Monday 18 March. Bongaon to Jessore (Bangladesh). 46km.
For some reason I’d expected the border between India and Bangladesh to be wide open fields, but in reality it’s surrounded by trees. We were crossing at Petrapole (on the Indian side) and Benapole (on the Bangladesh side), which is the main land border between the two countries, so we’d expected it to be busy. We were up early as usual and intended to get there as close to opening time (6:30) as possible. It worked! We arrived to emigrate out of India, had no issues though it was a bit weird pushing fully loaded bikes through the ‘departure’ area when everyone else had wheelie suitcases and bags, and then proceeded to immigrate into Bangladesh. We’d thought that the visa area would be chaos, but it was actually pretty quiet and orderly. Most of the people going in the same direction as us appeared to be Bangladeshis, who we assumed had been in India visiting family etc as many of them were carrying what looked like gifts and lots of food, going home.
We filled in all the relevant documents, hung around a bit, were taken in search of the boss, hung around a bit, waited a bit more, etc, etc. Then finally after about an hour and a half were taken to the visa desk where our passports were stamped with a 30-day visa. We then wheeled our bikes through the ‘arrivals’ hall, unloaded all the bags, put them through the scanner (which was a useless exercise as the screen showing the luggage contents was completely unmanned!), reloaded them onto the bikes and then we were free to walk straight into Bangladesh. Result number 1 for the day – and it was still before 9am Bangladesh-time, which is half an hour ahead of India!
Had it taken us longer to get through the border we had contemplated staying in Benapole overnight, but as it was still early, we decided to make for Jessore about 40km away, which was a bigger town. Before that, however, we wanted to get some local money (Bangladeshi Taka). After a number of false starts with out-of-order ATMs or ones that wouldn’t accept international cards we had success and withdrew money; result number 2 for the day! And this exercise in finding an ATM showed us that local interest and curiosity in us has, if anything, increased from that witnessed in India! Every time we stopped and Martina went to the cashpoint I was surrounded by people just staring at me. What the picture below doesn’t show is the other 25 people in the crowd that were behind the camera!
So we headed off to Jessore. The road is obviously under construction, so it was really bumpy and not much fun on a bike.
However, on a positive note, the roads are less busy – there are definitely fewer cars and motorcycles here, but many more bicycles and tricycles, which makes for a much quieter (horns-wise) experience than we’ve been used to. Unfortunately the horrendous buses are still here, as are the trucks, but without all the other traffic it seems much more manageable. And traffic here does, stay on the correct side of the road, unlike in India where they just drive wherever they want.
We didn’t book accommodation in Jessore as we didn’t know if we’d get there, so we visited three hotels before choosing one and it turned out to be one of the better places we’ve stayed recently. We then went in search of a SIM card each and within an hour we’d got that sorted too – so much less complicated than in India and result number 3 for the day! After we had dinner we retired for the night safe in the knowledge that we’d achieved loads in our first day in Bangladesh! And we were fairly knackered by this point as neither of us had slept very well the night before – probably a bit nervous of crossing the border.
Tuesday 19/20 March. Jessore to Khulna. 68km.
We packed, made FULL use of the all-inclusive breakfast as only hungry cyclists can, and headed off towards Khulna, about 60km away, where we’ve booked an AirBnB for two nights. The road started out pretty much the same as yesterday, under construction and a nightmare. But abut 20km from Jessore it miraculously changed into a beautiful smooth new road, which we took almost all the way to our digs. We did have a couple of nice interactions on the way, firstly with these young lads who raced after us and asked us loads of questions…
…and secondly with this happy tricycle rider who was playing music as he rode…
As can be seen here many of the tricycles have been retro-fitted to run on electric motors!
On the outskirts of Khulna we met a cyclist Ahmed who is a member of Khulna Cyclists, the local cycling group. (We have heard that there’s a fair few cycling clubs in Bangladesh). He invited us for lunch at his home which was just around the corner. As it was midday and we we were hungry, we said yes, but that we had to meet our AirBnB host at 3pm so we could only stay until then. We cycled to his home and were invited in and introduced to the whole of his family. It reminded us a bit of the extended families in India – Ahmed is one of 5 brothers and 3 sisters and many of them live nearby. We took pride of place in his bedroom and people dropped in to say hello and then left or hung around staring silently or smiling at us! All this happened whilst lunch was being prepared outside, which we got to witness. Martina, in particular, was ushered over to see how the cooking was done.
It was a labour-intensive exercise that involved most of the females in the house and it took a long time, so in the end we had to rush to our Air BnB host who was waiting for us. We did feel a bit bad that we had to leave straight after eating but it had been a very long day for us by this point so we really wanted to get to base and sort ourselves out – we still had the grime of a full day in the saddle covering us and we were smelling bad!
But it was a really lovely introduction to life in Bangladesh nonetheless.
