Animal farm

Animals are not easy to spot in the Sundarbans. Tigers are essentially invisible, its mostly deer, monkeys, and birds. But at the Karamjal reserve near the north edge of the forest you can watch deer and crocodiles they have collected from poachers, and are getting ready to release back into the forest.

You can feed the deer; boys sell bundles of juicy grass. The crocodiles are kept in concrete pits, protected by wire fence walls and roof. Seems that these things are truly dangerous. We had seen a couple down in the water at the mangroves, but only the menacing back scales.

Sundarbans

Ok, back to my Bangladesh note backlog, written in the Sundarbans while I had no network and no idea about the developing crisis.

As a protected forest, there is very little traffic here. Fishermen need permits to go here, and they don’t like to stay overnight because of bandits. It’s never been stated explicitly but that appears to be one reason we have an armed guard on the boat. But we did visit a small village near the northern edge of the forest.

Corona in Berlin

It’s a nice spring day in Berlin, and birds are singing in the trees. The streets are unusually quiet, more like on a Sunday than a Thursday. A lot of people work from home. Many nonessential shops are closed. The supermarkets look pretty normal, and not especially busy. But two curious observations indicate that not all is normal:

People buy dry pasta like crazy. Look, I like pasta too, but this is excessive. I have seen five meters of shelves picked completely clean, while at one end four shop employees are restocking as fast as they can from a big palette. I can’t remember ever having seen an empty shelf in a supermarket before. And people do the same thing to toilet paper – surely they know that this a flu, not some form of vicious diarrhea?

I have researched pandemics carefully by reviewing scientific expositions like From Dusk to Dawn, filmed by the renowned researcher Quentin Tarantino in his usual quiet and restrained style. I am convinced anyway that this is not a flu but a zombie apocalypse, based on how people respond to it. And while Americans reach for their pump guns in times of crisis, Germans buy dry pasta and toilet paper. That has got to tell us something profound; I’ll let you know when I figure out what.

Escaping Bangladesh

There’s more to come about Bangladesh because I have been offline so long. But first, a realtime post about my escape from Bangladesh.

The Corona/Covid19 pandemic causes more flight to be canceled, passengers sent to quarantines, and countries closing their borders every day. My original plans to cross over into India and exploring the Andaman Islands became moot when India closed its border, but on the 16th of March it began to look uncertain whether I would be able to return home at all. First step was to fly from Khulna (actually Jessore, where the airport is located) to Dhaka. I would have preferred the train but none was available that day. Once again, my tour guide Arafat from Nijhoom Tours saved the day, and accompagnied me in Dhaka on my quest to find a flight to Berlin from there.

I don’t like Turkish Airlines much but they had a perfect flight from Dhaka to Berlin, via Istanbul. So I booked it and went to Dhaka airport at 4:30 in the morning. But they denied boarding because I have been in Germany in the past two weeks, and they summarily deny even transit in this case.

So I checked with Qatar Airways, whose hub is Doha. Unlike Turkish’s Istanbul, they consider Doha a hub, so while entry to the country of Qatar is proscribed, transit is ok. Qatar’s remote downtown office in Dhaka is closed due to a public holiday, and anyway looks like a menacing concrete block straight out of Blade Runner this early in the morning. So I got myself a room near the airport (Holiday Express) and researched options. In the end, with some difficulty, I got the Qatar flight online and rushed over to the airport to get paper boarding passes. (Qatar loves paper.)

I got my boarding passes but again was denied entry at the gate because there were so few flight itineraries still available that I had to route through Vienna, and Austria requires health certificates from travelers. (For visitors, not transit passengers, but they obviously couldn’t read the Austrian policy document because it’s in German.) It looked like I would have to return to my rented room.

But eventually I did manage to talk the security people into letting me board the flight to Doha, if I promise to change my itinerary when arriving in Doha. That’s quite an example of how solution-oriented Asians tend to be: what would the chances be to talk European security or the US TSA into looking the other way when a formal problem like that appears? But in Bangladesh they understood my problem and solved it. Praise to you, guys.

It took two hours in Doha to indeed change Vienna to Munich. That’s in Germany, and since I have a German passport I can’t be denied entry there. Indeed it took like 30 seconds to pass immigration in Munich and nobody said the C-word. From there to Berlin was a short flight with Lufthansa. They don’t even ask you to remove liquids and stuff at the security checkpoint; flying felt easy like getting on a subway once I reached Germany.

