Trip Archives: Up the Brahmaputra

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

The End

This is the end of the trip to Bangladesh. I’ll fly out tomorrow.

I didn’t get as far up the Brahmaputra as I’d have wished, but that is not entirely surprising, given the limited time and the vast area that Bangladesh and Northeastern India cover.

It was an intense time here. People are incredibly friendly and, even more so, incredibly curious. This makes travelling difficult at times. I would have liked to spend some more time with individuals, accept more invitations, get to know the culture a bit better, maybe learn some more Bengali, etc. But the short encounters with so many people during the day – where I was stopped and just asked for my name, or my country, or where people just wanted to snap a photo of me – eventually exhausted me enough to only want my peace and quiet at the end of the day. I was happy to lock the door behind me in a hotel and switch on the TV.
If I ever come back to Bangladesh (right now I’d say I’m definitely not in a hurry, to say it politely…) my patience with the amount of people is something I have to work on.

Over all, however, the trip was amazing.

And on top of it all, cycling and walking on the left side of the road has become natural to me. When I think of having to ride on the right side again soon – that’s what feels wrong. ;)

I cycled ~2400 kilometers in total. The map below shows most of the route I’ve cycled. It does not at all include buses, trains, boats, etc.

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Gazipur – Dhaka

Today was the last day on the bike. Gazipur, a city of 1.2 million people, is located just 30km north of Dhaka. I avoided the main highway and cycled on a quiet back road parallel to the railway line connecting Gazipur with Dhaka.

At Tongi, a wee bit north of Dhaka’s airport, I had to join the highway, and cycling in the traffic chaos that is Dhaka was again a lot of fun.

I’m staying in a posh place in the Gulshan area, a bit south of the airport.

Cycled: 30km

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Kishoreganj – Gazipur

The trip is slowly coming to an end. Starting today, I am returning to Dhaka.

I managed to find an almost south-west bearing rout through the town of Pakundia and past Kapasia on pleasant roads. From the latter it was an interesting ride through a streched-out village-like area covered entirely with trees, between which people had built their houses. I followed foot paths at first, which then turned into a narrow asphalted road which eventually brought me to Gazipur.

Here it was, again, difficult to make myself understood. My asking for a hotel made people direct me to a restaurant. When I found a hotel of some sort, the clerk refused to let me sleep there. I think he was concerned it was not suitable for me. All my assurances that I didn’t care about the place’s comfort didn’t help. Finally I was directed to a place that, once more, was quite expensive, but did offer some ‘modern’ comfort.

Cycled: 81km

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Brahmanbaria – Kishoreganj

A quick ride in north-westish direction, to the town of Kishoreganj, somewhat northish of Dhaka. I have a couple of days before my flight home and I don’t want to spend all of them in Dhaka. So I’m slowly homing in on the capital.

It is now considerably warmer than when I first arrived in Bangladesh. It feels like the actual cycling is a bit of a chore, even though the country continues to be flat as flat can be. Maybe I’m getting old? Well, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the cycling, not at all.

And as for the town of Kishoreganj – hm, I didn’t see much of it. I arrived late, had dinner, and fell into bed, basically.

Cycled: 78km

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Agartala – Brahmanbaria

I had a late start but finally, finally! left Agartala and went back to Bangladesh. Not that Agartala or India were a bad experience in any way. But staying in the same place for so long, just waiting for some future date, without any intermediate plans, is not good for me.

I had been out of Agartala on short day trips to the surrounding countryside a couple of times. At one occasion I bought a heavy chopping knife, almost a machete. Officially, import of any kind of knives to Bangladesh is forbidden. I was also carrying a smaller sickle-like knife with me which I had bought directly from a blacksmith at his road-side forge between Natore and Bogra a few weeks ago. I did not, by the way, buy them because I feel unsafe on the road. They are souvenirs and ‘hidden’ at the very bottom of my bike’s frame bag.

As usual, nobody cared about my luggage at the border, neither on the Indian nor on the Bangladeshi side. The Indian border guard, before letting me pass, with a stern look made a phone call and, from the little bits I understood, he seemed to ask for confirmation that I was indeed allowed to cross the border on my bicycle.

Once in Bangladesh, I felt ‘at home’ instantly. People seemed even more friendly than in India, and certainly way more curious towards the lone western cyclist.

The following ride was slow and short. Me, having left late in the day once more, only made it to Brahmanbaria, less than 30km from the border.

Brahmanbaria, like every other Bangladeshi town, is buzzing and as everywhere in Bangladesh, people are friendly and tried to help me find a hotel. For some reason it was much more difficult today and I cycled around the town centre for quite a while before recognizing the hotel for what it was (having cycled past it at least twice). And then I was ripped off majorly (that’s where people’s friendliness ends ;). (That’s not correct – I was ripped off majorly with a friendly smile.)

