Trip Archives: Up the Brahmaputra

Travelling in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal in the winter/spring of 2014.

Arrival in Dhaka

The flight to Dubai was quite comfortable. DXB is ridiculously massive, though. The flight from Dubai to Dhaka was delayed because “the weather was a little less than what we need to land”, according to the captain. We eventually departed almost 3 hours late. When landing at 10:30am I understood what he was talking about, Dhaka was covered in dense fog. Or was it smog?

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Bangladeshi embassy in Berlin to apply for a visa. I was told that no one would want to stay for such a long time in Bangladesh (I applied for 90 days, which is supposed to be the maximum for a tourist visa), and my application was not even accepted.

Now at Dhaka airport I received a 30-day visa-on-arrival without any problems. My bike’s box, however, had been treated horribly, but luckily the bike itself was perfectly ok. I put it together under the watchful eyes of 2 kids, and cycled into the mayhem that is Dhaka’s traffic, feeling very happy, curious and tired.

My first stop was in Dhaka’s Gulshan area at a book shop, where I bought paper maps of Dhaka and Bangladesh, before I checked into the first hotel I came across in the early afternoon.

This trip is going to be slightly different from previous ones. I didn’t bring tent or mattress or cooking utensils and am traveling very light. That is, I only brought my frame bag and a 30-litre backpack which will be strapped to the bike’s rack.

I went out to look for some food, when I was chatted up by a guy who turned out to be gay. That itself wasn’t a problem, of course, but he kept hitting on me which got annoying quite quickly. It was interesting nonetheless, as he told me for example that the gay community is quite large in Bangladesh (“pretty much everyone is gay in Bangladesh” – I would think that’s a wee bit exaggerated?) as it is easier to meet with men than with women. And he showed me a ‘safe’ restaurant.

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Dhaka

I woke up quite early and left the hotel around 8:30am, taking the bike and heading for the city. There were only a few things I definitely wanted to see: the National Museum and Sadarghat, Dhaka’s main ferry terminal.

Dhaka’s traffic can be called ‘heavy’ at best. There are millions of bicycles, cycle rickshaws, motorbikes, CNGs (three-wheeled autorickshaws), cars, and busses in the streets, plus pedestrians and three-wheeled cargo bicycles. The streets are almost always busy and traffic jams are a common thing. The driving is … colourful and unpredictable. Brake lights usually don’t work, and neither do indicator lights. Everyone can, and will, stop (almost anywhere on the road) at any time. But cycling here is actually fun, provided one has had their morning coffee and is fully awake.

I had just been strolling around Sadarghat for like 5 minutes when I was found by Jiewell (pronounced like Joel). He suggested a boat tour on the river. I was hesitant at first, as I suspected a scam of sorts. Eventually I agreed, though, not without haggling the price down a little bit. He revealed that he owned 5 of the boats used by people to cross the river between Old Dhaka and South Dhaka. We were in one of his boats. The boats are made of wood, maybe 4 or 5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

On the river, Jiewell revealed that he was also a tourist guide and offered to show me around. South Dhaka first, to see “real local life”, and then the most important sights of Dhaka. The look into South Dhaka’s life and work was indeed amazing. People were amazingly friendly and happy to show what they were working on. I also liked the ‘life on the river’ and the ferries at Sadarghat. They are massive. The other sights, e.g. the National Museum, a mosque, the national Hindu temple, were not so impressive.

Needless to say I got ripped of in the end and (voluntarily – sigh) paid him more than what would have been appropriate.

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Dhaka – Chandpur

I started the day early and left Dhaka’s colorful chaos to the southeast on the country’s main highway, the Dhaka-Chittagong-Highway. Traffic was heavy, but that didn’t affect me much except for the dust all the busses and trucks and CNGs stirred up.

My first stop was in Sonargoan, which is a guide book-recommended sight, a kind of mansion from the Mughal era. It was a tad disappointing as not much was there to see. The (seemingly) one old building was still being restored, yet I had to pay the full entrance fee. By the way, just like in Dhaka, the official fee for foreigners is ten times that of locals, which I find ok (it’s still very cheap). I met Fahad and a bunch of his collegues there, who spoke some English.

A little while later I turned off the highway to find a way through somewhat uncharted rural areas to Chandpur, a port city at the Meghna river. The Meghna and the Brahmaputra rivers join in Chandpur district, kind of. Bangladeshi rivers usually are made up of many tributaries and split up in many distributaries. So what joins with the Meghna in Chandpur district is the Jamuna river, the main distributary of the Brahmaputra.

