Today we race the traffic in a tuktuk, take advice from a stranger! Dodge barges and bump other boats in a tiny ferry crossing the river, we’re shown through a ship-breaking yard, shantytown of artisans, taken into cottage industry clothing manufacturing rooms and back through the numerous ‘zones’ of the city via rickshaw and tuktuk. Oh! We also get to see the Pink Palace.
We’re up and it’s not early. Jet-lag is upon us and it’s nearly ten. A quick breakfast later and we’re out into the lovely heat. The maximum yesterday was 27 so it’s quite comfortable, today’s expected to be the same as our security man gets us a tuktuk.
They’re not big and they’re not powerful so they rely on the dexterity and precision timing of the driver most of whom are without fear. The three-lane carriageway outside the hotel is awash with seven lanes of traffic and the tuktuks, rickshaws and bikes are wriggling their way through the bigger units.
The traffic is flowing in the wrong direction at our side of the dual carriageway but the security guy responds to our request for a tuktuk and within seconds we’re on and heading in the wrong direction but this man is not to be intimidated. He edges across the road, horn blaring, and cutting up wagon and taxi alike his only concession to safety is not challenging the buses. Nobody challenges the buses, not even buses but they still end up battered on every panel, even the ones 12 feet up on the double-deckers, it’s a mystery!
We do a ‘U’’y on to the opposite carriageway and join the 8 plus lanes on the three-lane width and then draw to a halt at the crossroads; the daredevil traffic cop has had the temerity to stop our flow so he needs reminding of the unhappiness and unfairness of the situation, there’s the 15-second lull then, like a bunch of adolescents the combined dissatisfaction is voiced via a cacophony of horns.
He eventually relents when the tide of traffic from the main road stops(ish) to allow us and an avalanche of vehicles from our direction to proceed. We survive more zigging and zagging with unbelievable squeezes through gaps that were only a concept when we stopped. The process is repeated in waves until we reach the river which is pointed out to me by the Pilgrim, we still can’t see it but it is definitely there in smell.
The driver turns to gesture at the jetties and wharves that hide the river and points at the ground near the tuktuk; clearly, it’s time to get off.
He asks, “Are you happy?”.
I reply “Yes, very happy” and he smiles. It suddenly dawns on me that the guy in the taxi asked the same question yesterday and I’m wondering if this is a Bangla thing.
No sooner are we out of the tuktuk than a local gentleman in a smart uniform starts to talk to us in English. I’ve travelled a lot and this is not usually a good thing. Generally speaking, they want you to visit their bother’s store or they take you into a trading complex where they’re paid by the number of people they can persuade to go in. So, like well-travelled people who should know better, we go with him!
He shows us to the terminal kiosk where we pay 100 taka (about a pound sterling) to gain access to the side of the river where a long raised wooden pontoon is securing numerous vessels both big and small. There are small areas of dried mud and lots of stones. The mud is somewhere between sand and clay with green vegetation towards the top of the bank. At this time of year, I see no evidence of a large tidal range but that may change with the seasons. The river water looks green and forbidding, it reminds me of why I drank the anti-cholera mixture three weeks ago in the doctor’s surgery and I think how lucky we are to have all of this preventative stuff. That said, I do spend the rest of the day avoiding putting my hands in it.
Masum, our newfound guide is beckoning us onto a ship/ferry. It’s a large beast of a thing three stories high above the water line and one below. It carries produce in the form of fruit, vegetables and other food together with an uncanny number of humans, who, when it’s full, and believe me they fill ‘em, will have people, fruit and other cargo co-existing with the odd goat and chickens. The human element is sprawled on mats that are carefully spread across the steel decking. There are one or two men already staking their claim, it’s very early but the best places are always in the shade. They smile, Bangladesh folks always smile.
We make out way up the steel steps to floor two then up some more to the top deck and blink as we’re exposed once more, to the blinding sun. Masum takes us to the front of the boat to point out the various features of the other side of the river and tells us about the ships, boats and ferries that ply this stretch and beyond.
