So back to our first 12 hour train experience from Darjeeling to Varanasi ... what can I say but it was very.... long. The loos were... unacceptably dirty (a roll up your trouser job whilst holding your nose). The food was.... too spicy even by the locals... and everyone just stared at us. Strangely enough the train arrived 40 minutes early (how can that be??? Everything is late in India!!) so we nearly missed our 1am stop whilst our whole train carriage had deteriorated into a cacophony of snoring, belching and passing wind!!
Varanasi is extraordinary. Yes the traffic is insane, yes cow dung abounds and those bovines are everywhere - they have a particular affection for sitting in the roads and looking beningly on at the traffic. This Venice of India provides a sensory overload ever night with the fire puja, a ceremonial dedication to the River Ganges, Sun, Lord Shiva, Fire and the whole universe. Performed by the local young Brahmin priests, think large quantities of incense smoke, loud clanging bells, chanting, boats, hundreds of people and there you have it in a spiritual nutshell. It is quite something. After the puja itself large scale cremations take place and families take their lost loved ones on their final journey by boat across the Ganges. It sounds gory but it isn't - and as dawn breaks the city seems magical.
If you are wondering what else Varanasi offers apart from the allure of the Ghats themselves, then tourist haunts include a rich array of temples - from Jain to Buddhist (Buddha gave his first ever sermon at Sarnath); and from Hindu to churches. Benares university is also located here and is apparently the best in India, let's not forget Muslim quarters and of course he endless labyrinth of tiny old streets blocked up with the odd cow or two, jangling music and people plying their various trades.
You either love the place or hate it. Either way you can't forget it. Tonight our journey continues by train (can't wait) on to Agra. See you then....