Saturday, 23 February 2008

Day 276 - Jessore

I have taken on celebrity status here in Bangladesh, and I am not sure that it is always welcome.

Having left Srimongal I turned and started to head west right the way across the country, leaving the main roads behind. Once off the main roads navigation becomes a real challenge. There are a number of reasons for this, there are no signposts, no place name signs as you enter a village, no kilometre stones, nobody who speaks English, me who speaks no Bangla. My only aids are the maps I have, one in a book, the other a proper map, but they are both inacurate in different way. I found my way to Habiganj which was in the book, but not on the map, then it was a simple 15k westish to Baniyachung, except after 15k there was nothing but emptiness. I carried on heading slightly more south than I had expected but eventually arrived, except it wasn't Baniyachung, it was Hobiganj. I asked the way, discovering I had to go 20k north. Great, I now had 5k more to go than when I was at Habiganj, 25k ago, if you get my drift. At last I arrived and asked around for a hotel. I was taken to one and soon had a large crowd around me. Small hotels here only have signs in Bangla so it just a case of asking around. The hotel I had been shown to was the only one in town, a real dive, but I had no choice. Having brought all my kit up to the room it was time for a shower and once again I had to physically push people out of the room so that I could get changed. Once back in the room I could still hear the gaggle of people outside the door. Every now and then they would knock, then when I opened the door they would try to come in saying 'look, look', and I had to push them out again, clearly I am fascinating to them. I went out and managed to get away from them as I walked around the market and the mosque. When I stopped in a cafe to drink tea another crowd soon formed, some inside, some looking through the windows (photo). It was best to keep on the move, so I went for another walk but was soon picked up by the English speaking Government worker called Abdlqart and I became his prize pocession. After he had shown me around the village and taken me to a world heritage lake, it was just an ordinary lake but I made the right noises, he took me to the Press Club, a room where men just sit around and read the newspapers. I escaped to have dinner so we said farewell, but 5 minutes later he was there again, this time with a journalist who wanted to take me somewhere for an interview and photos. I said he could write what he liked about me but I was going nowhere, I had had enough attention for one day. In the end I went around the corner to a photo studio for a couple of photos, then retreated to my room. 5 minutes later there was a knock at the door, Abdlqart was there again, this time he had brought his nephew for a look, but I told him enough was enough. Further interuptions came from other people, roughly every 10 minutes, until I got annoyed with them, then they got the message.

7am the following morning Abdlqart was again at my room door, no peace for the wicked. I was away by 7:45, it is much more peaceful on the road. The days destination was Mymensingh, I didn't get there, I knew within 30 minutes I wouldn't as the narrow single tracked road turned to sand. Bridges had gone missing, which meant I had to keep skirting around watery bits to get across the narrowest bit. There was no traffic, surprise surprise, but I did meet a flock of ducks being herded the other way. The narrow sand track turned into just a couple of tyre marks across the grass, but I asked everybody I saw the direction to the next village and they confirmed I was heading in the right direction. It was great riding though, but so slow that I regretted leaving my tent in Dhaka. At last I arrived at Ajmirghat where I stopped for a bite to eat. Once in the cafe I was mobbed again and as I left I was greeted by a mass of about 100 people around my bike. I stopped on the step amd said `Wow!`, 100 voice laughing and saying `Wow` in return. The weather was looking threatening. I couldn't find the right way out of the village, but the wind was picking up and it started to rain so I went back and was offered refuge in a small book shop, where at least I had a few feet between me and the mob. Here I met a guy who could speak English. He told me that my road to Mymensingh didn't exist and there was no way of getting there, but he gave me precise directions on how to get to Kishorganj, so once the rain had stopped I decided to follow his advice. The first part was a river crossing by a little ferry, big enough for my bike and 3 people. Once across that it was back on sand tracks, over various rickety bamboo bridges (photo), then onto what were no more than footpaths to the next villages. Once through there I was surprised to find a concrete road leading to Itna where I got another ferry, this time 14km downstream on a 2 hour ride. Cabin class was a bit cramped as when it started to rain, we had to crawl inside rather than sit on the roof. The heavens opened as a thunderstorm set in, but it eased once I was back on dry land at Chamraghat. It didn't last long so I dived into a cafe as the next storm passed over. I set off again thankful to be on tarmac, wet sand would have been a nightmare. A few kilometres further along the narrow road was blocked. There was a muddy section of roadworks, the soil being made up of clay, being claggy and slippery so nothing could get through unless it had legs to assist it. I had to push the bike through, within minutes the back brakes disappearing in the sticky mud and soon after the back wheel stopping altogether. Once I was out of the roadworks I had to extract the mud from the brakes and mudgaurds with my hands. Thankfully I reached Kishoganj before the next storm started. There was a decent hotel there, but they wouldn't let me stay. I found a guy in the developing crowd that could speak a little English and once he had shown my passport to the receptionist and explained that the visa was in order I was allowed to stay. They were then very helpful, even cleaning my sandals of the claggy mud I had brought with me. The English speaking guy was an English teacher on a 3 day course so I was joined by him and 3 others for dinner. Earlier I had sat on my glasses and broken them during a power cut, so they took me to an optician and got them repaired.

