February - March 2019
  • Day23

    Mystic Nagarkot

    March 9, 2019 in Nepal ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    Our final stop on this trip was Nagarkot, high up in the hills east of Kathmandu and with great views of the Himalayas - on the one or two days a year that are clear, it seems.

    But that was in the future as we boarded a Buddha Air ATR-72 for flight 101 - destination “Mountain”, a flight past Mount Everest. It was quite magical, not exactly reach-out-and-touch-it close but crystal clear in the early morning sunshine. No doubt that’s as close as we will ever come to the highest mountain in the world.

    Later in the morning we drove out of Kathmandu, stopped for some booze (these guides are easy to train once you get the hang of it) and drove to the Pashupatinath Temple, another complex of Hindu temples on the bank of the Bagmati River.

    This was another cremation experience, fascinating and unnerving at the same time.

    A cremation was commencing as we looked on from the other side of a narrow, poisonous looking river. This person was apparently well-known and had attracted quite a crowd, with spectators lining all the vantage points across the bridge and on both sides of the Bagmati.

    Just up the river another body was being prepared for the same destiny, feet being washed in the river and river water seemingly poured over the face. Some banknotes were left on the body as well.

    As this all took place life went on around it. A woman washed her hair under a tap in a far corner of the cremation area. People shopped and stickybeaked. Fake or real sadhus badgered us for money for a photo. Monkeys and dogs wandered around looking for scraps.

    It was the wails of a relative of one of the deceased that broke the spell for us. In all of our tourist-perving it was too easy to forget that these people were father or mother, son or daughter, loved and lover - real people whose death had caused real suffering.

    Back in the van and a little quietened, we drove on to Bhaktapur, a nearby township with another UNESCO Durbar Square.

    After lunch in another atmospheric rooftop restaurant - these seemingly breed like rabbits around medieval Nepalese squares - we took in the finer points of some carved pillars on the appropriately named Erotic Elephants Temple, copulating elephants (among other 1600’s erotica) being exactly what is depicted.

    Later in the afternoon we had an hour’s bone shaking drive up a rough track to Nagarkot and the Mystic Mountain Resort.

    It was certainly mystic, 2,100 metres up with the hills rolling away into the distance, and, somewhere beyond, the snow capped Himalayas. It was also certainly cold, quite a shock after the temperate weather we had enjoyed.

    We relaxed for a day, alternately cold or hot depending on the clouds that would regularly clear overhead but leave those elusive mountains invisible, reflecting on the incredible sights, experiences and fun and laughter that the last three weeks have brought us.

    Finally, at sunrise on our last day as we packed to leave, the sun rose to a clear day and we were treated to the magical reflections of the sun on the snow covered mountains, a fitting end to a great holiday.
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  • Day20

    Kathmandu - Land of the Living Goddess

    March 6, 2019 in Nepal ⋅ 🌙 13 °C

    Well, Kathmandu is now more than just an evocative name on a map for us.

    Having flown in from Delhi, the immediate contrasts were striking.

    It is a dusty city, but generally without rubbish everywhere (or cows, for that matter). Unlike most public areas in India it doesn’t smell like a public toilet. And, astoundingly, the locals get on with their business of driving like maniacs without using the horn. Kathmandu traffic is like watching a movie of Indian traffic with the sound turned down!

    We visited Patan Durbar Square, which the locals are still patiently reconstructing in places after the 2015 earthquake. The Royal Palace of the Malla Kings, dating from the 1600’s, occupies one side of the square and its courtyards were fascinating. The wood carvings were quite beautiful.

    The other side of the square is taken up with numerous temples and idols, seemingly randomly placed. We had earlier visited the Swayambhunath Stupa and found the same thing, only this time with monkeys and acres of cheap singing bowls for sale.

    We were lucky that our guide explained a bit about the bowls, and grateful that none of us had been tricked into buying a cheap, factory-made imitation.

    Actually, it was no wonder we were taken with the beauty of the Durbar Square, because earlier in the day we were each personally blessed by a Living Goddess.

    We ascended some narrow steps into a dingy room that smelt of mouse droppings, then a man carried the Goddess - the Kumari - in and sat her down on a kind of mini-throne. In turn we were able to pay some money, be daubed on the forehead with red powder by a four year old and take a snapshot of the scene.