Before reaching Chandpur, though, I cycled through lovely villages. People were very friendly and helpful, and pointed me in the right direction. I sometimes found it difficult to make myself understood, however. I have to work on my pronounciation of Bengali words (place names in this case), which is not always straight forward.

The countryside is generally flat. That is, there are no hills at all (with the exception of the eastern border areas with India and Burma/Myanmar, but that’s a different story). Villages span across a large area and consist of many reservoir ponds and rice paddies interspersed with houses and yards. The roads are more track-like and – not surprisingly – not always paved. Traffic is refreshingly low and cycling through these rural areas is very pleasant.

I had to cycle on dams between flooded rice fields, and cross rivers on narrow bamboo bridges and with row boats. Great stuff.

Cycled: 104km

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Chandpur – 23N91E – Noakhali

Early start again. Today’s main goal was to visit a degree confluence, 23N91E. It is located between the cities of Chandpur and Noakhali in more or less uncharted, but certainly not uninhabited area.

I closed in on the confluence’s area by cycling through a couple of towns, Farudganj, Ramganj, and Chatkhil, and learned a little more about Bengali pronunciation. The -ganj ending, for example, is pronounced more like -munj.

I left the main road and cycled into a village (I don’t know it’s name) towards the confluence. And oh my god, I am indebted to The Confluence Project for making me go there. I have never in my life seen anything so beautiful as this village. Imagine uncharted paths, some wide enough for a car, some just wide enough for one person, lined with palm trees, winding their way between rice fields and houses. With the friendliest of people walking those paths, or washing themselves in the reservoir ponds between the houses, or working in the fields. Occasionally a cycle rickshaw or auto rickshaw (called CNG here) speeds past.

I was invited for lunch and unfortunately declined, as I didn’t know how long it would take me to find the confluence and reach the next city to find a place to sleep.

The closest I got to the confluence was 57 meters, with an error of 14 meters. I took the required pictures to submit to The Degree Confluence Project later. This confluence had been visited before, by a group of Bangladeshis, which is why I didn’t wade through the rice field it was located in to get any closer.

I reached Noakhali around 4pm. There was some confusion as to the name of the city. My paper map calls it Noakhali and I kept asking for it by that name. However, the locals kept talking about a Noakhali district and apparently weren’t familiar with a city of that name.

Cycled: 94km

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Noakhali – Feni

It has become routine by now to wake up slowly at 6am and be on the road by 8am at the latest. Today breakfast was even included in the steep room price.

I cycled to the east, and the plan was to add a little detour before reaching the city of Feni for the night. North of Feni there is a kind of Bangladeshi pocket that reaches into India for a few dozen kilometers (see the map below). There is also a border crossing there. My idea was to cycle up to the northern tip of that pocket, have a look at the border crossing, and go back down to Feni.

But much earlier I had to stop at a river that had no bridge. I saw a few people climb up the embankment, and a boat in the distance. But it didn’t move.

Two men were dropped of by a CNG and a bunch of kids from the near-by village gathered around me. It took some gesturing to find out that the river was mostly very shallow – too shallow for the boat – and we would have to wade through to the deeper section where the boat was waiting. Funny.

From the other side of the river I continued, still heading east, towards the Dhaka-Chittagong-Highway. Not far from the highway I stopped at a building that looked like a Hindu temple – and was invited to lunch at his family’s place by a guy who was just about to leave the temple when I arrived. Suman was most lovely. He brought a friend, Tapan, who translated between Bangla and English, and I had lunch with his older brother, who showed me how to eat with my hands properly.
I learned that the local Hindu population had not seen the recent ‘communal violence’ (that’s the term used by the Bangladeshi government and press) by Islamists as other parts of the country. That is, their houses have not been burned down.

I left their place somewhat in a hurry, but it was apparent by then that I wouldn’t be able to do the planned detour. So I hurried along the crowded highway northwards to Feni, which I reached with last light.

Cycled: 97km

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Feni – Chittagong

I left early, as usual. Today’s destination was Chittagong, to the south. To avoid having to ride the same stretch of highway as last night, and to avoid the highway in general, I left Feni to the east on smaller roads, then turned south. That way I also saw a tiny bit of that Bangladeshi pocket I mentioned yesterday, and came pretty close (about 500m) to the Indian-Bangladeshi border. The Bangladeshi side consists of a massive fence and is heavily guarded. I didn’t see the Indian side, but I guess it looks similar.

