Archive | May 2017

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 12: Jessore to Rajshahi

Jessore to Rajshahi

I gave the hotel boy 5 taka to get me some breakfast and was rather disappointed when he returned with an apple, a banana and a cup of tea. The apple, of course, was imported and cost 4 taka.

I walked to the bank and, to my dismay, was told they did not have the right forms to cash traveller’s cheques. The manager was both embarrassed and wanting to help, so he gave me 10 taka from his pocket to get the bus to Khulna, where I should be able to get them changed – provided I got there before 1 pm. I walked smartly to the bus stop and caught the 11 am bus just as it was about to leave. It was supposed to be a one and a half hour journey, so I should reach Khulna by 12.30 pm in time to catch the bank before it closed.

The journey actually took two and a quarter hours and I was feeling pretty gloomy for the last half hour or so. The prospect of being stuck in Khulna, still with no cash, my luggage in Jessore and with a hotel manager and a scooter-taxi driver wanting their bills paid was not a pleasant one.

I took a rickshaw to where the banks were. The driver didn’t find the United Bank, which was where I was headed, but he did find National and Grindlays – and, wonder of wonders, they let me in and changed my last traveller’s cheques!

I celebrated my success with an excellent lunch at a hotel in Khulna. It served English food, which is often a recipe for disaster, but in this case, my soup, toast, fish cakes and chips, roast chicken and greens, fruit salad, all washed down with tea, really hit the spot. I then caught the next bus back to Jessore. On arrival, I took a rickshaw to the station in case there was a message from Hassan. There wasn’t. However, I found out that there was a direct train to Rajshahi at 9 pm every evening. I went to the Telegraph Office and sent telegrams to both Hassan and Rajshahi University, informing them that I planned to get tomorrow evening’s train.

When I eventually returned to the hotel, there was a reception committee of concerned creditors. I apologised for the wait they had had and settled my accounts.

The train journey to Rajshahi was an indicator of how poorly the country’s infrastructure worked. The train arrived at Jessore three hours late, during which time I had a long conversation with the luggage officer. Unfortunately, my journal doesn’t record what we discussed, though it is a reasonably good bet that Shakespeare’s Macbeth came up at some point. It usually did with English speakers of a certain age in those days in Bangladesh!

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The Rajshahi train

Although it was billed as direct, I had to change trains at Ishurdi at 7 am. The Rajshahi train came in at 2.15 pm and I reached my destination by late afternoon. On arrival, I was taken to the university guest house, where I lived for the next year.

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Rajshahi University – the Arts Building

Here endeth the journey! I eventually caught up with Hassan in Dacca. He had not received my messages.

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 11: Calcutta to Jessore

Calcutta to Jessore 
On Monday, I walked to the Bangladesh High Commission and the advice they gave me was to take the trunk with me – which was my original plan. I then changed another £5 of my traveller’s cheques – this later proved to be an ill-judged amount. By 11am, with the usual flurry of porters, taxi drivers and spectators, the trunk and I were settled in a cab and ferried to Sealdah Station, which served destinations north and east – although not Bangladesh, in spite of the fact that the railway lines ran across the border uninterrupted. Since partition, no trains had been allowed to cross over, making a nonsense of the railway network in Bengal, where all lines focussed on Calcutta.

Sealdah was slightly less overwhelming than Howrah, but more shabby in appearance. I bought a ticket for Bongaon, the closest one could get to the Bangladesh border by train, and then sat on the platform with my porter, where I parried the attempts of three shoe-shine boys to polish my plastic sandals. Eventually, for peace of mind’s sake, I let one wax-polish them for 25 paisa.

The train left at 2.20pm and reached Bongaon by 5. By then, I was beginning to realise that I faced a cash problem. I was down to my last 30 rupees and had to transport myself and trunk to the border post, which always involved two porters, and from there to Jessore, as well as paying for my board and lodging.

I took two cycle rickshaws – one for me, the other for the trunk – to the border post and by the time I arrived, it was getting dark. My first impression was that East Bengal was alive with grasshoppers and fireflies. Sitting at the passport officer’s desk, which was outside under a tree, I was bombarded in the light of his hurricane lamp by all manner of hopping and flying insects. The sky was starlit and there were hundreds of flashing lights in the huge trees. It was extraordinarily atmospheric. I could just make out that it was beautiful country – greenery everywhere, palm trees, women and children washing themselves in the full pools.

