Trip Archives: Up the Brahmaputra

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

Cox’s Bazar

Lazy day in Bangladesh’s prime holiday resort town. It is not exactly my cup of tea, but the fact that I cause much less attention when walking the streets is … nice.

The past weeks have been a bit tiring in that regard, I have to admit. The problem is not the staring, I can live with that. But conversations always start the same way: “What is your country?” Most of the time nothing else follows. I hate to say it, but by now I engage in conversations far less enthusiastically – though still friendly, of course – than before.

There are a lot of (domestic) tourists here, but it is not as packed as I would have expected.

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Cox’s Bazar – Idgar – Cox’s Bazar

Today was a bit of a failure, again. Though an interesting one.

I left around 10am – way too late. The plan was to reach Alikadam or even Thanchi today. They are both located deep inside the so-called Chittagong Hill Tracts, a tribal area at the border with Myanmar/Burma. A special permit is required for visits to the area – which I organized back in Chittagong. It has expired by now but Aaron, who was there while I cycled down to Teknaf, said that the checkpoints didn’t seem to pay much attention to the details.

After leaving the highway I was in badly mapped area. The maps I have either show no roads at all in the area or the roads they have don’t exist in reality. So I relied on the local people, and after managing pronounciation of the place names (Alikadam can be Alikodom or Alikom, depending on who you ask?) it worked quite well. Or so I thought. Late in the afternoon I arrived in a village and people pointed me in the direction where I had just come from.

The village’s name was Idgar, and it was on the map again. Unfortunately, I had apparently moved in the wrong direction, away from Alikadam, and people now pointed back to were I had come from. I was too tired of it all and too far away to get anywhere in daylight, so I hopped on a bus that happened to be about to leave. It had a flat tyre soon after the next village and the car jack broke after the wheel was removed, but eventually I made it back to Cox’s Bazar.

I have just brushed the Hill Tracts today, though there were some serious hills there (ffs!). Some of the ones I had to ride down I wouldn’t manage to pedal up, nor would I want to try.
The ‘roads’ in the hills where unpaved, of course, and mostly just tracks or even single-file paths. Some were bricked roads. The latter look very nice, but can be annoyingly bumpy to ride.

I remembered one of the last conversations with Aaron.

“This may be a stupid questions, but are the Hill Tracts very hilly?”
“Nah, I don’t recall the roads being very hilly.”

Hehe, oh well. In his defense, he’d been in a different area and traveled by bus.

Cycled: 60km

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Cox’s Bazar, again

Another day off in Cox’s Bazar.

Like in so many other countries, one of the unsolved challenges of Bangladesh is waste, rubbish.

People are just not aware of the problems of throwing away plastics randomly in the streets, at the beach or off the ferry.

When we returned from St. Martin a couple of days ago we wittnessed just that. At some point of the journey someone started feeding seagulls with potato crackers and biscuits. Soon many families were following suit. Seeing that was weird enough, in a country were by far not everyone has enough food every day. And then people, children and grown-ups alike, threw the empty plastic wrappings over board as well.

This unawareness is so horribly common in ‘these’ countries. I’m not sure if it is a lack of knowledge about the implications, or an I-don’t-care mentality, or what?

I am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt here. I believe ‘they’ are victims of the West’s commercial interests. ‘We’ are not interested in educating about the risks of our exports. We just ship the cheap sh!t here and let the others deal with the rubbish. ‘We’ includes the Chinese here, too. For example, they sell apples to Bangladesh, which you can buy on any market. And each and every single apple is wrapped in one of these styrofoam protective net things (difficult to describe… I’ve added a picture below.) which then clutter the streets around the market and end up I-don’t-know-where. (Well, I’m sure in the end they’re either burned or end up in some ‘landfill’, which is usually just some river bank.)

Another example:
We had some biscuits the other day. Not only were the six(!) of them wrapped in an enormous amount of plastic, but they also tasted weird. A bit like soap? No, glue. Like plastic and glue. Not very charming at all and certainly not healthy.

