Dozens of small dark craft criss-crossed the waterway, the boatmen perched high in the stern, skilfully wielding a single oar. For a fleeting moment you could almost persuade yourself that you were in Venice … but these were not gondolas … and this was most certainly not the Grand Canal. The water’s edge was not bordered by imposing palazzi that hinted at a history of elegance, sophistication and decadence; there was just a single palace in calamine pink, half hidden behind palm trees; there were ramshackle factories, shipyards, brickworks – scurrying ant-hills of humanity going about their daily lives.
Lines of men with large heavy baskets of coal on their heads filed down narrow rickety gangplanks and across dusty wharves to off-load their cargo for the brick factories. Further along, other lines of men off-loaded sacks of concrete down other narrow rickety gangplanks. There were huge mounds of sand, neatly stacked piles of bricks and other assorted goods – waiting to be used or waiting to be transported elsewhere. From the ship repair yard on the opposite bank we could hear a faint hammering coming from inside rusting hulks. Further along, lines of washing were strung out on the bank; people washed pans, vegetables and everything else in the brown water. Small boats crossed and re-crossed, full of people who’d decided that where they really needed to be was on the other bank.
Boats, so over-loaded with sand that water lapped over the gunwales, slowly chugged up-river; they looked to have about a 50-50 chance of remaining afloat or going straight to the bottom. Other boats laden with tree trunks were only slightly higher in the water. Three-storey river ferries that would transport people to other parts of the country were docked at Sadharghat Terminal and doubtless they’d be going nowhere until passenger numbers reached a dangerous level.
This was the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh: the heavily-polluted river that ironically forms part of the life blood of the country – and despite all the life on and around it, it’s a dead river. There have been attempts to clean it up, to stop the dumping of chemical waste from tanneries and textile factories, but the owners of those establishments have friends in high places. The dumping continues – not just of dyes and detergents, but also other rubbish: raw sewage, dead animals, plastic waste and litter.
Away from the waterfront, Dhaka is a city of monochrome skies, dust and traffic – albeit traffic that is often at a standstill. We briefly escaped it all at Lalbagh Fort, a peaceful haven of Mughal architecture set in manicured gardens, where butterflies teased our camera lenses. There were no other visitors. At the Pink Palace we glimpsed the grandeur of the Raj before we walked back into the chaos and confusion of the narrow streets in the old town. Everyone greeted us with smiles; people were delighted to see us. Not many foreign tourists visit Bangladesh and white European faces were a rarity.
We left the city early the following morning – early enough to avoid being stuck in another traffic jam – and headed for the open road to the northwest. In the opposite direction came bus after bus bursting with passengers, all wanting/needing to be somewhere else. People sat on the roofs and hung out of the doors. The buses themselves wouldn’t have looked out of place on a stock-car race circuit, battered and bashed as they were, and with cracked windscreens held together by hope, a prayer and sometimes a bit of sticky tape. Also coming towards us were trucks brightly painted with flowers or idyllic scenes, packed with cattle with waving horns and frantic eyes. We’d passed the cattle market on our way out of town (busy despite the early hour) so we knew where they were headed – and Eid was in a few days’ time, so we also knew their probable fate. They’d be there at the feasting – and not as invited guests.
Mynah birds and drongos were perched on wires and marked the passage of miles. We passed countless brickworks with tall chimneys that belched out black smoke, where long lines of grey bricks were stacked waiting to be fired; where long lines of red bricks were stacked after firing. We passed clothing factories, people fishing, rice fields. We drove through small towns tangled with rickshaws and small shops …
At Puthia we visited a cluster of Hindu terracotta temples grouped around a lake. The setting is serene, the temples modest in size but magnificent in detail, with delicate carvings covering the walls and pillars. We were the only visitors but a gaggle of local children tagged along to chat and smile. A couple of days later we visited another Hindu terracotta temple at Dinajpur – again modest in size and all but deserted. It originally had nine spires but these collapsed in an earthquake and have never been restored. For all that, it is breathtakingly beautiful. I hadn’t known about any of these temples before going to Bangladesh – and they were a delightful surprise.
