So, we had one last afternoon and evening with Arif. I suppose we could have gone for another bike ride, but we spend a lot of time on our bikes and it seemed like a nicer idea to have a wander around Sylhet on foot. Arif came with us and acted as our guide so we first went to the Hazrat Shahjalal Mazar Sharif shrine and mosque in the centre of town. Hazrat Shah Jalal is the Muslim cited with spreading Islam into much of Bangladesh in 12th century and this shrine is where he’s buried so it’s an important pilgrimage site for the Bangladeshis.
When we were there it was definitely buzzing with loads of people coming and going. We continued our tour through the high street and down to the river where we had cha – the only thing Arif let us buy during our stay with him!
Later we were invited to Numan’s (one of the cyclists) house for dinner which was really nice. Numan and his wife obviously put in a lot of effort to put on a spread of western food for us with pasta as one of the main courses – and there was even olives! My favourite, however, was the biryani – the one Bangladeshi dish on the menu!
9 April – Sylhet to Sreemongal – 105km
It was definitely difficult to leave Sylhet today. We’ve been so well looked after by Arif, and his home is very (almost too) comfortable so it would be very easy to put down roots and stay! But move on we must…
Arif rode the first part of our journey to Sreemongal with us, along with one of his cyclist friends. When I got knocked off my bikes about 5 weeks ago in India, I made what I thought was a permanent fix to the front pannier, which had got broken at the time, Turns out that it wasn’t that permanent and about 15km into our ride today the coat hanger wire I used as an improvised hook decided to snap. We made a temporary fix and decided to get something better sorted out in Sreemongal. At the 27km mark it was time to leave them as Arif had a busy day ahead and had to get back home. Martina and I were really sad to say goodbye to Arif because we’d had such a great time with him. To say that he is one of life’s good guys is an understatement and we feel privileged to have met him and to call him our friend. We will be back, most likely in 2021, which we have already discussed!
8km down the road the very dark storm clouds in the photo below caught us up….
…Thunder, lightning and biblical rain that would have had Noah reaching for his hammer erupted all around us. We made for the nearest shelter which happened to be a shed made mainly from corrugated tin.
Not the best place to hid from a thunderstorm, but there wasn’t anything else around – though I can’t say I wasn’t a bit worried. But 3/4 of an hour later it had stopped enough for us to brave what was left of the rain, so off we went. The last part of the ride to Sreemongal was fairly straightforward and we managed to stay mainly dry.
We’d booked a tea plantation cycling tour for next day with a local guide called Russel (on the recommendation of Fahadul in Dhaka). He came to meet us on our arrival into Sreemongal and took us to our accommodation – an eco-cottage about 3km out of the town. Although it was basic, it was just what we wanted as we didn’t feel too bad traipsing in with wet gear on! We had some lunch and then headed back into Sreemongal to see if we could get my pannier sorted. One great thing about the subcontinent is that there are workshops of different types everywhere you go. We found a metalworking shop and the owner there set about making a new hook for my pannier. Whilst he was doing that we were introduced to the local cycling club members as its headquarters were just across the road. Russel is a member and told them we were coming so we were shown around and presented with a bunch of flowers each.
We then went for a short ride with them to one of the nearby tea plantations – a sort of sneak preview of what we would see on our day-trip with Russel the next day. The place is absolutely beautiful and it was a lovely way to round off our cycling for the day.
By the time we got back into town, my new pannier hook was ready and we headed off back to our cottage for a shower, homemade dinner and an early night.
10 April – Tea Gardens of Sreemongal – 40km
Russel arrived at 9am and we then spent a full day cycling quiet back roads that took us through seven different tea plantations – or tea gardens as they are known here. Basically it was a brilliant day with amazing views of the gardens…
…as well as some lovely interactions with the people working in them…
Martina even showed off her leaf-plucking skills…
Horticulturally tea bushes need well-drained soil and so they grow well on the sandy slopes found near Sreemongal, which is the tea-growing capital of Bangladesh; where the ground is flatter, large ditches drain any water away. Tea bushes also need semi-shade to stop the leaves from burning in the sun as this would spoil the taste. So the gardens all have tall trees planted throughout to cast shade over the bushes and give them protection from the sun.
