see below my travel piece which was published in December’s issue of TimeOut Beijing.
Bangladesh – an Adventure
By Zhang Lijia
At a Train Station in Dhaka
“Excuse me, is the coming train to Srimangal?” I asked a bespectacled man in a well-ironed Panjabi, the traditional Bangladeshi shirt. “Your country, Madam?”
“Will the train head to different destination if I am from China and not Japan?” I snapped.
“Your country?” is often the first question Bangladeshis like to ask a foreign visitors. It is usually followed by the purpose of your visit, your profession, the status of your marriage and the number of children you have. I was usually happy to answer. But not now. “No. Your train should arrive in 30 minutes,” a round-faced young man stepped in.
I nodded gratefully. For over two hours, my two teenage girls and I had been waiting at a small station in Dhaka for a train up to the tea estates. On the platform, beggar streamed by. Dogs and goats wandered among the forest of legs. Since there was no seat, people went to sit on the railway tracks or even on top of the train itself. When our train finally turned up another hour later, Zahir led us and elbowed his way to our first class carriage, which wasn’t labeled in numbers or English. Without him, we would have missed it.
On learning my plan to visiting Bangladesh, my friends all asked why? A poor country, deemed as a ‘basket case’, frequently plagued by cyclone? But why not? Bangladesh boasts rich culture, fine cuisine and beautiful scenery. Besides, I always find it more exciting to visit a less explored territory.
Located in the southwest of the country, Sundarban is the largest mangrove forest in the world and a UNESCO heritage site. A boat trip into the water world of canals and tidal creeks is a must. It rained a lot but it didn’t bother us as we lolled around on the top deck lounge, admiring the swamps teeming with life or watching boats of all sorts pass by. From time to time, our crew would point things out for us: that’s a sundari tree, a majestic tree that produces hard wood and gives Sundarban its’ name; and the little creature swimming across our boat was a goanna lizard, not an otter as we thought.
Sundarban is the home to Royal Bengal tigers. It is reported that, on average, someone is eaten by a tiger every three days. At Karamjal Forest Station, walkways were raised for tourists to have a closer view of the forest. To get onto it, we had to be accompanied by a man with a gun. We didn’t run into a tiger but the story of man-eating tiger added colour and a sense of adventure.
For the night, we moored a short distance away from a village. In the evening, we were rewarded with a few dry hours. A new moon emerged from behind the clouds, casting a sheen that made the water surface gleam like fish scales. The night was so quiet. Then the wind brought the sound of azaan, the calling of the prayer. In the glow of an oil lamp, we then enjoyed a feast of chicken curry, dal and roasted eggplants. Oh, the joy of travel!
The next morning, we visited remote villages where few foreigners had set foot. There we saw dire poverty. Many fishermen’s houses are constructed with palm leaves, containing hardly any furniture, not even beds. But people often invited us in, offering us sweet tea, mixed with condensed milk.
In one village, we bumped into otter fishing. Several boats had just returned from their night fishing when fishermen used trained otters to chase fish into waiting nets. The smooth-coated otters, kept in bamboo cages at the bows, were squeaking noisily, demanding their share as their masters were busy sorting out the catches. Thanks to the dwindling fish in Sundarban, the practice of otter fishing was in danger of dying out. We were lucky to witness it.
On our last day, we took a tour around old Dhaka guided by a volunteer named Mohsin who works for a foundation fighting to preserve the place. Dhaka rose to prominence in the 17th century under Mughal rule when it was proclaimed the capital of Bangla. Mosques, places and bazaars were subsequently built.
Today, a medieval feel still hangs over the old town, a maze of lively if chaotic bazaars and crowded narrow streets. A messy web of electric wires clings to the crumbling buildings like tangled-up hair. We met in front of Sitara Mosque, famous for its stunning mosaic decorations. When Mohsin asked what we’d like to see, I said I was interested in seeing how people live and work. The young architect moved his head the way Bangladeshis do and said: “Okay.”
Mohsin charged ahead while we struggled to navigate our way through floods of rickshaws, push carts and people, many carrying heavy goods on their heads. I couldn’t move fast as I found just about everything fascinating: the old arched gate with faded elegance, the exotic fruit and vegetables in the baskets for sale and the open shop fronts that lined-up the muddy street, selling crafts, metals parts or garments. A smell of fried vegetables permeated in the air.
Soon, Mohsin took off to a very narrow side street, which we Chinese would describe as ‘sheep’s intestines’. Following him, we entered a building, passing several women peeling potatoes in the hall way, climbing up the dark wooden staircase. Where were we going? Mohsin then explained that it was a 19th century building his foundation is trying to preserve and he was taking us to see a couple of factories inside, tenants of the building. At an umbrella workshop, workers, clad only in their lungis, were cutting and sewing canopies. Our guide pointed out the damaged fire place, the Roman columns in one corner and the faded carvings up on the ceiling. Next door, workers from another factory were busy assembling toy parts made in China. How long can the building survive such intensive use？ I wondered. The foundation had won some small victories by implementing rules that forbids modern style renovation. I pray the organization will come up with funds to restore the building, an evidence of Bangladesh’s glorious past.
Much as I appreciated Mohsin’s insight and knowledge, next time, I’d like to return without a guide and allow myself to get lost in the old Dhaka, where the soul of the city is.
Ups and Downs
True, it’s not very easy to travel in Bangladesh because there’s little infrastructure for tourists. And the traffic in Dhaka is unbelievably congested.
But the people in Bangladesh make up all the shortcomings. I find it so touching that people are so welcoming, as if our visit is a personal honour to them.
Back on the train to Srimangal, Zahir retreated to his carriage after helping us to settle down. After a while, he returned, his smart phone at hand. “Is this you?” he asked excitedly, showing my website on his phone. I nodded with a smile. “Such an honour to meet a famous author from China.” He fished two kit-kats from his bag. “If you permit, may I present your girls the kit-kats?” His words left in me a taste sweeter than kit-kat.