Burning Ghats, Taj, and Tigers
In my last post, we had just returned from our Trek and were spending a couple of days in Pokhara. All in all, Pokhara is one of my favourite places so far. It is very laid back and a cool backpacker and trekker kind of hangout. It is slower pace than Kathmandu and there is no pressure to sell you things. We had some amazing meals and relaxed for a couple of days. I could definitely see going back to Pokhara at some point. I think at some point I will be back in Nepal. People are so friendly and helpful… and we did not feel we were being cheated.
After Pokhara we went to Lumbini. This is the birthplace of Buddha. There is another Lumbini in India but that is where he was first enlightened. In Lumbini, we rented bikes for $2 for the day and started by going to the actual site of Buddha’s birth. You have to take your shoes when you enter the temple area. Inside the main building there are ruins of buildings and then there is glass covering a stone that is supposed to be the exact place. After the birthplace, we rode our bikes around the area. Many countries have built temples honouring Buddha. Each one is a Buddhist temple but each looks unique to the country that it built it. The town of Lumbini itself is dirty and there is lots of poverty. It was quite unimpressive.
We were only there for one full day. On December 10th, we got a car from the hotel we were staying at to drive us to the border with India. We could have taken two local busses for much cheaper but I did not relish the idea of being crammed in two crazy busses. We took a car instead for $12. The car dropped us off at the border in Sunauli. We were quite confused at the border. Pedestrians were basically walking in the same line as the cars to get across. I have never seen anything like it. Once across the border we could not figure out where to go. We were pointed by a guy to Immigration. We had a choice to make now. A bus to Ghorakpur or a car. Again a bus would be much cheaper while a car would cost us about 1600 Indian Rupees (about $30 or so). We took the car again for the same reason. The bus could take up to 6 hours while the car was about 3 hours.
Driving in India is insane. It is similar in Nepal actually. Cars drive on the left side of the road like in England. You must dodge cars and trucks going the same direction as you as well as oncoming traffic. Traffic does not just include cars and trucks. It also includes tractors, cows, pedestrians, dogs, and more. The roads are terrible… severe potholes, bumps, and rocks. Driving is scary to say the least. Sometimes it is best to just close your eyes and hope for the best.
In Ghorakpur we just went to the train station… 6 hours early. We left Lumbini so early because we had mixed information about how long it would take us to get there. We took a night train from Ghorakpur to Varanasi. It was only a 6 hour trip but it got in around 5am. We were picked up at the train station in Varanasi by a driver sent by our guest house.
Varanasi is nice. It is a holy city and Hindus dream about being cremated here. Our guest house was close to the Ganges. All along the Ganges there are about 80 ghats. The main ghat for cremation is nicknamed the burning ghat. On our first day, we walked along the Ganges away from the burning ghat down towards Assi Ghat. We had lunch around Assi Ghat and then walked back along the road to our guest house. Walking along the ghats, we were continually harassed by boat operators about going for a boat ride. Walking back along the road we were dodging traffic on the road. I am not sure which was better.
We had to sort out a train to Agra from Varanasi. We had our guest house book it for us however it was quite expensive. It was almost $50 for the two of us. You can get train tickets cheap if you book them well in advance but we were doing things at the last minute. In India there are seats reserved for tourists. However, they are much more expensive. Also, they have seats held for last minute sales (ie. last 24 hours). These are further expensive. It is almost impossible to set up an account to book your own tickets online. You need to have a cell phone with an Indian SIM card which is a process in itself to get. Long story short, we were not getting any of the cheap seats on trains. We did get an overnight train though on the night of the 13th arriving the morning of the 14th.
If you are ever in Varanasi, you should check out a lassi shop called The Blue Lassi. A lassi is a yoghurt drink. At Blue Lassi, you can get a lassi with fresh fruits, coconut, chocolate, etc. It is more like eating a dessert than drinking a beverage. They are so amazing. And yoghurt is great for the digestive system. We went several times in our three days. It is close to the burning ghat. As you sit there and eat your lassi, it is quite normal to see two or three bodies carried by to the burning ghat.
At the burning ghat, much like Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, bodies are cremated. Sons carry the bodies ceremonially for miles to the Ganges. The body is submersed in the river which is believed to be holy water. The logs are piled and the body is laid on the logs. The logs for the burning are purchased from local shops. The amount of wood used depends on what can be afforded by the family. Also, the type of wood used depends on the wealth of the family. There are perhaps a dozen bodies burning at any time. Tauts try to take you to a place with a better view… for a tip that is. We did not stay too long. We felt like voyeurs watching funerals.
