Sylhet, Bangladesh. 7th January 2020
The ride up and out of our little village of Tyrna was nothing like as bad as I had feared. The road was dry, which helped, and I managed to get past the few vehicles I caught up with without a problem. I’d said goodbye to Steve and Amelia over breakfast, sad to think there was a possibility we may never meet again. But in reality that’s a complete unknown. We’ll all be around Asia for a while, so we can hope. Once I got back up to the main road, and the much colder air, I found some lunch, then rode back down to Dawki, stopping to admire the view across the lazy, spread out river bed once more. Riding through the town and out to the border post, I mentally prepared myself for the border crossings. I was confident that India would be straightforward but Bangladesh was a complete unknown. Steve and Amelia had been there already but had crossed at a different border. I sharpened my metaphorical sword and went to do battle.
There’s one thing that can be said about Indian officials, without any fear of contradiction, and that is that they love a ledger. But everything was smooth and friendly, both immigration and customs. Through the gate to the Bangla side where I met the very smart border guards. One of them was a woman who wasn’t wearing a hijab. Well, that was a shock to my preconceptions. Immigration there was equally smooth, not so much with customs. The guy took over forty five minutes to complete my Carnet and did it wrong in the process. He offered to do it again but I was looking at my watch, and the darkening sky, and told him not to worry and that I’d sort it out when I left. My destination town of Sylhet was 55kms away and I was keen to get as close as possible before dark, and was now regretting my lazy start to the day.
I got about halfway there before all the light went and I began my battle with the forces of darkness. Not orcs, dragons or goblins in this case. Unusually for a border road, the condition was good but the drivers were terrible. Buses and trucks overtake and happily forced me onto the narrow shoulder, but I expected that. The tuk tuks were the worse, overtaking each other, mostly with no lights. In the towns, where there were no street lights, it was the cycle rickshaws that were the biggest challenge. They, and the tuk tuks, were like ants. If they came to an obstruction they just swarmed around it. Coupled with guys pushing heavily laden carts everywhere, and the usual situation of stallholders spreading out into the road, it was nightmarish. It was similar to India, but turbocharged. If I said that I was extremely glad when I got to Sylhet and found my hotel, you can be assured I’m not exaggerating. They only had a room for one night but with a bit of shuffling around, he managed to make it two. That was good because I needed a day for administration.
Administration, in this case, was the need to get a SIM and to find a post office. I needed to post the forms for my new Carnet to the ADAC in Germany. Getting a SIM was proving to be a challenge. Unlike in most countries, where the street side suppliers will sell you one against your passport, here you needed to be a Bangla citizen. The only way around this was to go to a SIM supplier’s shop. After much asking around I finally found a shop for Banglalink, on the top floor of a technology mall. It took a while, with many phone calls, but my worries about whether it would actually happen were allayed when it was finally done. A vast difference to most countries where there are a plethora of suppliers at the border. The post office was much easier. As I’d expected, there was a stall selling envelopes outside and the process inside was easy.
With those tasks done I went for a walk down to the river. First thing to see was the Ali Amjad clock, built in 1872 by a local Nawab. Only two clocks on the square tower and the whole thing looked very odd, having been built from corrugated iron. No delicacy of style here. Next to it was the Keane Bridge, from 1936. It was named after a former governor of Assam and its style, or lack f it, very much echoed the clock tower. It looked like a meccano model. It had been destroyed during the independence war and rebuilt after it. These two very quirky items of Bangla building culture left me wondering what else would be in store as I travelled around. I carried on with my walk, following the river bank until I came to a wholesale fruit market, where I dodged around men humping sacks and boxes of perishables from barrow to truck, or truck to barrow. I bought some fruit and some lunch, before heading back to the hotel.
