Travelling south now from the remote north-eastern corner of Bangladesh towards the Sundarbans. But first, Kushtia, the cultural capital of Bangladesh. First, 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, 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. At the same time we traverse the railway line numerous times as we track 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.
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, 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 day starts well, as I have a 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.
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 7 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.
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.
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. The drivers sit with their feet on their accelerators waiting to race in and fill the gaps as soon as they are out. 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.
This has to be, surely, the worst traffic in the world. It’s every man (or vehicle) for himself leaving Dhaka. Lane discipline in Bangladesh is absolutely none existent. The name of the game is to nose in front of the other cars at every possible opportunity. I’m not even sure what side of the road we’re supposed to be driving on. There are vehicles charging us head on most of the time, motor bikes especially nip and out. My brake foot is worn out. And I’ve run out of motion sickness tablets. Guide Atik has never heard of them so that doesn’t augur well for replacements. I’m wearing my headphones to try and reduce the noise, and I’ve lost my Rescue Remedy, which I could really do with, as smiley driver Ekram , like most of the other motorists, feels that rally driving is the only appropriate style in these situations. He’s just tried to manoeuvre over the dirt pile that separates the carriageways. We almost got grounded and he gave up the attempt. That time anyway. I’ve decided it’s better not to look.
The minibus is one of the smartest vehicles on the road, but it’s seen better days. It’s slightly grimy and the front compartment, which won’t shut, is full of clutter. There’s a cool box that contained two bottles of water when I arrived and is now empty. There’s no ice and the bottles weren’t cold when they went in. There is also a basket that held two wet wipes. I used those up on day 1. I’m using the basket to hold the mandarin oranges and grapes I’ve bought. There’s a good selection of fruit hung out temptingly on the roadside stalls. They pack it up in little bags made of stapled photocopy sheets. That’s environmentally friendly for you.
The road to Bogra, in the north of Bangladesh, is sometimes potholed concrete, sometimes mud, occasionally asphalt (with potholes). The overpasses and staircases are rickety in the extreme, with crumbling concrete, rubble covered and odd pieces of brick sticking out. These, the roadside vegetation, waving banana leaves and abutting fields are all caked in thick layers of dust. Like yesterday, there are times when we come to a complete standstill. At one piece of dual carriageway there are roadworks and one side is closed. The shoving and pushing results in four lines going north and no room for southerly traffic at all. That might explain why we’re not moving. The painted trucks here are much smaller, less elaborately decorated and more faded than the large decorated behemoths of India. They are more like large pick-ups. It’s certainly a better design for games of chicken.
We’ve gone a frighteningly short distance after three hours - we’re still on the outskirts of Dhaka. Google is wildly optimistic about the severity of the jams. It seems as if they are upgrading the whole highway between here and Bogra. And it’s still very misty too. (I’m beginning to think this might be smog rather than fog.) It’s not lifting today, so on the rare occasions when there’s a gap in the traffic I can hardly make out the scenery. I have spotted a few paddy fields and murky water hyacinth covered lakes. A little further on, brickworks. Lines of blocks laid out in the fields and tall chimneys spewing out more waste to add to the pollution. The lack of sun and the more northerly latitude make for a much cooler temperature. I’m wearing a hooded top today (Atik says it looks nice) and the Bangladeshis are bundled up in scarves and hats.
Lunch today is a feast of mandarin oranges, Bombay mix and coca cola, the latter to keep me awake. When we stop by the stalls Atik makes me hide. He says they put prices up immediately they notice me. Well I thought that was lunch, but we’ve stopped at a Food Village now and I’m consuming a chicken burger- it’s a leg of chicken, bone in, inserted into a bun.
