Monday, 20 April 2009

The Jalalabad Express

Just as in the name of the Macdonald’s ‘Big Tasty’, only one word of the title is actually accurate, so it was with our epic journey on a train calling itself the ‘Jalalabad Express’. Surely this one train journey was to be the most unusual journey of our lives?
At the reservation counter, the clerk seemed amazed that we were proposing a journey on the Jalalabad Express. He barked: “No first class”. We said that we didn’t travel first class, so he interrupted: “No a/c”. Fine, as we like the wind blustering in from the open windows. “No Sulob” (This means second class.) How about a bunk then? “No sleeper” Ahhhh, this wasn’t going very well really, was it? “No electricity”. Oh dear. But Jon and Simon aren’t going to be put off by minor details such as comfort and lighting are they? “Then you go counter number nine”. So we did. There was nobody there…
After a chat with the Station Master and his assistant, they were very anxious to put us on a more luxurious train the following day:
“No, this is no good train. This dirty train.” Oh dear. But it’s travel experiences our two intrepid explorers are after, and no amount of fobbing-off would work. Eventually they end up on the correct platform, where, to put the icing on the cake, the guard blurted out:
“This dangerous train”.
Our hearts sank as the train pulled into the ‘old station’, a short walk with our cumbersome backpacks from the modern concourse of the station for the intercity trains. This old station was strewn with sacks of produce, boxes of iced fish, weird old men eager to chat in Bangla and broken English, whilst the platform was awash with thick, black grease. Then the powercut kicked in.
We were, once again, left in the dark with all of our valuables, about to board a dark, dingy, dirty, dangerous local train. The train guard approached us and he kindly took us onto the train; into the carriage closest to where the train guards sit, in case we were to have any problems. This was reassuring, and to be on the safe side, we chained our huge backpacks to the overhead metal racks using chains that we bought in India.
Luckily for us, we boarded the train about half an hour before the train was due to depart so that we could get good seats. Well, “good” is certainly not the word, but what I want to say is that our seats were together and by the window. The seats were made entirely of stained and rusting metal. There was no cushioning and we weren’t relishing the idea of travelling for eleven hours like that. Thanks, Simon, for bringing inflatable pillows that we used as cushions.
Joining us on the train were armed security guards who were very interested to find out about us and what our country is like. The engine initiated our departure to Srimangal with a huge roaring sound, and upon moving we could feel ‘bump’ ‘bump’ ‘bump’ under our seats as the wheels of the train moved across the joints in the ancient rails. The engine also provided just enough power for a single, sorry-looking light bulb in the ceiling to glow slightly, barely illuminating the sea of dull faces surrounding us. Fortunately, as the train picked up a little speed, a dynamo gave the bulb much more power. Unfortunately, this allowed us to see our travelling companions in more detail…
We managed to doze occasionally on the train, but what sleep we did have was no compensation for a good night’s sleep in a decent bed. There is something very different about Bangladesh railways in comparison to India (or for that matter, everyday life). Here in Bangladesh we still have the chai-wallahs, pani salesmen, snack vendors and beggars, but it’s not done with anything like the same panache and vigour. There’s a deep dullness to the grind of scraping a living here, and the travelling musicians who make the Indian trains pulsate with vibrancy are entirely absent. All we hear is the mournful intonation of Islamic beggars. The fragrant smells of Hindu garlands and incense, of course, are also missing. The only compensation is the individual warmth of all the people: whilst milling around with blank looks on their faces, the moment they spot us, suddenly they smile.
Having left Chittagong city with a mental picture of hectic, noisy Bangladeshi life in our heads, it was extremely pleasant waking up after another small doze at dawn, only to be surrounded by tea, tea and more tea. A savannah-like lanscape of sparse tall green trees with a low covering of tea bushes surrounded us. It was a unique moment that made us feel so far away from it all!

We stop at Satgaon and two men get on, carrying two huge churns balanced across their shoulders, and for the rest of their short journey, they keep the churns slowly in motion. This is rural Bangladesh at its very best.
When we finally reached Srimangal, it was so easy to locate everything. This town, although dead at six in the morning when we arrived, livens up to be a small but happening town nestled in amongst the tea plantations.
We checked into our hotel and had a snooze before getting to know this quaint, little town and taking a rickshaw out to the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (BTRI). Before we left, there was a knock at our door and it was a young man named Russell. This is a man who works for Classic Tours, a company who we may have spent a couple of hours trying to find. Isn’t it great that he so happened to find us first?!
At least we have our bicycle rental sorted out for tomorrow now, so we will meet him here, at the hotel where we are staying, before setting off into the rolling hills of tea. The final thing that HAD to be done was to seek out some cake!


  1. Thr train ride sounded fascinating. The scenery looks idyllic. The people of India sound so lovely amd friendly. Wish I was there. You could have done a TV series about your travels! Thanks for writing such interesting blogs they are brill. Love Nataliexx

  2. Funny I thort that yesterday... a TV series... this was the best blog yet !