A few days ago I found the same ugly ‘background taste’ in the chicken I had for dinner. It must have been wrapped in some kind of plastic wrapping for transport. Isn’t that lovely.
From now on, I’ll happily opt for the ‘local’ chicken that is on some menus.

Were is ‘our’ export in this example, you may wonder? Cheap technology and ‘cheap’ knowledge that creates unhealthy sh!t with the least possible effort.

Oh, and I’ve seen people spray pesticides, here, too. With hand pumps and without masks.

Of course, this export mentality already fires back, and will do so even more in the future.

So many things go wrong here, and on so many levels…

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Cox's Bazar - Chittagong

I changed my travel plans completely today. I’ve been in Bangladesh for 20 days, my visa will expire in 10 days, and I feel like I should see some other parts of the country before I have to leave. I’ll travel back to Dhaka by bus and train, from there I’ll head north, towards India. I also hope temperatures will be a little lower there.

Today I spent most time waiting for the bus to Chittagong.

I arrived there late in the evening. I shouldered my backpack and strapped my cycling shoes to the rack, and cycled through the dark city. When I arrived at the hotel I had lost one of them shoes. I cycled back on the same route immediately but couldn’t find it. Quite frustrating.

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Chittagong

Very early in the morning I went to the train station to find out whether I can take my bike on the intercity train to Dhaka tomorrow. Opinions were mixed, but it seemed like it would work.

I bought a ticket, then I cycled back to last night’s drop-off point looking for my shoe – no luck.

I then spent some time in the city – I found bike shops at one intersection, and shoe stalls at the next, but no cycling shoes in between.

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Chittagong – Dhaka

A bit of a stressful morning it was. I was at the train station around quarter past 6am, the train was scheduled for 6.40am.

I looked for my coach, and the conductor – there is at least one per coach, it seems – was a bit baffled about the bike. A friendly fellow traveller stepped forward and helped by translating that the bike should go to the mosque. The mosque? There is a mosque compartment in one of the coaches – at the other end of the train. We found it, there is a massive generator in that coach as well (probably for the AC coaches?). The bike was not allowed in the mosque, even though someone had his luggage in there, too. Oh well, to make a long story short, a couple of conductors went berzerk over the various places we tried to store the bike in, before it was allowed in the generator room. I had only been on the train for 20 minutes but I was already sweating from moving the bike through the narrow ailes.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, except for the dust and sand that kept coming in throuh the open window. By the time I arrived in Dhaka I was as dusty as if I’d ridden my bike the whole day.

In the afternoon I went to one of the numerous DHL offices in the city and managed to send my souvenirs home without any special export permit.

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Dhaka

This morning I went to the train station to find out how mail train journeys work here.

The plan is to head to Rajshahi tomorrow, which is located approx. 200km (as the crow flies) to the northwest from here.

In the afternoon I spent several hours cycling crazy Dhaka, looking for new shoes. I finally found a pair of running shoes in Gulshan, one of Dhaka’s upmarket quarters. Proper cycling shoes seem impossible to be had, even in Dhaka.

Oh Dhaka, chaos capital! Traffic is enormous, nothing has changed since last time. Riding here induces a constant rush of adrenaline – at least when one is not caught in a traffic jam. The afternoon hours seem especially prone to clogged roads, and it’s not only the main streets that are filled to the brim. Often the small alleys aren’t much better off.

Dhaka at night is another interesting experience. The temperatures are pleasant (For me, anyway. Many locals wear their scarfs wrapped around their head.) and the streets are full with people. There are stalls (or just blankets) along the sidewalk where everything can be bought, from food to batteries, from shoes to vegetables. Some are lit by oil lamps, some by modern energy-saving bulbs illegally connected to the grid, some by battery-powered LED lamps.

