Holy cows, nights in the desert under the stars, the Taj Mahal, Hindu Gods, the holy River Ganges, Bollywood movies and utter chaos all around; this could only be India! Our backpacking trip around Northern India took in Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaipur, Bharatpur Agra and Varanasi. It took 21 days and during that time we experienced many highs and lows including beautiful views, exquisite monuments, stunning wildlife, friendly and curious people, extremes of poverty and wealth, heat, exhaustion, beggars, lots of sickness and traffic like we've never seen before.
The preparation for this trip started a few months back; getting up to date with immunisations and organising our tourist visas. The visas were very time consuming to acquire and involved taking time off work to travel to Bradford with copious amounts of paperwork and bespoke size photographs. The paperwork was sent off, along with our passports, and a couple of weeks later we received our passports backs with lovely, colourful visas inside.
Travel tips we found out either before or during the trip, for anyone else embarking on a trip to Northern India , are listed on the Northern India travel tips article.
Day 0 - Getting there
The day of the trip, we took the train from Hull to London and planned to take the tube to Heathrow. Unfortunately for us, it was the day of the tube strike so we had to navigate our way across London with our heavy holdalls and rucksacks. After not being able to get on the first five buses, we eventually caught the 205 bus from outside Kings Cross which took us to Paddington. From there we caught the Heathrow connect service to terminal 4 where our Air India flight was due to depart at 9.30 pm.
After boarding the 747 plane we were all asked to shut our own overhead compartments which is something that is usually done for you in the UK. One of the first cultural differences that we spotted - the first of many :-) The plane was a little dated although it did have movies to watch on board and the service from the airline staff was both friendly and efficient. After a lovely vegetable curry I settled down for the night eager to experience our first day in India.
Day 1 - Delhi
The plane touched down 10 minutes early at 10.30 am. After disembarking we couldn't help but notice the amount of staff that were there to help in the airport. We had pre-booked a taxi to our hotel and were met by a representative to take us to the taxi. Unfortunately the Prime Minister of India was also at the airport so we had a 1 hour wait in a muggy 32 degrees before the taxi turned up. The drive to the hotel was a little hair raising. Our driver must have bibbed his horn over fifty times during the journey. We lived in Spain for 5 years but never experienced driving like this before. The driver had to contend with other cars, crazy looking lorries, motor bikes, scooters, cycles, cycle rickshaws, tuk tuks, beggars, street sellers and animals. The fifteen kilometre journey took well over an hour because of the sheer amount of traffic on the roads. Just before we reached the hotel we were stopped at the lights by a family knocking on the car windows and begging for money. After safely reaching our hotel, the aptly named Hotel Perfect, we checked in and got ready for our welcome meeting to meet our traveling companions.
Our trip leader was Bikash, an Indian gentleman who had been running this trip for four years. We also met our 8 other travel companions; four from the UK and four from New Zealand. During the welcome meeting and afterwards, at an enjoyable meal at a local restaurant, we learnt about the the importance of dress for the females in the group - covering arms and knees in more traditional parts of the country, about the dangers from snakes and scorpions on the desert part of the trip and about how Indians in the north are paler than those in the south and that many Indians desire to be paler, in the same way that we in the west want to get sun tans!
Day 2 - Delhi
We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and then headed out to explore Delhi. Our first destination was the underground station. We really has to watch our step as most of the time there were no pavements and we had to fight through rickshaws, tuktuks, mopeds, cycles, cows and cards to get where we were going. We took the underground train to the Sheeshganj Gurudwara (Sikh Temple). We had to cover our heads and wash our hands and feet before entering the temple, and noticed that someone was drinking the water from the footwash. He was promptly chased away by a Sikh guard with a stick.
We watched and listened to the chanting inside the temple and helped the volunteers make chapatis. The temple was very clean and we were told that the Sikhs volunteer to help around the temple and give away free food to anyone that needs it. Next we took a rickshaw ride through Chandni Crown to the Jama Masjid, Delhi's oldest mosque and one of its most impressive buildings. During our ride, the rickshaw's chain came of so the driver had to stop and fix it in the busy street. In the mosque the females had to wear gowns to cover their legs and arms and because I had shorts on, I had to wear a makeshift skirt to cover my knees.
