2011 Bangladesh Cycle (1), Setting off and life on the road

Sylhet to Rajshahi, 16 December 2011 to 2 January 2012

It had been nearly two years since we had embarked on an adventurous trip, and Cycling across Bangladesh on local bikes seemed like a good idea.

We arrived in Sylhet, north east Bangladesh, on a ramshackle of a plane. The seats were wobbling from side to side, and the interior lining was missing exposing the guts of the aircraft. The short flight from Dhaka seemed to take for ever as we sat in silence thinking will we make it in one piece. Well we did and soon we were in another world among the chaos of the kind Bangladeshi people.

Exhausted we settled into Hotel Supreme which boasted with a big sign “5 star quality at a price you can afford” perfect! Woken by the mosque at 5.30, and after curry for breakfast we headed out to look for some bike shops in the market. Out in the hustle and bustle, the roads and lanes were choked with hundreds of brightly painted rickshaws, carts, cows, and fume belching buses and lorries. It felt good and familiar to be in this world.It was not long before we were in lively negotiation for the purchase of 4 fine bikes. The crowds gathered as onlookers became intrigued by this English family. The deal was done, and after final adjustments and fitting of the best quality bells we set off back to Hotel Supreme.

Our new bikes

With an early start, and with a fair amount of intrepidation we set off on our bike ride heading west across Bangladesh. The urban scene of concrete and corrugated iron, splattered with colour of shops and stalls selling vibrant cloth, neatly stacked fruit and vegetables, and large shiny metal pots of steaming curry, gradually gave way to bright green lush paddy fields. People shouted out to us as we pedalled on our way. A political demonstration blocked our way and we wondered how friendly this encounter was going to be. The rally became completely disrupted by our presence, their cause was put on hold, and much laughter and cheering sent us on our way.

Villages and a rural scene surround us now. People are kind and friendly, no hassle, just stares. When we stop for food in a small town a crowd of more than a hundred gathers. On leaving we have to ask for a gangway to be cleared. We seem to have celebrity status here. By 1.30 we arrive at Sunamganj, 70km, a very good first day on the road. Becky and Katy coping very well and enjoying it.

We leave the tarmac road, heading off along neat herringbone brick roads, mud tracks and paths to cross a wetland area to Mohanganj. It’s hard going as we travel on thin, threadlike pieces of raised land with water on each side. We cross five rivers on small slender elegant wooden boats, pointed at both ends. We wheel our bikes onto the split bamboo deck, along with other passengers and the occasional motorbike. The wobbly top heavy craft is propelled using a long pole or rowed to other side by a young boy.

A river ferry
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All aboard

The wetlands are interspersed with green paddy fields, and small villages occupy raised pieces of land that are like islands in the landscape. People are working in the fields, knee deep in the flooded plots and manoeuvring Ox ploughs. It is a medieval scene. Mud brick and grass thatched houses set around small communal spaces make up villages.

 

Paddy fields and villages

We are settling into a daily routine on the road. Up early, bananas and biscuits for a snack, and cycling by dawn.We try and do a two or three hours and then stop for a brunch of thick dhal, potatoe curry and paratha. We consume vast quantities of parathas(20 or more) which amuses the people at the food place. I guess they just think strange English people need to eat a lot.

Huge crowds gather whenever we stop, there must be more than a hundred at times, intrigued by this family cycling through rural Bangladesh. It’s not intimidating, the people are lovely, but it is a little tiring being such a celebrity. Becky and Katy are coping with the attention really well. We appreciate it must be difficult for them. They are 14 and 12 years old, cycling across a Muslim country wearing cloths they would not normally be seen in. We think they are doing really well.

The Barrs are in town

After a good feed we continue on our way to where we hope to stay the night. We are learning that places on the map written in a certain size text seem to have somewhere to stay. This usually works, but not always and we did have to push on an extra 20km on one day getting in as darkness fell.

We continue to head westwards across the country, some times just following our compass cycling along tiny paths between the small fields. Often we were lost, miles from any road, but still going in roughly the right direction. We passed through tiny villages with trees around them. There were round haystacks with thatched pointed roofs and grain was spread out in courtyards.

 

The houses were beautiful, walls made from mud with intricate patterns pressed into them, simple wooden bars at the windows and grass thatched roofs. A friendly family invite us into their home. We follow them across a cleanly swept courtyard and through a very low doorway into a beautiful room with colourful mats on the floor. There’s a bed to one side and much of one wall is covered by stacked aluminium pots. Children’s school books lie on the table. We are invited to sit down on a sofa in the next room and a bowl of Bombay mix is placed on coffee table in front of us. There is a large dressing table with mirror set in an ornate wooden surround and a colourful bed in the room too. Everything is spotlessly clean and there is an atmosphere of proud homeliness. About twenty curious villagers, mainly women and children appear in the door way, smiling and giggling. We admire our surroundings, thank our hosts, and set off once more with a crowd of laughing children running alongside.

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