The shoeshine of Dhaka sat on the dusty kerb, quite alone in his thoughts. He seemed oblivious to the cacophony swirling around him; the horns and screeching brakes, the crying babies and echoing calls to prayer. He hardly noticed the chanting protesters that marched between rusty rickshaws painted with the faces of Bollywood beauties. He ignored the goat rummaging in the rubbish beside him. He barely flinched as a woman spat from a passing bus, pebble-dashing him with her saliva as her faded yellow sari billowed in the breeze. No, the shoeshine of Dhaka simply gazed ahead with his sunken eyes. I, on the other hand, didn’t know where to look first. “Welcome to Bangladesh!” beamed my guide Mustafa, breezily. We’d only just left the airport. Sitting snugly in the middle of an Indian sandwich – as well as sharing a small border with Burma – Bangladesh is a land of rivers, deltas and floodplains that drain away into the Bay of Bengal.
It’s also the missing piece of most travellers’ subcontinental jigsaw; the section of the region few visit, in spite of its plentiful rewards. Those who do venture to Bangladesh tend to travel south from the centrally located capital Dhaka. They head towards the wild tiger-infested forests and mangroves of the Sundarbans or to the beaches and hilltribes of Chittagong; they might also seek out an array of Buddhist temples, national parks and elaborate mosques – the country has much to offer. However, instead I would be heading north-east, lured by the prospect of visiting the remote communities that live on the area’s shifting sandbanks, before moving on to the leafy tea plantations and bird-rich wetlands of the north-west.
Islands in the stream – After a day spent exploring the capital – the alleyways and palaces of Old Dhaka, the shipyards along the Buriganga River – it was time to head for Kurigram, gateway to a collection of inhabited sand islands known as the Chars. The overnight Lalmoni Express train was, rather predictably, delayed but platform one of Biman Bandar Station proved to be supreme in its people-watching potential. Some dragged suitcases with broken wheels, others carted live chickens under their arms. Teenagers sat on the tracks, endlessly dodging the stream of trains coming and going. In each cramped carriage, the glow of lit cigarettes illuminated the slumped figures within. Many hours later, after eventually setting off, I woke to an overexposed landscape of wetlands and paddy fields draped in dew and bright early morning light. The train rattled through the serene scene before lurching to a stop at Kaunia.
Outside the station, restaurants served up hot chai and spicy onion omelettes to hungry passengers on plastic chairs. Children as young as about eight rushed around cleaning tables. “Child labour is still an issue here but things are getting better,” said Mustafa. “Everyone has the right to education but many parents prefer their children to go out and work.” While there’s evidently a long way to go, the country has undergone exponential change since its traumatic birth in 1971. Formerly the province of East Pakistan, Bangladesh’s bloody quest for liberation and independence saw millions lose their lives in a war involving West Pakistan, India and local freedom fighters. “My mother told me stories of when war raged across Bangladesh. She moved from Chittagong to a small village for safety. It was a very scary time,” said Mustafa. Stood on the peaceful banks of the Brahmaputra River – or Jamuna, as the Bangladeshis call it – with the Indian border just 15km away, that dark chapter seemed a lifetime ago.
Our small fishing boat was the only vessel navigating the murky waterway that morning but it wasn’t a completely deserted scene. Families had gathered at the water’s edge: fathers and sons clutching fishing rods; mothers and daughters bent at uncomfortable angles to wash clothes in the shallows. Life on the Chars is a constant challenge. This is an ever-changing landscape – every two to three years sees the formation of a new sand island, but in that same time many others may be lost to floods and erosion. It means a never-ending fear of upheaval for the 500,000 people who live here. On Gujimari Char, long skewers of cow dung (valuable fuel for the fire) dried in the sun near a cluster of raised thatched houses built around shady mango trees. Outside one sat 65-year-old Mohammad Majid, who lived on this Char until Mother Nature forced him away aged 20. He returned five years ago.
“I was born here in a house that’s now underwater. That makes me sad but I’m also happy to be home,” he said, casting an eye over the huge mound of recently cultivated rice in his garden. Despite the ongoing fear of losing their homes, few residents choose to relocate to the mainland. “The quality of life is better here. It’s simple, there’s no competition between anyone. We’re all the same. We fish and grow rice together. No need to chase money. I’ve never been to Dhaka or even seen a photo of it. I imagine big buildings and long roads. Would I like to go? No,” he added, shaking his head.