Next we took the underground back to the hotel, checked out and took the underground again back into modern Delhi were we treated ourselves to a KFC. This was in a modern shopping mall and was a massive contrast to the chaos and pungent smells of Old Delhi and was full of middle class Indians buying designer goods.
On the underground, you have to go through a security check before being allowed to travel. Also, women travel in a different carriage to men so there is a different queue for women and men. The women's queue was almost non existent, however the men's queue had over 500 people in it so it took a while to get back to the hotel to meet the others.
Our taxi journey from the hotel to the train station took quite a while as the traffic was really heavy. We saw many followers of Shiva (a Hindu God) carrying water in bamboo and buckets at the side of the road and were told that they were taking part in a 400 km walk to the temple to get blessed. Bikash, our trip leader, explained to us that there are three main Hindu Gods which are represented using the anagram GOD: Generator which is Brahman who created the worldn; Organiser which is Vishnu and Destroyer who is Shiva. There are many avatars of both Vishnu and Shiva, such as Ganesh, the monkey good and Krishna.
At the train station we had to go through security again and after a long wait on a crowded and rather smelly platform, boarded our train to Jaisalmer. The carriages were cramped and a lot older than the ones we experienced in Thailand; there were no curtains for privacy and there were three beds high in each carriage. In addition to this, our group was split up as there are only so many seats allocated to foreigners per journey so we had to sleep next to strangers. Before the seats are made into beds, people wander round the train and sit where they like which we were not used to. One man who slept in the bunk adjacent to my daughter Lucy became a little too familiar with us so our trip leader had to warn him off.
Day 3 - Arrival into Jaisalmer and camel safari
After a long 19 hour journey we arrived into Jaisalmer station at around 11.30 and took a jeep to our base for the next few days, the Deepak Guest House.
Looking like a scene from The Thousand and One Nights as it rises from flat desert surrounds, Jaisalmer is a centre for nomadic tribespeople who come to trade in the narrow twisting alleys full of markets and ornately carved houses. The only industry here is tourism so the streets are lined with small markets and shops selling everything from antique Indian goods to electronics with friendly and enthusiastic owners trying to persuade you to buy their wares . As it is close to the desert, no food is grown here so everything is imported from around India to eat.
After a meal at the guest house we packed our overnight bags and set off on a fabulous adventure - a camel ride out over the sand dunes to spend a night under the stars in the beautiful Thar Desert.
We travelled by jeep to the camel camp, met our guides and rode through the desert to our camping spot for the night.
The camels looked really well cared for and the owners seemed to treat them well. After the one and a half hour ride, we set up our camp and our guides got a camp fire going to cook dinner. One of the guides said to us "no worries, no hurry, no chicken, no curry" :-) We watched the sun go down over the desert, listened to stories, had a few beers and were entertained by one of the guides singing some amazing a capella songs. After eating some delicious vegetarian food, we laid in bed staring at the stars and drifted off to sleep.
Day 4 - Camel safari and Jaisalmer
We had been told the night before to wear socks or shoes to bed because there were snakes and scorpions in the desert. Our mattresses were raised off the desert floor but the guides just laid on mattresses on the sand. Dikash told us if they get bitten, they visit the local healer who magically takes out the venom without physically extracting it. "India is magic, " he tells us. We also had to make sure non of our bed clothes were touching the sand and to tie our sandals to the bed so that wild dogs didn't steal them. No one was bitten during the night, but when I woke up a wild dog was sat at the bottom of my bed! He was really friendly so some of the group petted him for a while. After a quick breakfast of freshly made toast, jam and chai, we set off back on the camels to the jeep and back to the guest house for a much needed shower!
Later that morning, we were taken on a guided tour around Jaisalmer by a local guide. We visited two Jain temples and the old Prime Minister of Jaisalmer's house. Next we visited a fair trade fabric show room where we bought a beautiful elephant wall covering. The show room is a cooperative and 70% of the money paid for the products goes directly back to the local villagers who make them.
After returning back to the hotel room, I suffered from a bout of Delhi belly and was out of action for the rest of the day. On the evening, Sue and Laura went out with the group to an old colonial style restaurant; a bit like the Best Marigold Hotel. They had their tea on the roof and some young boys sang to them. They asked Laura and Sue for their names and made sins up about them. Everyone then exchanged funny travel stories and at the end of the night got a tuk tuk back to the hotel. The driver put disco lights on and just managed to avoid crashing into people, cows and motor cycles. What a laugh!