I’m doing my best to be patient, but I fear there will be murder before the week is out. Atik has just informed me that it is unlikely that we will reach today’s destination – the Buddhist Somapura Mahavihara, so he is going to drop tomorrow’s Hindu Kantajee Temple in order that we can see this one instead then. There are more Hindu temples on the itinerary. I’m not impressed. I haven’t endured 12 hours of traffic jams not to see something. I peruse maps and juggle with Google and offer two alternative itineraries that will solve the problem. He rejects both, until I start muttering about phoning tour companies to check, when suddenly the second will probably be viable.
Atik discusses options and drones on about the difficulties of this and that for about two hours, while I’m trying to concentrate on the suddenly very pretty mustard quilted countryside (the sun has finally made an appearance) and on not throwing up, before he agrees that this is the best solution. He has to check before deviating from the itinerary he says. I point out that we’re not deviating, just completing.
We’ve made a compensatory visit tonight to the much closer cradle of Bangladeshi history, the Mahasthanrgh Citadel. We just scrape in 15 minutes before closing time at five. Atik has assured me that the museum closes at five, but the citadel is still accessible after that time. This turns out to be totally inaccurate and we have to argue like crazy before I’m allowed in for a five minute look at the ruins before they shut up shop. And then again when Atik suddenly reports that the main citadel is actually just over the road from the wall I’m walking on and I haven’t seen it yet. Though there isn’t much to see, fortunately. The bazaar in town is still open and that’s much more interesting.
It’s clear to me that if Google is remotely accurate then tomorrow’s visit, which was supposed to combine Kantajee and the citadel, was never going to work in any case, as we would certainly have missed the five o’clock deadline. It seems that whoever planned my itinerary in Bangladesh has been living in cloud cuckoo land.
The hotel is (almost literally) freezing. The staff are all wearing scarves round their heads and the guests are eating in their coats. They have given me a lurid orange fizzy welcome drink and charged me five pounds a night for a small fan heater which only takes the edge off the cold and which I intend to use all night. The bed is so hard I’m checking to make sure there’s a mattress at all.
Unfortunately, I was correct about the bed which was superlatively uncomfortable. I’ve complained to the hotel desk and they are replacing the mattress while I’m out, they assure me. Meanwhile, there’s even thicker fog today so it’s very damp and chilly and it’s even more unfortunate that the heating in the van doesn’t work. Ekram and Atik have their hoods up and assure me that they’re not suffering from the cold. I’m wearing two jackets and two scarves but it’s not doing the trick. The contrast between the Bangladeshi winter at its worst (about the same as England‘s average) and the equatorial climes of the last four weeks is too much to bear. I buy a blanket.
Today is the Kantajee Temple, which Google predicts is a four hour drive each way. First, a stop at the lively vegetable market where potatoes, aubergines and cabbages are the main order of the day. There is much sorting, weighing, carrying and delivering to admire; it seems to me the Bangladeshis are a really hardworking people. Akit tells me that I’m wrong. He says they are lazy and only about 10% of them work hard. He theorizes that Europeans work harder because it is colder in Europe and that’s why they were able to colonise so many other countries. Does that work for Spain and Portugal?
The eighteenth century temple dedicated to Krishna is covered in the most intricate of terracotta carvings, beautifully telling the story of Arjuna and the Kurukshetra War. It might not have been worth the long drive on its own, but once the sun has appeared again, in the afternoon, it is clear what lush and gorgeous countryside this is. It’s still all very low level, paddy fields and mustard. It’s harvest time and straw and hayricks are being constructed. We stop at two different villages and immediately find ourselves sucked into the behind the scenes activity of farming, ponds, fishing and animal husbandry.
I usually really dislike pre-arranged village visiting in developing countries. It can feel an imposition, tolerated by the locals because they need the money. Here, the people are so clearly welcoming and delighted to see me, for what seems to me to be an even bigger imposition; we’ve just walked in. At the temple I’m more of a celebrity and draw more cameras then the edifice itself.
