GOLDEN TRIANGLE AND VARANASI

A journey BY RAIL, ROAD, & AIR from NEW DELHI

DECEMBER 27, 2009 - JANUARY 3, 2010

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India is such a huge and complex country that we feel it's better to concentrate on one compact region and hopefully gain a small understanding of its vast history and diverse culture.
We decide to tour India's 'Golden Triangle'; the northern region that includes the cities of the Moghul Empire. Here, we will see the world's most beautiful examples of its historical architecture.
We visit the cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, and Varanasi and their many UNESCO World Heritage sites where we stare in awe at immense and magnificently crafted buildings and their intricate decorations. We experience train travel on the world's largest and most crowded rail network, we drive through rural villages and are rewarded by the smiles of local children, and we float noiselessly along the sacred Ganges River, casting marigolds on the water's surface.
We wander New Delhi streets as they prepare for the 'Commonwealth Games' in October. Many of the civil works projects are well underway; the main workers are women.
Nothing I've ever experienced during my previous travels prepares me for the colourful, vibrant, yet chaotic, and challenging country that is India.

TOUR: GOLDEN TRIANGLE & VARANASI - PEREGRINE ADVENTURES

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DAY ONE: NEW DELHI

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2009

Welcome to India! On arrival at Delhi Airport, you will be met by a Peregrine representative and transferred to your hotel. This evening, there will be an important welcome meeting in the hotel at around 6 pm to meet your local leader and fellow group of travellers. Until then, you can use any free time before the meeting to explore this excitingly chaotic capital city. Filled with historical sites from different eras, museums, galleries and endless bazaars, there’s plenty to see in Delhi.

We meet our fellow-travellers for the next ten days as we settle in for the introductory meeting with our tour guide. Wearing a khaki beret and a military-style jacket, I'm not too sure what to expect over the next few days. He looks efficient! Taking us for a short walk in the local district, we arrive at a restaurant, which has government backing, and the food is safe for foreigners. We quickly learn that we must only order boneless chicken, as oftentimes it is not properly cooked through. However, this is a good opportunity to meet the others on our tour. 

DAY TWO: NEW DELHI - JAIPUR

MONDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2009

Get a taste of Indian rail travel with an express train into Rajasthan and onto the region’s capital of Jaipur (approximately 5 hours). On arrival, take a walking tour through the crowded streets packed with cars, camel carts, rickshaws, trucks and bicycles, past traditionally dressed Rajput men wearing colourful turbans and sporting magnificent moustaches. Walk the city's crowded bazaars filled with handcrafted textiles, folk art, and the local speciality of semi-precious stones. Afterwards, stop at one of India's most photographed buildings – the Hawa Mahal or 'Palace of the Winds'. There’s also the option to visit one of India’s finest palaces – Jaipur's Royal City Palace – or the astronomical instrument sculptures of the Observatory. This evening, continue to indulge in the wonders of Indian culture by watching a Bollywood blockbuster at Raj Mandir cinema.

As we arrive at the Old Delhi railway station by hotel cars, our luggage is plucked out of the boot of the car and hoisted on the head of a porter. Without a word, he turns and walks towards the platforms with me in pursuit. Just as I come to within arm's reach of the porter, he stops, cases still balanced on his head. Like the parting of the Red Sea, the tightly-crushed sea of humanity move out of the path of a hapless bovine, which had decided to take a walk through the railway station. I've heard about cows having 'sacred' status, but I didn't think I would see one in the middle of a busy railway station. It won't be the only time we see this sight, but for the first timer, it is quite the experience.

We settle inside our first-class seats and I do wonder whether we'll see people hanging off the sides of the carriages. We don't, but I also don't get the opportunity to check out the second and third-class carriages either. 

I just have one wish; that the train's windows had been cleaned. As we pull out of the Old Delhi station and clear the city, the views of the green plains being replaced by the desert sands of Rajasthan would be better remembered through clear glass. 

The five-hour journey is finally over as we pull into Jaipur Junction railway station and the next part of our adventure begins.

After a quick lunch, a mini-bus arrives and drives us through the chaotic streets of Jaipur. Due to a Muslim festival today, we are unable to take our walking tour through the old city. People are walking through the streets, following brightly-coloured religious icons mounted on trucks and wagons make it impossible to move faster than snail's pace.

Our bus moved away from the crowds, finding the roads more sedate as we drove to the nearby hills. There, on top of its own hill is a fairly new Hindu temple. Built in 1988 and solely of white marble, Birla Mandir is a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu. Hinduism is India's main religion, with 80% of the population identifying as Hindu. We join many local people on the short walk along the path through beautifully manicured gardens. Since we miss the walking tour this afternoon, I'm hoping that we'll be able to be able to explore the old city tomorrow.