Day 5 - Free day in Jaisalmer
I was still feeling under the weather (35 degrees plus without air conditioning!) so stayed at the guest house for the day. We had a free day today so Sue, Laura and Lucy went to see the lake on a tuk tuk. Upon arrival, they hired a paddle boat and saw some huge fish which scared Laura. On the way back, everyone was staring at them and they felt uncomfortable so got a tuk tuk back into the fort. Next they went shopping and Laura bought two pairs of elephant print Ali Baba pants for three hundred rupees (around 3 quid).
On the evening the girls joined the rest of the group in the roof terrace restaurant and dressed up in saris and traditional Indian dress for a meal. Our trip leader demonstrated some traditional Indian dancing, before watching the sunset from the top of the fort. To round of the evening, they let off firecrackers from the roof into the dark night sky.
Day 6 Jaisalmer to Jodhpur
This morning we were up at 4. 30 to catch the 6 am train to Jodhpur. I was feeling better but others on the trip were starting to get sick. Bikash said it was down to heat exhaustion - we've had a busy itinerary so far, little or no air conditioning and the heat has been overpowering.
The train was a sleeper train with the same layout as the one from Delhi. This meant we could all lay down and take it easy for the 6 hour ride as the train wasn't really busy. The stench as we arrived into the stations was overpowering. Decades of raw waste being dropped directly onto the lines has made a smell like no other!
We arrived into Jodhpur just after lunch and caught a tuk tuk to Jagat Villas, our accommodation for the next two nights. As there were five out of the twelve of us now suffering with vomiting and diarrhea, our trip leader decided that the rest of the day would be a rest day and we would squeeze in the activities that were planned for today into tomorrow. Sue and Lucy were both sick now so we welcomed this decision.
On the evening myself and Laura joined the group for a meal at a lovely restaurant. The monsoon was in full force during the late afternoon and it had just stopped raining when we arrived by tuk tuk at the restaurant. I didn't fancy Indian food but Laura suggested cheese naan which did the trick to help settle my stomach. On the way back we couldn't help but notice all the makeshift shacks that people had built close to the road, made out of plastic and rocks, that they were living under. They were sitting at campfires, cooking food and laughing and joking whilst the dirty, heavy traffic was rushing by - everyone just getting on with their lives.
Day 7 - Jodhpur
Jodhpur is known for its antique shops and the best lassi (a yoghurt drink) in India. It is also where the famous trousers come from.
Sue and Lucy were still feeling sick so they stayed at the accommodation all day. We headed out to visit the crematorium near the fort. It was quite beautiful, looking like a miniature Taj Mahal, overlooking a sparkling lake and set in ornate gardens with a view over the blue city of Jodhpur; so called because a lot of the houses were painted blue to reflect the sunlight.
Next we drove up the hill to explore the colossal Mehrangarh Fort and take in the great views from its ramparts, which dominate the city's skyline. The entrance included an audio tour, which was really informative about the marvellous museum exhibits and the lives of the family that used to live in the fort.
After lunch, we visited Sadar Bazaar, one of the oldest markets in India. Built around a clock tower amid spice and vegetable markets, juice sellers and sari materials, Sadar Bazaar also has numerous vendors with carts selling everything from Bollywood soundtracks to armfuls of sparkling bangles. We spent time in the antiques stores looking at statues of Hindu gods and enjoying the air conditioning.
After returning to the hotel for an hour to freshen up, we set off again for a tour of the nearby Bishop villages. (Laura had received since bad news today so she decided to stay with Sue and Lucy) . The Bishnoi are a peaceful nature-loving community and are known locally as the "tree hugging people" because they refused to let the local government cut down the trees in their area. They hugged the trees to stop them being cut down but the trees were cut down regardless, including some of the people with them. After a while this stopped, and the people were victorious and allowed to keep their trees.
We visited a nature reserve and saw buffalo bathing in a lake before visiting local craftsmen, including a potter and a weaver. We also visited an opium farm but were not allowed to sample as it was against Intrepid, the trip organiser's, policies. The drive back in the dark was scary; the driver hardly slowed down and pretty much forced everyone else of the road. He even pushed his bull bar against a cow and forced it off the road and out of his way.
