Bangladesh – Part 4 – Train to Chittagong

Today we learn that developing countries running quite narrow gauge railways are more comfortable and cheaper than UK railways but not quite as fast, people are naturally kind and traffic in Chittagong is also like Wacky Races and begging is upsetting.

We’re up at six, well the Pilgrim takes a little time to wake up so the process starts about that time. By 0615 we’re firing on all cylinders and getting ready to go to Reception to pay for our ‘extras’ i.e. the bar bill!

The boys on Reception have taken a bit of a shine to us and seem sorry that we’re leaving, they’re also bemused by the fact that we’re taking the train. There’s some ambiguity regarding whether we have a lift already organised by Shamim and at 0740 we decide on a tuktuk as the means of transport to the station which on a good run is 20 minutes but when the traffic is bad i.e. most of the time it could take an hour. We load our stuff and ourselves on to the tuktuk and realise that there isn’t that much space but it’s only for a few minutes so we put up with it. We also register the fact that it’s a bit tight for future reference, neither of us like the idea of an hour with a huge rucksack sitting on our knees.

The tuktuk race through the traffic follows the usual routine of right turns across traffic flow, zigzagging between taxis and rickshaws and ignoring traffic lights and, in this particular case of ‘inshallah’ (Allah’s will – if He decides it’s your time then that’s when you go). So… we career through the red light at the busy crossroads without reducing speed which by now must have been approaching 50 miles per hour. The traffic from the right was intermittent so we clear the first carriageway with only minimal vehicular acrobatics and I’m glad that the rucksacks have us both wedged against the grill instead of a safety belt. It also gives our erstwhile and suicidal driver an extra half second to assess the situation for the crossing of the second carriageway. My own assessment is that the thing to miss is the bus, followed by the wagon but that’s a little further away so a minor adjustment in speed should sort that out. The tricky ones are the other tuktuks the drivers of which are clearly of the same opinion as our fate-believing pilot currently making minor changes to our trajectory. This is my ‘on the fly’ observation: if we retain the speed and direction that is current we should be taken out by the bus AND the wagon, if we slow down just slightly then we’ll miss the bus but the wagon should kill us fairly quickly and we shouldn’t suffer, if he accelerates then we have half a chance but it does rely on the other tuktuk drivers coming to the same conclusion otherwise we’re in for possibly non-fatal injuries but they might hurt!

Our driver accelerates and makes an adjustment, he also does some thought transfer to the other tuktuk drivers and they oblige with an avoidance strategy that combines to save our lives and we exit the crossroad with God on our side and I’m singing Dylan under my breath

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

As a road traffic accident disaster song it’s not in the same league as “Tell Laura I Love her” or “Bat Out of Hell” but it’s the one that sticks.

The rest of the journey is uneventful save the crossing of the other carriageway to gain access to the station and the same cavalier attitude is adopted – Alton Towers eat your heart out – nothing compares to this.

We’re a bit early and I’m happy with that but it does mean that we need to wander about to reduce boredom as there’s no cafe. We pass through the gates a couple of times and the security man opens another gate when he sees us struggling to get out in a queue. Eventually, the train arrives and we confirm it’s the right one then, without needing to request it, the station guard follows us in order to show us the carriage and seat allocation.

We’re in air-conditioned 1st Class and at £18 for the pair of us, it can’t be faulted. We settle in and I put my rucksack on the rack as we’re told that our ticket entitles us to three seats – well I thought it was dear! The carriage is air-conditioned but the downside is many of the windows are frosted, not by the AC but by design, not good when us tourists want to see out; however, one of them is at least partially transparent and at 0748, only 3 minutes late, we’re off. The first hour of the journey is fascinating in as much as it gives us another view of Dhaka, more slums yes but also some of the business areas where things are beginning to look up. We pass over a couple of new bridges where dhows, fishing boats and, in one case, quite a large cargo vessel are operating. The picture is very ‘far east’ and I’m loving it. The Pilgrim is struggling with the jet-lag and a poor night’s sleep and after generously offering me the window seat she drifts off to sleep.

We’re well served with people moving up and down the aisle offering various packages of sweets, crisps and a big kettle thingy that’s used to produce excellent coffee.

It’s a five-hour journey but if you take into account the hour and half that it takes to get to the airport followed by the hour and a half before the flight followed by the hour to fly to Chittagong followed by the hour to get into town and it’s much quicker by train but the clincher is the comfort. Their seats are reclining and well-spaced but they’re also well designed and supporting.

