When you arrive in Varanasi by train, you will be overwhelmed by the masses of people that frequent this train station at any given time of any given day. It is always (!) packed with people and pilgrims, which is understandable since it’s one of the holiest cities in the world.
A great start for an unforgettable stay is if you book a room in a hotel along the holy river Ganges. This is where all the action happens 24/7. It’s best of course if you get a room that overlooks the river (Alka Hotel / Room 105 is a great bet).
A walk along the Ghats in Varanasi is a must and a very rewarding experience. Every minute you will get to see something interesting. People bathing, shampooing, shaving their hair, resting, placing flowers on to the water or the occasional corpse drifting downriver. Not everybody is cremated: pregnant women, children, people who died from a snakebite and holy people. They are “set free” into the Ganges River and well, their bodies occasionally show up at the surface again. You will also get to see (if you’re “lucky”) dogs gnawing on bones which were not cremated properly … yes you will get to see things that you only see in India.
The cremation process itself work like this: the bodies arrive strapped to the car roofs at a certain place outside the old city and is then carried through the little alleys down to the cremation Ghats, where hectic activities are going on all day long. Some Indian guy told us that about 100 people are cremated every day. This needs a lot of firewood and a lot of people to build the fireplaces. Certain wood is used for the cremation process, to keep the smoke and the smell as little as possible.
Walking through the small alleys of Varanasi is like walking through a maze … you need a while to manage this but after a while you’ve got the knack of it. If you stroll away from the main attractions you get to see curiosities like a local gym for example. Imagine, 45 degrees outside and people working out …
There are also some rooftop restaurants, which don’t get to see many foreigners but never the less; they have great food and very attentive service. You simply have to be eager to check out things, this is most important in every city if you ask me.
After a long day walk, crossing the double-Decker bridge across the Ganges river to the East is interesting as well because on top is the local traffic and underneath pass the trains. The bridge is huge and fluctuates especially when a train crosses (somehow a bit scary). The bridge is very high above the river and about one kilometer long. After arriving on the other side, we started walking back to Varanasi along the river shore and got hold of a local fisherman who was very happy to row us upwards the river back to our hotel. He was chewing some leaves all the time and we were wondering what it was. He explained that the leaves give him some sort of “boost” to keep him rowing. I guess they worked because he was one hell of a fast rower. It was clear that he know what he was doing and even the strong current didn’t bother him.
The days in Varanasi went by really fast (too fast to be exact), therefore we will be exploring this very exciting city in summer again!