    The Goddesses are selected from the Shakya caste and must meet strict physical, astrological and psychological requirements. Once they are chosen their feet are not permitted to touch the ground until their goddess-retirement.

    They remain a goddess until puberty, after which a new one is selected. It was in equal parts quaint, bizarre and - for the poor girl removed from the normal life of a child - extremely cruel.

    In the afternoon our guide took us on a fascinating walk through what must have been his local territory. One minute we were walking down a narrow alley off the market, next we ducked through a narrow, low doorway and emerged in a courtyard full of timber, derelict-looking buildings, with children kicking a ball around and dogs and chickens in equal numbers.

    There were small temples and idols scattered throughout the numerous alleys and courtyards that we walked though on this most interesting expedition.

    The capacity of the Kathmanduvians to find a way to make a living was illustrated by the number of tiny eating places in the narrowest of laneways all scattered through the area in which we walked. A couple of seats, a two-burner stove, a fridge and a dirt floor was all that was required.

    We seem to be rushing towards the end of our trip, and last night was the obligatory bad cultural show. This one had dancing - very well performed, if uninteresting - along with bad food, bad rice whiskey and no atmosphere whatever. Still, every trip has to have one!
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  • Day19

    "Steven! You need beer?"

    March 5, 2019 in India ⋅ ☀️ 20 °C

    Back in Delhi for a night before heading on to Kathmandu, here is the indulgence of a few general impressions.

    Firstly, a massive shout out to Anand, the driver who has patiently ferried us over a thousand kilometres of Indian highways and back roads.

    His rather stentorian voice would boom through the bus, “You need break?”, or more infamously the title quote above. He was at our disposal to go out in the evenings and was always ready with a great restaurant if we needed. Nothing was too much trouble, and he was quite unflappable.

    He was stopped by the police one time, and sprang out of the bus to talk to them. “Did you get a ticket?” we asked. “No,” he said, “I just paid them some money.”

    He would not only translate for us to buy drinks from some pretty dingy looking wine shops, he kept an esky in the bus topped up with ice so we could have a cold traveller in the afternoon.

    We could not overstate the difference having a private driver has made to our trip.

    Speaking of which, we spent a fair few hours on the road and grew quite used to the Indian traffic flow system. Slow trucks and fast cars share the right lane, no one moves over for anything, the horn is an always-on accessory and motor cycles, auto rickshaws, ox carts and the like make up the left lane of a multi lane road.

    Cows, of course, have right of way everywhere and may and do use any lane they please.

    The hard shoulder is reserved for slow vehicles, which could be travelling in either direction, plus pedestrians, pilgrims and roadside stalls.

    The trucks, mainly slow unarticulated Tatas or Ashok Leylands, all look overloaded and are decorated to within an inch of their lives, with black rope-like streamers attached to their mirrors, colour everywhere and a most unnecessary sign on the back - “Sound Horn”.

    The Indian government is working hard to sort out the traffic. For example, their speed hump technology is world class, and nothing speeds traffic better on a four lane highway than some random steel barriers across a lane or two.

    The poverty in India is in your face pretty much everywhere. You will see slums, people washing themselves in the street, people going to the toilet in the street. It is so common place that no one even seems to notice.

    And yes, India is in many ways filthy and polluted. The streets and even the country roads are lined with rubbish, the cities have amongst the world’s most dangerous air quality and there is a constant battle to preserve the monuments from the pollution.

    But despite all that we found it one of the most amazing destinations we have ever visited. Enormous cities full of wealth and monuments, Rajasthan outposts with their ubiquitous forts-on-a-hill and of course the incomparable Taj Mahal. Go if you get a chance!
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  • Day18

    Agra - Masterpiece in Marble

    March 4, 2019 in India ⋅ ☀️ 17 °C

    Well, we saved the best of India until the last, that’s for sure.

    We dropped into Fatehpur Sikri, a former capital of the Mughal empire founded in 1571. By some minor oversight they neglected to check whether there was a reliable water supply, however, so it was largely abandoned within 40 years.

