Arriving in Varanasi: The Holy City

We have met a few people who have traveled to Varanasi and the reviews are mixed.  Some like it and some don’t … We are in the latter group.  While the city may be holy to Hindus it certainly is not to a tourist who only visits for a few days.  In fact, it seemed anything but holy.  From the minute we exited the train station we were hounded by rickshaws drivers who each had several hotels that their brother or cousin owned, to scamming silk resellers, and even our guest house cheated us of a few rupees. This may sound like any large city in India but turned up a few notches past 10 to about 12 or 13.  Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the Ganga (Ganges River), the place that we all come to see.

Varanasi train station has a prepaid queue for rickshaws with a list of prices for certain parts of town.  Mostly to heavily touristed areas near the Ganga River.  However, our location, Meer Ghat was not listed, so when I asked the attendant what the price was, he thought about it and said 60 rupees.  I could tell that he was inflating the price so we walked away and instantly we got offers for 50 rupees so we decided to hire some guy who had been very persistent since we left the train terminal.  As soon as we got into his rickshaw he started telling us a story about how the rickshaws cannot get very close to the accommodations near the river because after a certain distance it is foot traffic only.  We didn’t believe this for a second because nowhere in Lonely Planet or from any other place did we hear that you had to walk.  It sounded very sketchy and we argued with the driver, “Take us to Meer Ghat, or we will find someone else,” I said.  Despite the rickshaw driver’s pleas that he was telling the truth, we got out of his rickshaw and headed back into the train station where we found the tourist information booth.

Varanasi Train Station


The tourist information center, located in the right corner before you exit the station, made a huge difference as they provided us with a city map and pointed out many places to visit. They even called the guest house where we were hoping to stay to see if there was availability.  Only shared dorm rooms, so we opted to try one of their  recommended places to stay.   They also warned us about friendly strangers near the ghats at night, and even told us how much it should cost for a boat trip down the Ganges River (100 rupees).  Also, they told us that it is true, you can only drive so far towards the ghats in certain areas of the old city and then you have to walk.  The old city is very old and the buildings were built very close to each other – no room for even a rickshaw which is only about 3 feet wide.  We felt bad that we had ditched our driver, but we also didn’t want to be taken for a ride.  No worries though, as we left the office, the rickshaw driver we had ditched was standing right there waiting for us.  I guess we looked a little surprised since a tourist police standing by asked us if we were ok and if that man was our driver.  We asked the police if he knew him and the police replied that he did and that he was a good man.  Well, that made us feel good and bad at the same time, but the driver showed no remorse or anger toward us.  I guess he was used to it and just glad that we still chose to hire him!  So off we went with him on a ride through town towards Meer Ghat, where our second choice of accommodations was located.

We drove through many narrow streets filled with cows, bikes, pedestrians and little shops on every corner before coming to a stop in front of a tiny one table local restaurant. “One of you come with me”, the driver said.  So off I went, leaving Heidi sitting in the rickshaw with the driver’s companion, hoping she would be safe in this strange world of old Varanasi where the musty dirty walls are crumbling and everyone seems to be staring at you including the cows.

Narrow street in Varanasi

The driver walked very fast as we went deeper and deeper into the dark dirty depths of this ancient city.  “Follow me, follow me”, he said as I kept losing pace with him as I was a little weary about where we were really going.  I guess I’ve watched too many movies ;).  We made turn after turn and I had no idea where we were or how to get back to the rickshaw.  Already, before we had even reached the guest house, I knew I didn’t want to stay here as it was a maze of walls with a shop on every corner selling luke warm drinks and along the sides were pint size tailor shops that were about the size of 2 telephone booths (remember those?).  And of course, in the big cities, you can’t go 2 minutes without crossing someone who is either pissing on a wall or squatting to relieve themselves.  Finally, after about 7 minutes I could hear the chatter of foreigners and knew we must be close!  Then we crossed an alley that was filled with tourist shops and vendors yelling out at you to come into their shop.  In what seemed like about 10 minutes of walking we arrived at the first guest house and as we entered all the lights were out in the reception area but I could see several guys sitting on a couch and some chairs in the distance.  Were they the mafia or just hot and didn’t want to turn on a fan?  Very strange I thought and again, I had already made my decision before even seeing the room.  “How much for a room?” I asked.  Then someone sitting on a couch across from me turns on a dim light and says “800 rupees for a double room with bathroom”.  “That’s way too much!”, I replied and started to walk out. “Ok, I have a room for 400”, he said.  Not surprised by his response I decided to look at the room and as expected, it was nothing special.  The main thing this place had going was it’s central location and rooftop restaurant. The driver followed me the whole time and as we looked at the restaurant he said, “This is a very nice hotel with a beautiful rooftop restaurant”.  I started to think, “how much commission is this guy going to make off of us?”  This place was not going to get our business and both Heidi and  I were just tired of the rip-off approach and so I headed back to the rickshaw.

As we left the driver said, “You made a good decision, this is not a very safe place.”  I take you to safe place, where I drive very close, no walking.”   Huh?  Didn’t he just tell me that it was a very nice hotel with a beautiful restaurant?  As we walked back towards the rickshaw the driver tried to get me to hire him for the next day for sight seeing, but I was not interested, the only thing I wanted to do right now was get back to the rickshaw to see if Heidi was ok then find a different hotel.  In what seemed like half the time we reached the rickshaw and Heidi was there having what appeared to be a fun conversation with the driver’s Nepalese friend as she was smiling.  Now I’m thinking, this Nepalese friend must also be getting some sort of commission … right??  Why was he riding around in our rickshaw with us?

Heidi and I discussed our options and decide to go farther down away from the craziness and chose to visit Singh Guest House.  As soon as we told our driver this, he and his friend began to praise that location, “That is a great choice, Sir.  It has a beautiful garden in a quiet safe location.”  Now, we are beginning to think that they like all the locations and get a commission from all of them or they really want to get rid of us!

About 10 minutes south we arrive at Singh Guest House, which is on a quiet lane.  While the garden is nothing special it is an oasis in this mad dirty city.  They wanted 600 rupees for a double room with bath and after I tell them the usual, “That’s too much”, they quickly dropped the price to 500, but were firm at that.  What I didn’t like was their smirky attitude and the fact that I felt our driver was getting a commission, hence the high price!  So for the sake of satisfaction I insist on seeing other accommodations that happen to be on the same street.  So the driver leads the way to about 4 more accommodations and none are nearly as good as Singh.  One, which I can’t remember the name, was a homestay and the owner was very friendly and the room was very clean and the price was right at 300 rupees for a double room with bath.  The only problem is the house had the smell of urine.  I don’t know if it was coming from outside or where, but that was definitely enough to say no.   We returned to the rickshaw and Heidi took a look at Singh Guest House by herself, and she also did not get a good vibe about the place, but it seemed like our best option since it had the garden, had internet, and was two minutes away from the Ganga River.  Also, I forgot to mention that it was about 2 PM and the temperature was hovering around 45 degrees Celsius and we were exhausted from the long train ride and really needed a shower and some food!

Before we decided on Singh, better judgment had already gotten the best of us and we began to question our driver and his friend as to how much commission they were making from the guest house and they insisted that they were not making any commission and only hoped to gain more of our business.  In retrospect, I believe this to be true and regret the way we treated our driver and his friend.  Unfortunately, we have encountered so many scammers throughout India and the rickshaw drivers are commonly the ones who will try to make a commission off of you whether it be from taking you to tourist shops so they can get free gas, commissions from guest house, and many other creative ways.

We gave the rickshaw driver a small tip and parted ways.  We wish him well and we wish we never stayed at Singh Guest House.

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