Holy Cow it's Varanasi
We thought we had seen poverty. We thought we had seen dirty pavements. We thought we had experienced Indian traffic. We thought we had seen a lot of cows. We thought we had experienced touts and beggars. We thought we had seen polluted water. We thought we had seen tiny walkways full of people and rubbish. We thought we understood India, until we came to Varanasi!
Our train into Varanasi was delayed by a few hours but our lovely auto driver was patiently waiting for us to take us to our family guest house situated in the Old City. The pick-up was essential because of the layout and the craziness of Varanasi it is very easy to get lost or get 'helped' by a tout leading you astray. Our guest house was nice and the owner is helpful and friendly he even escorted us across the roof armed with a small catapult to show us the view of the Ganges and to scare away evil monkeys.
After a short rest and a long shower we braved the labyrinth of tiny alleyways in pursuit of a lassi from 'Blue Lassi' restaurant, apparently this is where you can find the best lassi ever. Unfortunately because of the confusing s***ty covered walkways we didn't actually locate 'Blue Lassi' until the last day; when we were treated with a delicious drink (not as good as Brother's in Amritsar) but annoyingly one of the workers there was still trying to get everyone to his shop to buy silk! Our initial search for the lassi did bring us to the delightful, the delicious; Ganga Fuji. So delicious are the delights of Ganga Fuji we ate there every day, sometimes twice! This could also be due to the fact there aren't many restaurants that look appetising and in the dark it is even easier to take a wrong turning. We did have the pleasure, I use the term loosely, of listening to some Indian classical music with our evening meal in Ganga Fuji but the real triumph was their version of Saag Aloo and I have included a (guessed) recipe below if you fancy giving it a go yourself, I certainly will when we return home. Anyway enough about food (sorry ElIe, I can't help it) I am starting to sound a lot like Dad!
We had three full days to fill in Varanasi and our initial reaction was not very positive, everything we found challenging in Delhi seemed to be multiplied here. However, after a few hours of wandering we did get used to the mentalness (I realise this isn't an actual word but I made it up just for Varanasi!). The touts, we began to ignore and we became experts at dodging the piles of cow pat and rubbish that littered the floor. One moment epitomised Varanasi for me; we were walking towards the Ganges (holy river) with a tout (pretends to be holy) bellowing 'you want to see the burning bodies?' as we squeezed between a cow (holy) and a sadhus (holy man) blocking the alleyway, only to be ushered out of the way to make room for men carrying a dead body to the cremation site! If you have been or ever visit Varanasi you will fully understand why this moment summarises a day in the life of this ancient city.
We took a boat ride to see the Ghats from a more peaceful perspective. The sun was beginning to set as we were gently rowed past the cremation site (lovely) and the late night bathers until we reached the main Ghat called Dashaswamedh where we wanted to exit the boat and see the Ghat ceremony at 18:40. We had a slightly heated discussion with our rowers on how long we were supposed to be on the water and in the end got out a little earlier than anticipated, never mind! We managed to get a good spot to see the ceremony despite the thousands of people who were already there. It was a nice ceremony with incense, lights, religious chants and flower throwing. It is an ancient tradition and people have been celebrating the Ghats and Ganges for thousands of years but it did drag on a bit! I was getting so bored so when James had finished getting some awesome photos and suggested we leave I couldn't say yes quick enough! We escaped to Ganga Fuji for tea heading though the market to avoid the hundreds of beggars lined up with their bowls ready and waiting for the ceremony to be over.
The second boat trip we took was on our last morning. We went to the main Ghat and after some absurd quotes of 1000 rupees per person, per hour we found a nice guy who we paid a more reasonable sum of 300 rupees between us. We headed south this time and we found this direction much more scenic. There were more people praying and bathing, the Ghats, buildings and temples were more beautiful and exactly how I had imagined Varanasi to be. I was doubly pleased as we also got to see two Dhoby Ghats; where the locals bring their washing to be pounded and pummelled by men in order to beat some holiness into them. I hope the holiness gets in as washing in the Ganges cannot get anything clean. There is rubbish floating in it, animals use it for everything, including a toilet, as do people from the slums. There are factories further upstream that are pumping all sorts of chemicals and rubbish into the river. We even saw a dead body floating past our boat. It must have been chucked in by relatives because not everyone is allowed a cremation but they still want to end up in the Ganges as it is a direct link to heaven (or something like that!) With all this going on you would think people would think twice before entering but they can't get enough! Not only are they washing clothes, they dunk themselves right under, wash out their mouths and kids have a great time jumping in and out of the water. It must be bloody holy to cleanse all the crap out and heal all ailments!
