re not happy, you will find the driver suddenly calls after you, dropping their price substantially.
Staying along the ghats in one of the hotels there is a highlight of being in Varanasi. It’s a hive of life, there are narrow passageways and it’s almost like a souq just back from the river. The ride there can take 20 minutes or so, where you will pass through Varanasi the city, with its hustle and bustle, auto-rickshaws, horns a-blaring, it’s really something to behold (although admittedly, something you can see in many Indian cities).
The river area, where you will stay, is less loud, but not quiet either. Inside the maze of passageways I described above, you can find little temples and places that will stretch you sideways (massage) but also little quiet spots, colourful washing hanging, little places to grab some food, it’s magical.
As is the river Ganges. At the same time, it’s full of, well, what isn’t it full of? Effluent, rubbish and dead bodies – are some of the things it’s famous for housing. Then you have people washing in the early morning, washing their clothes as well and brushing their teeth. People drink the water because they believe it’s holy. You are in another world without a doubt.
A walk up and down the ghats will introduce you to some unexpected sights. Decorated holy cows for starters – well, the Ganges is holy primarily in Hinduism (although there is significance in Buddhism and Islam as well I believe). You will pay to light a candle and float it out on a plate with flowers onto the river. It shouldn’t cost much and it seems like the thing to do. Meanwhile, behind you the kids are playing a serious game of cricket on the ghat. What happens when the ball goes in the water? Well, I expect it’s ‘six and out’.
How do you fully experience the Ganges at Varanasi? The touristy thing to do, and it’s done by everyone who goes there and so you should do it too, is take a boat at sunrise. Choose if you want your own, because there are plenty of wallahs looking for early morning business in their small, wooden row boats. Take it with a couple of other people as I did if you like, or there are bigger boats with 30-40 people of them. And probably more these days. I know which I prefer. You need to start at like 445am or so, before there is any sign of the sun.
As the sun rises, the pollution of Varanasi makes the colours unforgettable. Life slowly but certainly comes to this part of the world as people wash and prepare for the day in the river’s magical waters. Fires are lit and smoke rises, you are in a special place and despite all the others on the river, it’s a wide river and you can find a little bit of peace. And perhaps that’s why it’s considered so special.
Thanks for reading today, I know I wrote on Varanasi last year but it just seemed like the place to write about today. Why? I don’t know. I’m finding this year when I write about international destinations I really wish I was there right NOW. Take care wherever you may be – May the Journey Never End!