Time for tea – Back on the mainland, I travelled over to the country’s north-west. Our first stop was at the impressive Kantanagar terracotta temple in Dinajpur. Completed in 1752 by the local maharaja, it’s famed for its carvings of elephants, horses and Hindu deities. In the surrounding villages, cosy looking cows rested under old sacks, which has been placed on their backs to keep them warm. We made a pitstop at Mohammad Solaiman’s tea shack, which stood under a palm tree on the road to Dinajpur. Just like every day for the past 15 years, Mohammad juggled the stream of orders while keeping a close eye on the three cast-iron kettles that hissed over a crackling fire. “Everyone stops here for tea,” he said proudly, flashing his paan-stained teeth and scooping spoon after spoon of sugar into my cup – a bargain at just 10 taka (about 8p). I was inclined to believe him.
Everyone in sight appeared to be clutching a cup of his super-sweet milky chai. Most were older men with beards dyed orange and bright red, as though strands of saffron were growing from their chins. Tea is more than just a tipple in Bangladesh. It’s a way of life. And in Srimangal, in the lush north-west, it’s an industry that binds the community together. Amid the pineapple plantations and zesty lime groves are hills and lowlands consumed almost entirely by emerald tea leaves, each shimmering brightly in the sun. Nicknamed Tittle Darjeeling’, Srimangal is home to around 100 tea estates, which employ thousands of local pickers, among them Baroti Baury. I found her hard at work, her fingers deftly swiping the leaves from their stems and depositing them in a cotton bag suspended over her back from her forehead. After 15 years, it’s a skill she’s got down to a tee (pardon the pun) but it’s not one that came naturally.
“My mother taught me. Women are much better at it than men. Our hands are smaller and we’re harder working,” she laughed. “So, how do you take your tea?” I asked. “Black,” replied Baroti, “with a sprinkle of salt.” Baroti was one of a dozen women working in the rows of waist-high bushes that spread across the hillsides in wide ripples. Gazing across the valley, it was almost impossible to see them at first – until a flash of fuchsia sari or a glimmer of golden bangle gave them away. It seemed a pleasant and peaceful place of work but the reality, of course, is not so charming. On average, a worker here earns 55 taka (42p) for every 20kg collected. A good day will see each woman pick 50kg of leaves, meaning a daily wage of little more than £1. Reassuringly, as tourism slowly increases more opportunities are coming to Srimangal, according to Kazi Shamsul Haque, owner of the Nishorgo Ecoresort.
“The last few years have seen a strong increase in visitor numbers,” he told me. “For a long time people didn’t even know about this country of ours but it’s a land rich in culture and nature and one without hordes of tourists. Bangladesh has a bright future.” It’s been eight years since Haque opened the property. The resort is a secluded retreat of six bamboo-and-thatch cottages centred around quiet gardens, where lychee trees sheltered black and red butterflies the size of my palm. Renting bicycles, Mustafa and I explored the equally quiet backroads, pedalling leisurely along deserted lanes and via silent tea plantations – a rare moment of serenity in a country as crazy and chaotic as this. From beyond the distant trees came the cries of crickets; the occasional colourful rickshaw would come around a corner, its w heels squeaking with each rotation. Such tranquillity continued all the way to the village of Khasi, where 150 residents live in clay houses painted red and turquoise.
Laundry hung overhead like bunting; frogs croaked loudly from the undergrowth. Khasi, like many ethnic villages in Bangladesh, has an elected montri (chief). Here, that honour fell to Kalson Phogonten – though he didn’t seem too pleased about it. “I never wished to be Montri. It’s too much duty,” said the pensive 80 year old. “Before that I worked on the plantations, cultivating the land and looking after the teak trees. My days now are spent gossiping with friends about life and business,” he laughed. The cycle ride back to Nishorgo took us through downtown Srimangal, where we joined the throng of tuk-tuks that treated the roads like a Formula One racetrack. We parked up for a stroll around the fresh produce market. Vendors called out with vigour, not for me to stop, browse and buy but merely to say hello. One even sent a note with his son. ‘Hello Mr Well Come’ read the torn piece of card. Another waved from across the road while puffing away on a cigarette placed snugly in his left nostril.
In a flap – Other memorable sights awaited the following day at the nearby Hail Hoar Wetland Sanctuary, a protected patch of wilderness that has become a refuge for rare migratory birds. The local poster boy is the heavily threatened Pallas’s fish eagle. I took in the entire scene from the top of the sanctuary’s watchtower (popular with local birders). However, I got closer to the action in a wooden dugout canoe. In this manner, I glided gently through the lagoon, which was dotted with large water lilies and over which dragonflies hovered like tiny helicopters.
The birdsong was melodic and varied, the chirping and tweeting coming from the dozens of different species that holiday here from as far away as Siberia, east Africa and China. Above, the sky was soft and the palest of blue. Then, in the blink of an eye, the scene went from peacefully placid to anarchic as hundreds of birds took flight, flapping their wings wildly and spreading off in different directions. The calm and the chaos – a fitting juxtaposition that perfectly summed up this intriguing and unpredictable country.