Customs formalities were minimal because with no electricity it was too dark to check the contents of my trunk effectively by the light of a hurricane lamp.

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Benapol Road

When I reached the Bangladesh passport officer, I informed him that I had only 10 takas in cash. He was very helpful and procured a scooter taxi, saying that for 25 takas, it would take me to a hotel in Jessore where I could spend the night and pay in the morning. So I set off, sitting beside the driver with my luggage occupying all the back. It was a very uncomfortable and hair-raising journey, made magical by the sight of a huge orange moon rising between the amazing trees which lined the Benapol Road.

The Parveen Hotel, which we reached at quarter to eight, had a double room with an adjoining shower and loo for what I considered the rather exorbitant price of 22 takas. But I was in no position to quibble and I took it. The bed had a mosquito net and the bathroom was crawling with enormous cockroaches.

Bangladesh seemed over-endowed with insect life. I doused myself in Oil of Citronella and swatted mosquitoes trapped inside the net. When I went to the bathroom, I had to stamp to make the cockroaches run for the drain. I crushed one in the door hinge and was horrified to see its carcass being carried away by a veritable army of tiny ants, growing in number by the second. Alarmed at the notion of being taken over by ants, I put an end to the ‘moving’ scene with a few drops of Citronella.

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 10: Delhi to Calcutta

Delhi to Calcutta

My departure from Delhi was chaotic. I had lost the Left Luggage ticket for my trunk and in order to reclaim it, I was told to get an indemnity bond. This involved finding a shop in the bazaar nearby and queuing, then finding someone to explain how to fill in the form, which was blank, and finally – two hours later – being reunited with my trunk. It was taken with all speed to the luggage office to get it registered for the journey. The official looked at me gloomily and informed me that I had missed my train.

However, my watch told me there were still five minutes to go, so I paid for the trunk, left it with them and ran! (By then, I was relaxed about the idea of the trunk coming on a different train.) This afforded local spectators with the extraordinary sight of a laden European running up stairs in the heat of the afternoon.

I jumped onto the train as it was moving out of the platform and was very grateful that I’d chosen an air-conditioned carriage. It was rather noisy with a number of crying children, one of whom held up the train for quarter of an hour when it got lost.

The next morning it rained heavily near Benares and rivers became swollen. We reached Howrah Station about an hour late at 5.30pm. Stepping out of the air-conditioned carriage, the humidity hit me. That and the fact that there were people everywhere. The station was like a small town.

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Howrah Bridge

Calcutta

I took a taxi to the YMCA where I took a rather pricey but clean room which I shared with a paunchy Indian hotelier called Banerjee. He had been in the same carriage as me coming from Delhi. My journal does not record what Banerjee was doing in Calcutta, but next morning he got up and dressed to kill ­– new leather boots, white trousers and a new white shirt.

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‘The trunk’ plus rucksack, cold bag and shoulder bag – (not my bike)

I found my bearings, went sightseeing and sent a telegram and a letter to Hassan: the telegram to Jessore where we had arranged to meet, the letter as a back-up to his Dacca address. I also took a bus to Howrah to see if my trunk had arrived. It hadn’t.

The next day, Sunday, Banerjee and I were served early morning tea, then breakfasted together. After lunch, I took a tram to Howrah and was delighted to find my trunk had arrived. There was the usual ceremonious form-filling ritual, made pleasant by helpful officials. They advised me to take it to the Bangladesh ‘office’ for information about transporting it. So I took a taxi there. It turned out to be the Bangladesh High Commission, which was closed. That evening I had an excellent Chinese meal and returned to the YMCA for an early night. Banerjee was there and as usual went into ecstasies about the gastronomic delights of his day – “very good fish!”

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 9: Delhi

We reached Delhi in the middle of the afternoon. I managed to get my trunk transferred to Left Luggage by a porter who used a trolley – most unusual. We took a taxi to the Madras Hotel in Connaught Place where I picked up my mail. The hotel was full, however, so we found accommodation in a guest house on Janpath Lane.