Cycled: 33km

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My stay in Agartala was successful in that I managed to obtain a Bangladeshi visa. It required several visits to the consulate, though. It is located somewhat towards the northern edge of the city and involves a long walk or a short autorickshaw ride, or some cycling.

On the first visit I was told to come back the next day because the officer who’d deal with my application was not in. Everyone else (i.e. expat Bangladeshis – some had India-Bangladeshi passports) could hand in their application without problem.

The next day I was allowed to fill in the application but before it was processed I had to pay the visa fees into an account at a bank. So back to the city and back to the consulate afterwards, to present proof of payment. Then I was told to come back later in the day (or was it the next day? – memory is getting hazy there) to pick up my passport.

Back at the consulate I was told that I couldn’t have another visa for Bangladesh because I had just been there and one is supposed to have a gap of 3 months between visits. That, of course, didn’t go well with my flight plans, having booked my return flight for March 23rd. After some back and forth and forwarding my flight confirmation emails to the clerk I finally got the OK for a ten-day visa (for the same price as a 30-day one, of course).

I stayed a few more days in Agartala, mostly because I wanted to see the Holi celebrations, the festival of colours. The population is predominantly Hindu here and people told me that the festivities would be well worth watching. In the end I was quite disappointed, as I only saw very few people actually throwing coloured powder at each other. I did receive my own share of colour, though.
Yesterday I was told that the real celebrations would be held today, but that turned out to be false as well. Literally no-one was celebrating.

While waiting for Holi I spent a lot of time in the streets with tea and snacks I felt like I was constantly eating or drinking (tea).

I also went to the movies a couple of times during the last days and watched the sequel to 300 in 3D and a Bollywood movie which I don’t quite remember the name of.

I’ll leave India tomorrow and cross back into Bangladesh.

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Silchar – Agartala

My plans for Silchar were grand. There is another Degree Confluence (almost) nearby and it would have been most interesting to try to get to it. But…

I arrived in Silchar very early in the morning. Was it 6am yet? I’m not sure. It was still dark and shops were obviously still closed, but a tea stall next to where the bus had stopped was sweetening my morning. I had a chat with an elderly fellow who recommended a hotel. He also told me that the train to Agartala, my next destination, would leave soon (6.45am or so). I didn’t quite get the name of the hotel he had recommended but I had one on the map that I tried first. The door was barred by an iron lattice which wasn’t locked, so getting inside wasn’t a problem. The receptionist was sleeping and wasn’t easily woken up. It turned out the place was fully booked (or the guy was too sleepy to be bothered with a guest).

I cycled around town with the rising sun and tried various other hotels but all of them were full. At some point I gave up and rode straight to the train station and boarded the train to Agartala.

On the train I met a British train aficionado who was here to study the old narrow gauge trains before they were being upgraded to standard gauge, which is planned for 2014 or 2015 (can’t remember). He got off after a short while.

Agartala is a city located at the Indian border with Bangladesh, in the Indian state of Tripura. It has a Bangladeshi consulate and one is supposed to be able to obtain a visa here.

I arrived quite late in the day. The streets were busy with people, cars and trucks, and it was dark when I found a hotel that wasn’t full nor too expensive.

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Shillong ( – Silchar)

I spent yesterday and today in the city: Over breakfast in the street I met Sun, a backpacker from Vietnam on his way to Cherrapunji; had my pants fixed once more, at a tailor who had his workshop in a tiny building towering above a busy market street; went to the Siat Khnam again but didn’t win, again; spectated at the Mega Mock Exercise, a nation-wide disaster drill, in the city center; had lunch in a restaurant ‘specalized in muslim dishes’ which was situated next to a liquor store; got a bus ticket to Silchar.

The bus left at 8pm. Getting the bike inside was a bit of an issue, and it ended up being strapped to the roof. The bus ride itself was quite strenuous – dusty and uncomfortable, but probably still better than cycling on this busy and sandy road. I didn’t regret it too much.

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Umiam – Shillong

A ‘quick’ (up-hill) ride into Shillong, the so-called ‘Scotland of the East’.

In the afternoon I went to see the daily Siat Khnam, basically a lottery but with an interesting way to draw the number. Three or four dozen Khasi men stand or sit with their bamboo bows in a semi-circle around a straw target and then shoot their arrows at it for a set amount of time. The total number of hits (arrows that stuck) is counted (usually hundreds) at the end and the last two digits are the winning number. Before the end of the shooting you can place bets. I participated but didn’t win anything.