Germany, and Western Europe in general, looks unbelievably posh, elegant, quiet, immaculately clean, and affluent, even the undesirable bits near airports, when you come from a place in Bangladesh. Totally puts our usual first-world problems into stark perspective!

I am writing this article from home. The whole thing took two and a half days during which I barely slept, so if you’ll excuse me I’ll catch some real sleep!

Sundarbans trekking

The Sundarbans are mostly a jigsaw of tiny channels and islands, densely covered with mangrove trees. Still, there are larger dry islands like Jamtoola with a vegetation more like a savannah, and proper sandy beaches. And virtually no shadow in 40-degree heat. I got a slight sunburn through my cap.

The beach used to be mangrove forest too, until a typhoon washed parts of it away. There are still half-buried shipwrecks. The sand is glittering with silver silicates, they make glass from it.

We were glad to be back on our boat and its cold lemonade and cold shower!

Sundarbans boating

The Sundarbans are mangrove forest with a significant tide difference. The trees have aerial roots that poke up from the ground as spikes, mostly half a meter tall but some are as big as phone booths. The spikes can filter salt from the water.

Our big boat followed the main arms of the delta, and we got into our rowboat several times a day to follow the small side channels and look closer at wildlife. There’s less than I expected: many birds, mostly kingfishers; deer, some otters, but no snakes or tigers. There are too few Bengal tigers left to make a sighting likely, about one per 60 square kilometers. Even the cicadas were quiet and discreet.

We had with us a big guy with a fearsome beard and a big ancient rifle to protect us if something goes wrong. What that might be was never adequately explained.

At one point we entered a small channel, passed some bigger boats with motors that scared away all wildlife, to reach the deeper parts of the forest. On the way back the tide was so low that the boat got stuck in the mud. Two of the crew jumped out, up to their waists in the mud, to push us out for the last 500m. They made it look like that’s easy.

Sundarbans

The Sundarbans are a huge mangrove forest. I got on a small tour boat with two others and am exploring the place now. Hiking, rowboats, watching fish walk uphill. Internet is mostly nonexisting, first time I see an Edge signal in three days, so I’ll keep this brief.

On a rocket ship

Down at the Buriganga river in Dhaka, passenger ships leave for the delta. A few are special: century-old wooden paddle steamers. Only four are left. It’s called the Rocket because it was the fastest thing on the river.

First class is in the front, with a dining area and an observation deck at the bow. First class has a butler. Second class is in the back, and third class is a big open space in the middle where locals sleep on blankets on the floor.

The Rocket is a supremely civilized way too travel on the river, it feels like Hercule Poirot would walk in at any moment demanding to know who killed the countess.

All about Dhaka

Dhaka is not a tourist destination and does not have tons of attractions. Today I was trying to best to mop up what they have. There’s the modest Hindu Dhakeshari temple with the usual colorful paint and cast of deities, the modest Lalbag Fort Masjid in a large well-tended green park, the modest Star mosque with its beautiful white mosaic vault ceiling that a caretaker with an impressive white beard opened for me (baksheesh), and various other modest churches.

On the way back to the hotel I passed through Hindu Street, and it so happened that they were celebrating Holi, the Indian color festival. I have been at one twice before in India. It involves throwing powdered paint at everyone and soaking people with water guns containing colored water. Of course I didn’t escape either, and didn’t try to, so my cheeks and shirt are now a bright violet, green, and gold. Fun!

Taj Mahal

They have a copy of India’s Taj Mahal about an hour north of Sonargaon. Much smaller, less intricate, and somehow totally failing to inspire the grandeur and awe of the real thing, but it’s filled with happy people (more selfies) and a pleasant place to hang out and breathe.

You see, Dhaka is the most polluted megacity in the world. Beijing is number two. It feels good to just breathe normally out here in Bangladesh’s green countryside. If only the highway that my tuk-tuk used to get me there wasn’t packed with ancient large trucks belching diesel fumes. The tuk-tuk used the curb to pass trucks, sometimes leaning dangerously, except in that one place where a decomposing cow blocked the way. The informal traffic rules here also permit turning into oncoming traffic, which then somehow manages to avoid a collision. Usually. Eventually I had to head back to Dhaka, and as always, friendly people helped me find the right bus.