On our return to the city we stop briefly outside the magnificent Albert Hall museum, which we won't have time to visit during our stay in Jaipur. In the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon hundreds of pigeons circle the four domes on each of the four corners of the building. Somehow I think they may have found a permanent home in those pretty domes.

DAY THREE: JAIPUR

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2009

Visit the opulent Amber Fort – the jewel of Jaipur. It is quite a sight, with its soft shades of red, sandstone and white marble with elaborate Hindu-style flourishes. Explore the legacy of a fallen empire in its ornate rooms, lavish murals, frescoed arches and delicate jali work. After spending some time here, the remainder of the day is free for you to explore parts of Jaipur that you may have missed yesterday, or simply to relax at your accommodation.

We make our second, and thankfully successful, attempt to visit the old part of the city. The gates entering the old city are wide enough for a single line of traffic and we must wait our turn. Leaving the bus, we are inundated by beggars of all descriptions, many of  whom have young children in tow. It's hard to walk away from them, but giving money is not a solution to their plight. As we pass by a fruit-seller, we buy bunches of bananas, which we can distribute to beggars, especially children. We don't have time for a proper walking tour, but are instead given a short length of time to look at the facade of the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds. 

A small child dressed in rags approaches us; hand outstretched and mumbling. I give him a banana. I understand that the adults who exploit children want money, but I would prefer to give the child something nutritious that will fill his stomach. What I don't count on is the woman, herself half-starved, who runs up and snatches the fruit out of the child's hands, and equally as quickly slides it down the front of her sari. The child is absolutely bereft at the loss. Snapping another banana off the bunch, I pass it to the child who runs away with his prize, whilst at the same time, I give the bag of fruit to the woman. Such abject poverty is out of my experience and this situation is out of my comfort zone. 

Before returning to the bus, we see a group of snake charmers. For some reason, I didn't think they would still exist, but they do. Playing a traditional pipe, the head of a cobra emerges, swaying and dancing, from a wicker basket. I toss a few coins into a basket - not the one that holds the cobra - and move off. Apparently I didn't give the snake charmer enough money. However, I refuse to give him any more, since I was standing quite some distance away and only took a couple of photos. I do feel harassed in these situations, but I'm also not going to be bullied into giving more simply because they demand it. Perhaps I should give him a banana!

As we return to the bus, there is a commotion behind us. Some of our companions have had an issue with some beggars, who have followed them back to the bus. Fortunately, our tour guide is able to defuse the situation, pacify the beggars, and offer us some advice on how to manage these incidents. We have a total lack of understanding of the social structure of India, and despite the denials that the caste system still exists, today we've had a small glimpse of the plight of people who cannot escape from their economic class. 

Once we are on the road again, our guide launches into the history of our next stop. It's a story of wars and skirmishes, forts, citadels, elephants and maharajas. 

I see the wall before I see the fort. Like the Great Wall of China, and only marginally smaller, the wall of the Amber Fort travels along the ridges of the hills surrounding it. With ramparts at different intervals it is impressive. Our minibus is parked at the bottom of the hill and we transfer into separate jeeps, which are able to negotiate the narrowing road through villages and settlements to our destination at the top of the hill. 

The Amber Fort.

This magnificent complex of buildings began its life as a modest hill fort in the 10th century, but was rebuilt in the early 17th century, and added upon over a period of 150 years. Jaleb Chowk, the courtyard near the entrance is a huge staging area where elephants and horses are tethered and is the place in which we enter through the Ganesh Pol gateway. Here I see for the first time, the intricate craftsmanship of the Mughal builders. Columns, walls, and ceilings in so many of the buildings are elaborately decorated with marble inlay, glass, painted murals, and more. There must have been vast periods of peace for these buildings to undergo such magnificent adornment. I become less interested in the intricacies of the battles and more interested in the skills of the artisans creating these works of art.

With reluctance we leave the fort, stopping briefly at the Jal Mahal, the magnificent 'water palace' in the middle of Man Sugar Lake. The current drought in the Rajasthan region means that the water levels are very low, exposing the floors that would otherwise be submerged.

Our stop at a textile printer, where woodblocks are used to create patterns and motifs, is interesting until the demonstration is concluded and the hard-sell begins. We are not interested in purchasing any and wait and wait and wait for us to leave the premises. I feel the time ticking over, and although a couple of the people make small purchases, I cannot understand why we are here for so long. We eventually leave and over lunch, suggest to the tour guide that we're not really interested in spending large amounts of time in stores when there is so much to see. Of course, he is looking for his kickbacks. 