There was also a TV team there filming the event. At the end, being the only foreigner there, I was interviewed. The camera man had been to Germany and spoke German fluently. I should try to contact him to get a copy of the interview…

Cycled: 17km

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Guwahati – Umiam

Today easily qualifies as one of the worst riding days ever.

I’ll keep it short. The road, part of which I had ridden on yesterday in the opposite direction when coming back from 26N92E, was again busy with traffic of all sorts. The majority, however, were laden open coal trucks going one way, and empty ones going the other way. The road was being enhanced to dual-carriageways, but most of it was still old, narrow, and of bad quality. On top of all that, the countryside was hilly, the temperatures high, and the cycling slow.

The plan was to reach Shillong, but when the sun set it was clear that this was not going to happen. It was pitch dark when I eventually found a hotel, a kind of resort actually, at the shore of Lake Umiam less than 20km from Shillong.

For those readers who think cycling in ‘these’ countries is dangerous – it is indeed. I nearly died when having a shower because the shower pipe had a leak, from which the water, at the right water pressure, in a steady stream shot directly onto the switch box that fed electricity to the boiler. I hadn’t noticed this, though, and was happily washing off today’s dirt when I suddenly felt a tickling sensation on my skin…

Cycled: 84 hell’ish kilometers

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Visiting 26N92E

After a lazy day in the city yesterday, today I set out to visit another unvisited Degree Confluence: 26N92E.

The ride lead me out of the city on main roads, but after 30km, in the village of Sonapur, I cycled off into the countryside. And oh, it was so amazingly beautiful! A steep climb brought me out of the Brahmaputra lowlands and onto a high plateau in the Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya, where 26N92E is located.

The narrow road wound its way through rice fields, little villages, and the occasional forest. No cars, very few people out, and an amazing countryside. I met a guy who spoke fluent English and lived in one of the villages around. He asked me about my scars on knee and ankle, and when I jokingly said that they were from a tiger, he looked seriously shocked. I found out that there are indeed tigers living in the area and occasionally they come out of their hiding places and attack livestock and even people. From that moment on I looked at the forest with different eyes.

I came past a spot where the road led through a very dense part of a forest and – and that was totally new to me – it exhaled not only cold an fresh air, but also a calm and relaxed feeling that made me appreciate this trip even more.

I made it to 26N92E, which again is located several hundred meters off the main road in a valley used for cultivation of rice. The GPS signal was a bit flaky and it took me a while to close in on the actual spot.

It was already late in day and I had to hurry back to Guwahati. I still had to cycle 50km. I wanted to go back on a different route, cycling west to the Guwahati-Shillong main road. The GPS gave up completely and I could just follow the road that approximately led west, towards the sinking sun. There were no villages any more, and, fortunately, no junctions either, where I’d have to decided which way to go. Just forest left and right. Tiger forest. The sun was disappearing behind the hills.

I somehow made it to the highway with last light, without having seen or heard any tigers. However, true horror was awaiting me there. The highway was busy, and under construction, and the place were I reached it was full with smoke-producing heavy industries (some kind of smelters?). And still 30km to go.

I did survive; I’m not so sure my lungs and eyes did.
I am indescribably happy I have seen the countryside off the main road, and once more grateful to the Degree Confluence Project for making me go there.

Cycled: 114km

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Williamnagar – 26N91E – Guwahati

This morning’s breakfast was last night’s warmed-up dinner (just as I had asked the chefs to do), plus some extras.

I had the choice between cycling east on roads which, according to some people I had asked, didn’t deserve that designation, – or to go north and visit another Confluence. I chose the latter.

The ride was mostly easy. On the first third or so I left the Garo Hills towards the valley of the Brahmaputra. The road was windy but mostly in good condition. There must be quite a few coal mines in the hills here, as there were coal trucks travelling up and down the road, and piles of the stuff were deposited in the villages along the road. I didn’t see many people.

The village of Dudhnai, already in Assam, at the junction where ‘my’ road joined the east-west highway leading to Guwahati, was a crowded, colourful place. I had only a short break there, skulling a few bottles of some ‘juice’, before I continued eastwards.

Some 20 kilometers later I turned left in a non-descript settlement in pursuit of Confluence 26N91E. The confluence is located in a then-dry field several hundred meters off the road. I left the bike near the road. For some reason it was here that I first used the long cable I’d brought to lock it. The confluence point was easily reached, the required pictures snapped, and off I was again, towards Guwahati.

It was late in the afternoon and the sun began to set. There were no hotel or lodges in sight. I was still 70km from Guwahati when I decided to hop on a bus to get there this evening.

Guwahati is an immensely crowded place (which Indian city is not?) and has a friendly feel to it.