When I’d arrived the previous night the traffic had been manic, with all vehicles simply jammed together at any point of hold up, and forcing their way through. During the day it seemed much better. I learned the method for crossing roads here, which is simply to wait for a gap in the lane nearest to you, start walking, hold your hand up against the vehicle in the next lane, which will slow enough for you to cross in front of it, then keep doing the same until you get across. Because traffic moves so slowly, it always works, once you’ve worked out the method, although sometime I was glad that I hadn’t forgotten how to dance a bit. There’s not so much English spoken in Bangladesh but everyone was keen to help when they could.
Having mentioned the war of independence, here’s some history. Bangladesh means ‘land of the Bengalis’. The area had been known as Bengal, including current West Bengal, for several centuries. It had been occupied by the British East India Company since 1757. When the partition of India took place in 1947 Pakistan and East Bengal (Bangladesh) were created as one country and was designed to be the Muslim homeland. The strange thing about this was that the borders of each area were almost 2,000kms apart. But the two areas accepted it at first as it seemed to serve the purpose.
The modern state of Bangladesh was born out of conflict. A very destructive, even genocidal, war was fought between West and East Pakistan during 1971. The rulers of East Pakistan declared independence from the Dominion of Pakistan in March 1971. By that time West Pakistan had become an Islamic state, ruled by the military. East Pakistan had been trying to establish its own cultural norms since the late 1950s, rather than be forced to accept those of West Pakistan. Predominant in this was use of language and this is where the independence movement had its foundations. West Pakistan used Urdu and East Pakistan wanted to speak its ancient language of Banlga. Following an election in East Pakistan, the nationalist winners demanded independence from the Dominion of Pakistan to form their own country of Bangladesh. The Pakistani rulers denied them this, so independence was declared by the nascent Bangla government in March 1971. Pakistani forces moved in to quell the revolution and the genocide of many of the Bangla population began. Millions fled to India, mostly Hindus, and a lot of them didn’t come back when peace came about. This is what underpins some of the issues with the Constitutional Amendment Act that I mentioned in a previous blog.
The Indian government supported the Bangla forces in their fight against Pakistan, probably as much for practical reasons as for moral ones. Feeding and housing all those refugees was a problem. Pakistani aircraft attacked India in early December, and they joined the conflict. By the middle of the month the combined Indian and Bangla forces brought Pakistan to defeat. The new state was set up on secular lines, even though it had a heavy Muslim majority. Religious freedom is written into the constitution, as is equality between men and women. But it still struggles with poverty and corruption. The current Prime Minister is a woman and seems to be very popular. Remember my mention of the female border guard with no hijab? I saw very many women who also didn’t wear one in their daily lives. I mention these things to make the point that a country being majority Muslim doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily oppressive, as is sometimes assumed in the west. This link is worth following to find out more about the war, and about the country in general, although it’s a long read.
On a dismal, rainy morning I left Sylhet to ride to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. But the ride was still pleasant, my senses alert to the scenery and the homicidal bus drivers that tried to force me off the road into it. I needed fuel but was struggling to find any. All the filling stations seemed only to sell diesel and/or compressed natural gas (CNG), and many were abandoned. All the tuk tuks in Bangladesh run on this fuel and they’re usually referred to as CNGs for this reason. As I rode through a town that I thought was sure to have a filling station I spotted a shop that supplied gas bottles. I stopped to ask if they knew where I could get and petrol and the guy pointed to the back of his shop. A fifty gallon drum sat there so I bought five litres. Needless to say, within ten kilometres of leaving there I came across a place selling petrol. But I was to find this to be a common theme. Most vehicles were diesel powered. It was only small cars and bikes that used petrol so I kept my spare can full at all times.