After a very nice, but late lunch, we arrive at the City Palace, which is the front part of the Hawa Mahal we looked at from the street earlier. As well as a museum, it is the residence of the residence of the Jaipur royal family. The red sandstone buildings adorned with intricate decorations on walls, columns and ceilings are magnificent and beautifully maintained by the museum trust. The four gates of the palace represent the seasons; the Peacock Gate represents autumn. the Green Gate represents spring, the Lotus Gate represents summer and the Rose Gate is for winter. It surprises me that the Green Gate is currently being restored by children, albeit supervised by an adult.

I'm not sure why we are being hurried through the museum, as there are plenty of beautiful buildings to visit and to appreciate. The reason becomes clear as we leave the palace in the late afternoon and are taken to a carpet factory for a lengthy demonstration and hard-sell. I could fill the pages of a thick tome on the finer points of buying a carpet in a foreign country. In short - don't waste your time unless you are going to carry it with you for the remainder of the journey. It's been a long day and we've seen such wonderful sights.

Tomorrow we are travelling to Agra in the minibus. After an early start and about six hours travelling, we will arrive in time for a city tour.

DAY FOUR: JAIPUR - AGRA

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2009

Today we drive to Agra (approximately 6 hours). On the way we will stop at the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, deserted after only a few years in the 16th century because there wasn’t enough water. The incredibly well-preserved royal complex is a haven of courtyards, pavilions, ornamental gardens and home to the intricately carved Rumi Sultana palace. Then continue on to Agra, arriving in the late afternoon. 

About an hour out of Jaipur, our minibus is stopped by a police roadblock and we are detoured onto a secondary road. It doesn't take long for the bitumen to be replaced by compacted earth as we continue our journey through the back-of-beyond. To be honest, I don't know what to think, but judging from the body language of our guide and the frantic gesticulation between him and the driver, there appears to be a huge issue, which they have not discussed with the passengers. We are, after all, only a small group of twelve people who can probably handle the truth. I watch as we pass through a reasonably-sized town; the road dug up and many houses half-collapsed, as if there was an earthquake or something equally catastrophic sometime in the not-too-distant past. The larger towns have bitumen roads that extend only the length of the main township before returning to graded unmade roads. But this doesn't last. The earthquake town is the last town of any reasonable size that we see for a very long time. We turn off and continue along a road; unmade and un-graded and as we are thrown from side to side in the bus, we realise it has lousy suspension. 

We stop in villages as the driver winds down the window and asks directions, and we seem to go around in circles; at one stage, I'm sure I see the same landmark more than once. 

We pass through a village; the street is barely wider than the bus and cows roam freely through the gaps between houses. Little pottery cups dry in the sun, supervised by an old man wrapped up in blankets to stay warm. His bed is on the road, so he moves it out of our way, standing back then as we pass by. We drive by crumbling houses, farms and communal gardens. We come to a corner and stop. A pile of rocks left on the road at the corner of the narrow intersection, blocking our passage through the village. As the driver gets off to assess the situation, children run from their homes to watch the disturbance. Clearly, a minibus full of foreigners is cause for excitement. As they gather around to watch, many of our passengers decide to help by moving the rocks, much to the delight of the children. As the road is cleared, smiling children wave goodbye as the bus once more resumes its journey.

And so it continues.

In other places boys playing cricket stop to watch as we pass, whilst the girls, working in the fields wave. Round flat pats of cow dung dry on the roofs of houses and are stacked haphazardly in piles once they are dry enough. These will be used on fires for cooking and warmth. Everywhere we go, people wave or watch curiously as we pass, until the road peters out and we are left on a goat-track.

There is still no explanation as to where we are and why we haven't returned to the main road, and as we have not had a stop nor even used a toilet since early this morning, there is a level of tension within the bus. The passengers are no longer interested in excuses. The condition of the track causes the bus to stop and we ask to get off. This is the point where we also demand to find a place to take a rest stop. In the absence of real facilities, we are forced to hide between the rows of crops to relieve ourselves.

Groups of people on motorbikes render assistance and advise us to continue along the dirt track until we meet the main road. A 4WD driver would think twice before negotiating the rock-strewn track, but here we are driving, motor heaving, as we slowly ascend the hill, the back of the minibus fish-tailing slightly as clouds of fine dust rise from the surface.

We eventually come to a village; the sight of a tour bus filled with pasty-faced passengers must be a rarity as its population stops and stares at our van limping through the town. Before mutiny breaks out, the bus stops, and we are locked inside whilst the guide runs into a store and buys packets of biscuits for us to eat. It is, by now, after 4pm and apparently foreigners are not allowed inside these villages. I don't really believe the last statement at all.

