Paddling the Ganges: 05.10. - 30.10.04

Country: India River: Ganges
Start: Rishikesh End: Varanasi
Route: Rishikesh, Haridwar, Fathegarh, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi      
Distance: about 1000 Km Time: 4 weeks
Current: sometimes :-) Difficulties river: none
Support: some towns and villages    

Sometimes villages and towns are days away so carry enough food and water. Paddling not allowed between Rishikesh and Haridwar. Heard of some bandits be we saw none.

Rating: A great paddling experience!    

Sixteen months ago we, Nadine and Martin, left our hometown of Limburg a.d. Lahn in Germany for a trip around the world on our bicycles. So far we have cycled about 19000 km through Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan. We are now in India, and have been in Rishikesh for a few days. Rishikesh is a small busy town at the foot of the mighty Himalayan Mountains. Nadine is just returning from the local bazaar with with more vegetables than usual, because starting tomorrow we will spend four weeks paddling 1000 km on the River Ganges, India's holy river.  We will be traveling from Rishikesh to Varanasi in a foldable, open canoe that fits on a bicycle trailer when it is packed.  When built up the canoe is 16.5 feet long and large enough to carry us and all of our equipment including our bicycles with the front wheel dismantled and 10 days of food.  While in Europe, we paddled both the Danube and Daude rivers ).  I still remeber the comments about the Ganges from some paddlers we met on the River Danube in Eastern Europe (we paddled the Danube in a similar manner, in this cannoe): "I would never paddle in that filthy slop! The river is full of garbage and human bones, ....!"  We are not sure what to expect. Are we really going to paddle for four weeks in a filthy river that no creature can survive in? Will we have a chance to escape India with its overpopulation, its stinking big cities, its slums and its permanent noise?

On the next morning we cycle to the banks of the River Ganges. I get surrounded by a crowd of 20- 30 spectators as I try to build the canoe, and also keep an eye on our equipment.  Some are so curious that they nearly crawl into the boat.  While I am doing this, Nadine cycles back to our guesthouse to fetch our remaining vegetables,  fruits and our 20 litre water container, but our room is empty! It may be hard to believe, but the staff took everything. Nadine manages to get most of our supplies back, but 1/3 is still missing. After the boat is built, I also cycle to the guesthouse and after about 20 minutes and some tough arguments, an employee of the guesthouse manages to "find" most of the missing vegetables in some neighbouring houses and his own room.  Despite the time we spend getting back our supplies and all the spectators who encircled us, the boat is ready and everything is packed. After two hours we are heading onto the river. During the first couple of kilometers of our trip, we paddled through a beautiful scenic landscape. This section of the river splits several times so there are many small islands as well as some shallow rapids. In the evening we stop on a gorgeous sandy beach where we pitch up our tent, unload the boat and pull it out of the water. After some pasta with tomatosauce and some yoghurt with apples and bananas for dinner we crawl into our sleepingbags an fall asleep immediately.

Big Dam in Haridwar: On the second day early in the morning we are stopped in Haridwar by a big dam. On the other side of the dam there is almost no water so we decide to carry our things to a sidearm of the Ganges, which seems to go back to the river after a couple hundered meters. While unloading the boat, a ranger appears and tells us that we were not supposed to paddle between Rishikesh and Haridwar, because there the Ganges is a protected nature reserve. He checks our passports and then leaves. We are afraid that he is going to report our trip to other authorities who would call off our trip, so we hurry and get our boat into the sidearm without further inquiries.