The pleasing effect is dappled shady scenery and it’s a very quiet as the bushes seem to dampen a lot of sound.
The tea-growing cycle starts in January as all the bushes are cut back in December. Once the new, bright green tips have grown enough, usually by about early-April, the top 5-6 leaves are plucked by hand. We saw workers doing the first pickings….
…and this picking goes on throughout the year to about November…
Once picked, the leaves are dried and cut up into different sizes for different uses. Some of the very smallest, newest shoots and leaves are used in green tea, but most of the tea here is black tea.
The gardens have been here since the 1600s, and flourished throughout the time of the East India Company and the British Raj when they were mainly owned by Scots, hence some of the Scottish estate names such as Finlay, which is the largest estate here. Apparently small tea gardens are around 5-600 hectares in size and the larger ones up to 2000 hectares. The majority of them in Bangladesh are around Sreemongal and Sylhet.
Dotted between the many tea gardens are fruit orchards, which grow pineapples, lemons, bananas and jack fruit – the national fruit of Bangladesh. They grow these fruit all mixed up together rather than in separate sections, which is rather unusual we thought. These pineapples will take another month to ripen so we couldn’t indulge unfortunately …
And to continue our cycling theme, our picture-of-the-day award goes to these kids who were 4s-up on a bike, having a whale of a time. We had great fun snapping them and they loved being filmed!
All-in-all a brilliant day. A fitting grand finale to our time in Bangladesh, and we still covered 40km!
11 April – Sreemongal to Madhabpur – 77km
We had a late start today so that we could enjoy the lovely complimentary breakfast which was served up at our cottage. We didn’t get on the road until 8:15 and had a faff trying to find a working ATM in Sreemongal, which meant we didn’t leave properly until gone 9am – by which time it was already getting warm. We’d anticipated that the ride today would be more functional than anything, but Russel had suggested a route that would be nicer than the main road – and he wasn’t wrong. This turned out to be one of our most enjoyable rides to date, which started through more tea gardens on the outskirts of Sreemongal. Tea bushes definitely have a tea-like smell – not the same as putting your nose in a tea caddy, but there’s definitely a whiff of tea about them!
There was a steady climb to the Satchori National Park which turned out to be a small tropical forest – apparently there are gibbons (type of monkey) in there, but we didn’t see any unfortunately. Finally there was a lovely slow downhill which took us through yet more beautiful tea gardens – and we didn’t even have to peddle to take them in! Really nice cycling.
On the flip-side to our great cycling day, our destination was Madhabpur, which, it turns out, is a right dump! We thought that we had lucked in at a government rest house, but unfortunately the accommodation was booked by bona fide government officials so we ended up in the only guest house in town. To be honest it ranks as one of the worst places we’ve stayed in but the people running it were really helpful, which made it seem more bearable. After a snooze and chill out we went in search of dinner which we found in a basement cafe and we had our usual vegetable curry and bread. We then bought a few things with our remaining Taka from the local small shops nearby – nothing unusual in that but we had a trail of about 10 people following us from shop to shop see what we were buying, which was rather funny.
12 April – Madhabpur (Bangladesh) to Agartala (India) – 46km
As ever when crossing a border we didn’t sleep particularly the night before – the fact that our room was like an oven and overlooked the very noisy main road from Dhaka to Sylhet didn’t help! Our departure was the usual tag-team of ferrying all of our kit and bikes down 3 sets of stairs, to be met by at least a dozen stares! It wasn’t the most comfortable bike-packing scenario as there were at least a dozen men watching our every move, but it wasn’t long before we were on our way and out of town. 10km later and we were off the main highway and onto some bumpy rural roads. Not a huge amount to say except that it was very hot – 32 degrees by 10:30am and at least 85% humidity – so it was very sweaty going!