We had a day off in Khulna, mainly to get used to Bangladesh, but also to stock up on any food we might need and to start the ball rolling to get our next visa for India. We had a lazy get up, though the call to prayer from the mosque across the road woke us at 5am! We decided that just wandering into town would be enough to do and as we needed to get an up-to-date photo for our India visa we headed towards photo shops. Along the way we had breakfast of omelette and paratha and a snack of what we think are pakodas of some sort – all of which was very tasty, but not necessarily healthy – the pakodas are a bit deep-fried like vegetarian Cornish pasties!!
What we saw of Khulna we really liked – it’s a bustling city, but it’s also remarkably clean and tidy. The people Were inquisitive (quite a bit of staring) and asked questions, but not too intrusive, so all-in-all it was a pleasant day.
In our meandering we came across a fire fighting motorcycle…who knew that they existed?…
We had tea with the police…
And met these lovely ladies on our way home who asked for a photo with Martina…
In the evening we had cha (not chai as it is in India) in town…
and after a dinner took a rickshaw home through some unusual parts of town – metalworking and woodworking shops plus some markets – parts of town we wouldn’t have seen if we’d walked back the way we’d come…
Due to a mis-communication we had a second dinner with our neighbours Pitangshu and his son Ritwik and daughter Methila. It was a shame that we were a bit stuffed from the first one, but we did still manage to eat quite a bit! We had a lovely evening with them before heading to bed as we had to get up early next morning.
Thursday 21/Friday 22 March. Kuhlna, Hularhat, Dhaka. 72km.
We’d been told that the road from Jessore to Dhaka is a bit of a traffic nightmare, so our plan after Khulna was to go to further south to a river port and onto an afternoon/overnight ferry into Dhaka. This has the added bonus of going through the Sundarban forest, which is the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to Bengal tigers and crocodile (not that I think we’ll see any from a ferry!). The Sundarban forest is one of the top ‘to do’ things in Bangladesh and it seemed to kill two birds with one stone to take the ferry into Dhaka.
So to get the ferry we needed to be at Hularhat Ghat (ferry terminal) by 2pm and it was about 65km away. As we didn’t know what the roads might be like we decided to go early even if it meant hanging around at the ghat. In addition to this I came down with my second bout of Delhi (or should that be Bangla) -belly and wasn’t feeling very well. Martina, on the other hand, has eaten the same things and has been fine all through our travels – so obviously has the constitution of an elephant! Anyway, we said goodbye to our AirBnB host, Moshleh, at a bridge on the outskirts of town, and hit the road.
Though the ride wasn’t my finest we still made pretty good time and we had to hang around at the ghat for a couple of hours. We’d booked tickets for a cabin on a “Launch” boat, but the people also waiting on the ghat confused us saying our ticket was for the “Rocket” paddle ship. We’d seen this in our research, but couldn’t book it as the shipping website said it didn’t go today. In the end Martina spoke to the ghat Master who confirmed that our ticket was indeed for the Rocket and told us where to wait. At 2pm this boat turned up looking like something out of an Agatha Christie film…
It’s probably the most mis-named boat ever as it’s the slowest thing going, but back in 1935, when it was built (by the British), it was the fastest way to Dhaka. From what we can tell, other than having a Diesel engine installed to replace the original steam engine and air-conditioning put in the first class cabins, nothing has been changed!
There was quite a scrummage to get on board with all the other people, and we had to take all of our bags off our bikes and load them all separately. It was as we were doing this that I had an ‘accident’ – I’ll not go into the messy details, but it was due to my ‘condition’! So, loading wasn’t particularly fun. However, we’d booked first class (all of £30 for the two of us) and so found our cabin, got settled and more importantly in my case cleaned up and then set about playing Poriot! It was very sedate to just sit at the front and watch the river slowly go by – unfortunately it never did go through the Sundarban Forest, but scenery was still stunnng and it was a great way to travel.
During our journey we stopped (or rather crashed into the jetty) at a few other places and experienced the bustle of passengers getting on and off as well as local food vendors jumping on to sell their produce and jumping off again before the boat departed.
A few early Bangladesh observations….
There appears to be far more overt smoking here – we were told in India that people (mainly men) do smoke, but tend to do it at home. However, here in Bangladesh it looks to be socially acceptable to smoke anywhere. In both countries cigarettes can be bought individually, which is not something we see at home anymore. We’ve seen a few men and women chewing pan, but certainly not on the scale we saw in India.
We’ve seen lots of men with dyed red/orange beards and/or hair (see the picture of the hotel garage security guard below) – we do see this in London too sometimes, but have yet to ask what it’s all about.
There is so much less rubbish lying around than in India, and whilst it’s not totally clean, it is a much nicer environment. We’ve also seen what looks like a municipal rubbish collection service of sorts.
There is also very little written English. Back in India we could understand most signs, packaging, etc as it would have both Sanskrit and English. But from what we have seen in Bangladesh so far this is not the case here.