One evening we did go on a sunset boat ride arranged by our guest house. It took us to the burning ghats where we could observe from the water. Then we watched a ceremony that happens every evening at 6pm. The ceremony is a Hindu ritual that pays homage to the holy Ganges. It is a musical performance in which holy men do a beautiful sort of dance with candles.
One afternoon we went to Hindu University to see the gardens. We took a moto rickshaw to get there. Then we walked to a temple. Non Hindus are not allowed in many temples but this one we could go in. After exploring for a while, took a bicycle rickshaw back to Assi Ghat. Then from Assi Ghat we took a boat back to our guest house area. I wanted to take all of the traditional modes of transportation. It was fun.
We went to the post office on our last day. I had some gifts to send back for Christmas for my family. At the post office, a man sent us across the street to get our parcel packaged. I was expecting to have it all put in a box or in plastic. Instead, the man pulled out material and wrapped my items in a linen like material. He then sewed it up with a needle and heavy thread. Then, he used was to seal the thread. In the post office, the man who had sent us to his buddy across the street, now took us behind the counter (skipping the queue) and helped us get our package shipped. It cost about $40 for 3 kilograms. Of course there was the requisite shakedown for a tip. He does not work for the post office but rather does this as his way of making money. We got to skip the wait and he was helpful so we did give him a tip.
Our overnight train to Agra was longer than to Varanasi. It was 12 hours. We sat and chatted with with the four other tourists like that who were sharing our berth. I had ordered some dinner for about $1 and when I was done I was looking for somewhere to put my garbage. I asked some guys who were sitting in end of the train car. They opened the door and threw my garbage out of the train. India is a very different world than Canada. People regularly throw garbage on the streets and spitting and public defication is normal. On the streets you are not only avoiding cow and dog crap but human crap as well. It was quite okay for them to throw the garbage from the train. The toilet on the train just opens up to the tracks anyway.
We did not plan a lot of time in Agra. We arrived at 7am and then planned to leave the next day. We dropped our bags at our hotel which was only a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Taj Mahal. We went to find a roof top restaurant with an excellent view of the Taj. We found one. We had an amazing view of the Taj Mahal and enjoyed a nice breakfast with an amazing view.
After breakfast we returned to our hotel and were able to check in then. We had a shower and relaxed for a bit. Then we were brought to a travel agent across the street to help us buy a train ticket to Sawai Modhopur. We believed that we would be able to get one for not too expensive. Whether we were scammed or not we were not positive. However, we were told that there were no tickets available and that the train is not one we should take. We ended up discussing getting a car a driver to take us there. Most of the people that we met who have travelled throughout Rajasthan are doing so with a car and driver.
In the end, we booked a car, driver, and hotels for a week to get us around. I was okay with that to be honest. We spent hours looking at hotels and trains. It was nice to have it all organized for us. A driver for six days, hotels for eight nights (including breakfast), and four tiger safaris cost us about $1000. These are hotels that are above the class that we normally get when we are travelling. We went all out I guess. Now we do not have to think about anything for the next week or more. It is nice.
Booking that took a few hours. We had to pick the hotels that we wanted and sort through details. We had a tuk tuk driver who was staying with us through the whole process. I am sure he was getting a kick back from it. And, I am sure we over paid. That said, it is done and even if we over paid it was probably only by a $100 or so. Our tuk tuk driver then took us to a restaurant where we had lunch. It was a fancy place but the meal was just okay frankly. Then he took us to the Taj.
At the Taj Mahal, we paid 750 Indian Rupees each to get in (about $14). We ended up getting a guide for 475 rupees. He helped us skip the lines which were horrendous. Most of the people in the Taj Mahal were Indian nationals. They only pay 20 rupees to get in. Our guide was excellent. He knew all of the amazing photos to take of the Taj Mahal. He also gave us lots of information about the place. It was built in 22 years from 1631 to 1653. It was built as a mausoleum for his third wife. It is all marble and all of the colour in it is made from semi precious stones. It is spectacular. Inside there are two graves. At the centre is the grave of the emperor’s third wife and beside it is the body of that emperor.
We left the next morning at 6am with our driver for Sawai Madhopur. We are now in Sawai Madhopur. We came here to go to Ranthambore National Park. It is a national park with over 50 tigers. We will do four safaris here before moving on. I will get into that in my next post. For now, I just hope that I will be able to report that we saw tigers. That is why we are here.
My next post will likely be from Delhi in a week. We will be spending Christmas in Goa. It is an area with some of the most amazing beaches in the world. So far, we have not seen any sign that it is the Christmas season. Goa has more Christians and tourists flock there around Christmas time. So will we!