    The remnants are built of beautiful red sandstone, and very cleverly designed to handle the extremes of weather, this being the hottest part of the country. Bedrooms were even designed to have a pool of water on the floor for cool in summer, and cascading water ran in living spaces to cool the breeze.

    From there it was a quick run into Agra and its enormous Fort. Built of the same red sandstone, with later rulers incorporating some of the white marble and design elements that make up the Taj Mahal, it seemed to almost glow as the setting sun hit the stone walls.

    There was a human element, too. Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj as a memorial to his wife (Mrs Jahan, also called Mumtaz Mahal) was not only responsible for the beauty of the Palace but also spent his last days imprisoned there after being deposed by his rather greedy if not despotic third son. His apartment, fittingly, looked over the Yamuna River toward the earthly masterpiece he had created.

    At six the next morning we were in the lobby, along with about a hundred other guests, to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

    This most perfect, most beautiful memorial to love, rose majestically from its slumber as the new day dawned, white marble seeming to change colour minute by minute in the growing sunlight.

    Well, maybe sometimes it’s like that. We stood around in thick fog less than fifty metres away from it and could not see a single thing!

    Our guide ran through his entire repertoire of interesting and moving stories of this incredible labour of love while we sat in the cold grey morning and waited.

    The faintest outline of the building was visible as we donned our shoe covers and ventured inside the mausoleum itself, where the happy couple rest for eternity.

    And it was inside that the incredible scale of this masterpiece became apparent. No painted designs for these people; twenty thousand artisans spent 13 years on the main building alone, with every pattern an inlaid work of art, from the floor to the ceiling. An artisan was almost guaranteed to lose a finger through grinding the precious stones, and his sight from the intricate detail of the work.

    As we emerged from the building, so too was it emerging ethereally from the mist, and the hordes all clamoured for the best vantage points.

    It was indeed crowded, but not so much so that we felt hemmed in. As we made our way though the grounds, still awestruck, it became obvious what a fitting final destination in India this was.
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  • Day16

    Jaipur - Fifty Shades of Pink-ish

    March 2, 2019 in India ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    The Palace of the Winds. Amer Fort. Jantar Mantar. Jaipur City Palace.

    Jaipur is oversupplied with majestic structures, any of which would make an Indian top ten list.

    But this doesn’t take into account the buzzing, noisy streets or the milk market, or the crowds or the inevitable squalor. More than anywhere since we left Delhi it is the whole package that makes up Jaipur.

    Painted a sort of terracotta-inspired pink in 1876 to impress the visiting and eccentric Prince Albert, the old town remains so today, although in a classic case of “do what I say” the Maharaja’s Palace didn’t get the same makeover and remains a cream blob in a sea of old strawberries.

    We drove to Amer Fort, about 11 kilometres out of town, and were bounced around in the back of a Jeep up to the entrance. What an industry the tourist-moving business is! There was a continuous convoy of jeeps ferrying people up the hill to be turfed out into an immense traffic jam from which the souvenir sellers could pick their marks.

    Then there were the elephants, hundreds of them conveying rather seasick-looking people up the hill by a less animal welfare-aware means of transport.

    The palace, with hilltop fortifications all around and towering over the township below, was spectacular, cleverly designed to defeat the extremes of heat by use of cascading water, and with some absolutely beautiful rooms and gardens. The Hall of Mirrors - Sheesh Mahal - was quite stunning.

    Back in town, we stopped for a photo of Jal Mahal - an eighteenth century palace built in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, with - inexplicably - four of its five storeys under water when the lake is at its highest. This was picturesque, but the tribe of small boys enjoying their exciting game of marbles by the side of the lake was a more privileged insight.

    Jantar Mantar is a kind of UNESCO listed outdoor observatory, replete with giant sundials and astrological detail. It was built by Maharaja Jai Singh, founder of Jaipur and, according to our rather proud guide, a man 25 per cent more intelligent than anyone else. Not quite sure how they measured that, actually.

    There were quite a few Indian tourists about, families and couple excitedly snapping away. One family even asked Sharon to be a part of their photographic record.

