Cycled 90km to the Bangladesh border and crossed over. Ever since I was a young boy i have always wanted to visit wonderful country of Bangladesh. This isn't actually true. The idea only occurred to me a few days ago. The country is on my way to the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh, India so I thought why not. Always good to sample a new country. Especially one that people rarely visit. Plus India is doing my head in already. My brief research into cycling in Bangladesh was not promising. It is flat, hot and and has one of the highest population densities in the world. None of which points to great cycling but I'm looking forward to it nonetheless. Apparently the north east is nice so I will try and find some back roads and head that way.
Cycled off into Bangladesh. The main roads are not a lot of fun. The buses rule the roads. They overtake at full speed without looking and it's up to everyone else to get out of the way. Twice I had to take evasive action. I saw rickshaw drivers and motorbikes diving for cover. Bus drivers are a problem all over in Asia but in Bangladesh they really are wankers. The towns are one big traffic jam and it's every man for himself. Try being polite about it and you will never move. That said the back roads are as great as the main roads are bad. The back roads are too narrow for 4 wheels and you can find yourself some peace. Sometimes dirt, sometimes paved the roads meander through the countryside, often in the shade, connecting the thousands of tiny villages dotted around. I have been sticking to the these roads as much as possible.
Enjoyable day heading north towards Taliang on quiet paths through rice fields and alongside rivers. Finding somewhere to sleep is proving problematic. Hotels are few and far between and the camping is tricky. There are 160 million people in Bangladesh. The country is about half the size of the UK. I don't remember being outside and not seeing someone. There is very little room to camp discreetly. I tend to wait until it's going dark and then dive off into a palm plantation hoping no one saw me. 5 minutes later I am surrounded. They watch fascinated as I put up my tent and cook my noodles on my little stove.
The Bangladesh people are extremely welcoming and incredibly curious. In the rural areas a tourist is something of an event. They never see any. The people I've spoken to often tell me I'm the only westerner they have ever met. I try to give a good impression. They might never meet another. Many remember a little English from school and are delighted to actually use it. It's great on the road. Everyone pulls up alongside and I have the same conversation over and over again. Whenever I stop within a few minutes I have a crowd of curious onlookers. It's like being a rock star minus the sex, drugs and rock n roll. I also don't know many rock stars who live in a tent. I find it a little disconcerting in roadside restaurants when there are 20 people around the table watching me eat. I am smiling my way through it all but it could soon drive me up the wall.
Suffered on a busy road this morning. Got stuck in a rickshaw traffic jam in a cesspool of a town at lunch. Eventually made it into the countryside and all was good again. On every spare patch of land there is a game of cricket going on. They love it. I have put the bike down and joined in a couple of times without covering myself in any glory. There's a lot of uneven bounce.
Today is Bangladesh Independence Day but of course you already knew that. 47 years ago Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan and was recognised as an independent country. Always a happy event when you stumble upon local celebrations. I holed out in a hotel in Kishoreganj and went with the owners to watch the parade down the main street.
Today I didn't want to take the main road to Sylhet so I headed off cross country. The road soon ended in a big river where I managed to hitch a lift on a boat heading upstream. The boat dropped me in Itna and from there I just kept heading east on footpaths connecting the villages occasionally checking with the locals that I was heading in the right direction. Lots of rivers with no bridges but there's always a guy in a boat to get you across. It was an excellent day. Thought I'd found a quiet spot to camp but it didn't stay quiet for long. A local fisherman insisted I join his family for dinner. Almost all muslims in this part of Bangladesh. Half the village soon crowded round and I was introduced to all the elders. Very hospitable people. Managed to get back to my tent but I think word had got around that there was a foreigner camping down by the river. Twice during the night I was awoken by having my tent opened and a light shone in my face. Just curious kids. Enough is enough though. I got the impression they were going to watch me sleep so I got grumpy and shut my tent. Eventually they sloped off.
Cycled into Sylhet. An insanely overcrowded city near the Indian border. I will rest for a day and then head back into India. Bangladesh has been interesting. Not sure I'd recommend it for a cycling holiday. Not a hill in sight. Barley changed gear all week. Picking my way across the countryside has been great fun though. Really glad I came. It is a very poor country. 47 million people live in poverty in Bangladesh. Outside the cities there is little electricity or running water. Everyone washes in the rivers. The people have very little but that doesn't stop them sharing what they have. I have being well treated everywhere I've been. Everyone I meet thanks me for visiting their country. No one tries to rip me off. The attention has been mind boggling. I've enjoyed the celebrity status knowing that it would be short lived. I won't miss it.
Lovely last morning in Bangladesh on quiet paths meandering through fruit plantations. No problems crossing the border. Paid the 'border taxes' which no doubt disappeared into someone's back pocket. Back into India I was soon climbing in torrential rain but I didn't mind one bit. After weeks of sweating in the flatlands it was a pleasure. Eventually dived off into the palm trees and pitched my tent. Just as I was about to doze off some dude opened my tent, flashed a light in my face and insisted I go stay at his house. I politely declined. He insisted. I declined and so on and so forth until he eventually left. 5 minutes later he returned with his entire family and it all began again. What can you do? I packed up in the middle of the night (It was 9:40pm) and was whisked off to their home in the hills. I was plied with tea until I was wide awake and asked to explain why someone would ride a bicycle by day and sleep in a tent by night out of choice. They don't get it all. Somedays neither do I.