The caring truck drivers, the day of absurd hitchhiking experiences, the shocking city of Varanasi

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Varanasi

16.10

Map_OrachhaIn the morning we take a tuk-tuk for 15 euro cents per person to Orachha. The architecture of the town is amazing. There is an ancient fort with huge palaces for maharajahs dating back to 16-17-th century. Orachha used to be the capital of a local dynasty and the maharajahs used to live here. The ticket for entering the fort is 4 euro and doesn’t fit our tight budget so we take a path that goes around the palaces.

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Old building

It passes on the inside of the fortress wall and we wonder why they don’t request tickets to enter here. We go behind it and enjoy the views of the old houses of ministers and royalty. Then we notice a narrow pathway that ends at the back gate of the palace. There is no guard here so we enter inside. Our lucky star helps us again. After this we leave the fort, take a bath in the river and go back to the main road.

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Orachha

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At Orachha

 

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At Orachha

 

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The back side of the palace

 

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Jahagir Mahal – the palace inside

 

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The river next to Orachha

We buy batatas (sweet potatoes) which we see to be sold for the first time since we are in India. We start hitchhiking and we wait for an hour. We noticed yesterday that hitchhiking is slow in Madhya Pradesh compared to other states we have been in. Finally a truck stops by. It drives extremely slowly on the narrow road. After 100 km. we get off at the fork for Khadjuraho Temples which we plan to visit. Hopefully we will reach them this evening. After just a few minutes three boys, who look like they come from a Bollywood movie scene, stop. They drive like crazy and take us to Chatarpur where they will attend the wedding of a friend. After half an hour a truck stops and drives us for the last 40 km.

map chatrpurWe arrive at Khadjuraho at dark. We go in the outskirts and we settle in a field behind one of the ancient temples – Vamana Temple. There is a festival celebrating Durga in the area. Every village has a Durga statue that is put in front of a splendid screen. The music sounds loudly all the time and it is not religious but disco and electronic. We hear music from ten different places and it is so loud that it is hard to fall asleep. The party starts again as early as 5-6 in the morning.

17.10

The Khadjuraho Temples were built during 10-11-th century A.D. and are an architectural wonder. They are called the temples of Kama Sutra because of the statues on their facades. In the beginning there were 80 temples, but nowadays there are only 22 left. They are dedicated to different Hindu deities – Lakshmi, Shiva, Vishnu… and there are also three Jain temples.

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Temple at Khajuraho

 

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Erotic detail on the facade

 

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Statues on the facade

After breakfast we go to see two temples dedicated to different Vishnu reincarnations. They are very mysterious and the hundreds of delicate stone statues outside are a real artwork. Then we go to the so called East group of temples where the Jain ones are. They are free to enter and very impressive.

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Jain temple

On the road we meet a crazy old man who invites us at his house located at the old part of the village. He is a feisty and very amiable man and his house is quite big and resembles a temple. We drink some tea with him and then he takes us to the Jain temples. These temples don’t have Kama Sutra statues on the façade – just images of different deities. Inside them we see statue of the first Tirthankara (spiritual teachers and saints) in Jain religion.

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Thirtankara

We leave our luggage in a small ashram of Jain admirers and head to the west group of temples. You need to buy a ticket to enter and there is a high wall. Only Shiva’s Temple is without a ticket and is still functioning as a temple. We enter inside and there is an amazing view to the other temples. It starts getting dark and we decide to stay one more night here and leave in the morning. Usually foreigners are not allowed to accomodate at temples here, but the boss makes an exception and lets us pitch our tent in the yard. In the evening a large group of Bengal pilgrims invite us at dinner.

18.10

All night we sweat because of the terrible heat. We wake up at 6 a.m. and enjoy the sweet mongooses that run around the temple. After breakfast we catch a bus to the main road. We usually take these buses when we are in secluded areas because it saves us time.

Our next destination is Varanasi which is 350-400 km. away. We hope to get there today. No one could have told us it will actually take us two whole days.

We wait for quite some time and finally a car takes us to the next province – Panna. The road is broken, but the scenery is beautiful. It goes through a protected nature area with tigers in it. Panna turns out to be a nice town and when we get off we go out of it on foot. Then the slowest truck in 1000 km. radius takes us.

The driver and his companion seem shabby, but later it turns out they are very good people. The road is in such a bad condition that we can’t drive with more than 20 km/h. Hours pass by and we haven’t advanced much. In the afternoon we reach the province town of Satna. We take the circumference in order to avoid the town’s traffic and our hopes that we will pass at least 200 km. today slowly fade away.