I was expected in Delhi by family friends who had offered to put me up. James worked for the United Nations. He was American and Liz was Irish. I found the UN office, but it was a public holiday and so it was closed. I got through to Liz by phone and she gave me directions of how to get to them by rickshaw. She said it was a 15 minute journey. Two hours later I was still being driven round the leafy suburbs by a clueless rickshaw driver. The rickshaw packed up and I paid him off and set off on foot. It was about a mile and half away and I eventually found a man who knew where I was heading and led me to James and Liz’s front door.

James and Liz were very welcoming and I suddenly found myself living in luxury. I spent a happy week with them recharging my batteries before the final leg of the journey to Bangladesh. I had an enjoyable time seeing some of the sights: the Red Fort, the Jamai Masjid, Tugluqabad, the Qutb Minar. I also made contact with those members of the Ashley Butterfield group who were still in Delhi. Their journey had gone well and they were full of praise for Ashley. I also booked my onward journey to Calcutta: air-conditioned chair car in an express.

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Tugluqabad

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Qutb Minar

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Qutb Minar

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Red Fort

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Red Fort

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Red Fort

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Red Fort

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Red Fort

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Jamai Masjid

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Jamai Masjid

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Jamai Masjid, looking towards Red Fort

My overland group had a farewell meal at the Moti Mahal, which served excellent tandoori dishes and beer concealed in a teapot, it being Ramadan. They referred to it as ‘cold green tea’. I also caught up with world affairs. The Yom Kippur War had just started and W H Auden had died.

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 8: Lahore to Delhi

Lahore

We left reasonably punctually and arrived in Lahore next morning after a brief stop in Rawalpindi, where the coach with the ‘Ladies Only’ compartment, in which one of our group, Pat, was required to travel, was detached from ours. Fortunately, Pat was able to join us in our compartment.

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Lahore Station was impressively well organised and I reclaimed my trunk with very little bother. The Clifton Hotel was within walking distance of the station and offered as good value as the Kamran for the same price. So we ferried our luggage over and settled in there. John and I set off on foot to find the city centre but soon succumbed to using a three-wheeled motor cycle taxi which belted off, dodging in and out of traffic, people and traffic islands. That evening we splurged on a very good Chinese meal and the next morning set out by taxi for the Indian border.

Lahore to Amritsar

My trunk was borne on the heads of two porters to the Pakistani Customs Office, where our effects were superficially checked and we were ushered through. This time, a single porter carried the trunk – again, on his head – to the lush, green setting of the Indian border post. As we approached, we saw a long human chain of porters in blue clothes carrying bales of jute from a Pakistani lorry into India. At the border, my trunk was ceremonially handed over to an Indian porter, who carried it a further two hundred yards on his head – including a stop while our passports were checked at a table under the shade of a large tree and I filled in a form. Customs checks were a little more thorough, but in exchange for a packet of razor blades, the official was persuaded not to empty the contents of the trunk.

We took a station wagon into Amritsar and were soon taken up by a Sikh restaurateur, who offered us a meal and accommodation. Not only that, he offered to take care of registering my trunk on the train to Delhi, which clinched it for me! The vegetarian meal was disappointing, but the accommodation suited us well, in spite of its dry loos.

We were rickshawed to the Golden Temple through fascinating narrow streets lined with shops selling shawls and sarees, not to mention roadside cows. The sun was setting and the temple looked stunning as hundreds of worshippers filed across the causeway and through the temple in the middle of its square pool. We covered our heads with yellow napkins and removed our shoes to join the procession. It was extraordinarily atmospheric and definitely a high point in the journey.

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The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Amritsar to Delhi

I was able to take my trunk into our carriage on the Delhi train, paying no extra for it. The journey took 12 hours and the seats were hard. We whiled away the time playing endless card games as the train passed through lush, green countryside, unlike anything we had seen since Europe.