When we returned (alive...just!) I collected my laundry from the hotel and had a delicious meal there. (We've found it really easy to do laundry on the trip. Most hotels offer it as a service and it costs only a few pence per item. So no need to pack a lot.)
Day 8 - Jodhpur to Udaipur
As Lucy had been really poorly yesterday, we were offered the option to take a taxi to Udaipur instead of the bus. Both take anywhere between 5 and 7 hours. We would be able to stop the taxi for nature calls but it was going to cost around 60,000 rupees (about £60).Lucy said she was fine and wanted to go by bus so at 5.45 am we left our accommodation for the local bus station. The bus was air conditioned, with WIFI, and was better than we'd expected. We drove through some beautiful scenery (distant mountains, pretty rivers) and had many obstacles thrown in our way (peacocks, pigs, goats, monkeys, buffalos, cows) which the driver cleared with never ending use of his horn. We had many near misses on hairpin bends on the mountain roads but managed to reach our destination, Narayan Niwas, at around 1.30 pm.
We had lunch on the roof terrace, overlooking the lake, and then spent the next 3 hours catching up on sleep. Later we met up for a walk around the city which seemed a lot cleaner than other cities that we'd visited so far.
Unfortunately, Lucy wasn't getting any better so we asked to see a doctor. He said she had travelers diarrhea and gave a list of things to do to make sure it stopped. I've listed these here for reference just in case anyone else finds themselves in this situation: Don't eat meat, fish or dairy as they contain bacteria. Drink a mixture of water, slice of squeezed lemon, teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt. Drinking water on its own isn't useful. 6 glasses a day. Breakfast - black tea and sugar, salted crackers, toast and banana Lunch - clear soup, rice, boiled potatoes * Evening - salted crackers, tea
Day 9 - Udaipur
We all felt a lot better today and were refreshed, ready to explore India's most romantic city. Rolling hills, white marble palaces and lakes come together appealingly and it's a centre for artists, dancers and musicians. The narrow, windy streets were full of shops with miniature paintings being the speciality.
After a healthy breakfast at the guest house, we met our guide who took us to City Palace, one of the largest royal palaces in India. Here we admired the unbelievable treasures within - from vivid murals to antiques and royal utensils.
Next we visited the painting school where we were shown how they produced the detailed miniature paintings. They are made using rocks, vegetable gum and water for the paint and either chipmunk hairs or cancel eyelashes for the brushes. Laura had an elephant painted on her nail by one of the painters (the detail was incredible) , and we later bought a miniature silk painting of an elephant by him too.
On the evening we enjoyed a boat ride on Lake Pichola and saw Lake Palace and Jag Mandir Island (also called pleasure island as the local ruler used to keep his concubines and queens here.)
From the ghat, we walked through Udaipur to a beautiful lakeside restaurant with incense burning in the gardens and ate there before taking a tuk tuk back to our accommodation.
Day 10 - Udaipur
This was our last day in Udaipur and it has been so relaxing. The weather has also been a little cooler with some reason which has made everything a little more comfortable too. This morning we had a three hour art class where we painted our own miniature paintings. We all sat /kneeled down to paint and each painted an animal onto silk. We were all really happy with the pictures too and it only cost £4 per hour each!
In the afternoon the girls all had henna tattoos done at a local ladies house and in the evening we went to a cultural dance show where we saw seven traditional Rajasthani folk dances, including puppets and a lady who balanced 7 pots on top of her head.
Later, over dinner, we were discussing homosexuality in India as we had seen many men interlocking fingers as they walked. Our guide told us that this was a common thing for two men to do in India and wasn't a sign that they were in love. Apparently there is no gay marriage in India and men are not allowed to live together in a gay relationship.
Day 11 - Pushkar
This morning we were up at 4.30 to catch the 6am train to the city of Ajmer (approx 7 hrs) and then onto the Hotel New Park; our accommodation in Pushkar.
Pushkar is one of the India's holiest places. It's also a market centre for many of the local village people.
We caught up on sleep in the afternoon, and then on the evening we walked to the lake which was created by the Hindu god Brahman. We took our shoes off and walked along the bathing ghats and across the holy bridge to visit a number of holy shrines.