I stand and contemplate where I am. When Mr Nichol, our excellent Geography teacher told us about the Far East and other exotic cultures I always thought that I’d like to see these places but never, for a moment, did I think I’d do it. I’ve travelled all over the world and had these little moments from time to time. First with my children and dear wife on the steps of the Sydney Opera house and then again on a tiny train on a mountain ridge near Curitiba in Brazil. It’s happened other times too but those two and today have been the strongest, both surreal and real, but all of them sublime.
I return to now and watch the tiny ferries driven by a man with a single oar like the gondoliers in Venice. It’s a mystery how they manoeuvre the little boats through the tiniest of gaps, rarely bumping heavily together and moving at quite a rake as they get into open water, some with no motor, all done with that single oar.
The steps back down are tread with a little more care as our darkened glasses make the already shaded areas more difficult to see. We’re greeted with nods from the early campers and always accompanied by a smile.
There’s a voice, “Are you Happy?”, it’s Masum and he’d already repeated it but I was deep in my thoughts.
“Err, yes”, says I. It’s such a strange but beautiful expression and I’m beginning to realise that it’s a Bangladesh’s catch-phrase and they mean it. Any response that’s not in the affirmative is greeted with concern because they’ve let you down, even when it’s beyond their control.
My response is entirely appropriate so he goes on to lead us back onto the quay and we walk a little further, we both want to take one of these little boats over the river and I’ve asked about doing that when we were on the boat, the Pilgrim brings it up again now. No problems. He clears a tiny harbour wall and walks down to where the boat drivers and their vessels are pulled on to the loose sand.
It’s a hive of activity in this tiny area between two huge cargo/ferries. It looks and seems chaotic as full boats are lodging themselves on the sand and their contents climb out with the outstretched hand of the driver to steady them whilst others are doing the reverse. This is the only time that I see some of the women readily hold hands with a man. Some of the boats are full of fruit and vegetables and men form mini-chains of two or three to disgorge the fragile cargo to a porter and he carries it up the bank usually on his head. The workers here are all men.
These small ferry boats are made of wood and are about 20 feet (6 to 7 metres) long and about 5 feet (A metre and a half) wide. They have three or four planks that stretch from edge to edge and these serve as seats. The driver is on an elevated platform at the back and sports a long oar. There are men and women with the odd child getting in and out of the dancing boats and they make it look easy. A minority of the women are dressed in full black gown and some have hijab with eyes peering through the slit. Some are wearing glasses perched upon their fabric-covered nose whilst others are in beautiful bright coloured cloth or silk that is of the highest quality, and why wouldn’t it be? We’re in Bangladesh! The men are rather less elegant in dark coloured clothes all of which are much less formal with the exception of the odd businessman who is immaculately dressed in a suit.
Masum is negotiating with one of the drivers and soon agrees on a price and we’re beckoned on board. On our boat, there are no planks but there is a woven carpet spread across the tiny deck and we’re encouraged to remove our shoes and sit cross-legged on that. There is another man who turns out to be the actual driver and the man who negotiated the price turns out to be the owner of five of these vessels and he’s going to come with us across the water.
He pushes the boat backwards and it knocks and slides gently past the two similar vessels on either side and we progress backwards with the help of the two drivers of those boats who nod to us and smile.
As soon as we’re clear of them our driver fires up the engine and brings the unit around to face slightly upstream and navigates a route across the almost imperceptibly flowing current. Other tiny ferries are either heading towards the slot on the river bank that we’ve just vacated or are heading for the opposite bank in parallel to us, all of them have occupants who wave and smile, even the ladies in the hijab wave and through the slit, I can see the smile in eyes of the ones that are close.
Our little boats are dwarfed by some of the cargo vessels and there are dhow-like fruit boats in silhouette against the strong sun. The river is as smooth as the proverbial mill-pond save for the bow wave of the working boats hurrying by at right angles to us.
