Travelling south now from the remote north-eastern corner of Bangladesh towards the Sundarbans. But first, Kushtia, the cultural capital of Bangladesh. The draw is the mausoleum of Fakir Laon Shah, a nineteenth century philosopher. There’s a small white dome and some tombs to admire. We are entertained by some music, played on local instruments, and guide Akit disappears into the washroom for ten minutes. I’m hoping he will hurry up, as I’ve been surrounded by a group of barking dogs. Akit apologises and says he has an upset stomach.
Back in our transport, there are a couple of minor spats with driver Ekram, when Akit twice makes him do a three point turn in the narrowest of city streets, CNGs and people attempting to slip by all the while, as he has sent him in the wrong direction. It’s not a great day for Akit altogether. After a half hour each way diversion, as we attempt to reach it, it transpires that the Nobel prize winning poet Tagore’s house is closed today, as a minister is visiting by helicopter.
Today, the traffic isn’t so awful, but the road surface is terrible. Various layers are exposed with tarmac peeling off layered blocks and some huge potholes. We’re careering around to find the best route, without grounding too often. We traverse the railway line numerous times, as we follow its route. There are the usual queue of pedestrians wandering across the track, even when the gates are closed. And the trains are packed so full inside and out, to the extent that there are rows of passengers squatting each side of the locomotive. We roll through more rice paddies and urban conglomerations, manufacturing plants for jute and garments, cement works and patches of roadside logging. And we’ve arrived in the river port city of Khulna, at a very reasonable five o’clock.
I’m in three star best available again. Were right in the centre of town and I have a suite, which is a large sitting room and bedroom combined. It’s number 403, so of course, it’s on the third floor. And hallelujah, it’s warm enough here for me to move away from my heater without having to run. The downside is that the one window has a permanent curtain, because there’s no view, just a large mosque six inches away. I won’t need an alarm clock.
The Road to the Sundarbans
South from Khulna today, on a causeway, past huge tanks that are shrimp farms. Akit says these are the white gold of Bangladesh. They might not sell so well if the consumers got a glimpse of the colour of the water. I’m really excited about today, as the itinerary promises a five hour cruise through the Sundarbans, one of the highlights of my trip. The name means beautiful jungle and it’s the world’s largest mangrove swamp, UNESCO recognised, a habitat for deer, crocodiles, many birds and tigers. I’m not expecting to see any tigers, especially as the Bangladeshis are very scared of them and beat them to death if there is an encounter, but I am hopeful of a relaxing time in tranquil surroundings.
The Sundarbans - Almost
The day starts well, as I have a gaily painted wooden Sundarbans boat to myself (if you don’t count Akit and Ekram) and a couch under a canopy on the deck, which is great for lounging on and pretending to be Cleopatra. We chug over the grey river from Mongla (I can only just see the opposite bank), to a comer of the jungle. This I where I’m expecting my cruise to begin properly, only I’m told to get out. I’m greeted by a monkey with its head in a crisp packet. There’s some deer in a small enclosure, a poor crocodile in a pool filed with plastic bottles, (it has its head on one) and a boardwalk over a very dirty mangrove swamp covered in litter. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.
Akit agrees it’s not very nice, but insists 'This is the system!'. There are more words and threats of complaints and after a long discussion I’m entertained to a 30 minute ride up a small tributary, into the swamp itself. There are some pretty birds and one crocodile, basking on a bank, without plastic bottles. We can’t have longer, I’m informed, as the mandatory armed guard (to ward off pirates) is not available – he has to be booked in advance. We round off with a tour of some fishing villages along the banks of the river.
The Shait Gambuj Mosque
Ekram and Akit aren’t above altering the itinerary, if it suits them. They suggest we fit in tomorrow’s proposed fifteenth century mosque on the return to Khulna, so we can make our way straight back to Dhaka tomorrow. Ekram is missing his wife. He speaks to her on the phone whenever he can. I’m not entirely unsympathetic. It’s an 88 mile journey, but Google is predicting seven and a half hours.
The Shait Gambuj (Sixty Dome ) Mosque actually has 81 domes. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is popular with the locals, who stroll the gardens and the lily ponds. It's prayer time, so I'm only allowed to peep in the door quickly and take note of the huge pillars in the vast prayer hall. There are 60 of those.
Akit has brought dates for us today. Dates and curry aren’t a good mix. I’m running for the bathroom, when we arrive back at Khulna.
The Long Road Back from the Sundarbans
There hasn’t been any fog for two days, mainly I assume because we’re in the south and the road is good. But we’re speeding along at about 70 miles an hour and I still can’t get a good look at the scenery. If I do request a photo stop we’re usually about a mile down the road before Akit has instructed Ekram to stop and Ekram has understood what is wanted and has brought the vehicle to a standstill. At lunchtime, we reach the ferry across the River Padma. The road signs optimistically point to the Padma Bridge, which they started building 18 months ago. However, the road is blocked off; it’s clearly not finished.
Crossing the River Padma
The dock is utter chaos, with several different embarkation points, all totally obstructed by queueing trucks. When vehicles want to disembark the ferry they all have to reverse up to let them out. The drivers sit with their feet on their accelerators, waiting to race in and fill the gaps as soon as they have passed by. We join one line, but don’t make it onto the boat. In fact, the queue doesn’t seem to move at all. So we join another, but again, are prevented from boarding. Ekram reverses once more and returns to the first line. This time, after much shunting, we are eventually successful in boarding.
I think now we’re actually on a boat, it will be a quick nip across the river, but no, it’s eleven kilometres upstream. My first thought is to position myself near the deck edge (no rail), so I can jump out if we start to sink. But I eventually climb the rickety stairs to the wheelhouse, partly for the view and partly to escape the passengers petitioning a delighted Akit for selfies alongside me. I don’t like to think of the results of all these photographs being admired and discussed at people’s homes. I feel I look a bedraggled wreck. Hair styling is out of the question and I’ve worn all my clothes several times now (on top of each other) to try and keep warm, so they’re not exactly smart.
The captain says there are 19 ferries plying this route. The journey takes an hour and a half and crosses several tributaries, as well as navigating the vast Padma and all its attendant sand banks. No wonder the bridge is taking so long to construct. They’ve got one span up, so far.
And so, back to Dhaka.
(Or read more about Bangladesh here.)