We rejoin a highway of sorts at around 7pm. It is pitch-black dark and most of us are feeling angry and stressed. It is not unreasonable to believe that we've reached our destination for the day as we tumble out of the bus and into a hotel. As we assemble in the foyer, eagerly expecting our bags to be brought in, we are, instead ushered into a room, where a plate of tomato and cucumber sandwiches sits next to an urn, not yet (or close to) boiling and are told that since we missed we missed the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, our guide had called ahead to have a snack provided for us. Since we still have two hours to travel to Agra, I cannot understand why we couldn't stop to use the facilities and continue without sandwiches we cannot eat because the contents aren't cooked and tea we cannot drink because the water is not boiling. 

Eventually arriving into Agra close to 10pm after being squashed inside a minibus for 15 hours, riding along highways, byways, dirt roads, and even a goat track, I ask for the reason why we've been held to ransom all day. The response is a little on the unbelievable side, if not downright stupid.

'The roadblock and detour were due to an uprising in a village, where the occupants want the government to provide farming subsidies and jobs. If we continued, there was a chance our tourist bus could be targeted and passengers would have to pay money to continue.' 

So we spent fifteen hours driving round and round the countryside in and out of villages where we are waved and smiled at, and where not one villager had threatened us with a weapon, and this clown expects us to believe that our lives are in danger? Wouldn't it have been prudent to return to Jaipur and pay a security guard to ride along with us? I'm gobsmacked by the ridiculous excuse, and secretly wonder whether the tour company had been contacted at all. But we are here now and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.

Despite the situation we've been in all day, it would be remiss of me to whinge about the conditions we had been placed under as have some of our less flexible tour companions. I am easily entertained, it seems, and spending the day observing the scenery through the window of the bus, I not make my own assumptions about the arid landscape of Rajasthan, but get a better understanding of the challenges rural people face as they try to eke a living for themselves and their families. They may have few material possessions, but they are clean, well-fed and their children look happy and healthy.

On reflection, the experience of driving today's rural scenery is probably of greater value to me personally, than visiting another version of a Mughal palace. I don't believe entirely the excuse we are given, but I have gained much by the experience; much more than most tourists would if the day went according to plan.

DAY FIVE: AGRA - VARANASI

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2009

Visit India's most iconic structure – the spectacular Taj Mahal. Best known as a monument to love and loss, the 17th-century Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his second wife and is a beautiful example of Mughal architecture surrounded by trimmed English gardens. Agra is also home to one of the finest looking forts in India. Stop at the nearby Agra Fort – a fortress, palace and prison built of red sandstone by Akbar in 1565 and partially converted into a palace during the time of Shah Jahan.  Board a train this evening for an overnight journey to Varanasi, the ultimate destination for Hindu pilgrims who travel from far and wide to experience this spiritual city.

We meet our fellow passengers early and in anticipation of our visit to the Taj Mahal today. Winter in northern India has so far been cold and foggy and the damp air seems to penetrate through the layers of clothing to the skin. We've barely seen the sun since we arrived last week and today is no different; in fact, the fog is very thick, dank, and grey.

I'm a little disappointed this morning when the tour guide mentions that we'll visit Agra Fort this morning. I see the disappointment reflected in the faces of the other travellers, as Agra and the Taj Mahal is the main reason all of us are here in India, and we're all impatient to see the most iconic building in India. 

Do we dare wish for the fog to rise by this afternoon's visit to the Taj Mahal? We'll see.

Agra Fort was constructed in 1639 by Shah Jahan as the palace of his fortified capital. It is named for its massive enclosing walls of red sandstone. The imperial apartments include a row of pavilions, connected by a water channel known as the 'Stream of Paradise'. The fort complex is considered to represent the ultimate of Mughal creativity under Shah Jahan, but although the palace was planned according to Islamic prototypes, each pavilion includes architectural elements typical of Mughal buildings that reflect a fusion of Persian and Hindu traditions.

The red ramparts are an imposing sight - even in the gloom of the morning fog. The building's sharp edges are dulled by the grey air, which envelops not only the hard structures but us as well; fingers of dampness sink through my inadequate layers of clothes. I really didn't bring enough warm clothes with me, and I'm feeling very chilled this morning. I concentrate on the entrance to the fort and feel that where some buildings may appear to be ethereal in the fog, Red Fort has more of a menacing character. The empty moat and the drawbridge access add to the suspenseful atmosphere.