The trip towards the other bank is too rapid and I’m a little bit disappointed that we’re there already but then he turns up-stream and we’re travelling smoothly in parallel to the river bank looking up at huge ships in various stages of decay, dismantle, repair or reassembly. We’re completely dwarfed as we duck in and out of the shadows cast by these enormous steel hulls then the engine is cut and we paddle towards the bank avoiding a huge steel anchor-chain and lodge the bow between the rails of one of the slipways currently waiting for a new recipient of a refit.
There are green plants that look like a mix of land-based plants and seaweed clearly enjoying the nutrients in this brackish water.
The boat owner and the driver do a double act as the boat is held steady whilst we wobble our way up the boat and jump on vegetation and rubbish on the river bank. We’re being watched by some fishermen who stop work (if they were doing any) and gaze unblinkingly at us. There’s a straw sculpture that looks like a south sea islander and a swan but I’ve no idea who or why. There’s also a random goat nibbling away at any vegetation that it can find. They appear from time to time feeding under the huge hulls, always unconcerned and clearly not aware of their fate!
Masum is beckoning us towards the sound of grinding and hammering towards the tops of the slipways where there is a shanty town of workers which we’re going to find astonishing in their quality of workmanship that they attain with quite old but highly effective tools and equipment.
We pass more goats and numerous dogs, the latter are lying in the vegetation and the dust and are all well fed and with no exceptions, only interested in sleeping in the shadows avoiding the hot mid-day sun.
As we approach the top we see a wheel-house with wire ropes tightening around various pulleys and men shouting at unseen colleagues. We walk parallel to the wooden structure and hear the engine start to take-up an invisible strain. We’re drawn to some activity around the other side of the wheel-house and see the length of the wire rope in its entirety. It’s about 500 feet long and is threaded through three pulleys. Two of them appear to be multipliers and the other one is to align the rope with the hull that it’s pulling up the slipway. We wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of this in a UK shipyard due to the danger of a break and the resultant whiplash that would slash all of us in two like a cheese cutter on speed. As the rope takes the strain it begins to sing and the man who’s controlling all this starts to get excited and shouts his orders to various colleagues, random strangers and us two tourists. We’re told he’s telling us to get back but I’m sure his dialogue is filled with some colourful Bangladeshi language that, with the added benefit of his gesticulations, adds urgency to his command.
The vast hull moves in bursts as the wire rope tightens to a point just short of strain and then there is movement, it’s only a few inches but it is movement. The rope then sags towards the slipway and the engine takes a short breather as it gathers up the slack again. We watch for a few minutes but realise that this process is going to take some time so we move on.
There are small shacks with wooden frames and corrugated roofs. They’re populated with various pieces of old to very old equipment, all of it more than serviceable and controlled by the best of the highly skilled machine-men, grinders, welders and blacksmiths with a myriad of other trades all working on bits of ship either taken from one that is being broken or temporarily borrowed from one that is being repaired. Nothing goes to waste – there is very little that is not serviceable in Bangladesh.
Click on any picture in the gallery and you can page through full size – well worth it!
We’re shown down various narrow lanes and alleys all populated by boys and men, some working and more watching. When we come into sight all eyes are on us and we’re greeted with smiles and an occasional, “How do you do?” sometimes accompanied by a hand being held out to shake. The journey continues to a huge hull that is being broken to repair other ships and here the boat owner, Salim, shows us a metal ladder about 25 feet high that leads to the deck. He indicates that we should follow him which we do and, at the top, discover a single step welded into the frame. He’s already walking towards the stern and as we follow we can see the reason he’s brought us on to it, the view is astonishing and takes in the whole of the port area and most of the East Bank, it’s breathtaking and we pause to take photographs.