Ghost town

Sonargaon is the former royal city of Bangladesh, 300 years ago. It’s now a modern town an hour east of Dhaka, but a cluster of 52 magnificent mansions were preserved in an archeological park. Most are more or less in ruins, but the place still has a strong Indiana Jones vibe to it. Most mansions had a sign “risky building” but there are very few fences or locks. I got a guide who actually lives in one of these buildings, who took me up to the high terraces.

As before I am the only European visitor. Everyone else is from Bangladesh, mostly students. And they all want selfies. My mean free path between selfie requests was something like 20 meters. Everyone was very polite about it, used their finest English, and handed smartphones around. I should charge for this.

Dhaka in Bangladesh

We all know Bangladesh as the place where the T-shirts are coming from, but of course there’s more to this country than that. I am in Dhaka, the capital with a population of 17 million. It’s an incredibly busy, loud, and colorful city, yet still very much developing. Everything is packed with bicycle rickshaws and buses so beaten up that there isn’t a straight line on any of them.

Down at the river, where wooden boats and rickshaws and even a few trucks are loaded and unloaded, it’s so packed that it’s impossible to even stop anywhere; the mass of humanity pushes everyone along. Normally it’s a good thing that I am a head or two taller then everyone else, but here that’s a problem because I can’t squeeze through the smallest gaps or get hit in the head by people carrying baskets on their heads. Chaos!

I have seen no other tourist today. This place is truly undeveloped. People call out to me all the time, smiling and doing their best to chat in English. The few who have smartphones want selfies with me, all the time. Especially around the former palace, now a very dimly lit museum with some stuff in it. I am grateful for the brief respite from Dhaka’s maelstrom of people and rickshaws!

Limassol

Limassol is at the southern coast of Cyprus. It feels like a tired old industrial city that has suddenly discovered that it sits right at the Mediterranean sea, and tourists seem to appreciate that, so they had some architect pour a lot of concrete at the old harbor promenade, and pedestrianized a few blocks where the buildings don’t look like a tired old industrial city.

They tick all the boxes, there’s a small castle and some churches and bars and souvenir shops… But somehow it doesn’t add up to a place that one would expect between Paphos and Larnaka.

Diving

Diving at Paphos is easy, relaxed, and boring compared to the Zenobia wreck at Larnaka. But then almost any dive is boring compared to the Zenobia.They have some narrow tunnels with openings so narrow that one must touch on both sides to squeeze through. Normally divers never touch anything, but there is only rocks, sand, and seagrass here. And tires and soda cans.

Paphos

Paphos is near the western tip of Cyprus. It’s a vacation town like Larnaka, but much friendlier. Much less traffic and no large hotel blocks, and no McDonald’s. Still synthetic and very touristic, but it’s nice to walk here.

New Paphos is at the northern end of Paphos. “New” is a little misleading because it’s over 2300 years old. The buildings are gone, most of the ruins are less than a meter tall – but an incredible number of intricate floor mosaics have survived. The House of Dionysos alone, now covered by a wooden structure, contains 550 square meters of mostly intact mosaics detailing Greek legends.

Further north are the Tombs of the Kings, mostly underground caverns hewn into the rock. They are unique in Cyprus because they were built in an Egyptian style. Like most tombs in Egypt, they were plundered centuries ago.

Divided Nicosia

After German reunification, Nicosia is now the last divided city in Europe. Right in the middle is the Green Line, an inaccessible strip filled with ruins and watchtowers, dividing the Turkish north and the Greek south. It’s a simple formality to cross from one to the other at the Ledra Street checkpoint though. There is a bar called Berlin Wall N. 2 Checkpoint Charlie right at a barbed wire roadblock in the south. All points of interest are inside the old circular Venetian city walls.

Where South Nicosia has shopping streets and orthodox churches, North Nicosia has bazaars and mosques. The south has western polish and is clearly more affluent, but the north feels more authentic. Lots of ancient Ottoman-era buildings in the north, although many are badly damaged and neglected. The north has too many cars; the south has WAY too many cars.

Kyrenia

It might seem that in Cyprus, all the best bits are in ruins or wrecks, but the city of Kyrenia on the north coast is beautiful too. It has a wonderful ancient feel, especially around the old harbor, which is packed with restaurants and yachts. The castle at the eastern end of the harbor is mostly intact and houses several museums.

Also went to the Bellapais monastery for my daily fix of ruins.

St. Hilarion castle

It helps to arrive early, before the tour groups. St Hilarion is a huge castle ruin on top of the highest and steepest mountain above the city of Kyrenia, a.k.a Girne, on the north coast, and for a while I had it all to myself.