I crossed the Dhaka-Chittagong-Highway very close to where I had reached it yesterday, and cycled to the west, towards the Bay of Bengal. Again I crossed yesterday’s route briefly, but then disappeared in the most remote area so far. The road was only a mere track and there were no villages anymore. The countryside, still flat, consisted of fish ponds. Next to each pond there was a house, probably inhabited by the guy – I didn’t see any women – working and guarding the pond.

The track, situated on a dam, was in reasonably good shape and went west at first, then turned south, parallel to the Bay of Bengal, but still quite far away from the actual shore. I only got to see it 50km or so further south.

Later the land was used agriculturally and the track led through villages. I stopped at one of the roadside ‘bars’, where you can have a tea and a smoke and a bag of potato crackers if you have the money for luxury. I had two of those bags and a bottle of some fizzy drink there for lunch. The few people present showed the kind of curiosity I had gotten used to. Then they asked the one question I was not prepared for. “What is your salary?”

Much later, the track was merely a single-file path now, I reached Kumira and its Sandwip Ghat, the ferry terminal from where you can go to Sandwip Island. I shall be back. But most importantly, from here southwards are the shipbreaking yards, where oil and gas tankers and container frighters and all other kinds of ships are being taken apart for want of steel and other precious materials. They say that all the steel that is used elsewhere in the Bangladeshi shipbuilding industry comes from here.

I wasn’t allowed into the yards, as the owners are not proud of their health and safety measures.

I reached the highway again, unavoidable here, and pressed on, as the sun was already setting. I cycled through Chittagong’s City Gate with last light, pretty much exactly at 6pm, then had to continue through the city’s tremendously congested streets for another hour – not without getting lost and avoiding two crashes by just a few centimeters – before arriving at the hotel of choice. (Nothing spectacular, don’t worry, just one I had picked out before.)

Cycled: 137km

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The Chittagong Shipbreaking Yards, part I

Last night I had met Aaron, Canadian backpacker, in the hotel. Today we went to get permits for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a tribal area at the border with Myanmar/Burma. The permits were easy to get and cost us a baksheesh and 10 minutes of our time.

We then left for Bathian, a village north of Chittagong near the highway, to see if we would manage to have a glimpse at the shipbreaking yards. My attempt from yesterday at the other end, near Kumira, hadn’t been too successful, but that didn’t put us off.

We didn’t have any luck, though, and were not allowed in. We just managed to walk along a river bed which was kind of no-man’s land, towards the beach. We didn’t get very close to the ship corpses, but at least we had an unobstructed view at them along the beach.

We then had the smart idea to rent a boat to have a look from the sea side, but with no port or wharf near-by (that we were consciously aware of), we retreated to Chittagong’s Sadarghat ferry terminal. With the help of some students we started negotiating and the price would have been about 200 Taka (approx. 2 Euros) per hour. It was too late to set out today, so we decided to come back first thing tomorrow morning.

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The Chittagong Shipbreaking Yards, part II

We went back to Sadarghat in the morning to try to rent a boat for the day. We managed to explain our case again. And better so than yesterday, because the quote went up considerably once the boat drivers realized how far we wanted to go. We did the maths (which we should have done much earlier) and realized, too, that our idea was complete bollocks. All in all, we were looking at a 40km boat ride – and that’s just one way.

We gave up and instead took a CNG to Kumira’s Sandwip Ghat, at the northern end of the shipbreaking yards, where I had first spotted the ships two days ago. I had somehow remembered that there is a ghat (wharf) there, too. Upon arrival we were immediately quoted 2000 Taka for a 2-hour boat ride, which we found steep compared to the 400 Taka a rental of the same duration would apparently have cost at Chittagong’s Sadarghat. To our dismay, the guy we had spoken to first ‘warned’ all the fishermen at the ghat so nobody was willing to go for less. It took us quite a while, but eventually we found two guys who took us out to the yards for half of the initial quote.

The tide was already going out but we managed to get reasonably close to the massive dead ships. Visibility was not great due to mist, but the whole scenery was impressive enough.
We saw people on the ships, and clotheslines. At least some of the workers must live on the hulls. It must be weird to make a living from destructing your own home. Use a toilet today, throw it out tomorrow.

On the way back to Chittagong I found some cool souvenirs in a shop on the road side that were salvaged from the ships. A 1920 telescope and a 1915 compass. Pretty awesome! I’ll have to post them home tomorrow, though, as they’ll be too heavy and bulky (and fragile) to carry on the bike.