We watched the sun go down over the lake, listened to a drummer beat a hypnotic rhythm during the sunset and then listened to the priests chanting whilst candle lights were pushed out onto the lake.
Day 12 - Pushkar
After a buffet breakfast at the hotel, we walked down to the lake with a local Brahmin (priest) where we took part in a pooja ceremony. He chanted some prayers which we repeated and proceeded to give us some spice powder and flowers which we threw into the lake to make a wish. Next he gave each of us a mark on our foreheads from the spice and told us to take some rice in our hand. He tied a band around our wrists and we then through the rice over our shoulders.
Next we walked through the bazaar to the only Brahma temple in India. We had to take our shoes off across the street and then walked up to the temple barefoot. Some of our group were offered flowers but we were warned against this as the costs of this are really high and if you accept the flowers you have to pay. On the way back to the hotel, we looked around the market which has some of the cheapest clothes and jewellery in Northern India. I bought a beautiful bronze dancing Shiva statue - signifying the cosmic dance and the destruction of the universe as Shiva is the destroyer God in Hinduism.
On the evening we took a tuk-tuk to a local hotel and ate outside, overlooking the city, whilst Vikash told us some stories about the Hindu gods.
Day 13 - Jaipur
We took a local taxi at about 9am to the coach station. We intended to travel on a local bus but as some of the group were still ill we changed to an air conditioned bus. They only sell the tickets a set time before the bus is ready to set off so we had an hour long wait before we set off.
At this point on the trip, only two people of our group of 12 (Karen and Laura) had not been sick and they have been only eating non- spicy food. Coincidence? Maybe... Most people are really feeling the heat and we think the sickness is a lot to do with heat exhaustion.
We arrived at our hotel at around 1pm and ate a lovely lunch there. Jaipur is known as the pink city as a lot of the buildings here were painted pink for a visit by Prince Charles but they are no longer pink! Jai means wind and pur means city so it also means the windy city. The song, Jai Ho, means wind Ho.
Later on in the afternoon, we went to the Raj Mandir Cinema, which was a grand theatre, built in the 1970s. We saw a bollywood film called brothers about two brothers who had to fight against each other in a no holds barred cage fighting tournament. They managed to fit in a dance number during the film too which was fun. The audience really joined in with the action, shouting and cheering. It was a totally different cinema experience from the UK: people talked through the film; walked around during the film; there was an intermission during the film and the lights went on and off when the film was due to start The were also hardly any adverts!
Afterwards we went to a nearby restaurant and ate late before catching a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.
Day 14 - Jaipur
We hired a tuk-tuk for the day to explore the capital of Rajastan, Jaipur. We set off early to the old capital of Amber and explored the hilltop fort complex known as the Amber Fort. This was quite stunning and had a wall around it which stretched for miles and looked like the Great Wall of China. As semi precious stones are the city's speciality, we stopped at a jewellers who demonstrated how they are made from rocks.
Next our driver took us to his favourite restaurant which was really simple and sold superb and cheap food. What more could you ask for? After lunch we made a quick photo stop at India's most photographed building after the Taj Mahal, the Hawa Mahal or 'Palace of the Winds'.
Our next stop was at Jaipur's Royal City Palace - one of India's finest - and here we spent time exploring the various rooms and apartments. Next we went to the sun temple, also known as the monkey temple, which was situated above the cities offering both wonderful views and lots of cute little monkeys, similar to the barbary apes found on the rock of Gibraltar. Here were hassled a bit by some local guides wanting to use their services as protection against the monkeys. We were quite firm with them and they left us alone after a while. We've found that if you're firm with people when they're either battering or begging then they eventually leave you alone.
It was getting late so we were taken to a local market to get supplies for tomorrow's bus ride and then we ended up at the tuk-tuk driver's cousin's textile shop. Here he started to get out all of his stock and put them on the floor for us to look at. Sue and I both looked at each other and shook our heads and then explained to the merchant that we had all the textiles that we needed. (We'd been through this same experience twice before and it takes forever for them to explain all the stock that they have and we'd already bought wall hangings, table runners, pillow cases and clothes abs didn't want anything else!) We made a fast exit back to the hotel to catch up with the others and their experiences during the day.
