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
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