    Then we left Jantar Mantar, with its middle class Indian visitors, and went into the outside world, where we were confronted by small begging children, one of them carrying the inevitable semi-naked baby. They were appealing in a filthy, stinking way, but by no means underfed. The appalling life to which they looked destined was as moving as it was beyond our control.

    Oh, and it was also Sharon’s birthday. A lovely gift from Kim and Steve, a Happy Birthday singalong in the van and a nice Italian dinner in the nearby Taj Hotel made it one to remember.

    On the way back from dinner we were stopped at a level crossing while a long passenger train rumbled by in the dark, giving us a glimpse into another world - from the barely-occupied first class coaches to the jam packed fourth class. Plus the delay gave Aanand a chance a to gloat a bit more about the cricket as the Aussies headed for defeat in a one-dayer!
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  • Day15

    Udaipur on the Lake

    March 1, 2019 in India ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    We got off the beaten track a bit on the way here, driving from Jodhpur via the small town of Ranakpur and the incredible Rana Khumba Jain Temple.

    A symmetrical structure 60 by 62 metres, it contains 1,444 exquisitely carved marble pillars, no two of which are identical. It was well worth an hour’s bumping and jolting on narrow roads to reach it.

    We continued a steep, winding climb over the Aravalli range and on to Udaipur, but not before that darned Indian reality intruded into our world again.

    A crowd of onlookers, a wrecked motor cycle strewn across the road and the rider face down and unmoving in the middle of it. 137,000 people die here each year in road accidents, 25% of them motor cyclists. There were no jokes about the traffic or the drivers for the rest of the day after that most sobering of events.

    Famous for its lakes, Udaipur is an attractive city by Rajasthan standards. The lakes are low on water at present, and the rubbish-strewn shorelines not overly attractive, but overall we thought it excellent.

    We visited the Maharana’s Palace, large enough to contain two hotels plus his residence plus a museum and still have room left over to rent out for weddings and functions.

    It was very photogenic, perched on a cliff above Lake Pichola. The various preserved rooms were interesting and there seemed to be cool, green, peaceful courtyards everywhere. Then of course, from almost every window was an expansive view over the lake.

    We took a boat ride on the lake, cruising out to the Maharana’s “Fun” island. Exactly what kind of fun he used to take himself and his entourage off for wasn’t specified, but it was quite a small island.

    We visited the Garden of the Maidens, built by Maharana Sangram Singh in 1734 for his wife and entourage to relax. With fountains everywhere, manicured paths and gardens and bougainvillea running amok it was absolutely brilliant.

    For dinner one night our capable and friendly driver, Anand, took us to a restaurant on the lake. There’s not much view in the dark, mind you, and a cold wind came up that blew straight through us in our semi-outdoor location. These were minor considerations, though. Cold beer and wine, great food and an endless supply of inane conversation kept us well entertained.

    We also relaxed for a day here, sitting by the pool and wandering down for a look at our sister hotel - the uber-luxurious Oberoi. So pleased were the staff to see four Australians in thongs walking into their hotel that they gave us a ten minute tour then promptly called for a golf cart to take us back to where we had come from.
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  • Day12

    Jodhpur and the Jets

    February 26, 2019 in India ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    From Jaisalmer to Jodhpur was an easy drive - if there is such a thing as an easy Indian drive - and a surprising transition.

    Jaisalmer has the atmosphere of a desert outpost - smaller, dusty and with its admittedly astounding fort built on top of a big pile of dirt.

    Jodhpur is a much bigger place and it too has a fort - the Mehrangarh Fort - which is extensive and built on a solid stone outcrop. It is called the “blue” city for the colours of the houses of the Brahmin caste, although blue houses weren’t all that numerous really.

    Outside the gate to the fort is a memorial to the soldiers lost when Jaisalmer and Jodhpur fought over the affections of the Princess of Udaipur. This would indeed seem to be a high price to pay to get a girlfriend.

    In the company of yet another knowledgeable and passionate guide we toured the Palace - also called the “Citadel of the Sun” - which towers over a hundred and twenty metres over the streets of the city. We saw depictions of the daily life of the Maharajas, depictions of battles, including elephants with swords and - just to confuse things - horses with fake elephant trunks attached to their heads.