Day 15 - Bharatpur
The bus to Bharatpur (our next destination) was a local bus and not air conditioned. As we set off early (5.45) it was still cool - ish. On the bus journeys, there is so much to see out of the window.-the time seems to fly by. This morning we saw buses crammed full of people standing, people sitting on the top of tractors, children begging in the bus windows, religious ceremonies at the side of the road, people jogging around a park, a man selling chai (tea) at the side of the road, rubbish being tipped everywhere, people brushing rubbish from outside of their shops onto the roads, a few colourful religious processions with loud disco music, people living under plastic bag shelter and street entertainers dancing in front of crowds (at 7am!).
Most of the roads we've seen are in a state of disrepair. There are private roads (with tolls) but even these have bumpy rides. We saw our first dog on a lead on this journey too. There are many street dogs here (not dangerous) but not many domesticated ones and hardly any cats. They are not kept as pets.
Also spotted on this journey were numerous men at the side of the road relieving themselves, beautiful green scenery, lots of motorbikes travelling the wrong way on a dual carriageway, more cows and goats on the road, mopeds carrying crops which were 5 times wider than the bike itself, holy men walking with sticks to support them, buses with ten people sitting on top of the bus, flooded fields due to the monsoon rain, colourful graffiti adorning farmers walls, buffalo, children waiting for the school bus, women working in the fields in red and orange saris, unfinished tower blocks, factories, tuk-tuk's, cycle rickshaws, jeeps, brand new SUVs, ornately decorated lorries and large metal milk urns being carried on bikes.
Our hotel, the Birder's Inn, was in the middle of nowhere but a 5 minute walk away from the World Heritage Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary is regarded as one of the world's most important bird sanctuaries with over 400 different species identified.
We hired a cycle and biked around the forests and wetland. It was a welcome respite from the noise and chaos of Indian cities. We managed to see herons, antelopes, cormorants, ibis and hundreds of nesting storks.
The hotel was lovely - the best so far on the trip - and we all met up at the end of the day for an evening meal in the hotel restaurant.
Day 16 - Agra
A long lie in today and a late departure at 10pm to Agra, home of the world famous Taj Mahal. On the journey we left the county of Rajastan and entered into the county of Uttar Pradesh This is a lot poorer area with more crime. Our leader told us stories of people being mugged and kidnapped and advised caution. As we got into Agra, we all got excited, looking for the Taj Mahal. Luckily our guest house, Hotel Sheila Inn, was right next to the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal and we got a view of it from our roof terrace.
Agra is home to one of the world's most recognisable monuments, the Taj Mahal.
After lunch, we visited the Taj Mahal - a masterpiece of shimmering white marble set amid beautiful formal gardens. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz, this 'teardrop on the face of eternity' (as it was described by writer Rabindranath Tagore) lives up to all expectations.
On the evening, we went out to a local rooftop restaurant and learned how to play drums and the sitar.
Day 17 - Agra
In the morning we visited McDonald's for breakfast and then a couple of shopping malls.
After lunch, we visited Agra Fort on the banks of the Yamuna River. Built in 1565 by Emperor Akbar, the fort was originally designed to be a military structure. It was converted to a palace in Emperor Shah Jahan's time and eventually became his prison after he lost power in 1658.
Later, we went to a local carpet make to find out how carpets are made in a traditional environment.
At around 8pm, we left for Varanasi on an overnight sleeper train.
Day 18 - Varanasi
Our sleeper train took around 14 hours. Our tuk-tuk took around an hour to transfer from the railway station to our hotel, Hotel Haifa, and upon arriving at the hotel we had a well deserved shower and some lunch. We caught up on sleep for a few hours and then took a walk down to the River Ganges.
Our guide told us the story of how the River Ganges was created. Someone asked the good Ganga to bring water down to the earth. Shiva the god helped him to do this by putting the water in his hair and then transferring the water into the earth. At Varanasi the Ganges runs from South to North - people say this is because when Shiva uncoiled the water from his hair this is how it appeared. Varanasi is famous for two things - firstly for the River Ganges and secondly because it has one of only 12 Shiva temples in India.
We spent the evening soaking up the magical atmosphere of a candle flower ceremony, on a Ganges river boat as the sun set. The three Brahmins that conducted the ceremony used smoke, incense and fire and the ceremony included lots of chanting and clapping. We had a fabulous view of the ghat from the boat and pushed lighted candles into the river from the boat. Unfortunately the monsoon rain had caused the river to flood so we couldn't go out too far on the boat but this didn't spoil the experience at all.
