Delhi to Kathmandu – interim report from Varanasi

I’m sitting in Varanasi in the internet cafe in the hotel we’re in – the first time I’ve managed to get online so far. At 50 rupees for 90mins works out at less than 1p/minute and as today is a free day, I’m making the most of it. Oh yes – before I forget, Elke also showed me the Clinic Beaucare website.

But back to Varanasi….

We were up at 5.45 to go on a boat ride on the Ganges to see the sun rise over the ghats (the steps where people come to wash/pray/cremate) …. but all we saw was lots and lots of rain and about 5 people instead of the hundreds shown in the postcards, the magnificent palaces built by kings and princes, which rise majestically above the ghats, looked rather rundown and forlorn in the daylight.

We’ve been really unlucky at times with the weather – overcast and cold in Delhi and Jaipur where the morning fog made it cold too, and not so good for taking photos 🙁 That said, Jaipur and the Amer/Amber Palace still managed to impress, as did the camel carts and colourful local life as well as the buildings and scenic settings of Rajasthan.

We’ve just had 2 hot and sunny days, in Agra (so good pics of the Taj Mahal, which is every bit as amazing as you’d expect, and the Red Fort, which was equally stunning), and then travelling on an overnight train to Allahabad (11pm departure, 5am arrival, confluence of 3 sacred rivers, and lots of pilgrims). After three hours of recuperation in an Allahabad hotel (not sure why we needed 3 hours…) we continued on by coach through sunlit rural villages, and in one we had an impromptu stop at the village school (which proved to be less voyeuristic than I initially feared), in addition to the programme’s scheduled stops at a temple (where I felt we weren’t really very welcome…) and the old fort at Chunnar. The rest of the day was spent relaxing on a tranquil 4 hour boat cruise down the Ganges to Varanasi, where we arrived under cover of darkness and so were able to see the evening prayers in full effect.

I will confess that so far I am disappointed with the trip, and that’s in part due to the fact that I’m used to a bit more independence when I travel with Hazel and on the last “organised” trip we did with Intrepid. I don’t think I’d do another Exodus/Explore-type holiday in a hurry. I know that the poor weather, l-o-n-g flight out (exacerbated by terrible scheduling) and hectic travel from day 1 onwards hasn’t helped generate a terribly favourable impression of India, but there are other small annoyances that together put me off somewhat.

The group are all nice, and there is a fair spread of ages and interests, but we’ve got a not terribly experienced local guy, Avtar, as our tour leader. His english gets a bit muddled at times, and he does ramble on when explaining cultural or religious things. Plus he’s not good at explaining the options to us, and then gets all funny when we ask questions to clarify the “programme”, and sometimes his answers don’t match up to the question. He does try hard though.

We’re eating in tourist/”international” restaurants, which in the main have proved pretty souless and devoid of any other diners, and although we are staying in nice (on occasions, very plush) hotels, they are usually far from the centre of things. Avtar isn’t at all keen about us going off on our own, which I’m finding really frustrating.

On Sunday, we couldn’t visit the Red Fort, Masjid Jamal or the old town in Delhi, as per day 2 of the programme, because of the Republic Day rehearsals. I would have expected our local guide / organisation to have been aware of the date and impact of rehearsals, and to have re-jigged the programme accordingly.

To make matters worse, we were taken to a carpet co-operative “workshop” in Delhi and a marble inlay “workshop” in Agra – aka hard sell of expensive souvenirs tacked onto a 5 minute explanation of the craft, which is about as far from my idea of a holiday activity as I can imagine…. we mutinied in Jaipur when Avtar and our local “guide” Bharat tried to take us to a second carpet workshop in less than 48 hours, and negotiated a 45 minute spell exploring the centre of Jaipur’s Old City under our own steam. I think that I would have found it less irritating if we had spent any time so far in “normal” shopping streets and markets, but we’d not!

Tomorrow we drive to Nepal. Hopefully things will pick up there….