A Tunnel!!! After two hours of hard labour we get back on the water, but within meters we realize, that both sides of the sidearm are constructed with stones. I tell Nadine "I hope the river remains calm, because if we capsize it'll be nearly impossible to leave the water with the stony sides."  As the sidearm turns towards the main river the banks are suddenly made of concrete and the current increases. Suddenly we have big waves and water coming into the canoe while we are speeding towards the next bend. The sidearm now turns away from the main river, and due to the strong current we have to deal with large waves.  The big waves bring more water into the boat, but our major concern is now a black hole which is about 50m in fornt of us. The sidearm is going straight into a tunnel!  I discover some bushes in a gap of the concrete and try to catch them to stop the canoe.The bushes are out of my reach so I jump into the water to catch them, but I miss them. Now I am in the water, hanging onto the stern of the boat, holding my paddle in one hand while trying to sabilisize the canoe with the other.We are heading at high speed through big rapids into the tunnel. As you may know there are two types of tunnels, one type where you can see the end and the other type which are so long that you can't. This tunnel is the second type and the entrance disappears around a bend.  The tunnel is now pitch black, the current is still strong and the waves still high. After couple of minutes the river calms down and I'm able to put the paddle back into the boat, but I still don't want to risk to climb in. Nadine didn't realize, that I jumped out of the boat on purpose and feared already the worst, when I hear her trembling voice: "Are you still alive? ... Are we going to die here?". I swim towards her to comfort her and try to understand where we happed to be (may be we're in a hydroelectric power station?!!! ). After what feels like ages to me, I suddenly see a bit of light.  Nadine can't see anything, although her eyes are much better. When the exit is in front of us Nadine realizes that the boat had turned around in the dark and that she had been looking the wrong way. Under the eyes of cheering kids, which are playing in the water, we finally exit the tunnel. Happy to have survived, we stop in the first reeds to scoop all the water out of the canoe.

Some spectators: As we learned, we happend to be in a huge irrigation channel about 2 km south of the dam.We are on the other side of a mountain, which the tunnel ran through and about 1 km east of the Ganges. Within minutes we're surrounded by about 200 villagers who watched us carry everything back to the Ganges. This was a nice 2 hour undertaking at 35C until we're back on the water to continue our trip. On the next morning during breakfast, Nadine has a closer look into our food supplies and finds out that most of them were pretty wet. The next village with the opportunity for shopping is days ahead and so we spent half the morning drying our rice, pasta and vegetables in the sun.
Rivercrossing: We get back on the river and  now we enter a completely different world, and it seems like time was turned back at least 100 years. There are no more bridges and some former pontoon bridges are lying rusted on the banks. Even boats are rare in the Upper Ganges. Several times during this part of the trip  we meet Indians swimming through the Ganges.  This is their only way to reach the other side. To do so, they undress themselves right to their underpants and wind their clothes turbanlike around their head to keep them dry. The luckier ones, mainly fishermen, have managed to organize the tube from a truck tyre, and are able to cross the river without getting wet.

Ferryboat: After a couple of days we see the first ferryboat. The ferryboat, powered and steered by a long bamboo pole, lies about 15m off the bank in the river, which is about 100m wide at this point. All passengers have to cross the hip high water to reach the ferryboat. After a long time, the boat is finally full and the ferryman starts to push the boat across the Ganges. He manages to get the boat about 30m before the boat runs aground on a sandbank. Half of the male passengers now jump into the water to pull the boat back into the deeper water. In the meantime, more people arrive at the river crossing and instead of waiting, they walk straight to the ferryboat and help to pull it of the sandbank. The ferryman is not having a good day today, because now the boat is drifting towards a small island in the middle of the river. Again most of the men  jump out of the boat, but while half of them try to pull the boat off the island the others just grab their belongings and walk straight to the other side of the river (maybe they are too busy to help). During the whole river crossing ceremony, we are sitting on the banks cooking some Dahl (Indian lentil dish) and Chapati (Indian bread).We manage to cook, to eat, to wash the dishes and get back on the water, by the time the ferry arrives on the other side.

Bridges: During the monsoon the Ganges becomes a vast river and so all the villages are far away from the normal river. So far, in fact, that we did not see any during the first couple of days. Our only contact with civilization was at bridges. The Ganga (Indian name for the river Ganges) is India's holy river and therefore attracts a huge crowd of pilgrims, who come here to bathe in the river, to drink its water, to throw offerings into it and to perform many more ceremonies which we were unable to understand. Due to the easy access to the Ganges, bridges attract the huge crowds and normally there are also at least a couple of foodstalls and shops around. Due to the lack of bigger villages or towns for us these stalls are only oppertunity to stock up our food and water supplies.