Of course, all those first impressions disappear when we step through the main gate and see the intricate designs applied to every part of the buildings. marble inlay, mosaics, crenelated ramparts, and so much more. These structures are awesome, but the embellishments are monumental. We spend some time exploring this beautiful fort before arriving at the Muthamman Burj, probably the saddest building of this complex, for it is here, Shah Jahan was imprisoned and the cruelty of his captivity was more pronounced as his rooms overlook the site of the Taj Mahal. He had a full and majestic view of the tomb he built for his beloved wife for the rest of his life. He was later buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal.

As we leave Agra Fort, a hint of sunlight emerges momentarily from the gloom and I have some hope that perhaps the day will improve a little later in the day.

Finally, yes finally, the moment arrives when a watery but blue sky burns off the last of the fog. After clearing security procedures, we are standing at a red sandstone entrance behind a horde of people; their heads blocking the view through the arch of the gateway.

I'm so excited that I feel like pushing everyone out of my way! But I must be patient... I must be patient, I tell myself.

And then, I clear the gateway.

It becomes perfectly obvious to me why it's so hard to enter through the gate. The vista of the most iconic building in the world is laid out in front, rendering anyone who enters senseless as they stand stock-still and gaze in awe. It's beautiful. The usual superlatives come to mind that they don't describe how it feels to finally see the white domed Taj Mahal with a brilliant blue sky in the background. No other buildings enter the view, although the identical red sandstone buildings on each side don't detract from the luminescence radiating from the star attraction.

I think I'm shoved gently from behind and return to my senses as I walk, mesmerisingly towards the building. The beautifully-manicured 'paradise garden' is laid out like a Persian carpet; designed for the eye to travel gradually towards the centrepiece structure at the end. I don't know how it happens, but I do manage to get a few good (for me) shots. But then again, can anyone take a bad shot of the Taj Mahal?

As we join the hundreds, or maybe thousands, of tourists here today; it strikes me that the Indian people are great travellers, who embrace their historical sites, for there are few Caucasians here today. The walk beside the gardens gives a greater insight into the geometric patterns used in the designs to represent elements of nature, and whilst the cypress trees may represent death, their symmetrical placement in the garden provides an avenue-like path to the tomb. This video provides a bird's eye view of the entire site, including the gardens. 

We savour the views, the gardens and even the crowds as we progress slowly with one destination in mind. We eventually reach the platform on which the Taj Mahal sits, a queue to enter the tomb snakes around and around the area. Impossible to find the end of the queue, we merge into it; the people behind are not happy at first, but we eventually win them over when we reveal where we live. Most of the locals are very happy to talk about cricket, with Shane Warne their main topic of conversation, and an animated conversation, peppered with Shane Warne facts ensues, essentially filling in the more-then-an-hour we spend slowly advancing to the entrance. 

When we finally reach the point where I can touch the marble exterior of building, I also realise that the remarkable craftsmanship of this structure is not immediately noticeable from a distance. There is magnificent inlay work and carvings just too beautiful to describe here, but they cover every inch of the building in beautifully-blended marble of white, ivory, and grey with inlay work of other colours. We eventually move to the back of the building, capturing a view of Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan languished whilst his memorial to his wife was being built.

Then the moment we've been waiting for! Our turn has come to enter the arched doorway and step into the square space where the tombs lay. One step, two steps in, and then there is a blood-curdling scream from behind us. The sound seems to hang in the centre of the dome momentarily before it reverberates and echoes around the circular roof space before gradually dissipating in within the air waves.

All sense of reverence for those lying in the tombs flees, as panicked, I turn around to see what has happened to produce this terrible noise.

Whether it's a thing or maybe it was revenge for us cutting in on the line, the two culprits, the two people with whom we've just had a wonderful conversation, grin and make a remark about the 'perfect acoustics'. Shuffling around the viewing area with the rest of the tourists, I hear it, time after time, as people enter the sanctuary, they shout and they scream, just to test the acoustics. A sense of reverence for the burial place is something that is measured by the personal experience of the individual, but when it's shattered, as it is for me today, I feel that the beauty of the place is somewhat compromised by a stupid act, which could so easily be stopped by the security people at the door. However, I suppose it's not my place to comment on what appears to be a common occurrence.

The rest of my restricted time here is spent exploring the remaining buildings, a mosque and the guest pavilion, and the extensive gardens.

It's late afternoon when we are hustled out of the complex and into the bus. Before long, it stops and we're welcomed into a small marble-inlay factory and shop. Again, an inordinately long time is spent in this establishment whilst the staff put in the thumb-screws to buy small marble-inlay elephants. I am sure the door is locked so we cannot escape without parting with at least some of our hard-earned. 

We arrive at the railway station at Agra, our suitcases and bags are secured to the heads of porters as we bat our way through the crowded and chaotic station towards our platform where we board a sleeper service to the sacred city of Varanasi. The thirteen-hour journey will have us in Varanasi by about midday tomorrow.