For some reason I didn’t take any pictures today…

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Dhaka – Rajshahi

My train was scheduled for 11.20am today.
I managed to cram absolutely all of my luggage into my backpack, so that I could leave the bike in a different coach if need be.

Mr Shiny Shoes cycled to the train station, feeling a little too shiny. I wished Dhaka’s tendency to cover everything with a grey layer of dust would apply to my shoes quicker than usual. But two kilometers of cycling (including getting lost on what is a pretty easy route) is not enough for that.

I paid 110 Taka (approx. 1.20 Euro) for the 8+ hour (again, a bit more than 200km) trip to Rajshahi.

While waiting for the train, I was of course the attraction, mostly for beggars and children. I try not to give money but buy food, if possible. But many times I just refuse to give anything. This is a very difficult topic, and fortunately, outside Dhaka and Chittagonga, begging is quite rare.

I had a crowd of people around me, when all of a sudden a guy, in his mid twenties, stepped forward. He held a speech to everyone around me, in Bengali, in a seemingly friendly tone. Of course, I didn’t understand a word, but it felt like he was speaking in defence of my privacy. The crowd slowly dispersed and he looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and asked what he had said, but he didn’t understand my (English) question.

He stuck around, without asking the usual, and let me know when my train finally arrived. One of the conductors quoted a 500 Taka fee for the bike, but my friend just showed me to the next coach and said “no money”, pointing at the bike. He then stayed around until departure (one hour later than scheduled) and we struck up a bit of a conversation with the help of two other guys who spoke more English.

This time, everyone was on my side, as far as money was concerned, and told me repeatedly not to pay anything to the conductors.

When they finally came to check tickets I politely but firmly refused their requests to pay the bideshi (foreigner) tax – from 500 down to “some money”. They came back and tried again a couple of times, but I just pointed at everyone else’s luggage and explained that there was no difference between those bags and my bike. And since there were no special provisions for bicycles anyway, there was no reason to treat a bike differently, fee-wise. Eventually they gave up and left me alone.

After it was clear that I wouldn’t pay, the conductors even became friendly. After nightfall they warned me to be careful, as fellow travelers might feel inclined to push me off the train to get a hold of my possessions. I found that slightly exaggerated…

Beyond that the trip was long but uneventful. I would recommend traveling by mail train, though, as you meet a whole bunch of different people than in the faster intercity trains. Bring a lot of time.

I arrived in Rajshahi at 11pm, 4 hours late.

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Rajshahi - Natore

I spent some time riding around the city, then set out towards Natore.

On the way I stopped in Puthia, where there are some rajbaris and Hindu temples. Especially the temples are beautiful. They are about 400 years old and intricately decorated with terracotta tiles.
Some of them are still in use by the approx. 30% Hindu population.
A rajbari was the residence of a zamindar, a Hindu landlord used by the British during their rule on the Indian subcontinent to administer taxation and local affairs.
The ones here are not in the best state of repair. One is used by some government land office, so at least that one is looked after. The other buildings don’t even have complete roofs anymore. I was warned of cobras but didn’t find any.

Looking at the ceiling in one of the temples, I dropped and broke my sunglasses. They now look suspiciously like my normal glasses.

Natore is only about 40km from Rajshahi, and I arrived there around 6pm, with last light.

The countryside up here is still flat. No hills, no nothing.

I think Bangladesh’s surface is either one of the following three: settlements (villages, towns, cities); water (ponds, reservoir lakes, rivers); fields.
There is very little forest – there is some, of course, e.g. in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Bangladesh has no stones. Maybe there are some rocks somewhere in the eastern hill ranges. But generally there is only sand and silt from the anual floodings. That explains the high number of brick factories seen everywhere. Often the freshly burnt bricks are then broken up again to use as foundation for e.g. roads.