Fauna in and around the Ganges: Due to the absence of villages and towns and therefore of people, there are heaps of animals in and aroud the Ganges.  Hundreds of storkes, herons, kingfishers, buzzards, parrots, and turtles were seen.  We also saw a few cranes, ibises, pelicans, sea eagles, owls, peacocks, crayfishes, mussels, eels, snakes, scorpions, huge lizards (1m long), foxes and monkeys. There are also strange fish around and it seems that they always comes to the surface to breath, but the only thing we can see of it is a thick fin. In the ocean we would be sure that these are dolphins.  Could dolphins be here on the Ganges? After about two weeks (on the river trip?, timeline continuity) we started to paddle, when we again hear this strange breathing sound. We have plenty of time,  so we stop paddling to investigate the strange fish. At first we don't want to trust our eyes, but there is a whole dolphin family right next to our boat. While the older dolphins come only to the surface to breathe, a small dolphin is jumps several times out of the water. We are so fascinated from these beautiful creatures, that we float with the current for at least 30 minutes just observing the dolphins. 

Shopping: After 11 days we arrive in Fathegarh, the first real town, in the afternoon. I walk to the local bazaar, one of the kind where everything just lies on the ground.  I buy fresh vegetables, rice, pasta and milkpowder, while Nadine guards our boat which was closely observed by many interested people. As is usual, although some people are very close to the boat, nobody is talks to us. Everybody just watches us, the strangers. After the shopping is finally done, I go to fill up our water containers at a pump well. I pump for a coupleof minutes, when I suddenly feel something warm dropping on my back. I look into the tree above me and now the warm fluid is droping into my eyes. I turn away, dry my eyes and when I'm look back into the tree, I see a big monkey, slowly climbing away.  A monkey had pissed on me, Great! Fortunately I'm right next to the well and so it's not too difficult to clean myself.

Beware corpses! Traditionally, Hindus are cremated after they have died, and for pious Hindus it is very special, if their ashes are scatterd into the Holy Ganges. As mentioned, we were told in  Europe that sometimes if the family has not enough money to buy the required amount of wood for the cremation, there are just half burned bones floating on the river. We were prepared to see some human bones, but close to Fathegarh we see the whole corpse of a man. We are shocked and plan to report the corpse to the police in the next town, but when some local farmers just walked by without showing any interest, we thought, that everything must be fine.  We later we found out, that holy men, children, pregnant woman, people killed by a snakebite and people who died from a highly infective dicease are not cremated. Instead they are just thrown into the Ganges, or just the next river. From this point forward we now meet at least one corpse a day, everything from infants to old men, and on busy days up to five. Although we manage somehow to get used to the sight of a corpse, the smell is disgusting. Until this point, we washed ourselves, our clothes and our dishes in the Ganges, but after this we decide better to use our drinking water to wash the dishes.

Daily live: Following the Ganges we paddle past Kanpur  (population over 1 millon, famous for its leather industrie) down to Allahabad, where we arrive after 3 weeks. On the way we paddle past many temples and many festivals (there is a festival week to worship some of the countless Hindu gods). Behind each tree, during day and night, we could hear either music or prayers, but were not able to find out the name of the festivals. We paddle past several laundries Indian style, where a couple of men are standing in the river, smashing saris onto stones to clean them before they spread them in the sand of the riverbank to dry. We pass an illegal open air distillery just out of Allahabad and see big sand mines, where men are shoveling the sand of the Ganges by hand into boats to paddle it to the other side of the river, where other men shovel it on a truck. We pass many big cow herds, who, together with their herdsmen, are swimming across the Ganges. We also see the head of the driver of an oxcart. He is standing on his cart while the oxes have to swim to pull it through the river.
Laundry Indian style:
Arriving in Varanasi: Our last night before arriving in Varanasi, our final destination, we pitch our tent on a vaste lonely beach as so often during the last four weeks. We enjoy paddling into Varanasi,  India's vibrant holiest city. The Ghats (steps into the Ganges all along the city) are the buzzing main attraction. Everybody is busy either meditating, washing, swimming, filling canisters with Gangeswater to take it back home, hearing religious lectures, burning their dead relatives, offering blessings, drinking tea, or with selling souveniers, postcards or a massage. We are very fortunate and find a guesthouse where it is possible to check in from the riverside. With quite some spectators, we unload, clean and pack our boat before we finally take a long expected shower.

Fazit: Looking back, our trip on Indias holy river, the Ganges, was absolutely amazing. We enjoyed the unexpected nature (landscape, flora and fauna), and the few fishermen, farmers and pilgrims just completed this idyllic scenery. Due to our slow pace we got great insights into India's culture and had enough time even for small things. After our experience, I would recommend a self-sufficient trip on the Ganges, but because of the dead corpses it's may not be for everyone. 





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