In the farmyards I attract a train of vibrantly attired followers, like the Pied Piper. Tourists and westerners are so rare. One infant’s eyes nearly pop out of his head when he toddles out of a doorway to see me walking past. I’m shown geese, ducks, cattle (they’ve been given hessian coats), much colourful washing and more decorated ricks. Akit follows. He’s basking in reflected glory, grinning broadly and recording it all, in his turn, on his phone. He’s taking plenty of selfies too.
Atik wants to take me to another restaurant for lunch, but I ask if we can buy street food. Fruit is luscious and plentiful. ‘What else would you like?’ inquires Akit. ‘You can’t just eat oranges’. I say it would be easier if he can tell me what is available.
‘Cake’, he suggests. ‘There isn’t any other street food. I eat cake for lunch’.
‘That’s not what I’ve read. Your street food is famous.’
‘Only in Dhaka’, he demurs.
Off the van the first thing I spot is a singara stall (like samosas). ‘O those’, says Akit. ‘You meant them.’
‘Well, you can’t eat those. They’re unhygienic’
‘O, in what way?’
I expect him to say that the vendors don’t wash their hands or something similar, but no, it’s the pollution off the street blowing onto them that’s the problem. They’re piping hot straight out of the fryer. Ekram and I enjoy two each and the whole lot costs the equivalent of 15 pence. Akit won’t give in and indulge. He only has milk for lunch, he says, forgetting about the cake and nibbling my oranges.
The traffic today has been considerably better, which is just as well as I’ve moved myself to the front seat of the bus, much to Akit’s chagrin, and I’m getting a grandstand view of the road. There are no overtaking white lines painted in the centre of the carriageway in some areas. Nobody takes any notice whatsoever. I’ve read that 12,000 people are killed every year on the roads in Bangladesh.
The report said that most of this is down to reckless driving, especially at night when the trucks’ lights are often very dim and most of the cycle rickshaws and cycle-trucks don’t have any illumination on them at all. You have to concentrate really hard to make out the shadowy shapes of vehicles and pedestrians. Ekram is very skilful and manages to stay just the right side of reckless the whole time. He’s undercut Google by half an hour each way. Though I have a crick in my neck from jumping, whenever we come within a millimetre of a bus or truck.
When I ask for a toilet stop they find me a petrol station and Akit goes in to inspect to make sure it is up to standard, my toilet monitor. If it isn’t he badgers the cashiers into letting me use theirs. So I’m definitely being treated like royalty.
It’s another long day. Akit is shouting really loudly at Ekram from behind my head. I have headphones on and I still can’t hear my music. Akit explains that he has to do this to make sure Ekram stays awake. I’m more concerned it will disturb his concentration. Ekram tells me he’s not tired, anyway, he’s strong. I’ve noticed that he belches without restraint every ten minutes or so. I’m not sure if the two things are connected.
This is where I find out if my amendments to the itinerary work. It’s still freezing cold (even the goats are wearing little coats) and it’s a real pea souper fog today. I’m dismayed to be told that the fog is always like this in January and it’s always worse in the north. I tell Akit that it’s really disappointing not to be able to see the scenery and not to be able to take photographs. ‘Your camera is really good,’ says Akit. ‘Surely, it will take pictures here’. I explain that it might be good, but I’m not a miracle worker.
Akit goes on to complain that he can’t always understand my English. That’s ok, as I certainly can’t understand his most of the time. He tells me that this is probably because it depends if he’s using an American, English or Australian accent. There are so many ways to pronounce things.
Ekram veers more towards reckless today and we have a much too close encounter with a bus; luckily we only lock wing mirrors. Later on, I notice that our van is shoving a CNG along in front of us. Ekram feeds me mango masala sweets to distract me. They are like sherbet lemons but with masala spice in the middle. It’s definitely an acquired taste. He’s still smiling, but doesn’t speak much. Akit says that Ekram knows little English and has no desire to learn. That’s fine, each to his own, but maybe he’s in the wrong job. He knows enough to lean over, roll his eyes and ask, ‘Shall we go without him?’ when Akit leaves on one of his shopping missions.