On our second day we planned a visit to Sarnath; a Buddhist site where Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as Buddha, the 'Awakened One', delivered his first sermon. We organised a trip with our lovely guest house owner and our auto driver buddy. Not only did we visit Sarnath but five other temples situated outside the old city and had some new Indian traffic experiences. Two of the temples were pretty rubbish, one of them was average but had monkeys so we liked it. The other two had a few interesting things to see but we got annoyed at one as we were asked for a donation for looking after our shoes when we had just left them outside with nobody around, we were disgusted at the cheek of it so gave him an insulting 2 rupee coin (about 1p). We saw a huge map of India carved out of marble, which was pretty cool and the temple by the fancy university was just opening after a lunch break so we piled in with the prayer goers and witnessed the mayhem that can occur even in a holy place. It was so frantic that they found it necessary to hire a policeman to usher and whistle people out of the way!
Sarnath was the place we had originally wanted to see and it was a nice spot with lots of monastery ruins and a big stupa. As a bonus, just outside the perimeters of Sarnath we went into a Thai temple, which had a very impressive giant statue of a standing Buddha. We were exhausted after a long day and of course went back to Ganga Fuji to enjoy the Saag Aloo and listen to the owner describe the food in great detail of how it is made. He loves to choose our meal for us as he knows exactly which dish complements which! He really is the flamboyant Ainsley Harriot of India.
Our journey in the auto back to the station was pretty stressful. There had been a downpour just before we left the guest house and all the main roads leading to the station were flooded and closed. Every road we took had at least 30cm of water coverage and these were the open roads. It showed how poor the draining system must be but also how hardy the Indians are. Scooters, push bikers, autos, people pushing carts full of luggage still managed to get from A to B, if the roads were even half as flooded in England the country would come to a standstill. You'll be pleased to hear we made it to the rat infested station with plenty of time thanks to our driver's insider knowledge of the streets.
As you have probably guessed Varanasi has not been our favourite city. Having said that, the morning boat ride along the Ganges is one of our top highlights and of course the whole place was an experience with every step. However, three days was enough for us!
On our sleeper train back to Delhi we shared our berth, 3AC this time, with two young guys from Japan and what seemed like 10 overweight, loud Indian men. James paints an excellent picture of what the men looked like and describes in great detail how much they managed to consume within the space of two hours. He had Elle, Cedric and Kiera (also at SBT) in fits describing the said men when we went out for our last supper with the SBT lot in Delhi. I will leave this story up to him!
Kailash's Saag Aloo
Ingredients (for two people as a side dish or one person as a main)
A lot of Spinach!
2 Garlic cloves
1 fresh chilli (optional)
1 small onion
Whack in some other spices if you fancy it
1 small potato cooked and cubed
Very finely chop the spinach, garlic, onion and chilli. Heat up a little oil in a pan and add the spices. When the spices have mixed with the oil, this should take no more than 30 seconds turn the heat up slightly and add the garlic, onion and chilli. Sautee for a few minutes or until the onion is cooked. Reduce the heat and add the spinach and potatoes. Add the coconut milk so it covers the spinach and simmer until the spinach is cooked.
Serve with a Paratha from Ganga Fuji is possible, if not a Naan from Tesco re-heated will do!
Disclaimer - Jamemily's Blog cannot be held responsible if this doesn't bear any resemblance to Kailash's delicious dish or if it tastes disgusting and you are put off Saag Aloo for life. We know what it should look and taste like so I'll attempt a recreation on my return.