On our way back down to the plains of India, we were unexpectedly held up in Darjeeling, due to some political problems. It was very dramatic when the leader of the opposition was murdered in the town centre and all the shops/restaurants/banks/EVERYTHING closed for six days. Although we were in no danger, it was very frustrating, and when we eventually got a ticket out, we were very glad to leave the area.
Usually travelling on sleeper class on the trains (one up from "cattle class"), we could only get air-con down to Bihar, and we relished the (relative) luxury- we even got sheets- posh!! However, arriving in Bodgaya was a shock to our systems. Not only had we gotten used to the polite, easy-going way of the people of the North-east, we had also adjusted to the cool, mountain air (and wearing fleeces and woolly hats to bed!). Driving from the station to Bodgaya town, the 52 degree (!!!!) air seared into our bodies, burning even our eyelids, and on our first night lying in bed in a pool of sweat, power off (no fan ), then power on (fan blowing down on us like a giant hot hairdryer), we wondered why we'd come. We employed a survival technique we'd learnt in Aswan, Egypt (which, by the way, was not as hot as here, even in summer!) of laying a dripping wet sarong over us, and enjoying the ten minutes or so under the fan until it dried.
After several days of sickness, we were longing for the beaches and comforts of South-east Asia. Eventually, we overcame it, and dragged ourselves around in the heat to see the various temples. Bodgaya is the place where buddha gained his enlightenment (although he was only here for 12 days!), and is therefore a very holy pilgrimage place. Each Buddhist country has their own different temple/monastery it's interesting to see the different styles. The star of the show is the temple where it all happened under the bodhi tree- the grounds here are lovely and peaceful.
|Goat shit drying for fuel|
Things improved greatly after our train trip to Varanasi. Although we've been here before (13 years ago), we'd never realized how beautiful the place is! Summer is THE time to come. There are very few touts, most of the beggars have buggered off, the rooms are bargains, and the very nice towns people have time to sit and talk. It's really been peaceful to relax with no hassle and watch the amazing spectacle on the ghats (steps leading down to the Ganges river). A highly auspicious place to die (or just visit), there is ALWAYS something interesting going on - hundreds of pilgrims and near naked sadhus (holy men), cows/goats/dogs filling the streets and scavenging through the rubbish, wedding parties complete with musicians parading the streets, people having their heads shaved (in mourning) and massages on the ghats, bodies being burnt on the ghats, bodies being run through the streets, bodies floating down the river while people bath/pray/wash clothes/drink nearby....... a lot of bodies. It was still hot there- 40 degrees instead of 50, but a lovely breeze came through our balcony overlooking the Ganges.
|Cow and rubbish|
|Young bride, Varanasi|
|Our guest house, Varanasi|
We stayed here near a month and loved it so much! During this time, Sal learnt some tabla, which was really fun until her teacher asked for a " loan" of 15,000 rupees ($375!!), after which things became a bit awkward (we said no).
Sal having a go!:
Richard used this time to get to know the boys at the local chai stall and catch up on all the gossip!
Otherwise our days were filled with ghat watching; boat rides; wandering the maze of little back streets shops, with lovely, old atmospheric buildings everywhere we looked, and tiny alcoves with lingams (phallic statues), and other statues; eating lots of western food (a bit of a treat at the moment!); and watching the spectacle of the Ganga Aarti, an elaborate puja (prayer) held every night riverside, with musicians, singing, crowds, bells, dancing, fire, insence- quite a show!!
|Ganga Aarti, Varanasi|
|Glorious sunrise, Ganges River, Varanasi|
|Beautiful buildings, Varanasi|
|Floating body, Varanasi|
- One interesting sight- a group of pilgrims were walking behind a cow which started pissing. One lady caught the piss in her hands, drank some and sprinkled the rest on herself and her friends!! Hmm. Another, tragic story was of a mentally unstable man who threw himself on the funeral fire of a random person, and died.
We said our sad goodbyes to Varanasi, and took a train to the quiet, sacred Hindu town of Ayodhya. While in Varanasi they worship Shiva, here it's all about Rama. There's been some serious argy-bargy here over the years between the Hindus and Muslims, but apart from our silent hotel manager with a bad attitude, we found the people friendly and curious ( saw no other foriegn tourists in the five days we spent here). A lovely morning was spent eating and drinking with a family during their wedding celebrations, in a back street of the small town. Other days were spent looking around the ghats and river area, the lovely old buildings and endless temples in town, and dodging the 1000's of monkeys roaming the town looking for stupid tourists holding bags full of plums to steal from!!
|Cheeky monkey, Ayodhya|
|Big load, Ayodhya|
It was here we got sick of stressing about trains and booked all the rest of our trip in advance- something we never normally do. It's so busy all the time now in India, and it's impossible to book sleeper class tickets less than three or four weeks in advance. Well practiced by now, Sal hopped in the "ladies queue" (basically just pushed to the front of the line- a very acceptable and encouraged practice here- there has to be some benefits to being female in India!!). Even though no English was spoken, with the help of everyone in the line shouting out what they thought we wanted, we got there in the end!!
The Muslim town of Lucknow was next, and we stumbled on a gem of a homestay, full of foreigners all doing very intelligent and worthwhile things. Unknown to us, Lucknow is the center for the Urdu language in India, so there were people studying that and other things, and also working in areas such as health and water issues. There was such a great mix of interesting people, and apart from felling very inadequate and lazy, it was great for us to meet people apart from backpackers,and have different types of conversations around the dinner table each night. The homestay has one big advantage to others we've stayed at- constant power. This is because it's next to the state chief minister's MASSIVE mansion complex. From the homestay's roof, we saw this megalomaniac woman's "house" being built, complete with seven metre high statues of herself, and snipers on the roof!! Bizarre.
|Lucknow Guest house|
|Old French school Lucknow|
Lucknow is a very different Indian city. it has a bustling center, but it's streets generally are wide with lots of trees and on our many cycle rickshaw expeditions around the city, we were amazed at how many HUGE old raj era, Muslim, and even French- style buildings and gardens there are. Really beautiful, and on such a grand scale. We stayed here a week enjoying the city and wonderful company.