Nightmares with truckers

We stop by some field and the driver starts changing sim cards from one phone to another. Then he talks for half an hour. We sadly look at the sun going down. Finally we take off, but ten minutes later we stop at a railway cross. The barriers are down and there is a huge queue of cars and trucks. A train passes by, then another, then another… we wait for an hour and a half and ten trains pass. It is dark and we look around searching for a place for our tent.

The trucker had said he was going to Satna, but continues 20 km. after it. We enter an industrial zone. Everything is covered in dirt and dust. Hundreds of truck drive towards an enormous factory glowing creepily in the distance. The driver stops at a gas station located at the fork for the factory.

We see a field behind the restaurants and offices that manage the trucks’ documentation. We head to the field and at least ten people follow us, telling us that this is a “danger area” and that people use the field as a toilet, so we can’t sleep there.

It seems that they will not give up easily so we decide to look for another place. Suddenly our truck driver shows up and saves us from his colleagues who want to send us to a hotel in the nearby town. He behaves patronizingly as if we were his private guests. He offers us to sleep at his truck parked at the gas station amidst the loud noise and dust. We are really tired and go around searching for a place. Luckily we see a big iron gate and behind it there is an abandoned house that belongs to the gas station. It has a yard covered with grass and is surrounded by a high fence. Everyone agrees that this place is OK for us.

While we are pitching our tent all the truckers form a circle around us. Our guy is running around bringing us first a pot, then a rag, later water… Finally he even brings diesel for our stove and doesn’t want any money when we offer him. The other drivers are also very caring and concerned about us.

We are ready to go to bed when the whole delegation comes again and starts with their favorite phrase “danger area”. Then they say we have to catch a bus to the next town and accommodate at the hotel. The reason is that they are afraid there are cobras (!) in the grass. We are in shock, I enter the tent and refuse to go out. As a compromise they offer us to go at the cement platform next to the gas station. We are on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the exhaustion and the crowd of truckers. At the end they reconcile, lock the gate and our driver friend parks his truck in front of it in order to guard us. The nightmarish day finally ends and we fall asleep.

19.10

We wake up early and head to the town Rampur which is 5 km. away. We hop on a bus and when we arrive I buy some woman stuff I need. We have a breakfast and start hitchhiking.

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Hitchhiking in Madhya Pradesh

Absurd hitchhiking experiences

First – a truck takes us and we enter in the back carriage. The floor is very dirty and there are even cow excrements. We put our rucksacks on a clean cardboard and ride standing. On the road we take a dozen of workers going to the big city Rewa. Thanks god the journey is just 30 km.

Second – the slowest truck in the universe takes us this time. After 20 km. we are desperate. The driver stops for lunch and we get down telling the driver we need to rest. When he leaves we start hitchhiking again.

Third – a guy, who looks like he works for the mafia, takes us for 50 km. to the border between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. He has a personal driver and at the back is his big nephew with a rifle in his hands. Ten kilometers before the village they are heading to someone calls them and they have to change direction. They get worried that they won’t be able to drive us to where we want to go and the mafia guy goes out, stops a bus and orders the driver to take us for free. The ticket seller agrees immediately: “Yes, sir”. The bus is full and the people inside are unhappy that the poor white tourists, who have rich friends, will ride for free.

Fourth – the bus leaves us 10 km. further and a truck stops immediately. Inside the carriage there are 15 people lying on mattresses. They tell us that they have been at some Durga temple and are coming back to Varanasi. We divert from the highway and enter a road that is in a very bad condition. We go down a hill at high speed and the driver makes some dangerous turns. I start falling asleep when suddenly a noise and a sharp movement wake me up. One of the tires at the back has torn off and is rolling next to us. The brakes aren’t working. Everyone panics and we get ready to jump out because if the truck doesn’t take the next turn we will crash. While I am readying for the jump Mr. Shushtari tears my pants trying to hold me back. In a few seconds the velocity decreases and we come to a halt. All is well. We can’t help the people with the tire and we continue walking down the road.

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Before the incident with the truck

Fifth – old fashioned Indian jeep Mahindra from the 1920-ies stops. Inside it we see a Sikh businessman and a crazy old man driving. The old man is dressed with clothes which design dates back to colonial times. The old man drives like crazy and hates it when there is a car in front of him. He drives mainly in the opposite lane and several times big trucks almost hit us because they can’t move aside and the old man doesn’t like to drive in his lane. We drive with them for 60 km with our hairs standing on end. They drop us at Mirzapur City. To our disappointment we will not be able to go out of it walking because it’s too big.

