Tag Archives: varanasi

The Unfortunate Journey To The Magnificent Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal.

An enduringly beautiful, magnificent, and majestic monument that symbolizes India. One of the seven new wonders of the world. Millions flock there every year to see it and there are millions around the world who dream to visit.

But not this guy. I don’t want to see it.

However, I should only see it because I feel like I HAVE to. Otherwise, I would just skip it because who knows if I’ll ever return to dear old India.

The internationally famous Taj Mahal is located in Agra, a city located between Delhi and my current location of Varanasi. I planned on Delhi being my final stop in India before I move onto Nepal, so I figured I would travel to Agra as it’s already on the way. My method of transportation would be via the Indian Railway which I hoped would be my last Indian train for the rest of my life. I’ve done three of them already to get a genuine Indian experience.

Three too many.

The first one was delayed three hours and lasted about 15 hours total. It was an uncomfortable experience, but not as rough as I initially assumed.

The second train was delayed only an hour and lasted about 12 hours total. I slept most of the time and woke up to an almost empty cabin which was absolutely glorious.

The third train was a local train which costed only 10 rupees but I was practically almost squished to death. I was able to find the humor in being stuck in that claustrophobic nightmare.

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Let’s do one more train for the road. It’s the cheapest alternative. (Sometimes I wonder why I put myself in these harrowing situations. I could freely choose to go anywhere in the world, like relaxing on the beaches somewhere in the Caribbean, but instead I choose to ride dingy, poop-filled Indian trains.)

While in Varanasi, I booked a train to Agra which was scheduled to depart at 4:00pm the following day. I’ve noticed every traveller who left Varanasi before me, stayed at the hostel a couple of hours longer because their trains were always and expectedly delayed. There was a website to check the train status, which proved to be convenient instead of waiting around at the actual station to find your train to be delayed.

Well, I checked the start of my train and it showed to be delayed by four hours. Alright, no big deal, we’ll just chill in one of the common rooms of the hostel until then. I wasn’t the only one waiting. Another traveler by the name of Jean (Argentina) was ticketed on the same train as me, also on his way to Agra. I let him know about our delay and so we chilled in the hostel. He made me a veggie sandwich as we waited. What a nice guy. In the mean time I also booked a cheap hostel in Agra, so that way I’d already have my accommodation sorted.

I continuously checked the Indian Railway website throughout the evening to check the status.

Delayed another three hours.

Delayed another two hours.

Our train was delayed from 4pm to 1am the next morning!

Our hostel was kind enough to let us wait inside until midnight, but since we didn’t pay for another night, we had to wait the remaining hour in the outside lobby where it was flippin’ cold.

I nestled onto a bench and tried to keep warm while Jean was covered from head to toe near the front desk. We both decided it would at least be warmer at the train station, so we found a random rickshaw in the middle of the night and were escorted to the train station in Varanasi.

When we arrived, we saw that our train was delayed ANOTHER hour. What the heck man?! I’ve heard the trains in India were notorious for being delayed but I’ve been relatively lucky with the past three…I guess my luck ran out this time. We found a room where other gringos were hanging out to keep warm and so we found a place to sit and wait it out.

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Periodically, Jean and I would take turns to go down to the main floor to check the status of our train.

Delayed two more hours.

Our train that was supposed to leave at 6pm yesterday was now leaving at 4am in the morning.

Afraid to fall asleep in fear of missing my train, I stayed up the entire time. Nearing 4am, there were no other updates, so Jean and I gathered our bags and headed to platform 9 as indicated on our tickets. Our train finally arrived a bit after 5am, but on platform 8. Finally.

This train would only take about 13 hours so we should be there around midday.

I didn’t realize how wrong I was at the time.

I had the lower berth which meant less privacy, but whatever, I was just glad to finally be on the train. It was the middle of the night, so I immediately made myself as comfortable as possible. A family entered my cabin, a grandma, a dad, a mom and their two boys, loud as can be, talking to each other as if there was no one else in the train at all. It took them forever and a day to finally settle in the berths near me. I would have slept, but an onslaught of the most monstrous collections of snores I’ve ever heard happened in my cabin. This will be over soon Daniel.

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Daylight came and people were already up. I woke up to find one of the kids chilling between my legs. Yeah just make yourself comfortable there, kid.