We reach Chittagong, gather our rucksacks and head for the taxi/rickshaw/tuktuk rank and choose a taxi this time although we do appreciate that the tuktuk is more agile and can be thrilling at lights the taxi is more conducive to a de-stress! We’ve got a deal at the Peninsula and the trip between the railway station and the hotel takes about half an hour but, whilst it’s still slightly ‘Wacky Races’, it’s not in the same league as our suicidal tuktuk driver in Dhaka and we arrive in one piece.

We’re given a room with a view on the 12th floor with floor to ceiling windows that do the view justice and at £35 apiece per night including breakfast, we’re well chuffed.

Luggage stashed, we hit the road and end up at the Chittagong Commonwealth War Memorial Cemetery but sadly it’s shut so we resolve to return in the morning; however, not for the first time, a gentleman with a ‘phone offers to help. After a few minutes standing by the gate, we tell him that we’ll return in the morning and begin our walk back to the hotel. We stop to help a beautiful young couple who are struggling with a selfie and they insist on a photograph with us, we’ve found a lot of this.

/*Since the murder of the tourists in 2016, security is meant to be tighter but the people just want us to enjoy their country. They’re trying (and succeeding from what I see) to be secular but most importantly, everywhere we’ve been welcomed like Posh and Becks with people wanting to take our photograph or asking us to be in their photographs always with the phrase, “How are you?”. They’re not sure what to say when we reply and that doesn’t matter. The Bangladeshi’s are a delight and we love them. */

As we say our goodbyes to the ‘people in love’, the guy that had been on the ‘phone at the gate turns up and asks us to return as the guy that runs the Cemetery will open up again just for us. We’re a bit uncomfortable with this and try to politely resist but he will hear none of it and the next thing we know the gate is opened and we’re in.

It’s an oasis of calm away from the demented fury of the traffic and we spend an hour being given a personal tour by Mohammad Abu Sayed MBE. He’s dedicated himself to these beautiful, serene memorials and looks after this one and another a little further north. A couple of years ago he was rewarded with an MBE and I think it is well deserved as this unassuming and humble man who quietly goes about keeping this memorial pristine and a credit to all of those mostly young men from all points of the Commonwealth compass who gave the ultimate sacrifice. The place is well tended, grass beautifully cut and the whole thing smells like a spring day in Yorkshire. The flowers are in bloom and all deadheaded but the best thing are the trees around the periphery, they’re full of birds singing and add colour. There’s also an inevitable murder of crows but they too are appropriate; have you ever been to a cemetery without crows.

The return to the hotel is fraught with beggars. One is a tenacious lady who’s pretty unpleasant and she’s followed by some children who’re clearly in training. The little boy and girl are operating as a team and when the Pilgrim gives the little girl a 10 taka note (about 10 pence) she becomes as excited as a toddler at Christmas and runs to her mother with the note, her mother smiles, claps and praises her and pushes the little boy (about 3 or 4) towards me, he pulls at my arm saying, “Mine, mine”. Having seen what I saw I gently but firmly push him away so his mother can see but she continues to encourage him and he follows us along the street not speaking anymore but pulling when the crowds allow I extract my arm from his grip. It’s not pleasant rejecting a kid but we soon get back to adult beggars and normal street life which is much easier to cope with.

We visit a couple of brightly lit shopping arcades that are huge open spaces mostly up steps.  They’re decked out with trading units that are little more than wooden cubicles of various sizes and they’re lit like the fourth of July and stacked with everything, clothes, toys, electrical devices, electronic devices and thingies for doing whatever, it’s all here. What I do find though is that the Bangladeshi’s are not pushy like the African and Asian traders in Spain or the Canaries where, if you look at something, they’re out like materialised ghosts appearing from nowhere with the opening line, “You like, I do special deal” and promptly offer you a price that would make Getty’s eyes water. These people are not like that and whilst willing to help they’re more gentle and want you to look but they do try to catch your eye or engage with a smile, I’m OK with that.

The walk to the hotel is back through beggar-central and I’m suffering from a guilt trip as I don’t often respond. Some of them seem to be genuinely down on their luck but others are looking for an easy ride. The trouble is, who am I to differentiate. I know nothing of their background and make assumptions on their appearance. I even find myself discounting the ones that looked fat. Familiarity breeds contempt and I do feel contemptuous but at myself for trying to justify my anger or being judgemental but when your arm is being held by a 4-year-old vulnerable little girl whose mother is training her to be a good beggar it’s hard not to be irritated or angry – but I’ll continue to try!

Sorry to end on a low but all this is real.

Tomorrow is another day and boy – do I have a tale to tell…

Enjoy the snaps…G..x

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