Wed 3 April. Dhaka to Kapasia. 71km.
As well as all the great stuff we did and saw in Dhaka we finally finished the entire 5-series of Breaking Bad, which we started in Belgrade….just goes to show how little screen-time we have! We will now move on to the latest series of Peaky Blinders…. after which we will have to find something new to watch!
So back to our journey…Getting out of Dhaka wasn’t at all bad…probably because we started out at 6am when half the city was still asleep, so that we could avoid the worst of the traffic – and it worked – although we did pass one particularly busy market area..
After a 12-day break in Dhaka I was actually a bit wobbly on my loaded bike at the start, but after 30 mins I got back into my groove. Our route took us along the river and once we reached the outskirts we had about an hour of horrible muddy road, which was hard to cycle through.
But after that we were on lovely quiet, tree-lined, roads that took us through paddy field territory and some really lovely cycling.
We noticed immediately coming out of the city that the majority of the rickshaws are electric-powered rather than the pedal-powered manual ones that are everywhere in Dhaka…maybe because they have further distances to travel. And there are electric tuk-tuks everywhere too, which can be quite a menace on the road as well.
Our morning cuppa-stop was a cafe “on stilts”along the route.
Fahadul had put us in touch with a friend who would host us at his family home near Kapasia that evening. Sharif is another cyclist who lives on the outskirts of Dhaka and had taken 2 days off work specifically so he could host us and meet us along the way, so around 11am we made contact. He was already on his way so told us to stay where we were and he would meet us. That meant stopping for more tea in the middle of a small village, attracting a large crowd of staring people.
Thankfully one of the guys spoke some English so there was some broken conversation as well as a few selfies with the local female politician before Sharif rescued us.
We had a quick lunch stop followed by a stop-off at his local cycling club to meet some of his friends before we all set off together to ride the last few kilometres to his family home in the small village of Amraid – with a population of around 300. Family introductions done and after freshening up we headed out to get a tour of the village with Sharif and friends…
This was our first experience of rural life in Bangladesh as we have only stayed in cities until now so it was a lovely change to be in paddy fields and farms with no traffic or horns. We had endless cups of tea and snacks and met lots of the friendly locals ….
….as well as seeing locals just go about their daily work – the picture is of Sharif’s uncle making a basket…
Needless to say that as the first westerners to have visited the village and there was lots of interest in us and our adventure, with Sharif acting as translator.
It was dark by the time we got back to Sharif’s house and while his mother was making dinner one of this friends entertained us with some traditional Bangladeshi music on a one-stringed instrument …
and trying to teach us some basic Bangla phrases, which until now we have failed to grasp.
Cammen-Nacho? = how are you?
Bello Achi = I am fine.
Ton-e-bad = Thank you!
(all spelled phonetically of course) ….are the sum total of what we managed to retain, which we will use excessively for the remainder of our time here!
After the fab dinner, served up by Sharif’s mother, it was wheels up and lights out for us both as it had been pretty full-on and tiring, although to be fair in terms of kilometres it hadn’t been a particularly big day.
Thursday 4 April. Kapasia to Bhairab Bazar. 69km.
Not as early a start today but we were still on the road just past 7am after feasting on a lovely home-cooked breakfast and taking a few final photos with Sharif’s family. Sharif was making his way back to his own place, so after we said our goodbyes a few kilometres out of the village, it was left to one of his friends and a cousin to accompany us for the first part of our journey. Again it was another lovely ride through rural Bangladesh…
..stopping off for cha along the way and accumulating more cyclists to accompany us.