    Jaswant Thada, the mausoleum of the Maharajas of Marwar, is close by the fort and another magnificent work of carved marble. We are trying so hard not to get blasé about these sights, any one of which is alone worth the effort of the trip.

    On another level again was the Clocktower, Ghanta Ghar, in the middle of one of the noisiest, most chaotic markets we have seen. The was clothing or fabric on sale in one location that had the frenzied locals climbing over themselves to get hold of some.

    We stayed at the poshly-named Balsamand Lake Palace Hotel, and it was quite special.

    The hotel rooms are cleverly built into the arches under an aqueduct that formerly led water from Balsamand Lake. The grounds are perfectly manicured and are home to peacocks, monkeys and other wildlife. The dam that holds back the lake, dating from 1159, is an architectural monument in its own right, although the aforementioned monkeys seemed to regard it as their private domain and weren’t exactly welcoming toward us.

    We had drinks in the grounds, in the peace of the late afternoon and accompanied by the odd peacock, then a delicious and fun dinner on the lawn, warmed by braziers of burning timber and eating under flickering candlelight.

    That night however, some were awakened by the roar of fighter jets overhead. India and Pakistan, not exactly best buddies, were having a tit for tat shooting match after the murder of some Indian soldiers in Kashmir by Pakistani terrorists. We were only 250 kilometres from Pakistan.

    It is a privilege to see all these beautiful and exciting places, but occasionally there is a reminder that the troubles of the world may also be closer than we would want.

    The following morning, though, normal transmission resumed. We were served breakfast each morning by the oldest group of waiters we have ever come across, all handlebar moustaches and ramrod straight posture, for whom nothing was too much trouble and all seemed normal in the world once again.

    Next stop Udaipur; the adventure continues.
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  • Day9

    Jaisalmer Desert Frolic

    February 23, 2019 in India ⋅ ☁️ 22 °C

    We left Delhi’s chaotic six lane freeways, usually with vehicles ten across, and flew into Jaisalmer, where the road to the airport is a single lane only.

    There was no one there to meet us. Steve had his phone stolen, either from the taxi or the hotel. Off to a great start to our Rajasthan sector.

    Then we bought some beer and wine to take up to a sunset viewing area only to find we weren’t allowed to bring it onto the property - things were getting better and better, and the sunset wasn’t all that flash anyway.

    So we drank our beers and our wine - from plastic cups - in our ten seater bus and generally tried to put the day behind us.

    Jaisalmer celebrates the Desert Festival each February with signature events such as turban tieing contests and a tug of war. They also select their finest example of manhood to be crowned Mr Desert, and we had the absolute honour of being shown around the city by Vijay, Mr Desert 2013! At least, that’s how big a deal he made it out to be when he was telling us.

    He was also a teacher, an actor and, in his world at least, a movie star. He proudly showed us the photos of his 2013 victory that were still on display throughout the Jaisalmer Fort.

    Actually, Vijay was more into promoting his beloved Desert Festival than promoting himself, and he was a great guide, knowledgeable, easy to understand and personable.

    He took us to the Lake, built by the wife of the King for water storage and typical of peaceful Indian lakes. This means the shore was covered in rubbish and we seemed to spend a lot of time dodging vendors, cows and lactating dogs.

    We then walked up into the fort, built on a large hill and very imposing in the relatively flat country of the Thar Desert. We visited a Jain Temple and were astonished at the quality and detail of the stonework.

    We visited a coffee shop perched right on the very top of the wall of the fort, reached by a step set of stairs that the owner somehow climbs all day without spilling a drop.

    We visited a haveli, an old residence in the heart of the fort, which former prime minister Mrs Ghandi thought so photogenic she had some buildings knocked down opposite so as to give a better view.

    Late in the afternoon some of the intrepid travellers drove out to the Sam Sand Dunes for a spot of camel riding, an enjoyable pastime for all, except maybe the camels!

    Jaisalmer was smaller and dirtier than we expected; next we head back east to Jodhpur and, we assume, more civilisation.
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  • Day7

    Delhi in 24 Hours

    February 21, 2019 in India ⋅ 🌫 16 °C

    Changes in our flights, and the Delhi traffic, meant that it was quite a rush. It was evening before we arrived, so we had only one full day to take in the sights, sounds (and, being India, smells) and atmosphere of a capital city of over 25 million people.