We visited the ruined monastery of Paharpur near Bogra. In its day it had been the largest and most important monastery south of the Himalayas, but for centuries it has been ‘lying under the windborne activities’, as an information sheet in its museum poetically told us … In other words, it’s a ruin. Low grass-covered walls delineate the monastery’s out-buildings. Inner walls, some with carved plaques of animals on them, surround a central pyramidal mound. The grounds are immaculately maintained by one or two gardeners with small sickles – which must be a monumental task, almost like trimming the lawn with nail scissors.
We walked round the outer walls at Mahastangarh – the site of the oldest city in Bangladesh. Again, grassed over and tidily kept, with carefully manicured gardens around the museum – and more butterflies to tease our lenses.
Bangladesh is powered by people and pedals. There are very few cars: cars are a luxury out of reach of all but the very rich. Rickshaws deliver everything from fridge freezers to mountains of straw to lamp-posts. They come in various shapes and sizes, some elaborately decorated with pom-poms and different coloured plastics; others are plain, strictly utility models. There are two-seater luxury ones, sometimes with a hood for sun or rain protection; flat beds for people and/or goods; multi-seaters with two rows of facing seats behind the driver. Comfort is definitely secondary to utility but sitting on a wheeled contraption, however basic, seems to be considered comfort enough. The need for the driver to have an unobstructed view of the road ahead does not seem to be of over-riding importance and occasionally, depending on the load being transported, pedalling is not possible – but pushing a load on wheels is always preferable to man-handling it.
A long-distance truck-ride sitting on a haystack must be bliss.
We drove through a country hard at work. Constantly at work. And at work mostly by the road side. We watched people whacking bed-rolls to distribute the filling before stitching them by hand; we watched sisal being sorted and bundled; we saw the flash of braziers as metal was welded; we watched people – mainly women – smashing bricks with a hammer, then throwing shovelfuls at different grades of wire mesh to sieve it to make gravel and then coarse sand. Bangladesh is a flat country – there are no rocks – so mud is baked to make bricks, which are then smashed to make hardcore for road-mending.
We drove past fields of cabbages interplanted with young banana plants, rice paddies, neat rectangles of earth newly dug. We stopped at a banana market; we stopped at another outdoor market selling everything from fish to meat to freshly cooked snacks. Wherever we stopped we attracted attention – friendly attention. Tourists – especially western tourists – are seldom seen. Apart from one or two in Dhaka, we saw no others the whole time we were in the country.
In the villages we saw what looked like giant satay sticks leaning against house walls, fences or trees – but whereas they were for cooking, they were definitely not for eating! Cowpats had been mixed with straw and moulded around the sticks and were drying for later use as fuel for the kitchen. Sometimes the cowpats were made into flat round cakes and stuck to tree-trunks to dry.
We stopped at one village to watch ladies winnowing rice. One young boy was looking rather over-whelmed by all the visitors who had suddenly arrived from out of nowhere – or even from outer space – so I took a picture of him. When I showed it to him his reaction was priceless: he gaped in wide-eyed astonishment. He’d obviously never seen himself on a camera monitor before – but fortunately he didn’t react as though I’d stolen his soul.
Eventually we reached Burimari, the border town before we crossed into West Bengal. It’s the quietest border I have ever seen. No-one else seemed to be crossing that day – but still it took the best part of an hour to get through the formalities. (Our guide did the business while we availed ourselves of the freshly made rotis being made at one of the stalls.) To leave the country you have to pay a Departure Tax of 300 taka. Fair enough: many countries have a departure tax – but in Bangladesh it is just that – a Departure tax – and no more. It allows you to leave the country … it lets you out – but no further. A master stroke of bureaucratic red tape means you have to pay a further 30 taka to cross No Man’s Land into India. (129 taka = £1.)
Obviously we paid the extra 30 taka – and proceeded to the Indian Immigration hut on the other side, where a row of seated officials awaited us. They scrutinised our passports; they scrutinised our visas; they painstakingly entered every last detail of our existence into at least three ledgers that in all likelihood will never be looked at again; they stamped our passports … and then we were on our way to Darjeeling …