We are now in Bhopal, and need to start blogging about our experiences here, so the places we went to on our way here from the border will be compressed into one blog.

From the border we made our way by bus and train to Varanasi – the holiest place in India. Varanasi is the larger and more famous equivalent to Pashupatinath in Nepal. Our discussion on the different conceptions of life and death can therefore be seen in a previous blog.

We arrived when it was dark, never a good move, and attempted to catch a tuk-tuk, which the Lonely Planet had stated could be dangerous. So when an extra person got into our tuk-tuk we started to get a little worried, which was only exacerbated when they both claimed they couldn’t take us exactly to our hostel, as the streets were to narrow. This, we thought, is the time we get mugged. But it turned out we were absolutely fine, and the extra passenger was just a hopeful guide.

In relation to Varanasi, this was also not the first time the Lonely Planet turned out to be wrong. Reading their description of the town, we expected a manic lively place which didn’t let you breathe. A place where people try every trick to help part you from your money. Going into Varanasi with these thoughts, we were rather underwhelmed. Other than “masseurs” asking to shake your hand and then attempting to give you a 10 second massage which they then try and charge you for, and the almost constant call of “Boat? Boat?”, Varanasi was no different to any other place we had been in relation to touts.

One very nice thing to do there is walk the winding streets near that Ghats, unless you are either trying to get to a certain place, or need to be somewhere on time. Then it’s incredibly frustrating!

Lucie and I both had our first experience of watching four men simultaneously shit. Toilets are a bit of a scarcity, so people resort to shitting on the river bed, which also happened to be the path we were walking on…

We also treated ourselves to a ‘Lovers Breakfast’ at the lovely Brown Bread Bakery. Here they have over 40 different kinds of cheese, as well as cheese fondue, and many things other than cheese, including a ‘lovers breakfast’. 20% of the profits of this place go to school for disadvantaged (i.e. most) children and a women’s empowerment project. The food is delicious and the staff are fairly paid. All in all, totally good.

After Varanasi, we made the terrible mistake of going to Allahabad. The Lonely Planet describes it as “remarkably calm and laid-back”. Maybe they got the texts for Varanasi and Allahabad mixed up? Allahabad is a deeply unpleasant and very stressful place, or at least it was for us anyhow.

When we arrived, we took the wrong exit out of the train station (if you ever find yourself there, take the exist which isn’t the one directing you to “The City”, as it takes you away from the city…) and were met, as usual, by a flock of rickshaw drivers. What was different about this band, was they proceeded to follow us on their rickshaws down the road for over half an hour.

Eventually, after 2 hours, when it should have taken 5 minutes, we made it to the hotel we were aiming for, only to find they had put their prices up to ridiculous levels. After searching around we found all places either to be full or more expensive, so we stayed at the Royal Hotel. Don’t stay there if at all possible. The rooms don’t have glass in the windows, so you can hear everything going on outside, and floor and bathrooms are filthy.

Having planned to stay 3 nights in Allahabad, we escaped after 1 to a lovely little place by the river called Chitrakut. Unlike Allahabad, this was a truly peaceful and calm place, where the people are genuinely friendly.

After having a lunch on the gorgeous balcony of our hotel (the one Lonely Planet recommends), we went for a walk around a pilgrimage site, which connects back to the Nepali story about Ram. This is where he is meant to have spent much of his banishment from Ayodhya and so people now think its holy. In order to do this 5km route, you have to leave your shoes at the entrance, which after repeatedly stepping in monkey shit, we realised might not have been a good idea. Also, upon returning to our shoes, one of mine was very wet…

When we returned from our walk, the manager of the hotel informed us that “another westerner has arrived. He is French. You should take a boat to the Glass Temple with him.”

So we did. His name was Vincent, and he currently works in a school in Egypt teaching French, but the poor bastard wants to move to Aberdeen as he spent a year there during his degree.

Before boarding the boat, we as usual, had to haggle over the cost. What was so brilliant about this negotiation was that the moment one boatman put his price down, the rest, after claiming they couldn’t put their price down, all suddenly started shouting the same price as the man who had put it down. It was like an inverse auction.

Half way through our boat trip, the boatman suddenly claimed he could not take us any further, for reasons we could not decipher from his hand signals. We insisted that, given our agreed price was to the Glass Temple, that was where we wanted to go. He was probably just tired and didn’t want to have to come back down the river in the dark. After several attempts to convince us that it was impossible to reach the temple, we shored up a little way away. The walk there was a but precarious, involving wet feet and lots of mud.

When we arrived, the temple was full of people. At the front there was a man speaking and occasionally singing over a live musical background. People would join in with clapping and singing occasionally, and he would raise and lower his voice. It was either some sort of sermon set to music, or an Indian version of post-rock… The building itself was like a pimped-up Indian or Nepali bus but on a vast scale – mirrored bits and shiny coloured plastic everywhere. We stood intrigued for a while, but eventually our boatman’s desire to leave overwhelmed our desire to stay, and we headed back. More muddied feet and a relaxing night-time boat ride later, we ignored the boatman’s cry for more money than we had agreed, and went to bed. The day was exactly what we needed.

What we definitely did not need was the next day, which was almost entirely grim. One thing we learned was that you should never plan to take more than one train in any given day in India. The day started potentially well – the owner of our hotel pointed us to a great breakfast spot, and then explained that his brother lived in Jhansi, and we could stay with him free of charge! All we needed to do was call him when we arrived in Jhansi and he would sort us out.

The train was not on time: it seems that it is only naive foreigners who would have the foolishness to believe that any train would run on time here. In the end, a journey that should have taken four hours took, including the time we spent waiting from when it should have departed, eight. The only plus side to this experience was that the mother of the family with which we shared our carriage insisted on feeding us when she fed everyone else – we were treated to home made potato and peas with bread. We also had some sort of weird bitter fruit that is served with chili salt.

So we arrived in Jhansi late and exhausted, but hopeful that we might actually meet some more nice people. Waiting at the train station for an extra forty five minutes turned out to be a complete waste of time, however, as the brother of our previous hotel-owner turned up to guide us to an (overpriced) hotel. Which was not what we were expecting. It’s funny, many people we have met in India will gather round to genuinely try to help you, but often it’s with something that you could do much more quickly and easily by yourself! This was definitely one of those times. Another weird phenomenon is that ripping off foreigners is not restricted to people trying to sell you things, but also to people who seem to have no financial incentive to do so – people offering help through translating for us, or just trying to (apparently) help out, often suggest we should pay about ten times what we know things should cost.

The next day, which was New Year’s Eve, we set off for and arrived in Bhopal. So now we’re here. We’ll get on with blogging about this new place soon.

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