This is not what you’d expect as part of the normal tourist itinerary although the Pilgrim thinks it is and we begin the walk back to rejoin Masum but before we descend Salim shows us into the deck above where the engine would be, it’s not there now but what a cavity, it must be a beast of an engine, wherever it is.
As we move around the deck we see another man who moves out of sight as soon as he sees us and I realise how vulnerable we are but it’s too late now and if we were to be kidnapped I think it would have happened before now.
The climb down the steps seems higher but we’re soon back on terra firma looking for Masum and after a brief wave of concern at his absence he reappears from behind the workshops and we’re quickly walking further into the shantytown.
We’ve been of significant interest wherever we’ve walked in this city but through these narrow alleyways, we’re centre of attention. As we pass another partially built ship we’re joined by two new faces and one of them hears Masum telling us about the boatyard and its history. He decides that he can do this too and he tells me about a specific ship and, immediately after this pearl-of-wisdom, holds his hand out and says, “Now you give me money”. It’s part demand and part question but I respond with a negative and tell him to talk to Masum as it’s him that I’m paying,..he drops away into the shadows.The shantytown of workshops is fantastic and the workmanship is astonishing. We stop at numerous workshops and the tradesmen are proud to show us their work and allow us to take photographs. The whole experience is fabulous and, as far as I’m aware, not bookable by Thomas Cook, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
We leave these wonderful artisans of the ship-rebuilding industry and almost immediately find ourselves in alleyways of kiosk type shops with any garment you could care to name being sold, all new and all current styles. The only difference is that a top-quality pair of jeans seen in the chain stores at £50 are on show here for £8 and almost certainly negotiable.
We emerge into an open area that looks a bit like a building site where young men are playing cricket. There are very few signs of women anywhere. We cross that quickly but not before everything stops and dozens of eyes follow our every move. Some of the youngsters shout, “How are you” and our response “Good thank, How are you?”, gets a friendly laugh as they wonder what to say next. We’re suddenly back into a dimly lit corridor then, equally quickly, up some steps that are even more dingy and bordering dark where a door is forced open and we’re shown into a room with half a dozen boys, the eldest about eighteen and the youngest says he’s twelve! They’re making clothes and we’re shown some of what they’re working on. They’re proud of what they’re doing and the Pilgrim asks if the younger one has been to school and the answer is that he has and started his work here in the afternoon.
We’re taken across the corridor, over a landing and a roller-shutter door like you would find on a garage is lifted accompanied by a metallic clanging sound. Behind that are more youngsters a little older also working on clothes and again, they’re proud of what they’re doing and show us some of their work.
The rooms are both light and airy and this one has a huge open window and we can see the other youngster who had resumed their game of cricket.
The whole thing is surreal.
Masum is clearly proud too and tells us that all of this for the domestic market.
We walk back on to the staircase and descend to the corridor then reemerge blinking into the sun.
The walk through this mini-city takes about 25 minutes and we eventually arrive back at the river where the boat driver is waiting with the little ferry.
We climb back on board and within a couple of minutes, we’re back in the gentle flow dodging barges and dhow-like boats and smiling at the occupants of the other ferries who wave at us like long lost relatives.
Back at the other bank, the owner holds the boat steady whilst we step off and once back on the bank we pay for the service of the two of them: 1000 taka for Masum and what we thought was a bit top endish 2000 taka for the boat. About £10 and £20 respectively i.e. £5/hour for the guide and £10/hour for the exclusive use of the boat, not bad for two of the best and most fascinating hours ever – but not to be encouraged, ever so slightly reckless and without a doubt wonderful for it!
We leave Masum on the banks of the river and head for the Pink Palace. We’re still drawing attention with the Pilgrim in long shorts and me unable to hide my six foot two frame topped with silver hair; Bangladesh folks tend to be five foot six-ish and as the Pilgrim pointed out, they dye their hair so there’s very little silver or white.
