Monday, 20 February 2017

Allahabad to Varanasi

Allahabad station is by far the nicest station I have visited in India. Actually it is probably much the same as all other stations here, but it was relatively deserted so it felt much more pleasant than the others I have visited. After our early morning walk to the station we found out that our train was delayed by about 40 minutes, a bit of a pain but not too bad for India. We connected to the wifi and waited on the empty concourse before making our way to the empty platform and eventually boarding the half empty train. This train was the sleeper train from Delhi and even as we got on at around 9am there were still people sleeping in their bunks, it felt a bit strange as a lot of the bunks were still made up and occupied, so it felt like we were walking into someone's bedroom.

We arrived at a secondary train station in Varanasi and negotiated hard for a tuktuk to take us to Varanasi Junction, the more central station a few kilometres away. After the relative peace of Allahabad station Varanasi was a shock to the system, dense crowds and many many drivers trying to get our attention. Me gettting annoyed as they would only talk to Michael, when I said 'no' they deferred to him to see if he would overrule me. He wouldn't dare!

Into our tuktuk and inch by inch through the traffic and the din. Horns beeping in vain and our driver shouting to passers by as we went, soon someone joined him on the front seat, a bit further and another two jumped in. So there are now six of us in this tiny vehicle. Michael and I and our bags in the back and three more passengers in the front with the driver scrunched up by the wind screen practically sitting on one of their laps.

As we near Varanasi Junction the traffic seizes up again and it is really hot. The air is so thick with all the fumes we can hardly breathe, there is a cart being pulled by a cow in the middle of it all, hot, tired and miserable. There is a yellow mini bus with many more people than seats. So many people that the back door can't close and is held shut by a man standing at the back.

We finally get let out and make our way into the station to try and book the rest of the train tickets we will need in India. People sleeping everywhere, we pick a route through the bodies and then get directed back outside to a separate building. This ticket office is much smaller than the one at Delhi and there is only one clerk, but there are far less people waiting. We sit on sofas and once our form is filled in Michael gets to work helping out some Japanese tourists that can't work out what they need to do, it's quite funny to hear them repeatedly groan in understanding in unison as Michael communicates what information goes where. Tickets bought and more tourists helped by Michael we set out to find a hotel close to the station, as we have a 5am train to catch in the morning. Past many many tuktuk drivers outside the station and Michael is once again impressed by my ability to ignore them while he feels compelled to have a conversation with each who engage him, even though we don't need a ride. One tells him that we can't have a hotel here and we have to go to the tourist area in the old town; I think he is trying to be helpful but it sounds like he is saying that these hotels are only for Indians. We wave them off but one guy keeps following u,  trying to help us find a hotel even though he doesn't know where it is. Maybe hoping to get a kickback from the hotel. Finally we are directed to the place we are looking for, down a side road and after one wrong turn we find it. We get the room next to the reception, which is fine for us but bad news for the boys manning the front desk as they were using it to watch TV in.

A recommendation from the hotel and we head out for a late lunch, realising we haven't had a really good meal since before we got ill. Well we order up a feast once we find the Laxmi restaurant tucked behind a small roadside temple in the vague area of where the boys said it would be. Roti and pilau rice with a tardaka dhal, potato curry Varanasi-style and raita. Back to the hotel to sleep it off and then into a tuktuk to take us to the old town.

Strangely Michael was here exactly four years ago to the day, and he is feeling nostalgic as he heads straight back to the guest house he stayed at before. There are so many people packed into this part of the city, it is hard to make our way through the streets, the shops are bigger and stacked full of bright coloured saris. We fight through the crowds avoiding getting dragged into shops and also trying to avoid the scooters that are ignoring the fact that this area is closed to traffic. Away from the throng and down some of the shit-covered side alleys, no peace here, the streets are only 6 foot wide but we are sharing the space with cows and yet more wayward scooters beeping to may their intentions clear. Finally down to the ghats and we are a bit before sunset so we take as seat high on the step and watch the world go by for a while. So many tourists that the pressure is off us, although the selfie requests still come. There is a young guy, don't catch his accent, with John Lennon glasses who sits down to have a smoke with a Baba. There are boats going by on the water below filled with both western and Indian tourists. It's getting busier as more people arrive for the Ganga Aarti. As we will be back in Varanasi later in the week we decide to give it a miss tonight and instead take a slow walk through a number of ghats. Michael has brought some biscuits, so he feeds puppies and cows and monkeys and goats. The goat, keen for more, decides I might have some so he starts aggressively following me until he is chased off by some helpful spectators. Too tired to carry on we head back to the hotel, alarms set for 4am so we can catch the train to Gaya. The