If you were asked to invent a fairytale castle ruin and given loads of pencils, it would look like St. Hilarion. Lots of halls, vaults, little passages, countless stairs, and all with great views of the hills, the city below, and the Mediterranean sea. And gunshots, there’s a big army shooting range right next to it.

Salamis ruins

The ancient city of Salamis is over 3000 years old. It has been conquered by pretty much everyone in the region, and is in ruins today. Much of what one can see today was built by the Romans. Salamis is 12km north of Famagusta.

For an an admission price of €3.50 one gets to see the huge bathhouse, an amphitheater that is still used today, and square kilometers of scattered ruins with great sea views. From what’s left – marble columns, mosaics and marble floors, huge arches, heated floors – it’s obvious how much luxury they could afford in Roman times.

Lots of walking today, over 23km…

Turkish Cyprus

Crossing the border between the southern Republic of Cyprus to the Turkish north at the Derineia checkpoint is an experience. A normal city bus stops at the south side, then it’s a short walk to the two checkpoints.

On the Turkish side, the world ends.There is nothing there. For several kilometers, there is only barbed wire and ruins as far as one can see. It’s a lifeless wilderness with no buses, taxis, or people. Replace the gray weeds with sand and it would feel like a Mad Max movie. Probably a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion. I had to walk 6.5km to the city of Famagusta, my destination today.

Famagusta is charming, much more than Larnaka. It has a city wall, several picturesque half-ruined churches, a very walkable old town, and friendly people. It’s not an EU member, so mobile data went from essentially free to catastrophically expensive (€12373/GB), but everybody accepts euros. Got a beautiful apartment at Malia Let.

Zenobia wreck diving

MS Zenobia is a ferry that sank 40 years ago just off the coast of Larnaka on her maiden voyage, due to a software bug. It’s enormous – 178 meters long and 28 meters wide. It has three cargo decks and was carrying, among other cargo, 104 tractor-trailer trucks. It’s now one of the top ten scuba diving sites of the world.

It’s now resting on its side at a depth of 42 meters. Trucks are scattered around it. Most decks can be visited, but parts that aren’t steel have collapsed, creating big internal spaces. We went through the length of the upper passenger deck, through a series of narrow doors, 60 meters total. Lots of fallen partitions, cables, carpet shreds, toilets, and the forward gallery that is now a cavernous space reaching from the top of the wreck to the seafloor. Very impressive!

Cyprus

Cyprus is a large island near the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It’s in Europe, although Asian Turkey is not far to the north, and Syria, Lebanon, and Israel are not far to the east. Cyprus is divided into the Turkish north, and the Republic of Cyprus in the south which is an EU member country, speaks Greek, and uses the euro.

The city of Larnaka is in the south. People come here for the beaches. Historic buildings are few and eclipsed by countless faceless hotels, strangled by slow-moving car traffic. The beaches are lined with fast-food restaurants; it takes some effort to find good food. Larnaka doesn’t have much charm during the day but awakes at night. Well, I am not here for a beach vacation.

More Tirana

Nightlife in Tirana also looks a lot like in western cities. It’s cooler in the evening and people fill the numerous cafés, especially in Tirana’s new hip party district, Blloku. That means “block” and it was reserved for the communist party elite. They didn’t seem to have seen the contradiction in this term.

Joined a walking tour to get some local background. Albania went from a totally isolated stone-age communist open-air prison to democracy in 1991, and it was not easy for the older generation. Suddenly they had unheard-of new things, like bananas, Coca Cola, banks, money instead of vouchers, supermarkets, and cars. (Driving licenses came later.) People started calling all these new things “banana” and proudly placed empty Coca Cola bottles on their mantelpieces. The younger generation caught on very quickly.

Today Albanian identity – according to the guide – is defined by four things: the country, the language, driving a Mercedes, and raki schnapps.

Tirana

Tirana, the capital of Albania, evokes images of old bearded men riding donkeys through a Soviet-era concrete wasteland. In reality Tirana is a modern European capital. Many parks, small streets lined with old trees, international shops, and bakeries, bars, and restaurants that would thrive in Paris or Berlin. Not only in the center but out in the suburbs too. The communist past rarely shines through, but there is no ancient town, most construction dates from the 20th century. A very friendly city!