Sixth – a boy with a small truck stops while we are in the middle of the city and asks us what are we looking for. He says he is going to a village in our direction just 20 km. away from Varanasi – the city we are going to. We are saved!

It is getting dark and we see a restaurant near the road. We decide to pass the final 30 km. tomorrow. This is the end of the ridiculous hitchhikes.

The restaurant is good and quite expensive. Rich people living in the area come here to drink alcohol and eat meat secretly. The owner lets us pitch our tent at the back and to our relieve we rest well. Though just before we went to bed someone came with the favorite “danger area”, but he left shortly and we went to bed.

20.10.
map varanasiWe leave for Varanasi in the morning. The first person who stops is very mercantile and when he sees he will not get money from us stops and says it is time for breakfast. Then a one-eyed Muslim stops and takes us directly to Varanasi. For the last 20 km. we drive through satellite towns that have become one with the main city. It takes us 1.30 hours to reach the city itself because of the heavy traffic. We get off on a bridge at Ganga River where the first ghats (stairs leading to the water) start. The Muslim also expects us to pay him, but we refuse and head to the river’s bank.

Varanasi – transcendence and views at Shiva’s Palace that make your blood run cold

Varanasi a.k.a. Banares or Kashi is one of the most ancient cities on the planet. It exists since many years B.C. and have never ceased existing till now. It is located at the banks of Ganga River and is the most sacred place for Hindus in India. Thousands of people come here every day to dip in the sacred waters of the river in order to release their karma.

The labyrinth of narrow streets, thousands of temples and the ghats offer unexpected views. The first thing you must learn here is what every citizen of Banares knows – that this city is outside of our world and is located at the trident of Shiva who is its patron and guardian. The ruler of this city is a fierce reincarnation of Shiva – Kala Bhairava whose destructive forces rule the energies here. If you don’t believe me go check the ancient Vedas and Puranas (ancient religious Indian texts) which no man doubted for the last 3-4 thousand years 😉

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Khala Bhairava temple – the patron of the city

The said destructive energy falls on you in a palpable way so if you get stressed and overwhelmed and have troubles you can always do the trick of the people here – visit the temple of Kala Bhairava and let the people there put a black thread on your wrist and allow the Brahmin to do a special puja (prayer) for you in order for you to receive this energy and be in sync with it. Then you are ready to immerse again in the life of Banares.

Walking on the central ghat we see a pile of garbage, human excrements, slob left from the raising of the river’s levels, sewers pouring directly into the river together with the dirt from the factories. The smell is indescribable. In the river among the floating garbage lie pigs, dogs, cows and bulls cooling themselves. Next to them there are dozens of dhobis (people who belong to a low caste and wash clothes) washing sheets, shirts and pants. When they are ready they put the clothes on the dry slob.

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Dhobi washing clothes at the ghat

 

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Clothes drying at the ghats

 

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A dhobi folds the dry clothes

Higher up the stream a group of pilgrims bathe in the river and maybe only their strong belief that they are doing a sacred ritual saves them from infections. Then we get closer to something that destroys all the stereotypes of the tourist. These are the funeral piles of Manikarnika ghat where cremations are performed. It is believed that if the human remains of someone are thrown in the river here the soul of the dead person receives Moksha – he/she is freed from the continuous cycle of reincarnations.

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The cremation ground

 

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Piles of wood at Manikarnika ghat

Every day the piles burn 24/7. Around 200 bodies are burned each day. The procedure is as follows – the relatives of the deceased (only the men) bring the body wrapped in cotton singing Ram Nam Satya Hai (Only the name of Rama (God) is the truth) – meaning that everything in this world is transitional without a higher consciousness. A special person determines the cause of death and if it is natural the body is put into the river, if not it has to be cremated on another ghat and the soul continues to reincarnate.

Five types of dead bodies are thrown into the river without being cremated – children, pregnant women, Sadhu/saints, people who were bitten by a cobra and lepers. First four are considered pure souls and don’t need to be burned in order to be cleaned. The lepers are not cremated in order to not pollute the air with infections. The head of the eldest son or the head of the family is being shaven by a special barber on the ghats and wears white clothes – this here is the color of mourning. Three hours later the body is burned and the relatives leave the place.

Next to the ghat there is a shabby building where the people who feel their end is near expect death. Their relatives bring them here to meet their end. Some wait for hours, other for days and some months.