Cycled: 70km

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Natore - Bogra

After breakfast I went looking for the local rajbaris. There are two, one commonly known as Natore Rajbari, and a second, known as Uttara Gono Bhaban. The latter is said to be one of the official residences of the president of Bangladesh, and not open to the public. While seeking the former I ended up at the latter and discovered that it can now be visited. It would open at 10am (it was 9.30 when I arrived) and the entrance fee was 10 Taka – for Bangladeshis. For foreigners it was 500 Taka, 50 times as much. While that is still not extremely much (though I don’t know what exactly there is to see at that rajbari) I don’t think my income is 50 times that of a middle-class Bangladeshi who can afford coming here for leisure and visit the place. (The 10-fold increase that is customary at other places I find acceptable.) Also, I didn’t feel like idling for half an hour.

Instead I went for the other rajbari, actually 7 big buildings and a number of smaller ones as well as some Hindu temples. The fee there was 5 Taka, even for foreigners. Hm, I found that a bit low. ;)

I was looking at the first temple when I was approached by two groups of kids, boys and girls, respectively. They handed me a flower and everyone shook my hand and shouted “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

It’s Friday, Muslim holiday, and the place was being prepared for some kind of Valentine’s Day celebrations. People were brought in by the bus full. I didn’t have five minutes for myself before I was stopped again and again for a chat or a photo. I looked around for a bit and left. It was charming but a bit too much.

On the direct highway, Bogra is just 75km from Natore, in a northeastish direction. I wanted to avoid that and cycled north, parallel to the railway. Sometimes I took shortcuts through rice fields, and for a while I cycled on the railway dam right next to the rail track on a singe-file path. It was amazing.

Near the town of Naogaon I turned east. It was quite late in the day already, so I hopped on a bus to Bogra that just happened to wait for passengers at the side of the road to cover the last 30 or so kilometers before sunset. I sat on the roof of the bus with my bike.

At dinner, I experienced my first ever earth quake.

Cycled: 84km

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Bogra – Rangpur

It was pouring this morning and I quickly decided to take the mail train up to Rangpur.

I ended up in the back of a cargo coach with my bike, with a bunch of Bangladeshis and their belongings: bags of vegetables, furniture, bicycles, big pots full with little fish. Each two bowls had one man or boy sitting in front of them, constantly patting the surface in order to add oxygen to the water.

The train ride was long, but a very ‘native’ way of travelling, plus I was given snacks and fruit by my fellow travellers. And it was a good alternative to riding my bike in the rain. Unfortunately, it meant that I was taken way north of an unvisited degree confluence in the area, which had been on my to-do list for today.

I’m staying at the Rangpur guesthouse of the RDRS, a Bangladeshi NGO that helps with sustainable development in the rural areas in the north and east of the country.

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Rangpur – Lalmornihat

I left Rangpur to the east, towards Lalmornihat. I avoided the highway and cycled on a minor road to the Teesta river. Instead of the river, which is wide and mighty on my maps, I just found flood plains full with fields – rice and potatos and other vegetables I can’t name. I cycled on the narrowest footpaths between fields and across desert-like stretches of sand (the sidearms of the Teesta which dried up last) until I could see the water. I stopped near an old guy, sitting on the ground and pinning leafes on wooden needle-like sticks. His wife(?) and two kids and another man appeared soon, too, and we chatted away in our languages without understanding much. I helped them pin the leafes and learned that it was stuff that was smoked. Was that tobacco??

I crossed the actual Teesta, which was narrow and shallow, on a boat that was rowed by a bunch of boys, maybe 7 years old or younger.

From there to Lalmornihat was an easy ride. I’m staying at the local RDRS guesthouse again.
After check-in I did some nerdy sightseeing: I went to India. And circumnavigated it.

There are a bunch (a lot, actually) of Indian exclaves in the area, as well as Bangladeshi exclaves in India.
But what does that mean? Is there an actual border? A fence? Is the grass really greener on the other side?