Day 19 - Varanasi
This morning, at 5.30, a few of us ventured back to the bathing ghats to see the sun rise. There were groups of celebrations going on when we got there; the main one was around a pit of fire where the participants were chanting and singing. Four more priests appeared and performed a similar ceremony to the one that we saw last night, facing the Granges with backs towards the watching pilgrims.
Later that morning, we took tuk-tuks to Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha gave his first sermon after receiving enlightenment. There was a temple there and a giant stone Buddha, all set in quiet and ornate gardens, very different to the hustle and bustle of Varanasi.
In the afternoon we were taken by cycle rickshaw to the main bathing ghat which was flooded due to the monsoon rains. Here Hindu men, some naked, were swimming in the water next to cows in the limited space that was left. Usually you could walk the length of the city on the steps of the Ganges but this was not possible while we were there.
Next we visited a 'recommended' fabric shop and were shown how to tell the difference between cashmere, silk, pashmina and polyester.
After that, we went to see where the cremations take place. In Hindu culture, nearly everyone is cremated except for a few exceptions such as pregnant women and lepers. The men (no women take part in this) bring the brightly covered bodies through the thin, windy streets carrying them above their heads attached to long poles. They chant praise to the Gods while they walk and eventually take them to a huge circular fire incinerator, about twenty foot in the air. Here the bodies are dropped into the fire, around one every ten minutes while we were watching. The fire is fed constantly by wood from nearby huts along the way. This whole experience was really moving to watch and made one reflect on how temporary our lives are.
On the evening we went for a meal outside the city boundaries where meat and alcohol are allowed to be consumed. Our tuk-tuk kept breaking down on the way there in some of the busiest traffic that we've seen in India.
Day 20 - Varanasi
Today was a free day. We had to be out of the room by 12 so we had a lazy morning, taking full advantage of the air conditioning until lunch time. (Although we were woken at 6, 6.15 and 6.30 by three separate processions blasting out loud music followed by pilgrims in religious dress.)
In the afternoon we walked down to the river and stopped by at a shop specialising in wooden toys. As we were browsing, we noticed it was raining but thought nothing of it. Ten minutes later we looked outside again and a foot high river was racing past the outside of the shop which used to be a road. The shop walls started to drip and some of the items in the shop got soaking wet through. The owner explained that two years ago the height of the water had risen to three feet high, from both the river water and the rain, and all his shop was flooded. He lost everything and had to start again.
After a good hour and a half, the water subsided and we were able to wade to a local restaurant to eat.
At around 5 we set off for the station to catch the 7.30pm sleeper train to Delhi. This train was better equipped than previous ones that we'd been on and even had catering facilities onboard. Unfortunately we had an Indian family squeezed into the two bunks above is so it was a tight fit when we were all sitting down before the beds were put down for the night.
Day 21 - Delhi
We woke up to find the Indian family perched on the end of our beds at around 6am. The train rolled into Delhi station at 8.30am
After a quick breakfast and shower we were ready to make the most of our last day in Delhi. We travelled on the Delhi underground to the Akshardam temple complex near the banks of the Yamuna river, next to the Commonwealth Games village. The temple was constructed in 2005 and only took 5 years to build by 7, 000 artisans and 3, 000 volunteers. The inside of the central stone mandir was covered in gold and surrounded by hundreds of stone elephants depicting morals and stories from Indian traditions. The complex also included a lotus garden and played host to water and light shows on a night.
Next we headed across town to the lotus temple, created by the Bahai faith. The temple is set in ornate gardens and is shaped like an enormous lotus flower, surrounded by nine large pools of water that help to cool the massive prayer hall.
After spending a while in silent contemplation and coolness inside the temple, we ventured back into the searing heat to find somewhere to eat. Luckily we came across a food mall and tucked in to some satisfying junk food.
Later that evening we had our final meal with our group and said our goodbyes. We were blessed with a lovely group of friends to travel with and had had such a wonderful time. As Shakespeare said "parting is such sweet sorrow". We were looking forward to getting back to the comfort of our home but will miss incredible India and the rich diversity that we have experienced here.