We took an overnight train to Varanasi - our first journey on the Indian Railway - and discovered that trains are the easiest and most comfortable way to get around in India. There are nine classes of ticket, from the most expensive first class AC (R4065 from Delhi to Mumbai) to AC three tier (R1790) to sleeper (R545). There is another cheaper option - general class tickets - that get you on the train if you can push your way onto the general coach. These are for the extremely brave or those who missed out on a confirmed ticket. We chose to book sleeper class tickets - they're cheap, you get to interact - using a few words and lots of sign language - with locals, and you get a bed. Chai wallahs can be heard making their way through the coach by their distinctive call, the samosas are R30, and you watch in amazement as local people walk past selling t-shirts, combs, keyrings, wooden crocodiles, hair ties, watches, anything you can imagine.
We stayed in Old Varanasi, a maze of winding narrow streets, temples and ghats, at Mishra Guest House. Some of the rooms don't have windows those that do have monkeys on the balcony, our toilet didn't flush, but the rooftop restaurant was served incredible food and had an amazing view, the staff were helpful and gave us a map, and it was budget friendly. You take the bad with the good in India, and you are over the moon when a room has blankets and a shower that works.
We spent our first afternoon navigating the streets of Old Varanasi - avoiding the cows, dogs and poo - and had a quick peek at the ghats before enjoying the sunset from the guesthouse rooftop. The next morning we were up early for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganga. A local fisherman rowed (you gotta give them credit because they do work really hard!) us down the Ganga to watch the sun rise and the people of Varanasi bathe, do laundry and pray in the early morning light. It was incredible. You really just have to do it. And it only cost R50. After the boat ride we took a walking tour of the old city with a local from the guest house. The tour was really cool - the guide took us to some of Old Varanasi temples and through a local's house up to a roof for a really cool panoramic view of the ghats. He then took us to a silk factory, where we sat around uncomfortably while the store owner pulled shawls, scarfs and ties from the shelves and ignored us as we said that we didn't want to buy any silk today. It's awkward to the max, but as long as you stick to your guns and keep telling them that you're not going to buy anything (and don't!), it's alright. The tour was free, but we tipped him R50 each, because when someone tells you that something is free in India - it's not. After the walking tour, now that we were more familiar with the layout of the old city, we headed for the ghats for a look around. The ghat we wanted to see was the burning ghat, the primary cremation ghat in Varanasi, known locally as the Manikarnika Ghat. You know you're close to the ghat because you're surrounded by piles and piles of wood - oak, cedar, sandalwood. Then you notice the air is thick with smoke and the smells of burning wood, incense, and burning flesh. Once you're at the ghat you can see piles of wood smouldering along the bank on the Ganga, and if you look closely you can see a head or limb. Photographs aren't allowed at the Manikarnika Ghat, but I don't need a photograph to remember what I saw that day. At first I was shocked to see human bodies burning, poked and prodded by a dom, but then I remembered that Hindu's believe through cremation they escape the reincarnation cycle, and that those whose remains are thrown into the Ganga after death are guaranteed a good afterlife. It was soothing watching the routine of the funeral ceremony, performed at the ghat by male relatives of the deceased - women are not present at the ghats for fear they will be overwhelmed with emotion and throw themselves on the pyre - before the pyre is lit and left to burn for six hours, and watching smoke rise, setting spirits free. I felt peaceful.
Kumbh Mela is the largest religions festival in the world, and takes place every 12 years on the banks of the Sangam - where the Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati merge. We were only a three hour train ride away from Allahabad, where this years Kumbh Mela was held, so we hopped on a train to check it out. It was incredible. When you approach the area all that you can see for miles and miles is tents. We weren't there on one of the main bathing days, but there were still so many people around - Babas smoking their pipes covered in ash, swarmi's preaching to their captive audiences, and people bathing in the Sangam. I won't pretend that I know what was going on, and I'll be honest, I didn't learn anything about the Kumbh Mela by walking around the site, but it was incredible just to be there and to see it. We took a bus back to Varanasi, and had to split up on the bus to get seats. I sat next to a young guy and of course after staring at me for a couple of minutes he said hello. I said hello back and we had the usual conversation. What country are you from? I'm from Australia. Ricky Ponting, cricket, kangaroos. And then he said something to me, and all I understood was guru of love, and it was awkward. He got off at the next stop.
The next day, our last in Varanasi, we took a boat (a nice family let us hop in theirs for a good price) to the other side of the Ganga to have a look around. It's a beautiful sandy riverbed that's underwater in the monsoon. We wandered around and took some snaps looking back at the old city, and Josh, who we'd been traveling with for a couple of days, bathed in the river, but after reading in the morning newspaper that the bacteria levels in the Ganga were 120 times higher than the 'safe' level (the safe level is still dangerously dirty!) I wasn't brave enough for that. We headed back to the guesthouse to pick up our backpacks and made our way to the train station for our train to Darjeeling. It was seven hours delayed.