It peeved me that I had no time to take a second stab at the Liberation War Museum this morning, which ordinarily I might have managed to squeeze in had it not kept such late opening hours. I got a shock when I hit the street in that after endless days of blazing sunshine, sods law had conspired to make it overcast. I would not get my grandstand view of green carpeted Bangladesh as I flew up to Sylhet as assumed. The best laid plans....... There was a choice between wrestling with another lengthy maniac bus ride or having brekkie before securing a Baby Taxi out to the airport. Grub got the vote since a speedy motor rickshaw would still only cost me about 80p. In fact a first boy chanced for more and a second wanted to use the meter which I rebuffed. Despite agreeing "Eksho Taka" (100) he kept it running and and it ran up to 99 in the end, not such a rip off after all. The small domestic terminal was remarkably quiet and orderly, with no queue at Check In and cheap Nescafe to be had. Blue helmeted cops resembling UN troops sporting shotguns milled about as I had a quick chat with a rare foreigner, a Dutch woman, and then with no announcement or even staff evident I had to guess at jumping on a bus airside to the aircraft. It was always part of the plan to fly the national carrier wherever possible whilst travelling, though most tend to be inefficient propped-up ventures and thus commensurately expensive. Flying Biman Bangladesh had been a special dream however since not only did they fly now very rare aging Fokker F-28 Fellowships but perversely they were renowned for having one of the worlds worst safety records. Perhaps that could be excused in part in a country which suffered cyclones and monsoons, but they only had Category 2 clearance, effectively banning them from flying to Europe and North America. On board there was a vague mumbled welcoming announcement, the only discernible part to me being the thrice repeated Koranic mantra of Allah Akhbar etc, whereupon a bored stoney faced flight attendant lamely demonstrated the seat belt action before limping off disinterested, not bothering to point out the emergency exits. With no word from the cockpit crew either and barely able to see outside, the windows were so scratched as to be almost opaque, we took off and proceeded to bump up and down along the roof of the cloud layer. The short hop to Sylhet ended with the aircraft groaning to a halt like a London bus but bingo, we had sunshine. Surprisingly, Sylhet was an international gateway, I knew that it served Haj flights if nothing else, but the heavy yet lax security took my word for it that I was domestic and waved me through unchecked. I had hoped to bag a cheap seat in a Tempo into town, a mini Suzuki cattle class pick up, but surprisingly there were no other takers. I eventually ended up having to plump for another Baby Taxi whereupon I got an impromptu tour of the city as the boy searched out the Hotel Asia in vain. No-one knew it and I had to resort to giving him directions from the guidebook and just dropping me in the rough environs. He still had the gall to ask for more though. The hotel turned out to be a building site with a new front facade being put on it seemed, the stairway was an assault course under low bamboo scaffolding and around piles of bricks. You could have very easily fallen out and down 4 floors onto the hectic street below.
Safely ensconced, I bagged a rickshaw for the trip out to the Osmani Museum, but the young boy got the wrong end of the stick and took me to the hospital instead. In trying to rectify the situation I gave up on his poor street knowledge and wound up in the middle of nowhere perplexed. Fortunately, more friendly locals between them managed to direct a second guy to the right spot, and the museum turned out to be just a tin roofed villa, notably devoid of visitors. It was on the way that I witnessed a very poor neighbourhood bordering the grungy river, spanned by the impressive bright red painted Keane Bridge.
Though of lightweight interest, a visit to the Osmani Museum was in part a substitute for my failure to catch the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. It had been the home of M.A.G. Osmani, 1918-1984, the Commander in Chief of the East Pakistani Army who helped secure independence from West Pakistan in 1971. He sported a very dapper bushy white moustache. A very large map on display here was used by him to calculate manouvres. Besides uninspiring furniture and personal effects, there were many medals and presentation pins from Warsaw Pact nations, notably one from East Germany "For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity" and most bizzarely another from West Yorkshire County Council! Other unusual momentos were a copper etching of The Cross, Chester, England, a glass tray depicting HMS Victory and perhaps tellingly, the crest of the National Defence College, UK. Amongst a few books was "The Turning Point of Socialism" and there were photos of him with despotic looking General Zia, the future President. Another photo of him receiving a guard of honour belied the very poor rudimentary nature of the Bangladeshi Army upon secession in 1971. In another show of "the enemy of my enemy", a signed card was displayed from Indira Gandhi. Many large prints around the walls depicted for example "The horrors of the night of 25/3/1971, the genocide and atrocities of the Pakistani Army at Dhaka University", also "The inhabitants of Sylhet fleeing across the border to escape from the oppressive genocide of the Pakistani Army". The final one was suitably entitled "Surrender of the Pakistani Army 16/12/1971". It was upon that date that Bangladesh found her hard won independence but I subsequently learned that the aforementioned Air Force flypast et al was due to it actually being commemorated on the night of the 25th of March, the anniversary of the beginning of the insurrection when many students and professors were "martyred" for the country at Dhaka Uni.