The terrain was very flat and was mostly rice paddies. The road was usually raised on a causeway, with paddies down below. There was rarely any kind of barrier, so that when an overtaking bus was coming straight toward me all I had was a narrow shoulder to ride along. But I think the road builders had worked this out. It was the right width for two buses and two bikes. But if there happened to be a pedestrian, rickshaw or tuk tuk, life became, erm, interesting! Despite this I got the sense that the bus drivers held back from overtaking if that happened to be the case. So, it was only bike riders who were disposable then and not the small fry. This main highway had earned the name of The Road of Death when it was first opened, because of the appalling standards of driving and the high number of accidents. My perception was that things seemed to have calmed down since then. Or was it that I was now acclimatised? The Guardian published an interesting article about the road a few years ago, and it makes for startling reading.
It didn’t rain for all that long and in the middle of the afternoon I came to a place called Adi Nikanthe Tea Cabin. It was on the local tea plantations that a tea blender named Romesh Ram Gour realised that different colour teas have different densities and he invented multi layered tea. Currently at eight layers, it consists of different coloured teas, condensed milk,cloves etc. The bands alternate between light and dark, sat in a glass so the drinker can admire the handiwork. Of course I ordered some, and also a few snacks as well. Unfortunately I forgot to say ‘no sugar’ and what with the condensed milk as well, it was almost undrinkable it was so sweet. But it looked good at least. My bike was attracting a lot of attention from other visitors and I had some nice chats and was photographed many times. In Asia, everybody wants a selfie. Very, very occasionally this gets annoying, maybe if I’m trying to get started on a ride or something. But the majority of the time I’m delighted to pose and put my ugly old face onto somebody’s phone. Let’s be fair, I get so much from the people I meet it would be churlish to refuse. And anyway, our egos need a stroke from time to time, don’t they.
The map showed there was a hotel nearby and as it was now after 3pm there seemed no point in going any further. It was a nice place and once I’d booked in I did a few maintenance jobs on the bike before enjoying a shower and some food. I had an internet chat with some bikers from Dhaka, whom Stefano had put me in touch with, about places to stay and to store my bike. My Bangla visa was due to expire soon and I needed to leave the country to renew it. I planned to fly to Thailand and see some friends there, by way of a visa run.
In the morning I was joined at breakfast my some Bangla couples who now lived in the USA. When the food arrived I was surprised when the father of the group started to say grace. He asked me if I said it too. I told him I wasn’t religious but would happily wait until he finished. He went a bit cold towards me after that. It was all a bit odd, that’s for sure. I left the hotel mid morning, once all the photos had been taken, and was highly amused to see them videoing my departure.
Today’s ride was dry, once more riding alongside the paddies. Village life seems to take place next to them, with kids playing on the dry ones, cattle grazing and colourful washing laid out along side them. Meanwhile the busy main road took me past this display of daily life at a steady pace as I headed south. I kept coming across small brickworks, about every ten kilometres or so. They were very local affairs, with a kiln in the middle of a field, a stack of mud bricks on one side and a similar stack of baked ones on the other. Small trucks scurried in and out, ferrying them to wherever they were needed. At one point my GPS took me off down a back route through a town and soon I found myself wandering around the narrow streets. It does this sometimes, and I follow blindly, but often half convinced it’s gone rogue. I eventually got back on the main through route and a policeman waved his stick at me, clearly wanting me to pull in. I ignored him and aimed for a narrow gap in the traffic. A rickshaw driver alongside me also indicated I should pull in but I ignored him too. Escape was easy through the traffic. Just past this I saw a filling station with a restaurant and pulled in. I left the bike in plain view because I’m a sporting kind of person and wanted to give the policeman a chance to find me. He didn’t bother.