We are sharing a four-bunk compartment with an English couple from our tour. Fortunately they opt for the top bunks when the staff eventually came around to switch the seating into bedding. The trains are old, but clean and sort of comfortable. In the meantime we toast the entry of the new year of 2010 with our travel colleagues, until the passengers, one-by-one settle in for the night.

Lights off, I settle into the rhythm of the moving train as it rocks me gently to sleep.

DAY SIX: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN AGRA AND VARANASI

FRIDAY, JANUARY 01, 2010

 Awash with shrines and temples, it is the ultimate destination for Hindu pilgrims who travel from far and wide to experience this spiritual city. Varanasi may not be known for its cleanliness, but it is recognised as one of India’s most inspiring cities. Take a walking tour of the Old City, through narrow laneways packed with stalls and shops, past the dhobi wallahs, burning Ghats, and the endless temples that echo with bells and the pungent aroma of incense. Witness pilgrims performing ancient bathing rituals and ceremonies as the sun sets over this sacred city.

The train has been stationary since about 2:30am, some four hours out of Agra. I hear the gentle snoring from all the bunks surrounding me and turn over to return to sleep. At 4am, we still haven't moved. At 6am, as the night fades into grey foggy daylight, we haven't moved an inch. I check to see whether we are stranded in the middle of nowhere. We're parked at a station. Putting on my shoes, I walk down to the door of our carriage, where I can see the station sign - Lucknow, some four hours from Agra and nine hours from Varanasi. And so we sit - for hours and hours and hours.

At some stage our tour leader gets off the train and buys small packets of biscuits and bottles of water, which he distributes, and soon we start to move.

As we do so, I watch a group of people, suitcases balanced on their heads, appear from beyond the station. They start running towards ua as the train gathers momentum. I can only guess that this is a common occurrence and that they safely make it onto the train before it rattles past.

Now that we are speeding toward Varanasi, we can count the hours before arrival and hopefully arrive there before dark. I calculate that we should be at our destination between four and five o'clock this afternoon. But soon, we realise that an estimated time of arrival cannot be calculated for a very good reason. Our train is now at the bottom of the pecking order. We are already hours late and our train cannot hold up any other train on the line, which means that we are pulled over and stopped several times during the journey to allow other passenger and freight trains to pass.

After twenty-three hours cramped up in a train, no food and toilets that are too horrible to contemplate, we limp into Varanasi. We have 'lost' another whole day to travel disasters, and unlike our mishap between Jaipur and Agra, I cannot find anything really positive to say about the journey. Even the filthy windows of the train, along with fog that doesn't lift, makes it impossible to enjoy the outside scenery. 

We have time to have our only meal of the day before rolling into bed ahead of an early start tomorrow.

DAY SEVEN: VARANASI

SATURDAY, JANUARY 02, 2010

Today starts early with a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, where you can watch the light gradually illuminate the many ghats and temples along the river as you pass. There is an option today to take a trip to nearby Sarnath – one of the four main Buddhist pilgrimage destinations. The site is where Buddha preached his message of the path to enlightenment and features a number of stupas and museums to explore. Alternatively, the day can be spent exploring the laneways and alleys behind the ghats or picking up some quality pieces from a local silk merchant. Perhaps finish the day with an optional Ganges river cruise at sunset.

The fog hasn't lifted all night and it's still damp and clammy as we leave the hotel as the sky starts to lighten. Our bus drops us off and we follow the tour guide through the streets. Varanasi is already awake. Flower vendors are up bright and early to capture the pilgrims on their way to the Ganges River.

We arrive at a central Ghat and walk down the steps to a small boat, passing many people who have already begun their ablutions inside the water. None are plunging into the water, so I think it may be quite cold. The surface of the water is littered with the sacred marigold flowers. The Ganges is meant to be one of the dirtiest rivers in the world, even filled with half-decomposed bodies, and yet, here in Varanasi, it appears to be clean enough. Apart from the marigolds, there appears to be little rubbish in the water and it doesn't smell. However, I have wipes and hand sanitiser on hand, as I'm sure there is plenty of bacteria in here that will do me harm, and I'm not taking any chances.

The boat we are sitting in is old, but sturdy, and as our boatman pulls away from the shore, we're given a small bowl filled with marigolds; a candle in the centre. We float past the many Ghats, where people are washing themselves or their clothes. and places of interest are pointed out. At a certain point in our journey, the boat is slowed and our tour guide talks about the Aarti ceremony, where our little bowls of marigolds will be set upon the river. First lighting a wick, which is soaking in ghee, a liquified butter, we say a small silent prayer and reverently lay the small vessel on the water and watch it float away in the haze. 