There is a tiny one of these exclaves less than 10km east from Lalmornihat, just a couple of hundred meters off a paved main road. I left this road and cycled along a dirt track until I hit another narrow but paved road. According to the GPS this was were the border was. I followed the asphalt and it seemed to follow the outline of the exclave almost exactly. I was a wee bit disappointed, though, as there was no border, no police, no fence, and everything looked just like everywhere else in the countryside.

At lunch I had met a guy who had told me that there were no Bangladeshi exclaves in India anymore, India had occupied them all, he said. Was he right? Had the same happened with the Indian exclaves this side of the border?

I asked a man standing at the track. He was happy to tell me that this was India! And he was Indian! I had just crossed the border to India! How exciting! :)
I cycled on and asked another guy – another Indian! From what I understood it is difficult for them to travel to India, though, despite being Indian. Going to Bangladesh is not a problem, obviously, even though it is technically illegal.

I’ll try to find a Bangladeshi exclave once I’m in India.

Cycled: 61km

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Lalmornihat – Patgram

I left Lalmornihat to the north, towards Patgram and the Burimari border crossing. The road follows the left bank of the Teesta river.

The northwest of Bangladesh is a wee bit less conservative than the southeast. Something I haven’t seen in Bangladesh before: girls and women on bicycles! Also, it happened once or twice that groups of school girls waved hello and smiled when I rode past. Something that seemingly would have been impossible in the south.

According to the map there were a few more Indian exclaves along the road, but when I stopped and asked people they said “there is no India here, only Bangladesh”. I wonder what happened.

I arrived in Patgram at around 2.15pm, after 82km of riding. I found a hotel, had lunch, and set out for some more nerdy sightseeing.

One of the biggest (maybe the biggest) Bangladeshi exclaves in India is the Dahagram–Angarpota exclave. At its closest point it is just a hundred meters away from Bangladeshi mainland. Its inhabitants have long struggled to be able to go to Bangladesh, had no electricity and no health care or other support. Only a couple of years ago India and Bangladesh have entered into an agreement where India leased that small stretch of land, called the Tin Bigha Corridor, to Bangladesh, to enable Bangladeshis to cross from/to Dahagram–Angarpota. An Indian public main road crosses the corridor as well. The corridor is guarded by both the Bangladeshi (on both Bangladeshi sides) and the Indian army (inside the corridor).

On arrival the Bangladeshis wouldn’t let me through at first, but when I assured them I had no intentions of defecting to India I was eventually escorted through – by bicycle as well! The Indians didn’t care at all. I cycled all around the exclave for an hour or so. At the far end of the exclave I met a group (two busses full) of students with their teachers who had come from Rangpur for some nerdy sightseeing, too, and a massive picnic.

Cycled: 122km

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Patgram – Siliguri

I left late, around 10am. On the last 10 kilometers to the border crossing it seemed as if people were even more friendly than during the last weeks, waving and smiling.
At the Bangladeshi immigration desk I said “Hello. I’d like to leave Bangladesh.” And immediately regretted my words. I almost added “Well, not really, you know. But I kind of have to. And I’ll be back!”

Then I was in India.
India, where customs and immigration offices are housed in bamboo huts, where everything is recorded in big registers, on paper, no computers; where the roads are worse than in Bangladesh; where the driving is even more reckless; where girls wear jeans and ride bicycles and motorcycles; where the food and the chai are delicious; where it seems to be at least equally difficult to get cash with my credit card as in Bangladesh; where ‘traffic guards’ stop me to take a picture with me.

Cycled: 102km

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Siliguri

Siliguri is quite a charming city. The residential areas I cycled through yesterday looked nice and today I spent most time wandering the market, which is a colorfull lot of stalls and shops.

Last but not least, inspired by Heather, I went to the movies. “Gunday” was on. Fun to watch, even if it was in Bengali and I didn’t understand anything. Lots of slo-mo action, (male) skin, and a cheering audience (that’s what I liked most).

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