Eventually I reached Dhaka, fighting the madness of the traffic towards the hotel I’d chosen. As I progressed I was trying to work out why there were so many hold ups. It became clear there were two main reasons. On the wider roads the culprits were buses. They would pull in to the side of the road but leave their rear ends sticking out into the lane. They would often have pulled in across the front of another bus, already stopped. Meanwhile, the rest of the traffic had to squeeze past the bus while the already parked bus, having finished its business, tried to pull out. On wide roads, perhaps of three lanes, buses would simply pull up alongside each other, vying for passengers and keen to be fist away so they’d be in front of the others. I’ve seen three abreast sometimes. Meanwhile, if there was a gap along the inside, cars, tuk tuks, bikes and rickshaws would be trying to squeeze their way through and to hell with the passengers trying to get on or off the bus. On the smaller streets the hold up kings, without any doubt, were the rickshaws, whose drivers would cram themselves into any available space. In the city, where there’d be anything up to a ten minute wait at some of the busy junctions, the rickshaws would be stopped with their front wheel pressed against the rear axle of the one in front. To cross the road you had to step over the front wheel or, if you were lucky, the driver might turn his wheel sideways, giving you a four inch gap to use. The road outside my hotel was a busy through route and would be filled with the clamour of tooting and hooting vehicles. Other times I’d step outside to near silence because everyone had switched their engines off while they waited.
My hotel was above a mall, which was entirely focused on bathrooms and kitchens, as were all the shops in this road, and the side streets too. If I’d wanted a tap, no problem. But a tapas, not so easy. I was able to put my bike in an underground car park, which had security guards and was locked at night. That was one of the reasons for choosing this place. The other was its proximity to many of the places I might want to visit. I’d managed to knock the price down from 1500 to 1200 Tika (110 Tika per GBP). The room wasn’t great but it had the essentials, and that’s good enough for me. Opposite was another mall, mostly selling cloth and clothes. But it also had some cafés and, to my delight, a KFC. I’m not a great lover of fast food really, but it did provide an easy and hassle free way of getting familiar food, and not too expensive. They did a five piece meal deal, which consisted of chicken pieces, fries, rice, a drink and a snickers bar. That was the clincher! And only 300 Tika.
Later on one of the people I’d been put in touch with came to visit. Abu is well known in the biker community in Dhaka and was able to put me in touch with a couple of guys for help with other issues. He’d wanted to take me for something to eat but as I was already stuffed full of KFC we settled on a coffee. He took me to a posh hotel nearby, where it was very nice to enjoy a barista style coffee, a rare treat in Bangladesh. But I ended up feeling guilty when I discovered the price later. Well over five pounds, a large amount in Europe, let alone Dhaka.
In the morning I went out looking for breakfast and the only place I could find was a café which sold chapatti, dal and eggs. That was it, and that’s what everyone ate. I ended up sitting opposite a guy with a long, bushy beard, dyed with henna. He let me take a photo of him. Many of the older men had hair and/or beards dyed in the same way. Obviously the fashion. During my walk I observed that most men wore a lunghi, especially the workers. Others wore trousers with a kurta over the top, or perhaps standard western clothes. Among the women a sari is the most common wear. I saw a few niqabs in Dhaka although none that I can recall out in the country. I would say that a hijab is worn by less than half of women, especially out of the cities. They usually just have the loose part of the sari pulled over their head, very much the same as Indian women. The salwar kameez, which is loose trousers with a robe over them, is popular among younger women. It’s also worn by men too. I saw very few jeans worn by women and a short skirt was a real rarity. My impression therefore, was that Bangla dress culture is similar to India, invariably modest, but rarely falling into the category of ‘strict’. I’m not sure what my expectations were in this regard, but I was pleased to see that everybody could dress as they chose, within their cultural norms. Friday is the day for seeing plenty of tupis, which is the skull cap men wear when attending the mosque. I’d sometimes see young men walking around wearing a tupi and the tunics that non Muslims are used to associating with the religion. They’d have a newly grown beard, a serious and disapproving expression and be carrying books. I guessed they were religious students, busy studying, and learning how to deal with the wicked world.
That evening I met another guy, named Abin, and we went to a bar. So here was another surprise for me. Bars aren’t plentiful by any means, but they exist. We drank a locally brewed beer called Hunter, but could equally have drunk imported beers or spirits. The price wasn’t too bad either, less than £2 per can. I got a slight sense of drinking forbidden fruits, but not really to any great extent. That was probably all in my head anyway. I’ve travelled through other Muslim countries of course, but Bangladesh is ninety percent Muslim and I wasn’t too sure what to expect in terms of strictness. So my surprise was a pleasant one.