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Chittagong & Bureaucracy

I have been kind of unhappy with the quality of the photos my camera takes. Aaron happens to be an enthusiastic photographer and gave me some tips about current camera developments. I am almost convinced that a new one is in order.

We said good-bye after breakfast and I went to the local DHL office to send off yesterday’s acquisitions. I learned that, due to the precious looks (brass, glass, wooden case, etc.) I would need an export permit for customs from some obscure Import/Export bureau – which has their only office in Dhaka! There was no way to send the stuff without such permit, and apparently there is no way to get one here in Chittagong. Bummer. I’ll have to fit the things into my luggage somehow.

I rented a boat for an hour and did a tour on the Karnaphuli river. It is full of fishing trawlers, small oil and gas tankers and all kinds of other cargo ships. Small wooden boats ply the waters between the ships to ferry people from one bank to the other. It is quite a sight.

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Chittagong

This is hopefully my last day in Chittagong. I have to catch up with work and won’t do anything else today. I’ll use this post to mention a couple of things I may have forgotten before.

I haven’t seen many foreigners in Bangladesh. There was a group of Japanese(?) in Dhaka, and a British(?) here in Chittagong, and Aaron. I’m pretty sure most of the villages I cycled through haven’t seen many, if any at all. That, of course, explains people’s curiosity. When I stop somewhere to have a break it takes half a minute and there is a small crowd watching my every move. Usually someone with some English skills will step forward and ask the standard questions, country, name, job.

As far as I can tell, there are people everywhere. I think the longest stretch of road without a person can’t have been much more than 500 meters.

The kind and amount of manual labor being done is incredible. And so is people’s stamina. Cycle rickshaw drivers don’t have the luxury of gears on their vehicles. More often than not I see them literally standing on the pedals – left, right, left, right, for the whole ride – to actually move the heavy thing and the cargo or passenger.

There are no lifts at construction sites. If there are bricks and sand needed at the top of a building, it’s people who carry the stuff up. Two piles of bricks or two bowls of sand hanging from a long stick, carried across the shoulders and up stairs.

People pushing 8m long bamboo sticks piled up on a hand cart through Chittagong’s heaviest traffic.

Shipbreakers risking their health and their lives by cutting through the massive hulls. No safety gear, no insurance, no compensation in case anything goes wrong.

And almost everyone here, especially those doing the heavy work, is more than a head shorter than me and weigh half as much, if at all.

Me cycling through the country, with little luggage and a filling meal at the end of the day is certainly less challenging.

And when I say that the countryside is beautiful and the villages look quaint, I must not forget that the people are very poor and live in very simple conditions.

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Chittagong – Maheshkhali

Quite an exhausting day. I cycled south from Chittagong. The forested hills closed in from the east, but the road itself stayed nice and flat. Annoyingly, I took a wrong turn in Anwara and lost an hour or so. (One hour is quite valuable here. It gets dark around half past 5 and by approx. 6pm it is dark.)

More than once I was stopped by curious people who more or less just wanted to take pictures of me.

The road’s quality deteriorated badly on the island of Maheshkali. This must be one of the poorest areas I’ve been to in Bangladesh. I made it to the southern end of the island, where I found a very basic hotel for the night.

At dinner I met Kalim and his friends, students at the local Australia College as well as a madrasah (an islamic school – I hope that’s the right description). We spent an hour or so in the streets – we were kicked out of the restaurant to make room for other patrons – before he had to go study for his exam tomorrow.

Cycled: 126km

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Maheshkhali - Teknaf - 4km

Oh, another exhausting day.

I woke up late – too late to visit Kalim’s college.

So I left Maheshkhali by ‘speedboat’ (old motorboats for approx. 12 passengers), towards Cox’s Bazar (that’s really the place’s name). I was probably ripped off with the price for that one. Everyone laughed when I was quoted additional 75 Taka for the bike – and everyone was in on it, too, so there was no haggeling and no finding out of the real price.
Also, I had to pay a ‘bicycle tax’ on arrival at Cox’s Bazar’s ghat. A what??? I wasn’t the only one to pay it, apparently, so that one seemed legit. But still, a bicycle tax? Really?

The countryside became slightly more hilly at times, but then again it was as flat as can be. There were fewer trees along the road. Also, temperatures are now seriously higher than expected (35+ vs. 25°C).

I caught myself day-dreaming of lush green and cool mountain forests, streams full of fresh and clean water jumping from stone to stone.
There is water here everywhere, but it doesn’t look exactly inviting.

