Varanasi – Ganges, Ghats, and Bholbhan!

I crossed overland from Nepal to India at the Sunauli border crossing. It was a no-hassle crossing compared to the ChinaNepal border. As I walked across, there was a 50m no man’s land in between which stretched as the far as the eye could see. The first thing I noticed was how much dirtier and smellier it was on the Indian side compared to the Nepal side. There was rubbish and cow dung everywhere. But on the bright side there were surprisingly no touts given that it was 6 in the morning. On the Indian side I met a solo traveler named Rhiannon who was also heading to Varanasi via bus so we decided to take the bus together. The bus park was less than 50m from the Indian immigration office and we had no trouble finding the correct bus to get on. It should be noted that Indian immigration at the Sunauli border consisted of no more than a few guys sitting at a desk under a building overhang with some pens, forms, and official stamps.

India - Varanasi - Landscape

Varanasi and the River Ganges

The Indian long distance local buses are much larger than their Nepali counterparts and we happened to be the only 2 people aboard as we departed the bus park at approximately 06:30. The driver and fare collector were both young friendly guys and took care of us when we arrived at rest stations. For breakfast and lunch we ate at roadside local places which served up excellent (and cheap!) Indian fare. One thing we didn’t count on was how long the ride was going to take. I thought it would take anywhere from 9-11 hours, the fare collector said 11, but in the end it took 13! There was plenty of traffic caused by rickshaws, bicycles, cows, goats, and other slow moving objects. There were also long waits at bus parks where we queued up for anywhere from 10-30 minutes, but no new passengers ever got on. The other option would have been to take the bus to Gorahkpur (3 hours via local bus) and then transfer to a train but I heard the transfer could be bothersome because more likely than not you’d have to wait hours for a train and deal with touts trying to sell you tickets at inflated prices while lying to you that the ticket counter is closed, etc.

We arrived in Varanasi at around 19:30, well after sunset. Thankfully I booked ahead with Ganga Fuji Home in the heart of the old city who came to pick us up from the local bus station which surprisingly had no touts. The owner and staff are really friendly and helpful there. Also, the rooftop restaurant had aircon which was a huge bonus after our epic 13 hour sweaty bus ride and walk through the narrow alleys to the guesthouse (rickshaws are not allowed in the old city).

Sunrise over the River Ganges, Varanasi, India

Sunrise over the River Ganges

India - Varanasi - Shiva Pilgrims

Shiva Pilgrims

The following morning we tried to wake up early for a sunrise boat ride but we forgot to find out when the precise time of sunrise was (the guesthouse has free wifi) so the sun was already halfway up by the time we got down to the ghat. Although the sunrise was spectacular we decided to come back tomorrow morning for a boat ride.

We went back to sleep for a few hours and then spent the day exploring the ghats along the Ganges, walking south from the main ghat. It turns out that there’s little to no activity midday, all the action occurs at sunrise and sunset when locals and pilgrims alike come down to the ghats to bathe. We also visited a couple of Hindu temples in the city but they weren’t all that impressive. I was looking forward to sunset, when the ghats would come to life again. In a stroke of luck, we arrived in the middle of a holy festival devoted to Shiva. All across town, particularly at the ghats, there were groups of guys, young and old, dressed entirely in orange shouting “bholbhan!” which loosely translated means “praise Shiva”. Indian and foreign tourists alike were taking in the scene at the main ghat – Hindu pilgrims bathing and collecting water from the Ganges to offer to Shiva, saddhus chilling and/or smoking bhang, locals bathing in and drinking the holy water of the Ganges, touts and boatmen pestering tourists. It was organized chaos!

India - Varanasi - Main Ghat

Early morning pilgrims at the Main Ghat

The next morning we woke up on time for the sunrise but unfortunately there was some cloud cover so it wasn’t as good as the sunrise yesterday. We negotiated a 30 min boat ride for 200 rupees total in the hopes that the sunrise would get better. The cloud cover didn’t clear but it was still a beautiful sunrise on the River Ganges. The activity at the main ghat was in full effect so we stuck around to witness the scene. It wasn’t all that different from the day before but today I wasn’t completely exhausted from riding on a bus for 13 hours so I was able to enjoy it.

The rest of my time in Varanasi was spent eating, shopping, exploring the old city and chilling at Andy and Laura’s post hotel which had a swimming pool. It’s always nice to see familiar faces!

A word on the touts…the touts in India are the worst I’ve seen so far; even worse than the cinnamon roll touts at the Pokhara bus park. Varanasi and Agra are notorious for having the worst touts in northern India. The main ghat unsurprisingly has the most touts. Every boatman calls out to you if you want a boat, people are trying to sell you beads, “holy men” try to bless you and then ask for money, men come up to you to shake your hand then try to give you a hand massage and charge you. On the streets rickshaw drivers swarm you and sometimes even block your path trying to get you into their vehicles. And no one ever takes no for an answer even though they all know what no means. It’s very difficult not to lose your cool when the touts are getting aggressive, overly persistent, or straight devious. I lost my cool several times already because they don’t leave you alone even though you make it clear that you don’t want what they’re offering. The only thing that works every time to get rid of them is to threaten to get the police. I’ve also tried saying no in polite and rude ways, both with mixed results. But the most important thing to remember is to not let the touts ruin your holiday in India.

India - Varanasi - Me with some Shiva Pilgrims

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