I paid a visit to the National Museum, an interesting place. The usual story of the early years, told through arts, music, clothing. But the most interesting sections covered two events. The first was the story of independence, mostly told through photos and newspaper cuttings, blown up onto large boards. I’ve described it above but at that point I’d forgotten about it. I remember it being in the news when I was young, of particular interest to Britain because of our history in the area. I hadn’t remembered how shocking the events were though. The second was a large photographic exhibition covering the genocide practised against the Rohinga by the Myanmar government. It’s difficult to work out why the authorities turned on them so fiercely. They’re just one of many ethnic groups in Myanmar, although they were never granted citizenship. The really surprising thing is the way in which supposedly peaceful Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the violence, aided and encouraged by the military. Everybody’s human rights darling, Aung San Suu Kyi, who’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the Myanmar people, did nothing to prevent these actions and was stripped of all the honours she’d been awarded around the world. The Rohinga are now living in refugee camps in the south of Bangladesh, with no answer to their plight currently in sight.
In the evening I met up with another two local bikers, Ash and Zu. They wanted to take me for some local food and I accepted their offer of biryani. I wish I hadn’t! I’d been told it wasn’t spicy. I was lied to. It was hot enough to burn my lips, but I was hungry so I persevered and got through it. Next we rode to a tea stall, selling chai. It was next to a night market for fruit and veg and was very busy. I was on the back of Zu’s bike and it was a bit on the cold side. I saw a lot of homeless people, sleeping out on the street. They lit fires and burned the rubbish to keep warm. I didn’t envy them at all. I was glad of my hotel bed, with its extra blanket.
One key job for me to do while in Dhaka was to get a new visa for India. Zu came to pick me up and we headed across the city to the Indian Visa Application Centre. He parked his bike outside a restaurant owned by a friend and we walked the rest of the way. I was thoroughly disgusted by the smell from the drains as we passed by. Human excrement mostly. Not at all pleasant, although in all my walking in the city, that was the only place where I smelled it. The visa centre was hidden beneath a shopping mall and I couldn’t get in at first. The guards kept turning us away but eventually Zu managed to explain that I only wanted information and I was allowed in. All my questions were answered by a very helpful woman, so I left there happy. I needed to show them my Bangla visa, which only had a few days to run. My plan was to visit my friends in Thailand for a week or so, renew the visa and then apply for the Indian one when I came back.
Back at the restaurant, we decided to have some food. I reverted to Western style and had a Pizza, Zu went Western too and had a burger. I wanted to pay but he insisted his friend would treat us to the meal. I didn’t really believe him and I was annoyed at the thought of him paying because he’d already told me he was the main breadwinner for his family, despite only being in his mid twenties. But it was impossible to argue against his hospitality, and maybe his friend did pay?
I needed a small luggage bag for my trip. I didn’t want the hassle of my big bag on the plane and my back pack was too small. We went to a very crowded market place and found the luggage section, where I eventually found what I wanted. It’s in places like this that you hone your ‘no thank you’ skills, without which you’d end up with something entirely unsuitable, possibly even useless. I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people who wanted to be my friend but I was able to resist their blandishments until I’d found what I wanted. There wasn’t really any room for haggling here. It’s all at a fixed price, with no more than a hundred or so Tika to be gained out of a twelve hundred ticket price. After some tea we fought the traffic back to my hotel. It was manic, complete chaos, with some monumental jams. At one point it took us fifteen minutes just to get through one junction. But Zu had been a complete star, helping me get everything I needed. He’d offered to look after my bike while I was in Thailand, saying that it could go in his garage. I’d had a similar offer from another guy but as I’d been spending a lot of time with Zu it seemed best to accept his offer.