We got to the Bangladesh/India border by 11:30am and were ‘processed’ by a rather abrupt officer on the Bangladesh side. Mind you we didn’t complain as we were bumped up to the front of an ever-lengthening queue of Bangladeshis just by virtue of the fact that we were foreigners! The valuable exit stamp in our passports and we were off – back to India!
We had a nice chat with the Indian border guards before getting in line at the India immigration building. Once again we were given special treatment as foreigners and bumped up to the front of the queue, passing old folk, children, the infirm, invalids (one guy in a wheelchair), etc, etc – all a bit embarrassing really – plus I nearly dropped my fully loaded bike on to a little old lady! There was one-heart stopping moment during the process when we found out that our new visas weren’t in their system – what happens next we asked? The very helpful staff just manually entered our details into the system, gave us the valuable entry stamp in our passports and let us through. The guy at customs entered our details in a big book, I signed and we were through the border and back into country 18…or is of country 19.5?!? The whole process took about an hour.
When we crossed into Bangladesh our clocks went forward half an hour and since then we have been generally heading east. Crossing back into India today you might have expected us to put our clocks forward again, but they actually went back half an hour – India, it appears, has only one time zone! So we are back to a 5.5 hour difference between the U.K. and Ireland.
And within minutes of getting on our way we were asked for our first selfie….welcome back to India!
The border town town of Agartala is also the capital of Tripura state and a decent-sized town, so on arrival we decided to stock up on a few provisions. We found our favourite Indian supermarket (Big Bazar) and as is our way, I stayed outside with the bikes and Martina went inside to do the shopping. As I was chatting to a few locals, our host for the evening, Abhijit, sprung out of nowhere and introduced himself – it was quite a coincidence. Abhijit is a WarmShowers host we got in touch with a few days previously. Because his parents were visiting he couldn’t put us up at his home, so he very generously put us up in a local hotel at his expense.
Turns out that the hotel was much nicer than nearly all of the places we’ve booked during our travels and we felt thoroughly spoilt, in a very nice way! Abhijit is a local high-ranking government official and had made the booking for 2 westerners who were his private guests. We think the hotel staff were expecting a couple of more impressive westerners than 2 sweaty, grubby cyclists, but they were very charming and gave us the complete VIP treatment as if we were indeed dignitaries! We had time to have lunch, a snooze and get our stuff sorted for the next day before Abhijit came to pick us up and take us to his house, which is in an official government colony on the outskirts of the city. We met his wife, Vushali, 5-year-old daughter, parents and very excited dog and had some great Indian food. And it’s official – Indian food IS definitely the best and we have missed it (Sorry Bangladesh!). From the start Abhijit and Vushali were really easy to talk to and we had a lovely evening learning about this part of India, which is culturally very different to the other parts that we visited.
When you look at this area, geographically, it’s a strange shape and is almost cut off from the main subcontinent. Pre-partition it was a mainly tribal area with indigenous people living in hilly, forested landscape. In 1947, during partition there was an influx of Hindus from what is now Bangladesh and the demographic changed dramatically – it is now approx 70% Hindus and 30% indigenous tribes. Regardless of their backgrounds, the people here have one thing is common – they all feel very cut off and neglected by central India which we think is rather sad. In recent years however a direct train route from Agartala to Delhi (2,400 km/1,500 miles) has been brought into service, which means they are more connected than before.
Even in the short time that we’ve been here it does feel very different from the main part of India and also Bangladesh. For Abhijit and Vushali, who are originally from Mumbai, it was a major change when they came here about 9 years ago and they have had to adapt to the local ways. We had a really brilliant evening talking to them and they have been super generous with helping us on our travels. Abhijit also helped us with our onward route and made some calls that will hopefully assist us with accommodation over the next couple of days.