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I opened my water bottle to take a sip and felt the old woman across from me staring. She pulled out a giant empty plastic bottle and motioned it toward me, indicating that she wanted some of my water. I gave her about half my bottle. I needed to ration the rest of my water. I got up to attempt to use the toilet and found this.

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I think they expect me to stand on those two metal islands and attempt possible splash back. All while a piece of poop is already floating in there? Yeah, naw.

The other two toilets had shit all over it too and what was funny was that even the locals on the train refused to use them.

I went back to my lower berth. I was getting hungry but I wasn’t brave enough to get off the train and quickly get food when it made a stop at a station. So I just laid there hungry, dreaming of the day when I can ever eat a giant juicy Big Mac again. I looked down below and saw a rat run along the side of the cabin down below to where my big bag was stored. I didn’t budge. I was not surprised. Go ahead and make yourself cozy in my bag, rat…I don’t care.

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The train made numerous stops in the most random of places. As a matter of fact, due to the crazy fog that was happening, we stopped for hours at a time…waiting…waiting…frustratingly wishing I could just teleport outta there. The family in my area turned my cabin into their own personal living space with their feet bare sticking out hanging all in my face and everything. 

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Did I mention I’m not a fan of feet?

Periodically I would get up and check on Jean who was two cabins over and every time I checked on him, he was dead asleep on his semi-private upper berth. I previously told him that I would let him know when we arrived in Agra, since he had no way of knowing. Before we departed I downloaded a map of our route and was able to use the GPS to track our journey. Whenever I checked, the progress the train made was minimal. The journey already surpassed the estimated time, thanks to the thick fog that took over northeast India.

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After 24 of the longest hours of my life, our train finally arrived in Agra, at 3am in the next morning. Jean, along with another foreign traveler on the train we met named Jiwan (Korea) didn’t have a place booked yet, and so decided to come with me to the hostel that I booked prior. We caught a rickshaw towards my hostel in the thickness of the fog. Barely any other life was present in the middle of the chilly night. We found my hostel in the alleyways and walked inside. Like I imagined, no one was present at first. It was 3am in the morning after all. But like every other hostel in Asia, there is always a guy who “lives there” sleeping behind the desk, in the office, or something along those lines. Low and behold, a sleepy man popped out and I informed him that I had a reservation. Granted, I was half a day late, but still I was hopeful.

“Why did you come so late?” he asked with a blank face.

“Our train was delayed due to fog,” I responded. “There was no way I could contact you.”

“Sorry, we have no beds.”

“But, what about my reservation?”

I proceeded to show him the e-mail confirmation from my phone. He went over it and handed the phone back to me and simply repeated, “We have no beds.”

“So you gave away my reservation?” I said, annoyed as heck.

To be fair, I did rock up extremely late, but seeing how trains in India are always late, I figured there would be some leeway as to when their guests arrived.

I was visibly irked and let him know how it’s not good business to just give away a reservation, especially after I reserved with a credit card. That train took up most of my patience I suppose.

I was irritated and left the hostel back onto the fogged up main streets with Jean and Jiwan following suit.

“What do we do now?” asked Jiwan.

We were alone in the middle of the road. The street lamps created a mysterious haze in the fog. It felt unnatural, especially given it was the middle of the night and I was hungry, thirsty, and tired. Not to mention, I felt grosser than shit from being trapped on that train for 24 hours.

“We look for another place,” I told them. “Fortunately, there are a lot of other places to stay nearby. We just gotta walk to some and find one that will take us.”

Poor Jiwan. He was a nervous nelly. One thing I learned through years of traveling, is that everything is gonna be alright. Freaking out will only escalate things.

We found some places nearby and one of the hostels, Zostel, we recognized because it is a chain in India. We entered the gates and a sleeping man let us in. He informed us that the only space he had was a private double bed room, enough for two people.

“Can we squeeze three people?” I asked.

“Yes, its possible.”

The good news? We finally had a room to sleep in and were able to split the cost of the room three ways. The downside? I had to share a bed with two strangers I literally just met.

How did I end up here?

The next morning, we had breakfast at the hostel and decided to walk to the famous Taj Mahal, which according to Google Maps, was only a 30 minute walk away. But first, we needed to get to an ATM, which proved troublesome.