A short while later we approach the funeral pyres of the crematorium Ghats. Huge piles of cut wood sit on top of the steps, whilst colourful fabric-covered bodies lay on stretchers on the steps. Varanasi is the most sacred place on earth for Hindus and it is believed that if a person's ashes are scattered here, their soul will reach Nirvana. The worn-out body must be burnt first to liberate the soul.

We float past the funeral pyres, which burn every hour of every day. Once the ashes have cooled, they are collected and thrown into the Ganges to ensure their safe passage to Nirvana. Tourists are encouraged to observe the funeral rites, but photographs are prohibited out of respect for the deceased. From our boat, we watch the activity on the ghat before our little boat is docked and we are once again on solid ground.

This morning's boat ride along the Ganges is really meaningful, and as we join the throngs of people walking through the market area behind the Ghats, I can smell the pungent odour of sandalwood, of fires, and of death. I'm glad that we had observed the rituals from the boat. 

There are people and cows and vendors packed into a narrow alleyway, and although we don't have time to linger now, I hope to have some time later to explore this fascinating place.

Meeting the bus again, we drive the ten kilometres out of Varanasi to visit Sarnath, another pilgrim site, but this time for Buddhists. This is where Buddha taught his first lesson after he gained enlightenment. The parkland in which the stupas and museums are located is very quiet and peaceful; a stark contrast to where we had just come from. The air is clean and we enjoy a short visit to the site, but also experiencing a different dimension to India's religious groups.

Before long, we are back in the hustle and bustle of Varanasi and walk through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways. We watch craftspeople on the streets weaving silks and carpets and making paper. Through a doorway, we find a vacant block of land on which young boys play crickets whilst adult men prepare the warp, the lengthwise silk yarns, for weaving looms. Chickens and goats share the space, nibbling on whatever small patches of green grass remain. Then we enter a weaving factory where men, sitting in pits hand-weave intricate silk brocade fabrics. We observe the skill and speed of the weaver as he shows us how he follows the pattern to produce the beautifully crafted fabric. Silk weaving is a specialised craft and is passed on from father to son. We are shown into a showroom, where many beautiful saris are modelled on some of the ladies from our tour. The store is an 'Aladdin's Cave' of wonderful and vibrant silks, which are synonymous of this region of India.

We visit a museum. After a few minutes, I realise there is nothing here of interest to me and wander outside for a while. There's nowhere really to sit and I revel in a few minutes of downtime where I can catch my breath from a very hectic day so far.

We've basically had to fit one-and-a half days into one day today, so we are constantly on the move, with little time to appreciate anything at all. Additionally, the fog hasn't lifted during the day, and it comes to an end, more fog descends upon the city. We find ourselves in another boat, gaily decorated with swags of marigolds. As we sit on the boat, a marigold garland is placed around our necks. A musician plays traditional folk music on a sitar and as we float along the Ganges River, the end of the day is replaces with a darkening sky. Pinpricks of light suddenly appear along the river bank in shades of white and yellow.

Our boat positions itself in front of Dasaswamedh Ghat, and as dusk falls, an elaborate ritual is performed by priests holding lamps and synchronised to the rhythmic chants and the banging of cymbals. It's probably more of a performance for the tourists rather than a solemn ritual, but at the same time, our guide tells us what is happening as the performance unfolds. All too soon it is time to return to land and to return to the hotel.

We walk through the very crowded laneways, dodging people coming towards us, but at the same time, trying to keep an eye of the guide, who is ahead of us. At the same time, we are conscious of pick-pockets and other dangers. It pays to be aware of one's surroundings because when a small girl of about five years of age approaches one of the men on our tour and tries to slip her hand in his, and at the same time calls him 'Daddy', there is something wrong. I can see a couple of local men on the side, keeping up with us and the child. Persistent, she continues to call him 'Daddy', and attempts to hold his hand or to put her hand in his pocket. She grabs onto the legs of his trousers, tears are rolling down her eyes and the 'Daddy' mantra continues. We call out to him and tell him that there are men following the girl and to ignore her until we can get assistance at the bus, but at the same time, hope that nothing untoward happens before that time. The guide is too far ahead for us to get his attention, and we dare not slow our pace because we can easily get lost. The bus looms ahead of us and as we arrive, the child attempts to get on the bus, still calling the man, 'Daddy'. Finally, our guide takes the situation in hand. That man and his wife get on the bus, whilst the people who are walking behind us, and also witnessed this situation handed the little girl some money. The adults who had followed us and the girl, but still keeping their distance do not approach us at all. The girl, money clutched in her hand, evaporates into the crowd along with her adult minders.