UNESCO listed Somapura is a rediscovered, eighth century monastery, among the best known Buddhist viharas in the Indian Subcontinent and said to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the country.There is little left of the stupas, so it’s probably slightly more interesting in the misty light. There’s been a party held here the night before and one corner of grass is entirely covered in Styrofoam plates and cups. The toilet is brand new and unlocked specially. Foreigners have to pay extra. It’s a strange way to encourage tourism.
We set off for our second architectural visit of the day, but I notice that we are heading back the way we came. ‘What happened to the faster route I found on Google?’ I ask Akit. He tries to pretend that this is the correct route and scrambles for his phone before issuing instructions to a disgruntled Ekram. But it’s too late and we’ve lost nearly an hour. Ekram and I are lunching on fruit and singara again. Akit darts into a shop and comes out with a chaaler ruti, a rice flour chapatti, which he proceeds to devour. Under interrogation he explains that this is like cake, as they are both made without oil.
The sun finally appears and there are more delightful paddy fields, mustard and ricks, alternating with brickworks. The juxtaposition is thoroughly incongruous. As we drive south the road becomes a causeway and the paddy terraces turn into larger stretches of field. There have been plenty of birds along the whole route, they skim the road, hop on the paths and enjoy mopping up the drying rice that lines much of the highway, scattering as we approach.
The temple cluster at Puthia is a scenic hotch potch of nineteenth century Hindu temples adjoining the dilapidated Palace of the Raja of Puthia, which is also a medley of architectural styles. The Puthia Royal Family estate was the second largest zamindary (aristocratic landowner) and the wealthiest in British Bengal. After India's partition, the then Pakistani government abolished the zamindary system and confiscated all Hindu properties. The Royal Family migrated to India shortly afterwards .
We’re leaving the open paddy behind now and moving into more urban areas with large ponds alongside the, road prettily reflecting the washing lines strung above them. We squeak into the hotel at six o’clock, just as it’s getting dark. The place is billed as three star - best available. I have a huge carved bedstead, but the mattress is again, hard as rock and it’s unbelievably chilly.
South now to Kushtia and the Sundarbans
Well I’m in Dhaka, finally. My tour isn’t due to start till tomorrow, so I thought I would sleep, but that’s now feeling like a remote possibility. The city is relentlessly noisy. Everyone drives with their hands on their horns the whole time. Someone is blowing a whistle constantly, presumably a traffic policeman on duty. There’s a school opposite contributing the voices of several hundred students at break time. And every so often there’s a relatively melodic muezzin alongside. I’m on the ninth floor and I have a small balcony with a vertigo inducing drop to the street. I had to sign a disclaimer before they would even open the door so I could get onto it.
The view reveals a grubby skyline, mostly concrete blocks, many of which are not yet complete. There are lines of bright washing decorating most of the balconies, and some tumbledown dwellings lining a river at ground level. There are some more up market buildings with roof gardens fronting the water. Bangladesh is a country of many rivers, some of them mighty. Dhaka nestles in a bend of the Buriganga River (Old Ganges). It ranks among the most polluted rivers in the country. I flew over the huge Ganges/Brahmaputra delta on my way from Bangkok. It empties into the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world.
I don’t need my alarm clock. The traffic bedlam begins early and the school yard is full by 7.30. My breakfast in the swish dining room is a buffet and my first reaction is that they left out last night’s dinner by mistake. It’s all beautifully polished chafing dishes filled with curry, rice and noodles. I set to cheerfully, it’s a while since I had Indian style curry. It’s only later that I notice the omelette man sidling into his station in the corner.
Even returning to my room is fraught. I know I’m in room 7004 and it’s on the ninth floor, because there’s a lobby and a mezzanine, but the button marked 7 in the lift won’t work (there’s and L and M button). It seems I have to deploy button 9 and all the rooms starting with 7 are found there….
