Varanasi on Voltarol!

Veira, Gill, Sue Varanasi on VoltarolSaturday 4th

We’re just about to board the plane for Kolkata.  Ahead of us are three weeks of backpacking around North East India, riding over 2,000 miles on India’s legendary railways and spending time in some of Buddhism’s most venerated pilgrimage sites.

We’ll be staying a few days in Kolkata before moving on to Bodhgaya – the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment.  From there, we’ll move on to Varanasi, which is the most sacred of Hindu cities and is also very close to Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first teaching.  In addition, we’ll be spending time in Kushinagar where the Buddha died.  We’d have liked to visit his birthplace at Lumbini but this is just over the border into Nepal and we only have single-entry visas so we’ll have to save it for our next trip.

As you might have gathered from the photo, we’re all middle-aged ladies, we’re not used to roughing it and we have a collection of interesting ailments between us, so the trip may present some challenges.  We’re well stocked up with mosquito repellent, Immodium and Voltarol, though, so we’re hoping for the best!  We’ve also made sure we take some old clothes because it will be the festival of Holi while we’re in Bodhgaya and we’re expecting to get covered in paint!

Some of the places we’re staying look a bit basic so we may not be able to use wifi but we’re hoping to be able to blog every few days.  Keep reading and you’ll be able to share in our adventure………..           G

Sunday 5th

Varanasi on Voltarol 2We landed before 7 this morning but it took us until after 9 to get through immigration.  We are beginning to discover that bureocracy is as intrinsic to the ‘full on’ India experience as the vibrancy of places like Kolkata.

The poverty here is absolute and almost unimaginable – families live on the central reservations of busy roads, old ladies beg and young men wait around, willing to help with anything for a few rupees.  The traffic is terrible, with people driving beaten up old taxis as if they’re dodgems and motorbikes rarely carrying fewer than 3 unhelmeted passengers!

Varanasi on Voltarol 3Our hotel is in the historic market district of the city, which was the nucleus of the British Empire before that moved to New Delhi.  It is still home to precious cultural treasures like the unique Tibetan Buddhist wall hangings in the Indian Museum which we hope to be able to see before we leave.  The history of this part of town also means, however, that its grand but crumbling buildings are now each occupied by hundreds of people and they live surrounded by piles of rubble and rubbish.  There are pumps and standpipes in the street where men sit on pavements to have a shower and women do laundry and there are rows of open urinals adjacent to food stalls.  We photographed a herd of goats being driven through the city streets this morning, which seemed charming until we saw the carrion crows circling above the meat market later in the day.

We’ve experienced a really different side to Kolkata life this evening as well.  Two of us went to watch the sun go down on the British Empire at the spectacular Victoria Memorial, built by Sir William Emerson in the early 20th century.  This wasn’t quite the positive affirmation of republicanism we anticipated, though!  It seems to be a tradition for people to get dressed up and pay R10 (about 12p) in the hour before sunset to take selfies in front of the beautifully illuminated building.  We were astounded to find that being photographed there with a British person is the ultimate in kudos and we were photographed posing with a steady stream of very polite but often tactile people.  We expect to become facebook sensations as poster girls for the British Empire – not how any of us thought today would end!

We have one more day in Kolkata tomorrow before we board a night train to Bodhgaya.  We are all very excited!    G

Monday 6th

Our morning walk began with a friendly off-duty, out of uniform policeman who offered to take us to St Paul Cathedral, it being on his way to work.  He was lovely and we were very grateful.  We’ve since heard some stories from other travellers about ingenious and devious ‘fake police’ and other scams which will make us less trustful in future but I have to say that, apart from the laughingly obvious few false offers of assistance, the genuinely helpful ones are the ones we remember.

We spent the day soaking up the sights and sounds of  Kolkata, ending at a roof top restaurant close to the hotel.  As the sun went down, the echo of the call to prayers  from all the neighbourhood minarets was beautiful and emotive.  It stunned us all into silence.

Our last image of Kolkata was the taxi drive from the hotel to Howrah Station.  There is a fine line between exhilarating and terrifying!   The free for all dash by yellow taxis, colourful buses and wagons, motor bikes, rickshaws, tuk tuks, cycles laden with bales of goodness knows what, all heading for the 4 lanes of the Howrah bridge in a battle of wills is something that we won’t forget in a hurry.  We arrived safely and were all happy to over-tip the driver.

We easily located our train for the overnight Mumbai mail train to Gaya.  We all had top bunks but only Gill with her long legs managed to get up there with grace.  An elderly Indian lady fellow passenger had to give Sue a shove up (on the obvious place to push!)  I just climbed the side steps and hurled myself onto the bunk knowing that I would be there until morning.

The stations came and went with no announcements because it was a sleeper and it was assumed that we all knew when to get off the train.  I had noticed from the list of stops I had prepared, that the train was running 10 minutes early.  Our scheduled arrival was 5.20 So we were assembled ready to disembark at  5.10 came and went and as 5.20 approached the train slowed and stopped.  It was pitch black outside.  Instead of seeing a platform there was a steep climb down the steps to a dirt pathway so we clambered down in true wild west style.  We were at a lovely little station with groups of smartly dressed passengers on the opposite platform (yes, there was one on that side) looking at us with interest. But it wasn’t Gaya.  The guard and timetable had omitted to mention the occasional short stop here at Manpur!

The station master here was marvellous.  After a few phone calls he came out onto the platform and with his torch he flagged down the next train to pick us up and take us a bit further down the line to Gaya.     V

Tuesday 7th

We have arrived in Bodhgaya and our pilgrimage has begun!

After our train travel, Tara guest house is an oasis of calm.  There are Tara thankas over our beds and we will say more of the Corsican woman who runs it later. (For now, suffice to say that she removed all her flags except the prayer flags).

It was afternoon and very hot before we ventured out but we paid a visit to 2 monasteries that are very close by; a Nyngma monastery and Beru Khentse Rinpoche’s Kagyu monastery.  On the way we were looking at a huge and beautiful standing Buddha in the garden of a monastery when a seated lama called us in and sent a monk to get extra chairs so that we could sit in the shade for a while.  He was from the Theravada tradition and we spent a lovely 10 minutes talking about Buddha and Bodhgaya and flowers.    V