Just around the corner the Hindu Ramakrishna Mission appeared uninspiring and uninviting in equal measure so I hoofed it across town dodging streetkids, beggars, rickshaws and building work amidst contrasting affluent developments. I had had a chance encounter with some UK resident Bangladeshis at the airport which epitomised the dichotomy of Sylhet, with lots of foreign remittances pumped into up-market ventures whilst doing little to address its more fundamental concerns. I could not be sure if this was an explanation for the considerable quantity of construction work going on around town, especially of front facades, but together with the shocking state of the roads it did rather remind me of earthquake wracked Bam in Iran. Having already sussed the city due to my earlier errant wanderings, I found the cities highlight with ease, a Moslem shrine to a 14th century Sufi Mystic, Hazrat Shaha Jalal. You were never quite sure if you were welcome in such places but I wandered through the cemetery lined complex of destitute people, pools of holy catfish and a pretty, immaculate domed archway. This conveniently led me back in a circle where I grabbed the timely opportunity of hitting the GMG Airlines office, encountering a pleasingly faced and appropriately buxom dead ringer for Tara, a girl I had worked with at the ferry terminal at Rosyth, and a very contrasting tall elegant Burmese beauty whose clothes I instinctively wanted to rip off. It was a pressing concern that I had less than a week to leave Bangladesh yet still didnt have my flight sorted out, the difficulty in assimilating information and bagging my exit permit had hitherto precluded it. I had had to stipulate on that permit my intended exit point and had elected Chittagong the second city, since leaving that South Eastern "Division" of Bangladesh until last, it would save me backtracking to Dhaka. It also had the added benefit of being slightly cheaper but at over 130 quid for the one way flight to Bangkok it was anything but cheap. It all seemed inconsequential however when the required flight was deemed to be "no seat" by Miss Myanmar, it was booked out. Facing disaster, I frantically tried to sum up the alternatives, there were a few but all problematic. The same route with Thai Airways was a little dearer but more importantly would require me overstaying my visa by 2 days, even dubiously assuming that there was availability. Perversely, for the same money, I could have otherwise flown in the opposite direction and connected through Kolkata onto a very cheap Jet Airways flight, but the schedules conspired to make the transfer impossible. With my multiple entry Indian visa now sadly expired, I could only have done it by sitting it out for 24 hours in Kolkata airport transfer lounge. Thanks but no thanks. As I sat pondering the gravity of the situation Tara lit a candle in the darkness by suggesting a way out. She would simply try to book it and see if their system would accept it. And we got a result! Inspite of the air-con it was noticeably warmer inside the office than outside and I gave my brow one extra wipe. I had also threatened to fly the cheap hop up from Cox's Bazar and just transfer through Chittagong but again the schedule didnt allow it. No matter though, the main deal was in the bag and for good measure GMG got one up on Biman by having the good grace to accept my Mastercard. Proferring Tara my finest "onek don-nobad" (thanks very much), I had a flashback to when I had been scouring Dunfermline for the initial flight to start my trip and found the real Tara now working in a Kingsgate travel agency. If only they could meet. One celebratory bottle of Sprite later, well it was Bangladesh after all, another job of a similar ilk had to be ticked off the list with the last of the light, a trail out to the unexpectedly impressive and modern railway station which had the added benefit of taking me over the ever interesting river. The Keane Bridge, named as always after some colonial bigwig, was a striking but very narrow affair with a throng of pedestrians and rickshaws streaming across it with a density only the subcontintent could muster. A local quirk was the scramble of attendant "rickshaw pushers" who for 2 Taka a go would help the hard pedalling rickshaw wallah by pushing it over the camber of the bridge. The melee of humanity continued all the way to the station with curiously many clock shops along the way to remind me that I thought I had lost mine today for the second time of my trip. The architecturally extravagant terminal proved to be just a hollow shell with the ticket counters outside, a curiosity further mystified by the lack of queues and a super efficient modern computer booking system. The old boy with booming English even switched on a dedicated customers screen for me to check that my request for a one way Sylhet to Shrimangal the next morning was correct. Its departure was a little later than what I had hoped for and the buses were still an option, but at 50p a pop for the 2 hour journey I booked it anyway and had my printed ticket in seconds. Most impressive for Bangladesh. Fighting through a bus park and past many more rickshaws careering around in the darkness, I finally allowed myself a reprieve of sorts back at the hotel where mercifully I found my errant clock and washed sweat encrusted socks. In so doing I discovered that my shower was not actually there to be had, but 2 of the worlds biggest cockroaches had been thrown in by way of compensation. A real bonus of the hotel was the resident restaurant, now with al fresco dining courtesy of the missing facade, where I happened to spy Monglai, a very large square crusty pastry filled with eggs, onions and chilis. Together with a unusual sweet and sour sauce and habitual cucumber, it was the scrummiest thing I had eaten in a long time. The magnetic and overattentive bow tied service excelled themselves in produing a good cup of Nescafe, and I treated myself to a second one to watch Bangladesh getting trounced by Sri Lanka in the Cricket World Cup. With Sri Lanka batting, I stayed just long enough to see the place erupt as the first wicket fell, an amazing catch where one of the Teenage Tigers parried the ball upwards with one hand then caught it with the other. All that was left was a nip out to secure a bottle of water (as ever), finding the night time streetlife an amazingly energetic, tragic maelstrom of anyone and everyone selling whatever they had for whatever they could get. More hellos, more friendly stares, it re-affirmed that the people here were absolutely top drawer.