Cycled: 135km

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Tura – Williamnagar

Last night I couldn’t quite decide where to go next, and it took me a while this morning to make a final decision.

I decided to go to Williamnagar despite the warnings of terrorist groups that are supposed to have their headquarters there. Tura is quite hilly and I was out of breath and soaked with sweat after the first 500 meters.

I had to backtrack to Rongram. Yesterday, the bridges on the road between Rongram and Tura were guarded by police – maybe because of the festival -, today they were all gone.

From Rongram I went east on a quiet road, which did climb for a while at first, but once over a pass it (mostly) descended gently along the Simsang river.

Williamnagar was interesting. The entire main street – with the exception of the bazar area – seemed to be lined with offices of governmental departments. No signs of terrorists. Although, the only hotel, located somewhat out of town, required a ‘verification and confirmation’ of my personal details ‘from the officer-in charge, Williamnagar Police station’ before they allowed me to check in. So I had to cycle back into town. The officer-in-charge wasn’t at his desk and the other officers on duty were watching a cricket match on TV. A lady in plain clothes eventually copied a previously granted permit.

Cycled: 83km

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Dhubri – Tura

I left early’ish to catch a boat to Phulbari on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra. It left around 10am, when it was full enough.

As mentioned yesterday, the islands in the river erode away and form anew every year with the monsoon. The maps I have and the satellite images are way outdated. That’s also why the trip to Phulbari takes more than 2 hours.

I left Phulbari around half past 12pm towards Rongram. The countryside quickly became hilly and forested. And very beautiful. It must be even more amazing here when it rains more and everything is even greener and not as dry. The riding was good, and the inclines and declines mostly short.

There were very few people on the way, and even fewer villages. Almost all of the little stalls at the roadside were closed. Maybe (hopefully) because it’s Sunday today. I saw a couple of Baptist churches and I remember having read that most people in the state of Meghalaya, which I entered with my arrival in Phulbari, are in fact Christian.

I made it to Rongram and asked at one of the open stalls for a hotel. The guys were just about to point me north, when a black car with three tipsy guys plus a seemingly sober driver stopped next to me. The driver, Francis, explained that Rongram was not a good place for me to stay and that I should continue to Tura, 15km further. In a lower voice he added that there was a lot of terrorism going on here and I shouldn’t stray off the main road.

On the way I had seen (text-only) posters inviting to the ‘1st International Mongoloid Festival’ to some village for this weekend. In Tura I saw more posters about this, this time with pictures, and it is in fact a festival for/with/by tribal people and has nothing to do with the down syndrome genetic disorder (for which mongoloid is a derogatory term in German), as I first thought (and yes, I found the name weird). It’s in a village not far from Tura. I contacted Francis and we went there. Unfortunately, it was mostly over, today being the last day, but it must have been quite a fun party. There were still lots of people and an all-female band was playing various cover songs. “Summer of ’69” was the crowd’s favorite.
Many people were drunk and heavily armed police was patroling the festival area, but it was all peaceful.
I ended up with a bottle of amla wine that I have to squeeze into my luggage, somehow. I don’t know what amla is, but the wine is quite tasty. I do think ‘wine’ is a euphemism in this case, though.

Cycled: 91 hilly kilometers

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Visiting 26N90E

The original plan for today was to cross the Brahmaputra by boat and visit degree confluence 26N90E on the way, then cycle into the hills of Meghalaya.

26N90E is located right in the river Brahmaputra. Older satellite images show that it is near or on an island, so I hired a boat to circumnavigate the island right across from Dhubri’s ghat, but it turned out to be too big (the island, that is). The confluence might well be on that island. The river destroys and creates islands every year during the monsoon season and everything looks different now from what is shown on the satellite images.

Unfortunately, in the middle of the river my phone-slash-GPS died and I was blind as far as the confluence is concerned. I returned to Dhubri.

The phone agreed to work again as soon as I was back in town. I had lunch and, later in the afternoon, started a 2nd attempt at visiting the confluence.

I returned to the ghat and asked for a boat to go to the island. I had seen before that every now and then one goes there. There was one ready to leave, but apparently it went somewhere else. I was told that the next one would be going to the island. I went on board – and it left immediately. I had assumed it would wait and take other passengers as well… Arriving at the island, I was quoted a fare of 500 Rupees, which was a ridiculous price for the 5-minute boat ride. We couldn’t agree on a price and agreed that the driver would wait while I went looking for the confluence.

Finding it was easy, a 20-minute thing, all in all. There was a 4WD track from the ghat leading southeast, directly towards the confluence.

This char (river island), unlike the ones I saw in Bangladesh, is not used for agriculture. It consists of sand and there is very little vegetation.

After the return to Dhubri the driver finally agreed to 100 Rupees.

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