At the eastern edge of the city, near a funicular to the top of Dajti hill, is Enver Hoxha’s command bunker. It’s absolutely huge, far larger than the one in Gjirokastra. Much of it is a museum describing the time of WWII and communism, but there are complete apartments and communication rooms filled with original equipment too, and art installations including one that simulates a mustard gas attack. I didn’t know they had gas masks for horses. They even had an enormous theater extending over two floors. None of this was ever used.

Downtown is a curious structure built by Enver Hoxha and his daughter as a cultural center. It’s a pyramid with narrow glass strips extending from the ground to the top. It’s completely smashed, even higher up because it’s shallow enough to walk up.

Adriatic coast

Albania has a long coastline, opposite Italy. I felt that I should have a brief look at this part of the country too. I chose Golem Beach near Durrës because it’s close to Tirana, the capital.

It’s pretty similar to any mass tourism place around the Mediterranean: a chain of hotels along the coast and another row behind that, uninspired architecture, and countless umbrellas and recliners on the beach (first picture). At least the beach is sandy here; elsewhere there are often pebbles. I was anticipating that and got an upscale resort away from the masses.

I don’t actually enjoy beaches much, but a few hours in the warm water and in the shadows at the edge of the water was fun. The food is… unrefined. The hotel has its own gun emplacement, a communist legacy.

Përmet

East from Gjirokastra, higher up in the mountains, without 300-year old Ottoman architecture but also not really discovered by tourist hordes, is the small town Përmet. It’s uncharacteristically flat, built along a river, but the true attraction are the mountain villages above.

Getting there means climbing, some steep 550 meters to the two I chose, Lipë and Leus. The latter has an orthodox church with fantastic paintings, for a village consisting of little more than wooden shacks for animals and people. Some people have odd priorities. The weather is extremely hot, but there are wells with cold fresh mountain water.

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra is another world heritage town further south, less than 30km from the Greek border. It seems that every town in Albania has several hundred meters to climb on steep, cobblestoned alleys from one side to the other, and Gjirokastra is no exception. It so happened that the bus stop is at the bottom and my chosen hotel at the top. In between is a gleaming white Ottoman-era old town, centered on the bazaar neighborhood.

Also at the top is an amazingly well-preserved castle with imposing arched hallways, now housing WWII guns, and a tiny Fiat tank that looks like its mother had an affair with a steam locomotive. It seems that they were no good in battle and only three are still in existence.

Deep underneath the castle is a huge depressing bunker made from connected tunnels where all the important people were supposed to be when any of the communist leader Enver Hoxha’s numerous enemies decided to attack. It was finished in 1980 and never used.

Berat

Shkodra is in the north of Albania and Berat is in the south, but Albania is not a large country so I got to Berat just after noon. Berat is a UNESCO world heritage site for its fully preserved Ottoman-era old town and its castle on top of a hill, all with narrow twisting cobblestone alleys and properly picturesque ruins. They also make excellent ice cream.

Shkodra

Accursed mountains ought to be difficult to leave, wouldn’t be much of a curse otherwise. Theth certainly is; sixteen kilometers on the most brutally potholed gravel path at the edge of the mountains at little more than walking speed makes sure of that. I half expected bats chasing us. It didn’t help that I got the child seats in the back of someone’s 4WD, next to the world’s biggest reserve fuel container. The panoramas made up for the inconvenience, as always.

So I made it back to Shkodra, with enough time for some of the lical attractions. You’ll find the iconic Mesi bridge in every travel guide, but strangely enough, none of the pictures show the much bigger modern concrete bridge right next to it. On the other side of Shkodra, the Rozafa Castle ruins shouldn’t be missed. Great views of the town, the mountains, and the huge Lake Skadar from its walls.

Hiking in the Accursed Mountains

Nobody seems to know how the mountains in northern Albania got this name. They are certainly arid and empty, few people live here. The most popular trail runs from Valbonë to Theth, some 21km to the west.That doesn’t sound like much, but I ended up climbing some 1200 meters on often slippery paths, at a continuous unrelenting 20-25% grade. That’s like walking up the crumbling stairs to the top of a 400-floor skyscraper! With snow in the top 40 floors. Fortunately much of the descent was on easy and soft – but still steep – forest floor. I was seriously tired when I finally arrived in the tiny village of Theth. Fort the innkeeper in Valbonë had packed a picnic for me with bread and a soft, coarse sausage.The vistas made up for the exercise. Beautiful mountain panoramas at every turn!