I made two little detours off the main road – which saw amazingly little traffic, by the way. The first was to a crocodile farm. There wasn’t much to see except for a few bored crocodiles. They didn’t let me see the little ones, unfortunately, which is what I had hoped for.
The second detour was a short ride on the Bangladeshi-Myanmar-Friedship Road – to the Burmese border. It is amazing to be here. Burma – that sounds seriously exotic. There was no crossing there, though – I think there are no open land border crossings between Bangladesh and Myanmar/Burma at all. All I could do was have a short chat with two border guards and snap a picture of the fence.

Like I said, the day was very exhausting and I made it to a hotel a few kilometers north of Teknaf with my last energy. There is no mobile reception, no TV (they usually have two or three English-language Indian movie channels here) and electricity is flaky anyway, but according to my guide book “the restaurant outperforms the hotel”.

Cycled: 98km

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A Day Off Near Teknaf

I needed a day off. The day was completely uneventful. I just ate and slept to my heart’s content.

The day before yesterday I learned from Kalim that the Muslim call to prayer is not pre-recorded here – unlike in other countries. I also learned that it is always the same text (with some addition for the morning call, as people are more reluctant to go to prayer then), but the muezzin can kind of choose his own melody. That’s why the call always sounds different from mosque to mosque.

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a cop. I was just having a short break at the side of the road. I had found a magical spot – little traffic, NO people around, lots of shade. Almost paradise. So he stopped next to me and told me (in good English and very politely) that he wanted me to move on as he didn’t consider the spot safe. I asked why it was dangerous here, thinking of elephants (there is a wildlife sanctuary around here), tigers (no tigers here), or snakes (the only wild animal (except birds and fish) I have seen in Bangladesh so far was indeed a dead snake). It’s not dangerous, he said, but he didn’t want me to be here all on my own. It would be safer with people around. I wonder if that’s the key to a foreigner’s safety here, that there is always someone around…

I’m the only guest in the hotel’s restaurant again. One of the waiters unfolds his prayer rug between two tables and starts praying.

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Teknaf – 4km – St. Martin

Everything worked out and Aaron and I met again on the 9.30am ferry to St. Martin, Bangladesh’s only coral island.

Had some interesting conversations with Aaron. Amongst other things, we talked about our experiences with rip-offs and touts and fake sobbing stories, and he had quite a few to tell. I had to admit that I hadn’t had too many bad experiences – ok, during my travels, I was lured into buying a flask of perfume for a girlfriend I didn’t have, and a pair of sandals that I was never gonna wear, and I’ve been ripped off with entrance fees or ticket prices every now and then, but I was spared from the many aggressive touts and beggars he had to learn to evade over the years. And Aaron said something very uplifting, namely that with my way of traveling – by bike – and my itineraries away from the standard tourist tracks, I was able to see more of the unspoilt human nature. I will jump on my bike tomorrow (or the day after) more light-hearted again.

St. Martin is quite touristy, and my guide book has seriously criticised the way touristic development was enforced here. There are many Dhaka-owned hotels here and overfishing of the surrounding waters – to cater for the hordes of domestic tourists (up to 1000 per day, allegedly) – is a serious problem.

Yet the money tourists bring doesn’t seem to stay on the island. People still do subsistance farming and live in the simplest of huts.

We arranged for some diving for tomorrow morning.

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St. Martin – Cox’s Bazar

The diving was a bit of a failure. I don’t have a diving license myself, so I relied on Aaron’s competence for this.
We carried the equipment to the boat and noticed that they didn’t have enough equipment for a certified dive master to accompany us. That’s unusual, as it were. Almost at the dive site we checked air pressure in the tanks – it was around 150bar for all 4 of them. Aaron considered this unsafe, expecting 200+bar. We discussed the issues but decided to go for it anyway, given that we were almost at the spot.

We put on the gear. My pressure gauge showed 100bar. It was broken. Also, my regulator leaked air somewhere as soon as the tank valve was opened.

Well, that was it. Obviously, these last issues rendered the whole endeavour too dangerous.
We resorted to snorkeling. Unfortunately, that wasn’t so great either. Visibility was pretty bad, and almost all the coral we saw was dead. Aaron even thought they might have done blast-fishing here, so moon-like did the underwater landscape look. (You know, blowing up explosives in the water to knock out fish for easy ‘fishing’.) Though that’s just a guess.

We took the ferry back to Teknaf in the afternoon, and hopped on a bus to Cox’s Bazar immediately after arrival.

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