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By Mikey
Monday, 22nd November 2004 05:33

Indian trains are different to Chinese ones in a couple of subtle ways. There was almost no dredging of throats and very few people seemed to smoke. The compartments that we were in weren't quite the same - instead of having a door they had curtains to separate them and they weren't as big as the ones on the Chinese trains. Aside from that there weren't many differences.

We found our way to our compartment and found that one man was already there. He was on one of the upper bunks, well, actually his luggage was on one of the upper bunks. He didn't seem to have left himself much room to sleep. Shortly after we had stored our bags under the seats another man showed up and took the last berth in the compartment. After a while the train left. The man who had just arrived was a doctor from London as it turned out. He had returned to India to mark the 40th anniversary of his departure to England. We spent quite a long time chatting. In fact, we talked until lots of people had started going to sleep and we were feeling tired too.

The doctor was getting off at Varanasi as well as us. He had a brother there that he was going to visit. He mentioned that his brother (or cousin) had a guesthouse that we might be interested in and we thought we'd give it a try. When we arrived in Varanasi we waited with the doctor on the platform for his brother to turn up. The similarity between the two was obvious and we followed the two short men out of the station and to a waiting car. The hotel the doctor mentioned was full unfortunately and we let him leave with his brother to go and get some rest. A tuk-tuk driver then took us to a reasonable looking place for a small sum of money and we settled in for a quick nap.

After having a shower we got dressed and tried to find our way to the Ganges. Twenty minutes of walking along busy, dusty, polluted roads past shop after shop using noisy generators, we gave up and flagged down a rickshaw. He wasn't sure where we wanted to go at first and started cycling. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and we had very little idea where we were when he stopped but thought that we must be close. We asked how much we owed him and he made a gesture that said "whatever you want". Unfortunately we made the mistake of offering something reasonable, more than reasonable in fact. He then wouldn't leave us alone until we reluctantly paid too much. We should have made an insultingly low offer and let him haggle us up instead.

Unable to find the Ganges we went into an internet bar for a while to check our email. We then found out that we were way over in the wrong side of town and walked back the other way. We had expected Varanasi to be a nice place given that it's supposed to be the holiest city in India. It is, however, just as dirty, dusty, polluted, littered, crowded and noisy as Delhi was. Actually, more so. I'm a bit disappointed by India so far. I wasn't expecting the cleanest place on the planet but I was surprised by what we've seen already.

We eventually reached the Ganges and had a quick wander along the bank and saw people bathing in its holy water. As holy and normal looking as it may be, it apparently has a high heavy metal content from factories upstream so we didn't indulge. As we walked one man offered his hand as he said hello. I saw no harm in returning the greeting and shaking his hand but it seems that he had other plans. No sooner had I touched his hand than he started massaging it and my hand. I told him no thank you. I told him no. I told him no and tried to withdraw my hand but his grip was quite strong. Eventually I got free and he started demanding money. I offered him a small sum and told him that I had said no. He didn't seem happy about it but as I tried to walk away he grudgingly accepted.

We walked the other way for a while and saw water buffalo in the river, monkeys in trees and a funeral. We didn't go too near the funeral so as not to intrude on the grieving families. Also the bodies were being burned out in the open and we didn't fancy getting too close. We headed away and into the maze of passageways leading away from the river. We found the place we had originally intended to stay in but hadn't been able to as they didn't answer their phone. We had some lunch there and then tried to find the Golden Temple. We got a little lost, wandered down lots of wrong passageways and then finally found our way there. The only problem was that they wouldn't let us in with our cameras and there wasn't anyway to leave our bags so we left and walked the long way back to our hotel.

Having seen the Ganges and had our senses thoroughly assaulted by Varanasi, we decided to have an easier day. Our guide book suggested Sarnath, 10km away from Varanasi. We found a tuk-tuk to take us out there that was driven by a man with two thumbs on his right hand. It didn't take too long to get there although the ride was quite bumpy.

The ruins of Sarnath are a collection of Buddhist monasteries and stupas that were built on the site where Buddha gave his first sermon. It was a nice, sunny day and we took our time wandering around the site.

Just over the road from the ruins we looked around a museum containing some of the artifacts that were recovered from the site when it was rediscovered last century. Most of the exhibits were statues of fragments of statues but worth seeing anyway.