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 7: Kabul to Peshawar

Kabul to Peshawar

After the usual acrobatics with my trunk – in this case, a porter balanced it on his head – we left Kabul punctually at 8 am and were soon passing through the spectacular Kabul Gorge under perfect blue skies. It was breathtakingly rugged with superb rock formations and jagged outcrops. The Kabul River ran clear and white over rocks, gradually turning pea-green as it reached the plain leading to the Khyber Pass. Suddenly, there was a marvellous green glacial lake with the mountains of the Hindu Kush as a backdrop. We felt we were on the roof of the world.

After a short stop in Jalalabad where I bought a melon, we started the gradual ascent to the Khyber Pass. The way was punctuated by hill forts. We came to the Afghan border post, where to my great relief, they did not have my trunk taken down from the roof of the bus and we passed through quickly. The Pakistanis did not bother checking half the people on the bus and never looked at a single person’s luggage. I discovered that it was only permitted to bring 20 rupees into the country and went through Customs with 96 rupees concealed in my camera case.

The Pakistani section of the Khyber Pass was heavily fortified and tank-trapped – and even more spectacular than the Afghan part. Our excitement was increased by the break-neck speed at which our driver took us down to Peshawar. We thought the mileposts were in kilometres!

Peshawar 

Our arrival in the Indian sub-continent represented another cultural step-change in the journey. It also meant that we finished with buses and switched to the railway. A welcome change.

After the usual melee at the bus station, we arrived at the massive, mud-red Kamran Hotel. Our huge room had three beds, easy chairs, a table, dressing table, balcony, bathroom with shower and a huge fan swishing high overhead (all for 7 rupees each a night – about 30p). We had a good chicken curry in the hotel and took a taxi to the railway station where we reserved sleepers to Lahore. Although the train was not scheduled to depart until 9.30 pm, we were advised to arrive by 7.00 pm to claim our berths. My trunk was registered with much ceremonial form filling and I was assured that it would reach Lahore at the same time as me. We were then led out of the station and down a siding to where our coach was standing in total darkness. By touch, we established that we had a roomy compartment with four bench seats and a berth above each seat. After an hour, a steam engine shunted our carriage up to the platform, at which point there was a small invasion of Americans and Australians, followed by a much larger invasion of Pakistanis, most of whom had come to amuse themselves by gawping at the westerners. I spoke to a young medical student through the window. He said he was in favour of Bangladesh being independent, but disapproved of the country being under India’s thumb at present.

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Approaching the Kamran Hotel

Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 6: Kabul

We reached Kabul at 4 pm and were immediately beset by hotel touts. The advantage of numbers meant that we could take a taxi into the town centre where some of us could stay with the luggage while others checked out hotels. Euen and I did the latter and decided on the Helal Hotel for a modest 25 Afghanis each a night (i.e. less than 20p).

Kabul represented a return to the comforts of civilisation. Good, clean food; hot water not just for showers, but to shave in and catch up with one’s clothes washing. There were even roof–top views from the hotel! So twentieth-century was it that I had my wallet stolen from my shoulder bag (I had forgotten to zip it up), but there was only £3.50 worth of local currency in it.

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Fortunately, there is no picture of me in the light mauve outfit I bought, complete with turban!

Not only were there creature comforts, there were even musicians who performed at our hotel, accompanying a singer on the tambura, sitar, tabla and harmonium. ‘Marvellously expressive face, he would throw his head back and sing from the back of his mouth, holding long quavering notes with a shaking tongue.’

There were a number of bureaucratic encounters to be endured. Reserving seats on the bus to Peshawar was the most straightforward, but the soonest we could travel was three days hence. Changing traveller’s cheques at the bank involved an hour of form filling, queuing and waiting to have one’s name called. We also had to have permits from the Pakistan Embassy to allow us to leave Pakistan by road and travel into India. This took a day.

Ramadan started while I was in Kabul, making finding meals during daylight hours more difficult. But those were more relaxed times and we found a hotel opposite ours that served breakfast and lunch. We walked to Babur’s Garden on the other side of the river. It was closed, but the walk was worth it. We saw women washing clothes in the river and plantations of poplars. That evening we found a cinema showing The Great Bank Robbery, starring Zero Mostel and Kim Novak – definitely not worthy of an Oscar but a welcome fix of western escapism.