 

Sometimes, perfectly innocent people can get caught up in a scam without really understanding what is happening. For our group, it all ended well and although we don't know what the intent was, we are glad that a couple of dollars solved the problem tonight. Again, it's another example of children being exploited by adults. We are not here to judge. We cannot fix the system, but we need to be aware that not all people are friendly and some situations can get out of hand very easily if we are not all diligently on our guard.  

DAY EIGHT: VARANASI - NEW DELHI

SUNDAY, JANUARY 03, 2010

This morning will be free for you to soak up the atmosphere of Varanasi. Perhaps hit the streets to do some last-minute shopping in the incredible bazaars or simply wander through the Ghats. Later today, return to Delhi by plane (approximately 1.5 hours), arriving early afternoon. This evening, consider dining with your group with an optional dinner organised by your leader – a perfect occasion to celebrate the many memories made during your India adventure.

The morning is free of activities ahead of this afternoon's flight to Delhi. There is a shopping centre close by and we decide to have a little look inside. There are plenty of people around; we pass a sports ground, and boys are playing cricket. It's good to see children engaging in sport and enjoying themselves.

Shopping centres are pretty much the same across the world, and we generally don't visit them whilst on holidays. But we do have some time to spare and our hotel is inconveniently some distance from any interesting locations. Besides, after the last forty-eight hours we are a little weary. We find a coffee shop and order coffees and quietly watch the world go by. There are some store brands we recognise and we wander in and out of stores looking at what is on offer.

In Clarkes Shoes, Tom decides that he would like to buy a new pair of runners, and after a frustrating half-an-hour trying on and discarding shoes, he finally finds a pair that are comfortable. He opts to wear them out of the store and his old, smelly shoes are placed in a plastic bag and handed back to him. Tom is looking for a bin in which to place the bag with the old shoes.

As we exit the shopping centre, a young man, probably in his twenties approaches us and asks us whether he can have the old shoes. I'm a little bewildered as I realise he has probably been watching the whole shoe-trying-on business in the store and he may have followed us out. Tom tells him that he is throwing the shoes in the bin.

The man asks him for the shoes. Now, Tom is not mean, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he is embarrassed because, although the shoes are old, they are in good condition, but they stink. Each day, we've noticed that they smell a little worse.

But the man is insistent and asks him again for the shoes. My own eyes travel to the ground where the man is standing and I turn to Tom.

'Give him the shoes,' I say. Tom would like to argue, but I repeat, 'Give him the shoes, and while you are at it, check out his feet.'

As Tom hands over the plastic bag he does look at the man's feet. 

Delighted, the man thanks us with more gratitude than we deserve. Much more. He walks to a bench, sits down and removes the pair of smelly runners from the bag before bending down to untie the string that was holding the cardboard to his feet before proudly donning the shoes. He approaches us, admires the shoes and bows, thanking us again before evaporating into the crowds of people.

I am humbled by that man. But at the same time, I'm glad that he felt he was able to approach us to ask us for the shoes. 

We have much to learn.

Our flight to Delhi is unremarkable, which is good. I have no desire to be delayed for hours or to be hijacked. Our transportation adventures may provide unique 'travel-tales' in the future, but I'm happy to arrive in Delhi safe and sound this evening. On the way to the hotel, we are taken on a whistle-stop drive-past of some of the more important sites. 

Our tour officially finishes tomorrow morning after breakfast and most of our companions will be leaving India sometime during the day, so we decide to go out for one last dinner together with our guide to say goodbye and good luck. We have a few more days in New Delhi before we return home, so we have time to leisurely explore the city.

Footnote: The Peregrine tour of Rajasthan and Varanasi is a very comprehensive tour, which includes a large number of  historical sites, including many UNESCO World Heritage sites. Our December/January visit to northern India is much cooler than we expected  and an extra coat or jacket would have been handy. But we don't freeze. The fog, together with pollution, keeps the days cool and damp . However, the sun shines exactly when we need it to; when we visit Agra Fort and nobody can complain about the wonderful afternoon at the Taj Mahal, where the sun shines bright, bathing the monument in perfect light.

India challenges me, perhaps even intimidates me in many respects. It is not right to visit a country and pick out the negatives, which are only negatives by our (often) jaded views. 

Yes, India has a huge population, and the crowds can be daunting. There are piles of rubbish, in which cows, dogs, and pigs compete for food. There is much exploitation  of women and children, the unfair (to us) caste system, and there is dire poverty. But despite all of this, the people are friendly, helpful, and very much welcoming. India challenges my comfort zone every day, but in doing so, it gives me the opportunity to scrape through the surface to explore what lies at the soul of the people and their land. 

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