I’m in my van again and can confirm that Dhaka is the most chaotic and noisy place I have ever been to. The traffic is truly terrible and sometimes stops moving totally for ten or fifteen minutes. It takes an age to travel from one sight to another. Atik, as I suspected, isn’t the most organised of guides. He’s entirely woolly about where we are going and how long it will take (even though he has Google) and has an irritating habit of saying things like, ’O yes, you would really like the bazaar back there, but we’ve missed it now and anyway it's only really good first thing in the morning’.
Nevertheless, moans over, it’s an absorbing day with the highlight being wandering the streets (I never get bored with this) watching the people. I should say trying to avoid the streams of people, moving rapidly with boxes balanced on their heads. Everyone in their turn is trying to keep out of the way of the multi coloured cycle rickshaws threading in and out of even the narrowest of streets. Most of the thoroughfares are also jammed with the green CNGs. This is what the Bangladeshis call the electric racing green (in Dhaka) rickshaws or tuk tuks. CNG stands for the compressed natural gas that powers them. And then there are the cars, buses and vans. The busses are extraordinarily battered, dented and scraped. I suppose it’s not surprising.
We navigate a couple of bazaars and the fruit market, the biggest in the world, alongside the river, where the activity is absolutely frenetic. Fascinating, but exhausting, dodging the crowds, and the rickshaws, trying not to step in the garbage on the ground or fall into the sewage channels running alongside the streets. We also take a boat trip on a vessel made of wood blocks that is close to the water and appears alarmingly flimsy. It’s misty and atmospheric and the water is thronging with other boats large and small, paddle steamers and ferries. Some of them are packed really tightly with passengers. ‘Don’t they ever sink?’ I ask Akit.
‘Oh yes; he replies nonchalantly. ‘People often drown. They can’t swim. And the water is very dirty. But they usually get picked up by other boats.’
This is by far the best part of Dhaka. Much of the time is spent stuck in traffic or eating lunch. Oddly, this is taken at a roof top restaurant that serves Thai and Chinese food. But it’s another great view over the city.
Nevertheless we also fit in atour of modern and colonial Dhaka before the sun goes down. The Curzon Hall is a grandly minareted brick British Raj-era building, now home of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Dhaka. The building was originally intended to be a town hall and is named after Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India who laid its foundation stone in 1904 .
There's also the very pink Ahsan Manzil, the official residential palace and seat of the Nawab of Dhaka on the banks of the Buriganga River. It's now a national museum. I've had to look up all this information. Atik told me the palace was Lord Curzon's mansion.
Lalbagh Fort is an incomplete seventeenth-century Mughal fort complex with some pretty gardens, also on the Buriganga River in the southwestern part of Dhaka. Here, Atik ventures the opinion that British colonialism was oppressive and we should give the Kohinoor diamond back. Interestingly, he adds that the British are viewed as being very intelligent and if you do something well the locals say you are being British.
More recent architecture houses the National Liberation Museum and the National Assembly Building (glimpsed through the iron railings). I’m none the wiser still, about the history of the war with Pakistan and India’s involvement. Gallery 1, with the introductions, is closed for refurbishment and the English translation in the other galleries is really poor. What I can read is hugely biased (as one would expect) and immensely hysterical in tone. I shall have to do my own research, but the stories of those who died and the accompanying artefacts are incredibly moving.
When the mist lifts, it’s exceptionally colourful. There are a range of hats and beards, many of the latter died with henna. And the women are gorgeous and elegant in their silk saris and salwar chemises. We hop on a cycle rickshaw ourselves when the traffic round the van comes to a dead halt. Atik apologises but I say it’s mandatory that we give one a go in any case. The sheer terror of executing a U turn in the face of oncoming traffic is an unmissable experience.
Throughout, I’m treated like the queen. Everyone stares, but is very friendly, calls out, wants a selfie, or poses for me to take their picture. There are no other tourists at all that I can see. The world wide web tells me that the people of Bangladesh seldom smile. This is not because they are unfriendly, but because smiling is considered a sign of immaturity.