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Tantric temple near Manikarnika ghat

Standing here we are taken by a strange feeling. Eyes to eyes with death. The bodies melt into the fire. The dogs that live here wait for the bones to be thrown in the river in order to catch them and eat them. People from the domra caste (those who deal with the bodies) shove the fire in order for it to burn better. Other throw the ashes with buckets into the river. Some are waist deep inside the water, surrounded by ashes and human parts, cleaning space for the next bodies. There are also people who search the river for gold or jewels left from the deceased.

A boat navigates to the center of the river and the people inside it throw in the river a baby body wrapped in cloth. It happens sometimes that the bodies surface down the stream near the ghats or next to the bathing people.

We then pass by a tantric temple near the ghat where all things normally forbidden are allowed – smoking, drinking, eating meat etc. in order for the people to receive Moksha.

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At the ghats

We continue to Dashashwamedh Ghat – this is the central one. Thousands of lingams (phallic depiction of Shiva) stick up in small niches, in dark temples or at platforms inside the river. Sadhu seat under the shadow of trees and shelters. Strange guys walk around. Every 50 m. dodgy chaps offer the tourists different drugs. For many Varanasi is the heaven, it’s a favorite destination for many western people. Me personally – I don’t want to stay here more than a couple of days. Strange depressing feeling creep in the distant corners of my mind.

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A meditating Sadhu

 

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The life at Varanasi

In Internet we saw our hosts at couchsurfing.org have accepted us so we head to their house. The place is located amidst the labyrinth of narrow streets next to Lalitha ghat and the only way to go there is on foot. Raju Baba awaits us next to the river. He is a 60-year old Sadhu with silver beard, shining eyes and a broad smile. He takes us to his small house surrounded by temples which he and his wife Bridget had rented.

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The view from Raju Baba’s place

 

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A tree growing through a building

Raju Baba maintains total neatness and gets up every day at 4 a.m. in order to first clean and broom. Then he goes to do his small ritual and bathe in Ganga. Bridget spends most of her time in something like a trance and communicating with her is harder. She is around 50 years old, from Germany and have been living in Varanasi for 7 years now. These are quite strange a couple. They give us a room painted in orange (as is the whole house).

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Raju Baba

 

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A Nepali temple next to the house

We spend quality time with them. We cook together and discuss life at Varanasi. Raju Baba was born here and knew the city very well. Sometimes we go out together for a walk. He shows us a small temple of the Ganga Goddess sitting on a crocodile. The statue goes underwater when water levels rise during the monsoon season, he told us. Then he takes us to an old house where they serve the best masala in town. The yard of the house is packed with cows. You go out the bedroom and you run into a cow.

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Ganga Goddess sitting on a crocodile

 

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The yard with the cows

We stay three nights at their house. The first two days we explore the secrets of the city, we enter small temples and walk on the ghats. Sadly we can’t enter the central Shiva temple Sri Vaishvanat because we are not Hindu, but we encounter many other interesting places. Every evening there is arti (ceremony) honoring Ganga River.

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Hi-tech method for washing the ghats from the blob

Brahmins sing and rock oil lamps on the central ghat. The last day we are here coincides with the most important day of the Durga festival (that goes on here for already ten days). It is called Dushera and is now at his peak. Everything is decorated with lamps and deity figures some of which are electronic and wave their hands. Traditionally all Durga statues must be thrown in the river, but this year the government forbid it because of ecological reasons.

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The Goddess Durga

 

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A luxury Haweli at the ghats

 

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A merchant who sells aromatic essential oils

The last place we visit is Sarnath which is 10 km. away from Varanasi, but actually now is already a part of the city. Here Buddha did his teaching for the first tiem – known as the Delivery of the first sermon – Deer forest. Two ancient huge stupas rise at the place marking it. One is where Buddha met for the second time with the five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced eremitism. It is said that they didn’t want to talk to him because they felt he had betrayed their teachings, but when they approached him they involuntarily stood up showing their respect. The second one marks the place where Buddha spoke to his first apprentices.

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Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath

Nearby there are ruins of ancient monasteries and a statue of Ashoka Emperor who first dispersed Buddhism in India. The place is calm and clean – totally opposite to Varanasi. Around the stupas are built monasteries of different countries – Thailand, Japan, Burma and so on.

Going back turns out to be a challenge. There is no direct bus and we have to change three different rickshaws because they have limited access to certain areas. Anyway it takes us 2 hours but we manage to go back.

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Relax-max at noon

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