We can see the Pink Palace (Ahsan Manzil) from the bank of the river but there’s no direct route to it so we have to walk by and turn right into an amazingly narrow street that leads through the printing district of Dhaka. Like all other Dhaka streets, it’s slightly chaotic with hundreds of Bangladesh folks, rickshaws and the occasional tuktuk.
This whole city is arranged in cells of specialism from electric lights, where our hotel is, to optometrists and sanitary-ware specialist; they have it all and they have it in a discrete block. We walk for five minutes or more and I choose a shop owner to ask where the Pink Palace is and how to get to it. (I deliberately ask someone that can’t take us there as a free agent would have wanted to show us and then charge us for it and if we’re going to do that then we may as well hire a rickshaw. Although there is a smattering of English in many people we’re deep in the heart of Dhaka now in a side street that is way off the beaten track. We repeat the words ‘Pink Palace’ several times but still have a baffled look from the chosen ‘helper’; however, we’re in luck as a passing businessman hears our plight and tells us where to walk and even comes with us so far but not before letting us into the secret of our failure, only tourists (and there are few) know it as the Pink Palace, its proper name is Ahsan Manzil.
After mistakenly turning right into another even narrower alley with stores in tiny cubicles a little too early we cut our losses and hire a bicycle-rickshaw. The young man takes us nearly to the entrance where we hit a people-and-rickshaw-jam so we ask our driver/rider if we should get off and walk the rest of the way which is only about 50 yards, we’re met with a blank stare. The Pilgrim tries again but to no avail so she offers him 20 taka as it was a very short ride, still no response so she ramps it up to 30. I think we gave him 50 taka which is about 50 pence (it sounds a small amount but we were only asked for 100 taka for a long ride on another day). We later realise that if a Bangladesh person can’t fulfil the whole of the agreement they feel they’ve let you down, which is endearing but for the sake of 50 yards is a bit of a pain.
Ahsan Manzil costs nearly 10 times what a local would pay but at a fiver apiece is good value and with the wages that the average man here earns it means that they can visit too. It’s a fascinating oasis in the middle of a seething city and is well worth the sidetracking through the narrow streets.
Click on any picture in the gallery and you can page through full size – well worth it!
We leave about an hour later and look for a tuktuk but struggle initially until a superbly spoken gentleman overhears and intervenes. He does the negotiating and ensures the driver knows where we need to go and agrees the fee which is far better than we could have agreed. It turns out that his brother emigrated to the UK and is a Metropolitan Policeman, he shakes our hands and wishes us a great holiday and with that, we’re gone into the Wacky race that is Dhaka in the rush hour.
Back at the hotel, we’ve had a bit of a set back in terms of plans for the Sunderbans. The Rocket Steamer that we wanted to get us there is fully booked and the tours, if we go, are a day longer than we want. This is compounded by the fact that they start a day later and all of this gets us to Cox’s Bazar on Monday. As our original plan was to be there over the weekend, this is not going to work so we drop that in favour of the train ride to Chittagong; however, there’s another problem; we haven’t booked the train and the signs are that we can’t get one this week – a bit of a disaster really until we get help from Shamim (ex-senior policeman and now head of security) who is recommended to us by Zaid and Mir on the reception desk who have overheard the dilemma.
Click on any picture in the gallery and you can page through full size – well worth it!
Shamim has a contact and he offers to escort us to the railway station to sort out tickets on the Wednesday train, it this comes off it’ll be a miracle. Things get a bit tense at the prearranged 2130 as he’s ‘dealing with something’; however, before ten o’clock we’re speeding through the Dhaka traffic like we’re on a shout. Less than an hour later with the efforts of the Pilgrim and Shamim combined (with some minor input from me acting as a decoy in a pretend queue at the command of our chief of security – don’t ask!) we’re the proud owners of first-class tickets from Dhaka to Chittagong for the princely sum of eighteen quid. It’s a six-hour journey so no problems with the price and it turns out we bought three seats anyway!
It’s been a busy day.
Time for bed.
Enjoy the snaps…G..x
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