Outside the entrance to the museum were several market stalls selling various types of souvenirs. Claire found some little, carved boxes that she liked and bought lots of them. From one seller she even haggled brilliantly for a few items, haggled brilliantly again for a few more items and then blew it by offering a round number greater than the combined, haggled values. Doh!

We managed to get a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for much less than the one that brought us out in the first place. Meters would be so much easier but most tuk-tuks don't have one and it would be a miracle if a driver agreed to use it anyway.

There wasn't a lot of point in getting up early. We could have had a nice busy day if wanted to but neither of us felt particularly good that morning so we didn't bother. We weren't due to check out until midday and left it as late as possible to emerge from our room. We had received a quick phone call at 8.30 asking if we wanted breakfast but we just said maybe later and left it at that.

After checking out we wandered around the nearby streets looking for echinacea and tissues to help make our apparent colds go away. No one seemed to have the former and it took a while to find the latter too. It didn't help that every time we stopped walking to cross the busy road, five rickshaws and several autos would pull up in front of us and ask where we were going. We then would have to walk further along the road and try and cross again with the same results.

We got back to our hotel after only a short time away and headed for the garden to have some lunch. Our nice friendly waiter said he could arrange some sandwiches for our train journey when we asked him and also found us a taxi to take us to Mughalsarai train station in the afternoon. We had some butter chicken for lunch along with a couple of other side dishes. I've never tried butter chicken before and it was rather nice - something else I'll have to find a recipe for when we get back.

With lunch done we spent a while checking our email and waiting for our taxi. It turned up slightly early but then the driver and the other man started tinkering in the back for a few minutes. (Our sandwiches never materialised but that was ok, we hadn't paid for them anyway.) Finally the men finished whatever they were doing and, after a quick explanation, bump started the little van. Apparently the battery was bad.

The roads were full of rickshaws, bicycles, scooters, people, cows and the occasional car. Our driver raced up to the back of each one and hooted his horn until the obstacle moved. Frequently he swerved all over the road trying to avoid running into slower objects and oncoming traffic. Having said that we didn't get out of second gear for quite some time and I was more worried about the other people on the roads than about us. One funny moment happened when our driver stalled the van in a traffic jam. He had only recently dropped off the other man and was on his own except for us. Of course, with a bad battery there was no way the van was going to start by itself and help was needed. I was tempted to offer to push but since we had left plenty of time to get to the station and it wasn't our fault that his van didn't work properly, I stayed silent for a minute. The driver managed to call someone over from the other side of the road to help but because were were in a traffic jam there wasn't a lot of room in which to bump start the van. Every time the traffic moved forwards, the gap in front of the van was instantly filled with bicycles and rickshaws. Finally our driver got the van over to the other, less congested side of the road and did a 3-point turn with the aid of another passer by. They then had the space to bump start the van and we were off again. The passer by hopped in for the ride.

Eventually we got on to more sparsely populated roads, the speed increased and I became a bit more concerned about our safety. Our whole trip has a strange symmetry to it, thinking about it. In our first country we had a scary van ride and now in our last country we had another one. Sure there have been other journeys where I've wondered if I'll see Christmas but the one in Mexico and the one today were the scariest.

We left the van as quickly as possible, thanked our driver (out of habit only, not for the quality of the ride) and headed into the station. We were a whole two hours early for our train but I'm glad we didn't leave the journey much later when it would have been dark. We stayed for a few minutes in the second class waiting room before heading for platform 2 and the upper class waiting rooms. I say rooms because there were two, one ladies and one gents. Initially we thought of finding a bench on the platform but a handful of local children were pestering us and trying to take things from our bags. Claire went to the safety of the ladies waiting room and out of reach of the children. I headed for the gents, closely followed by some determined children. However, they were shooed back out of the waiting room by an Indian passenger. I noticed that the room had several women in it as well as men and I went to fetch Claire. There we waited.

We were soon joined by a couple of French girls who didn't seem to sure of what they were doing. We sat there for a while listening to the endless, automated announcements of trains running late and trains arriving. There was an announcement for our train but it was cut short by another man booming over the speakers. So we had to wait through the entire cycle again to find out that our train was 40 minutes late.

When our train did arrive it was tricky locating our carriage as there were no obvious markings. In the end we just got on one and asked. It turned out to be the right one but we had to turf some people out of our berths before we could get settled. We found ourselves sharing with the French girls.

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