There is a cash crisis here in the whole country of India (as of early January 2017). There has been a surge of counterfeit 500 and 1000 rupee notes recently, so the Indian government discontinued them and banned any use of those particular notes. The only denomination any ATM would give out were 2000 rupee notes which were equivalent to roughly $30 USD, which is way too much to pay for the daily necessities such as food and transportation. Making change is hard to come by and many shops and restaurants will deny usage of the 2000 rupee note, simply because they don’t have change. Besides that, most ATM’s are always completely wiped out of cash or not in service. It was a huge hassle during the entirety of my Indian trip so far and it’s only gotten worse the further north I got. Here in Agra, it was also a pain.

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We learned the price of admission into the Taj Mahal was 40 rupees…if you were a local. For tourists like me, the jump increased to 1000 rupees. What a jip! Another salt in the wound in the series of unfortunate events leading up to the Taj. But unless I was Indian, or at least looked like one, there was no other way around it.

I handed over my 1000 rupees, feeling like I was getting suckered. And I was. I understood there was a local and tourist price but the difference in value to see the Taj Mahal is a prime example of how countries like India assume that all tourists are rich and it’s not a problem for us to be taken advantage of. Listen India, I saved up for quite a while and spent a boatload just to get over here. I am not made of money!

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Jean, Jiwan, and I continued on inside the Taj Mahal gates and yes, the Taj Mahal was magnificent to look at and just as big as I imagined. We went during the crowded hours of the day, so there were other suckers just like me everywhere. Jean and Jiwan were in good spirits, so we had an amusing time goofing off and exploring. Finally, we were here.

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What an ordeal.

Was it all worth it? Eh…I’m undecided, as I was never too gun ho about seeing the Taj in the first place. That train sucked. That hostel that gave away my reservation sucked. But, I was glad to finally get the Taj Mahal out of the way. It was similar to how I felt about the Eiffel Tower in France. I felt like I HAD to see it.

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Now that I did, I can move onto the less touristy things in the world. Onwards to adventure! Though one can say that the journey getting to the magnificent Taj was an adventure in itself.

P.S. – The inside of the Taj Mahal absolutely sucked. There was nothing, and I mean nothing inside there. Just a crowded line of eager patrons that went in one direction and came out ten minutes later disappointed by the time they just wasted. I would show you the inside but no pictures were allowed to be taken, probably because the people who ran the place doesn’t want the world to know how lackluster it is inside the Taj Mahal.

 

Daniel Adventure Born and the River of Death

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Manish told us he had a friend who could take us on a boat up the River Ganges to see the body burning rituals and the Evening Ganga Aarti ritual performed nightly here in Varanasi, also known as the spiritual capital and the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism.

Also, probably one of the most obscure places I’ve been in a long while.

Body burning? Yes, that’s right. Varanasi is famous in India for Indians to make their pilgrimage to burn their loved ones and brush their ashes in the River Ganges. They come all the way here because they believe that death in Varanasi will bring salvation to their recently deceased loved ones. The body burnings are public and numerous. But only the men are burned to cleanse them of any impurities. Pregnant women and children are usually salvaged and instead their corpses are usually thrown into the river.

I met Manish, along with a few other backpackers while staying at Stops Hostel in Varanasi. I was recommended to go there from a scruffy Australian backpacker I met in Mumbai after deciding where to go next. It looks like India really wore him down, but he was still packed with tons of info.

“I want to go somewhere cool for New Year’s,” I said to the scruffy backpacker. “Not the party scene of Goa.”

“Definitely check out Varanasi then,” he proclaimed and began to describe his experience.

I looked it up and it seemed interesting enough. I’ll go there.

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I’ve done three trains already and decided to save the hassle and fly over from Mumbai to Varanasi this time. The flight was a short hour and ten minutes. The traffic getting to Stops Hostel from the airport was horrendous and fume inducing. I’ve been noticing that the further north in India I get, the more hectic it seems.


I entered Varanasi under a gloomy fog that never went away. But thankfully, the travelers I met at the hostel lifted spirits. They were a neat assortment of individuals from all sorts of places coming through India from all different directions. My 14-bed dorm was spacious and easy to settle in. Surprisingly, I had a bit of privacy in my little corner of the room.