Back in my comfortable western style hotel I’m coughing and sneezing. Welcome to the traffic and pollution of Dhaka. Dhaka is the world's second least liveable city, behind only war-torn Damascus, according to the Economist .
On my final day driver Ekram and Akit want to take me to the big vegetable market. They are very keen, even though there is nothing on my programme.This involves leaving at seven in the morning, so the roads are relatively clear. I’m wishing someone had pointed this out earlier in the trip. Getting up early is a sacrifice worth making under these circumstances. However, my musings are brought to an abrupt halt as we are hit by a bus.
I’m convinced my time is up, as I see the bus heading straight for me. My life doesn’t flash through my head and nothing goes in slow motion. It’s all fairy tales. I just think ‘This is it’ and then the bus veers and goes into us, just behind me. So, I’m very lucky – only bruised and very shocked, I think. The side of the van is caved in and the windows are completely shattered. The bus driver has run away in case he gets lynched. This is Bangladesh, where life is cheap. The bystanders (and other occupants) are far more interested in the van and police reports than in whether everyone is okay. The local tour office manager turns up and doesn’t even address me. Poor Ekram is bemused. He’s never had an accident before, which is some accomplishment here. I return to the hotel in an Uber car and soothe myself with French toast and tea. I don’t think I will be going out again today, until it’s time for my flight to Kolkata.
Entry to Bangladesh was reasonably straightforward. The new visa on entry system was circumnavigated successfully, with only a few interruptions whilst ‘dignitaries’ jumped the line. The airport is more modern than on my last visit. I was in transit to Tibet in 1988 and the lounge then was a hotbed of cleaners whispering ’Do you have any dirty magazines?’ They were also pleading for passengers to buy duty free cigarettes on their behalf. These they ‘swept’ up from the floor with their plastic brooms and dustpans.
I had to fill in a customs form detailing all the air conditioning units, refrigerators and chandeliers I wanted to import. My guide Atik was there to meet me with his sign board. He had crafted it from the back of a photo frame. I’m to have my own minibus and fluffy bearded driver, Ekram, for the whole trip. I’m not sure if this will be an advantage or not yet. Atik is a fussy little man, he’s trying so hard to please.
From early times the area that is now Bangladesh was part of the Bengal region of India. It was ruled by the same empires that ruled central India. When the British took control of the region and created their Raj in India (1858–1947), Bangladesh was included.
When the British partitioned India, predominantly Muslim Bangladesh was separated from majority-Hindu India. Some politicians suggested that a unified Bengali state would be the best idea,. but this idea was vetoed by the Indian National Congress, led by the Mahatma Gandhi.
So, in August 1947, the Muslim section of Bengal became a non-contiguous part of the new nation of Pakistan. It was called "East Pakistan", and oddly, separated from the rest of Pakistan by a 1,000-mile stretch of India. West Pakistanis were primarily Punjabi, speaking Pashtun, as opposed to the Bengali speaking East Pakistanis.
Unsurprisingly the division did not work. For 24 years, East Pakistan struggled under financial and political neglect from West Pakistan. Finally, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman declared Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan. The Pakistani Army fought to stop the secession, sending bombers across India. But India sent troops to support the Bangladeshis and on January 11, 1972, Bangladesh became an independent country.
Bangladesh is home to approximately 159,000,000 people, giving this pint sized nation the eighth highest population in the world. Bangladesh groans under a population density of about 3,300 per square mile.
Poverty is widespread, but Bangladesh has in recent years reduced population growth and improved health and education.
More than half of Bangladesh’s population are farmers, but its export earnings come mainly from the garment industry.
There is some gang violence, pick-pocketing and passport stealing. Compared to other Asian countries there is nothing to be alarmed about. However, as I'm only too aware (read my posts) Bangladesh has a high rate of road accidents.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.