Our overnight sleeper train from Gorakhpur to Varanasi arrived seven hours later at 5:30am. Our A/C cabin had eight beds per section, three on each side and two across the walkway. It sounds crowded but the trains are actually quite comfortable. Of course this is dependent on who you get in your section. We unfortunately had a group of three Indian men who didn't feel like sleeping and felt that talking at a high volume was okay (it wasn't). One guy even sat on the foot of Cameron's bed to join the conversation. It was difficult to sleep anyways knowing that we had to get off at 4:30am.
When arriving in a new city, the first thing we do is sort out accommodations. Typically we find a popular budget area in our guidebook and have a tuk-tuk or taxi drop us off there. Then we hike the area on foot and view a few rooms before settling, price and value can change drastically within a few hundred meters.
Hotel owners in India are known to give out hefty commissions to rickshaw and taxi drivers, sometimes up to double the room price, which creates aggressive tactics by these hustling drivers. It is common to be dropped at the wrong hotel with the drivers deceitfully saying "this place is much better" or "you're place no longer exists" or "you're hotel is full", even if you have a confirmed reservation. They go to great lengths to get these coveted commissions, even calling your reserved hotel and handing the phone to you for verification. This evidently turns out to be their colleague on the other end agreeing that the hotel is at capacity. Pretty crafty!
Arriving at the crack of dawn was not something we were keen on, but it was the only option we had. Trains in India have ridiculous schedules that have you arriving during the middle of the night, which can be quite frustrating and daunting. Still sleepy and exhausted, we had no desire to walk the dark streets of Varanasi looking to save a few dollars. So when approached by a man looking to sell us accommodations we negotiated price and terms at the station, knowing that he'd get a nice commission from the hotel. It actually ended up working out very well for everyone. We didn't get the run around, got cheap transportation and arrived at the right location within minutes… and the room had A/C and a private bathroom for $11. We were satisfied and happy to have had a bed after that long journey from Nepal.
Our hotel had a great rooftop restaurant with stunning views of Varanasi and the Ganges. We spent a good portion of our time in Varanasi on this rooftop enjoying Indian food and colourful sunsets. The city comes alive in the evenings when families take to their rooftops. Every evening kids practice their kite flying techniques in preparation for the annual festival in January. The sky is filled with colorful kites swirling about, a magical and beautiful spectacle that we looked forward to every evening.
When we wanted to go for a walk along the river the hotel manager insisted that we go with Dabu (I think that's how he would spell his name?), a younger hotel employee. The Old City is a labyrinth of slim roads that are known to confuse and frustrate foreigners… it lived up to its reputation.
It was actually great having Dabu as our free tour guide. He explained the many aspects of the Hindu religion and walked us through the tight network of archaic alleyways. We visited several silk manufacturing homes and witnessed the intricate weaving process that can take a family weeks to produce one item. Of course we also had to visit a few silk shops to see the final products (although if we purchased I'm sure Dabu would have made a small commission).
We entered an old stone building and were taken to a back room where an elderly man was waiting to show us his vast display of handcrafted silk products. We can't remember his name but we'll treasure the conversations we had. The family-run silk business had been passed down from generation to generation; he had already passed the business on to his son. Obviously his goal for our visit was to sell some silk products, but we actually spent very little time looking at silk.
Instead, the white-haired man was eager to tell us about his karma, astrology, American politics, international business and his family. The 69 year old man knew he was going to die between the ages of 73 to 74, so he only had a few good years left. Astrology had predicted the age of death for his father, grandfather and his brother, so he had accepted his fate and his life was now focused on creating good karma. We just listened to the wise man speak. He had this calm and peace about him. He was one of those people that you instantly liked and wanted to get to know more.
Dabu and the hotel owner recommended that we stay indoors at night. Not so much because of danger, but because the old city is a maze and frequent power outages make it very dark and easy to get terribly lost. Varanasi is a beautiful city from the rooftop, but it is disgustingly dirty on street level. Like many places in India and Nepal, the sanitary conditions are horrendous. A big problem is the cows that roam the streets and s*** everywhere, and their diet isn't freshly cut organic grass!
Cameron had a broken watch sitting in his bag and wanted to give it to Dabu, although Nicole thought otherwise because the watch didn't work ("Who gives a broken watch to someone?" she says). Nevertheless, Cameron gave Dabu the watch anyway. Dabu's eyes lit up… he was so excited! It's a shiny silver watch and looks to be the real deal, but it's still just a broken knockoff TAG that we purchased on the streets of Hong Kong. Dabu was sure his brother could fix it.
Dabu took Cameron to the ATM and along the way he would flash his wrist proudly as he walked through the neighbourhood. When Cameron left the ATM booth the young security guard asked, "Did you really give this as a gift to Dabu? How much is this worth? Why did you give him a gift? Can I have one too?" It was quite comical. The watch cost about $40 two years ago but we said it only cost $20… we should have said $5 because the security guard's mouth dropped to the floor. It converted to over 1000 rupees, which is a lot of money in India.
Our time in Varanasi had come to a close and we made our way to the train station to board the 12 hour overnight sleeper train to Agra. The train station was quite the sight with hundreds of people sprawled about the station. Many were sitting in groups eating while others pulled up some cardboard and just slept. Every inch of floor space was taken. It looked like something out of a movie. Were they coming or going? Or were they just hanging out because the station offered shade from the sun? Whatever the case, the tourist police were adamant that we sit in an air conditioned 'tourist' room separate from the locals.
Once again the train arrived right on schedule (We were surprised because we had heard such horror stories about India's train system). We were now on our way to Agra to visit the world famous Taj Mahal!