One of the traveller’s staying at the hostel was Manish, an Indian man from Delhi who came down to Varanasi for a holiday, who resembled a modern-day Ghandi. He had the completely bald head, long goatee, and perfectly round glasses and kept a ‘shaman’ demeanor about himself. After going over some chai tea the hostel served to us daily, Manish invited three of us along with him down on a boat through the Ganges, just before New Year’s Eve. It’s easy to get a boat down the river but I thought it would be neat to go with Manish and his friend to get more of an unfiltered experience.

The fog hasn’t cleared, so we bundled up and set off to the Ganges which was only a short tuk-tuk ride east from where we were.

The riverfront was depressing as all heck.

 

As holy as this city was supposed to be, nothing about it felt “holy”. It felt more like the gateway to freakin’ Hades than an actual spiritual site. Hundreds of people, trudging along, with the most unhappiest faces ever as they walked by. I guess it didn’t help that they probably just burned their loved ones to a crisp. I’d see people carrying dead bodies wrapped in sheets and covered with typical Indian floral down from the alleys toward the burning stacks of wood near the river. Trash was littered everywhere and beat up dogs roamed the ghats. It was a sight to behold. The dim fog and nippy weather just added to the gloominess of it all.


We found Manish’s friend on a small wooden rowboat near one of the ghats. He spoke zero English, so Manish served as our middle man. The four of us got on his boat and almost immediately he took off.

If I were to rename this river, I would call it misery, because that’s the vibe I got from it. The overcast was a dull brown. BROWN! Not like an appetizing chocolatey brown, but more like a “death is near ” brown. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that reeked of gloom more than here on the River Ganges. Most of it had to be due to the weather because the images on Google didn’t look like this. This was like an Indian version of The Mist.

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His wooden boat was just one among hundreds of small boats going up and down the motionless river. We were able to get close to one of the burning bodies as we glided closer. Photography is forbidden, but the rower gave us brief permission at that moment. The body, one of dozens burned daily, burning down to ashes which would take nearly three hours to do so.

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The water appeared numbing, but still I stuck my hand in it to feel for myself. It was surprisingly warm to the touch. Warm enough for locals to bathe in the corpse-filled river because of it’s holy properties. It’s believed than anyone who does so will be rinsed of sins and blessed.

I don’t know man… I saw a bunch of headless goats, dogs, and human limbs floating in there, not to mention garbage. It was anything but heavenly.

Some minutes later, night began to fall and the Varanasi river front began to dazzle with lights and colorful works of art that were hidden during the day.

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Boats of all shapes and sizes, filled with locals and tourists alike, began to congregate near Dashashwamedh, one of the many ghats of the river front. This area is where the Evening Ganga Aarti was held. Our guy rowed closer to where ritual site and tethered our boat to a few others lined up against the docks. There were five individuals, all priests at this particular ghat, holding a variety of candles, performing movements and chants in a rhythmic fashion as the crowd and devotees on land and the ones on the river watched as they performed a commitment to their Lord Shiva.

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I jumped across neighboring boats to get on land, closer to where the action was.

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We stuck around for a bit before the ceremony ended. We released our boat and headed back down stream. We were greeted by another headless corpse of a goat floating next to us. What’s with all these headless goats?

That whole experience was…weird.

I felt as if I were in some purgatory, trying to figure out life or something. Also, one of the most bizarre places I ever spent New Years.

I closed out the New Year with the rest of the traveler’s back at Stops. Drinking isn’t a big thing here and neither is partying, two essentials that are almost a necessity for ringing in the New Year. However, different and unique is exactly what I wanted this time around. I got to spend it with a bunch of brave individuals who didn’t mind being away from family and friends and I also got to see a bunch of dead stuff to boot!

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2017 and Beyond

2017 will mark the first time in my travels that I won’t step foot back on US soil for the year’s entirety. At least, that’s the plan unless something unforeseen happens. 2017 will likely see The Quest to the Seven Continents take me deeper into Asia, further into Europe and down into Africa.

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But my plans are absolutely flexible and loose, so things may change. Especially given as how unpredictable this quest has been, particularly here in India so far.

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