    We kicked off our tour of the city in Old Delhi, where we visited the Jama Masjid mosque, one of India’s largest and built by Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame. It was certainly extensive, and a complete contrast to the chaos in the old city outside.

    Then we immersed ourselves completely in the chaos on a rickshaw ride through the bedlam of the alleys of Chandni Chowk, the old market place.

    It was an exciting blur, as we weaved our way around, dodging carts loaded with just about anything, as well as people, cows and even a few monkeys. From time to time the driver would yell over his shoulder “Sari market” or “Spice market” or “Stationery market” but half the time we were too busy holding on and looking around to hear him properly.

    The afternoon was great, too. Among the highlights:

    Qutub Minar is a quite beautiful 73 metre high tower built in 1192 and in the midst of a number of other Islamic structures.

    Humayun’s Tomb was built for King Humayun by his grieving wife in 1570, and was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. It also now houses Mrs Humayun and an assortment of other, lesser, Humayuns.

    For dinner we went to a restaurant called Indian Accent, one of Delhi’s finest, and for which we are grateful to Mike and Myra Smith for the recommendation and Steve for persevering with the booking process.

    It was, quite simply, the best Indian food we have ever had, and so unlike the typical suburban rogan josh we are used to it is a pity to call it by the same name!

    Our wonderful dinner over, we were straight off to bed as we were leaving for the airport at 5:30 am.

    Next, onward to Jaisalmer.
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  • Day6

    Varanasi - Another World

    February 20, 2019 in India ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C

    Well, if Mumbai is a city of contrasts then Varanasi is on the moon!

    No famous buildings to speak of, and no nightlife for westerners, it is all about the atmosphere and the incredible spirituality of the Hindus for whom it is the most important place in the world.

    Our introduction to the Varanasi cremation business was on the way in from the airport, where we passed a beaten up minivan with a body tied to the roof, trussed up with coloured cloth like a Christmas present and en route to one of the cremation ghats.

    In the evening of our first day we visited an Aarti Ceremony on the banks of the Ganges, and never was the old saying “getting there is half the fun” more true.

    We were in an auto rickshaw, the traffic too thick and the roads too narrow for a normal van. We were pummelled, deafened and alarmed in turn as we wove our way through narrow, filthy, congested alleyways on the way to the river.

    Then the pummelling auto rickshaw began to look quite attractive when we were forced to walk the last half kilometre or so. More than once we were forced to all hold hands to form a chain to cross roads filled with people intent on our demise. The locals seem to walk through the thickest traffic on the narrowest streets with impunity, but it was a very long walk for we white people.

    And the crowds! After the Aarti Ceremony some twenty thousand were expected to go to the temple, and the queue was already some kilometres long.

    The ceremony itself was colourful and incredibly atmospheric, with seven stages set up on the ghat and large crowds sitting on the ground in front of them and also crammed into boats moored in the river.

    Then of course we had a repeat dose of terrifying, kidney-bruising transport on the way back.

    The next morning we were back down at the river by 7:00 to take in the early morning bathing, and the early morning cremations.

    The ghats of Varanasi are amazingly picturesque, especially in the early morning light, and it was very peaceful as we were rowed some kilometres along the shore.

    We disembarked and walked up through narrow streets, past cows and beggars and dogs, dodging carts loaded with firewood (360 kilos per cremation, we were told) that threatened to run out of control down the hill at any time.

    A lot of this we took in rather slowly, as we spent a lot of time looking at the ground, dodging a plethora of different species and styles of faeces.

    Back on the river, we saw numerous cremations taking place, not with any whaling or carry on, just small groups of people near the fires doing what their custom and religion dictated.

    We were moved by the quiet devotion of the Hindus in relation to the activities on the bank of “Mother Ganga”. It’s every Hindu’s wish to die in Varanasi and be cremated and his ashes scattered in the Ganges, as this frees them from the cycle of death and rebirth (and, I suppose, the risk that in the next life they would come back as a mosquito or something).

    Next stop Delhi.
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