After a tedious two hours to get through customs, we met a person from the B&B and left the airport. We were only going 5km, however we had managed to arrive right at the conclusion of a huge religious festival. Add to this a hartal (a strike that included transport blockades) regarding political unrest, and it took one and a half hours to make it to our destination. Not only was it excruciatingly long, but also quite scary as we passed through a blockade which was being guarded by the military, complete with riot gear, guns, batons, and tanks. Driving through the middle of it with people yelling, scuffling, and hitting the car was not what we were expecting. But we got through the millions of people (5 million people was what we read in the paper!) and arrived pretty frazzled.
The B&B was located in a very poor area, right next to the most affluent area in the city. It was quite an experience walking around the muddy lanes and alleyways, each one crowded with people, rickshaws and dogs (?!). We went for an early dinner with our host who showed us the best local eatery and had a delicious curry. It was so good that we ended up revisiting 3 more times during our stay.
We had grand aspirations of visiting Old Dhaka and the surrounding sites. However, the hartal continued the next day and our host, as well as the local papers and government advisories advised against any travelling across the city. (It was advise that we were glad that we heeded after we saw reports of arson attacks and violence throughout the city in the morning papers the following day.) So we ended up walking to the neighbourhood of Gulshan, a very affluent neighbourhood that housed most of the embassies.
Our day walking and exploring showed us one thing in particular: Dhaka is crazy. Hectic is not the word. There are millions of people everywhere, along with motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, and cars, all of which seem to be aimed directly at us. It took immense concentration while walking to not be hit by something/someone! Which is made even more difficult by the state of the roads and ‘footpaths’. Each step was an adventure. We have never seen such chaos and immense crowds…it made Ho Chi Minh City seem like a quiet rural village!
The following day the hartal had finished, and everything was reported to be back to normal. Unfortunately however, our first 48 hours had been so eventful and full of cautions that we were emotionally on the back foot. We walked further into Gulshan and explored the area more. It was during this day that we found out just how friendly Bangladeshi people are. Everyone smiled at us, offered help when asked, and were generally amazing people.
The following day we took our first auto-rickshaw ride to the train station to get tickets to the northern town of Sylhet. We were helped by a lovely guy who we chatted with for a while, and were amazed to find out that he was studying Korean. A small conversation in pigeon Korean ensued before we went to a lake area close to our B&B. (We had intended to spend some at a closeby mall, but it was closed.) We needed a rather peaceful afternoon after several days in the chaos.
We were up early the next morning to catch the train. Then we were told that there was another hartal. Crap. We went to the train station anyway (as trains were reported as being the only transport that was allowed to move and were quite safe) and asked around the thousands of people about our train. We befriended a university student who told us that they were announcing a 3 hour delay. We didn’t mind too much, as it was quite fun drawing huge crowds around us, posing for numerous photos, and talking about the upcoming cricket world cup. However we then found out from our new friend that he had come from Sylhet the previous day, and that instead of taking 4 hours, the train had taken 15 hours due to the hartal. He said, along with a few others in the ever changing circle around us, that it will be the same today. Which would mean that we would arrive into Sylhet around 1am. Given that we had be warned not to stay out at night, plus the facts that the hartal had no end date, taxis would not be running during the hartal, the possibility of violence, and the possibility of being stranded, we decided to stay in Dhaka that night. We found a hotel near the train station and, after a short discussion, we also decided to leave the country early. Travelling just didn’t seem possible or viable with everything going on. So we booked a flight to Kathmandu for the next day.
Despite only having 5 days in Bangladesh, we got a pretty good taste of the country (well, Dhaka anyway) and it’s people. Being a Muslim country, you don’t often see many women. But when you do, the clothes that they wear are so colourful and vibrant that it just about takes your breath away. Add to that the amazing hospitality and friendliness that we experienced from literally everyone that we saw, and Bangladesh is now for us the friendliest country that we have ever visited. Which makes the strikes and problems that they are having that much sadder.
Finally, as we were on the plane to Kathmandu (in the smallest plane seats ever invented!), we read a newspaper article about the strikes. The headline featured a picture of thousands of people sleeping at the train station. Turns out the train never did come…