About 30km into the morning our guides left us and we were back to our own devices for the rest of our journey – on a not-so-nice road that had loads of non-so-nice truck and bus drivers. We reached Bhairab Bazar just after midday, pretty jaded with the heat and slightly sunburned which we haven’t had for a while, and we set about finding accommodation. We tried quite a few places, and all of them quoted extortionate prices for the quality of the accommodation…it almost felt like being back in India and that feeling of the white westerners being ripped off again. We opted for one that was beside the river, and unfortunately the “luxury” room that we were promised didn’t include a river view – although it had hot water and air con so we were thankful for that. Too tired to go far for lunch we had peanut butter sandwiches in the room before snoozing. Our dinner options weren’t much better as our location by the river was basically a truck depot area where everything was pretty dead at night – so some lukewarm rice and dal before returning to our room for a well-earned early night.
We had been given the number of a local cyclist to call but we decided not to bother him and do things ourselves…in hindsight we probably should have contacted him to ask for help!
Fri 5 April. Bhairab Bazar to Habiganj. 65km.
We departed Bhairab Bazar around 8am with a large crowd of men (we assumed to be truck drivers) gathered around us taking photos and with a fair amount of sniggering going on. They weren’t particularly rude but there wasn’t a very nice feeling to it, so we were glad to be on our way and leave the whole Bhairab Bazar experience behind us.
The first part of the journey was on the main highway to Sylhet and even through it was Friday, and the start of the weekend here, it was busy with usual aggressive and manic truck and bus drivers. Thankfully about 10km along the highway we turned off onto a much smaller rural road, taking us through some lovely countryside.
As well as the lush paddy fields everywhere, there were lots of brick factories among them – a very unusual countryside combination. And both the factories and the land were bustling with activity; men, women and children working really hard – often hip-deep in water or mud. We had expected everything to be closed on a Friday, which is their holy day, but that wasn’t the case – and work still continued while the call to prayer sounded out from the mosques.
And not all the children were working, but instead swimming in local ponds to cool off in the heat.
The only traffic on this road was bicycles and electric tuk-tuks (known as toms-toms) but there were hundreds of those speeding along at a menacing pace with their horns being put to good use! We are guessing that they haven’t seen too many westerners on loaded bikes along this route, as bicycles and tom-toms would slow down in front of us to have a good look, often cutting us up in the process and making it difficult for us to cycle safely. Likely they have no idea of how inflexible our heavy bikes can be but I had one particular guy pull in right in front of me in his fully-loaded tom-tom, stop so that everyone could hang out the sides to have a good look. When I overtook him he drove past me to then pull in and do it again. This time I stopped behind him and waved him on…no such luck. Obviously quite happy with a close-up of me they were all quite content to just keep staring so I took off again – this time to have him drive alongside me until another vehicle coming towards him meant he had to overtake me and thankfully this time he continued on his journey.
As we have come into the countryside we have also experienced a return of the giggling male youths that we encountered in India. Thankfully because there are hardly any motorbikes or scooters in Bangladesh and definitely fewer mobile phones, they aren’t travelling alongside us pestering us for selfies – so the interaction is generally from a distance. And it’s also harmless, so it isn’t much of a problem.
At the 30km mark the quality of the roads took a significant turn for the worse, changing from lovely smooth road to a bone-shaking ride on a mud road that had more pot holes than it had road. And just when we thought we were coming onto better road, the potholes returned – and remained for the rest of the journey.
So while the scenery was still amazing with lots of see, we had to sacrifice a lot of that to focus on the road. Quite a painful ride by all accounts, especially for Nigel who is suffering from saddle sores again. He puts this down to one of his worst days of riding yet – purely because of the pain factor.
We reached our destination of Habiganj around 1.30 – later than we thought, which was completely down to the state of the road. One thing we learned fairly early on in Bangladesh is that we can’t plan to cover big distances because of the state of the roads…they might be fine but we can’t be sure, so where possible we are planning for 60-70km distances and today proved that this is definitely the way to go. We had been in touch with a local cyclist Kashem who was organising accommodation for us, so we met him and a couple of friends, Dullal and Shipu, at the local scouts club (as well as a cyclist, Kashem is also a scout leader) where they presented us with some lovely flowers before cycling with us to our accommodation.