The last few days have been on tarmac and pretty uneventful, until I arrived at a long bridge. They wouldn't let me cycle over it, I don't know why there were only the occasional buses crossing. I had to go to the office where I was questioned. `Why do you want to cross the bridge?` I know I shouldn't have said it but I just couldn't stop myself, so I said `to get to the other side`. `Why do you want to get to the other side?`, `I am going to Pabna`, `Why are you going to Pabna?`. I explained I was a cyclist and touring Bangladesh. `Ah, you are a tourist. Show me your papers`, `What papers? I don't have any, I have a passport`, `A passport is no good, I need papers that prove you are a tourist`, `I have a tourist visa how about that`, `That is no good, how about ID`, `I have no ID, I have a driving license`, `No I need ID, how can I be sure you are a tourist?`, `Well I am sat here in cycling gear and outside is my bike, fully laden with touring gear`, `But that doesn't prove you are a tourist`. I pointed out that whilst we sat here buses carry lots of people were crossing the bridge, why were they not being questioned? I eventually gave him my passport and showed him the visa that states tourist, then his mood changed and tea was brought and we chatted away for the next hour while I waited for a vehicle to arrive to take me over the bridge. The same thing happened yesterday at another bridge, but this time without the questioning.

Today has been mundain, an easy ride from Kushtia to Jessore, but my time in Bangladesh has been really good. It has been your constant enthusiasm for Bangladesh Mr Barlow, that has made me want to visit here, to experience for myself the things you have told me about the place. I have to admit I was a bit reluctant to come here after India, I thought it would be more of the same but worse. I would say they are very much poorer than the Indians, but they conduct themselves with dignity and are far cleaner, harder working and genuine people. It has been good fun, despite the fact that as such the sights here are hardly worth the effort, but the culture and the people, the way of life here have made it excellent. I also expected the roads to be clogged with traffic and polution, but they aren't as most traffic is the thousands of rickshaws that are everywhere and badly driven buses. If bus drivers drove like that at home, every one of them would be banned for dangerous driving. I am really glad to have come here, I thought I would be really glad to leave, but I wont be, I will take away good memories.

The building you mention Aoiffe, is the National Assembly. Construction was started pre 1970, but was halted by the war of Independance, eventually being completed in 1982. As modern buildings goes I really like it, but sadly couldn't get any closer to it for a proper look. There are few buildings in Bangledesh that stand out from the rest, but this one certainly does.

The weather here is just perfect for cycling, around 20 degrees over night, then reaching 30 during the day, with harldly any wind. My tan is coming back and the line on my wrist is visible where I wear my cycling mit.

Tomorrow I head off to Khulna, where I have to make a decision. I would love to take the Rocket from Khulna back to Dhaka. The Rocket is an old paddle boat that does the journey through the mangrove swamps and up the river delta in 24 hrs, but I don't know what days they depart on and I need to book in advance. The trouble is looking at the map the roads look very basic, which means quiet sand roads and I would really like to cycle it too. I can't do both. Time will tell.



aoiffe said...

I just love the idea that in Bangladesh there are no tourist attractions, rather that you, the tourist, are the attraction.

Basher Barlow said...

Bestie boy how refreshing that Bangladesh has not changed and you are the tourist are the attraction and kindness still abounds, good job you dont have a video camerea we nearly started a stampede filiming and replaying their pictures back to the kids (magical) - You may now see why I fell so in love with this place it is the tops. Enjoy the Rocket (1st class is a must), if you get chance do the "crocdile village" where they just roam free but take care they are dangerous creatures and locals happy to keep you safe,well safer :-)

The Sloths said...

Hi John

great stories of Bangladesh!! we can imagine you peddling fast in front of a crowd of curious locals. Hope you can take the Rocket. We're in Yazd so I've just been having a look at your Iran photos again - they're lovely. Thanks for the recommendation of the Silk Road Hotel - Ali has offered us a job there over the Iranian New Year, we're considering our options!
Gayle and John

David & Lindsey said...

Hi John, some questions for you !!
(1) Are you going to write a book about your experiences?
(2) When you finally get to Australia, will you decide to keep going all around the world?
(3) Apart from friends & family what do you miss? (If anything!)
(4) Are you fed up of eating rice yet?
(5)Favourite place/country visited so far?
(you will get asked this question a lot when you get home, so good preparation!)
(6)Would you like to live in any of the countries you have visited?
(7) How many punctures have you had so far?
(8)Will Norwich make the play-offs?