And what a treat this was ….definitely our most luxurious hotel accommodation in Bangladesh so far. It’s actually a government rest house on the outskirts of town, which is generally available for visiting government workers and VIPs – which of course we are : )
And to add to that, our very generous hosts paid for the accommodation as well as a fantastic Thai dinner later that evening. What amazing hospitality! On our way to dinner in a tom-tom we had a chance to see Habiganj – and it is a really nice city that we would have felt comfortable wandering around on our own, unlike where we were last night. Oh the difference that 24 hours can make!
Saturday 6 April. Hobinganj to Sylhet. 83km. (And 7 & 8 April)
Up and out early this morning to be escorted by Kashem, Dullal and Shipu for the first 15km of our journey. We were heading for Sylhet, which is tea plantation territory, where we were planning to spend 3 nights with another local cyclist, Arif (Bangladesh has an amazing cycling network of people who just really want to help us!). Every cyclist that we have met here so far knows of Arif, so he’s like the cycling godfather of Bangladesh and we were really looking forward to meeting him. It was another lovely cycling day and although 50km of the journey was on the main N2 highway, it was relatively quiet. A large part of it also had a hard shoulder, so despite an 80km day, it wasn’t a bad journey despite inadvertently causing an accident. We stopped to map check and a car and rickshaw stopped look at us, and in the process hit another rickshaw driver. Nothing too serious, but it did damage his rickshaw, making us feel slightly guilty! 12km from the city Arif came to meet us on his bike, to be joined along the route by a few others and we made it to “selfie bridge” in the city around 1pm for a photo – to then continue on to Arif’s home.
If we thought the government rest house last night was luxurious, this was on a whole new level! Arif’s siblings and family live in different parts of the world, so the family home is almost empty, and we were given a huge apartment to ourselves where we could spread ourselves out for the next 3 days. Pure luxury!!
The rest of Saturday and the next 2 days were spent relaxing like VIPs, as well as exploring the local area on foot and on our bikes with Arif and the local cycling community.
Sylhet is a bustling city in the north-east of Bangladesh, not far from the border to India. Originaly a predominately-Hindu city, it had one one Muslim family who were badly treated and most of them killed. The remaining survivor, Shah Jalal, went to Delhi to enlist the help of other Muslims, who came, fought, defeated the Hindus and took over the city. That was about 650 years ago and it has been a Muslim-strong city since. (87% of the population).
Sylhet is also where most of the Bangladeshi community in the U.K. originate from – which stems primarily from the city’s tea production history, when the city was ruled by the East India Company. The strong U.K. link is visible with their many versions of Big Ben (and Little Ben!)…
It is still the largest hub of tea production in Bangladesh and we had a lovely couple of bike rides to visit tea plantations and the surrounding lush green countryside, just minutes from the city, followed by refreshments with our fellow cyclists.
A sad fact about the tea plantations, even today, is how the workers are treated. They were originally brought from central India by the East India Company to work on the plantations. Their wages consisted of lodging, food and a special currency that they could only spend in businesses within the plantation – so they were effectively slaves. Several generations later nothing has changed. They continue to work the tea plantations for basic subsistenace and a currency that they cannot spend outside the plantation.
The highlight of our visit to Sylhet however has been meeting and spending time with our host Arif. He is a keen cyclist and one of the still-active founders of the local cycling club – and at 64 years old still cycles 100km on a fairly regular basis. If that wasn’t inspirational enough, he works with and helps empower the local community – from picking up litter to feeding street children to empowering girls and women to get on bicycles, as well as being friendly ear to offer advice and counsel when needed. And he does much more – helping needy people beyond his local community such as flood victims or tribal people who are neglected by the authorities. He is one of life’s good guys and just a lovely person to be around, and in our short time here we have learned so much from just being with him. And now that we know there is a direct flight from London to Sylhet (and he also has a brother in London) we will definitely see him again. A truly inspirational person!