South to Maldah aka English Bazar - Bangladesh + India x 2 - CycleBlaze

December 6, 2010

South to Maldah aka English Bazar

ancient relics at Padua and Adina

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When I got to Gajol last night in the dark at around 5:30, the main north-south road was still busy, with horns blaring from practically every motorized vehicle on the move - cars, buses, trucks. 

This is a route to avoid when pedaling south, although it's got to be the most direct one - that's what crosses my mind. But I'll ask around about a 'cycle road' and take my time. There are around 27 flat kilometres south to Maldah -- so, yes, an easy day today. 

The road that was mayhem last night is eerily quiet and what I concluded about riding along it has been challenged. It's early - before seven - and nothing is open yet. 

My chain has been given some oil and I start pedaling south. We'll see. Breakfast can wait.

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The trucks come in batches, their horns blasting with abandon and futility. I nip onto the shoulder when they overtake each other - it's the oncoming ones I have to watch out for. Maniacs. My rear-view Cateye mirror is a godsend and a must here. The shoulder is either packed gravel of dried mud. 

The sun is low and it's cool in short sleeves at this hour.

I just press on and there are no milestones, which is rather odd for a main highway. 

It gets to eight and time for breakfast, but where is Padua. I stop and ask and I must have passed it a guy says - it's now only eight kilometres to Maldah. I'm not going back. The place must be tucked off this road somewhere and yet my Nelles map doesn't show it anywhere other than on this very route. It's a bit annoying.

Padua is about 14 km away, so 30-odd-minutes' ride. Not too bad. 

At the edge of Gojal I brake when I see a compressor and air hose - five rupees and my tyres are nice and hard and roll seemingly faster along the tarmac, or at least a tad more easily

Maldah appears to be the usual crowded town with its share of garbage-strewn kerbs, but the first hotel looks quite swanky. I enquire and get quoted 315 rupees for a single, which is reasonable, but the drawback is they don't have computer access on Sundays for personal reasons. 

The receptionist kindly directs me up the road to another hotel and once there they say the room price is 500 rupees and when I view it, it seems overpriced and there's no Wi-fi, so I pedal back to the first one and realise it's still only 9:00 AM a time when most people are checking out, not in. 

Some of my clothes get washed in a plastic bucket in the roomy bathroom and hung on the 2-metre-long nylon line that I brought with me and which I hook across from the doorknob to the steel window grill. The water turns murky brown; my yellow wool jersey is the most heavily soiled item and this lemon-powered Wheel powder is finding it hard work to cleanse it, although I reckon it's taken a couple of layers of skin off my fingertips.

According to this old Nelles map, Maldah - also known as English Bazaar - is an ancient capital, but the helpful receptionist says there's zilch here now. It's back in Padua, or down the road in a place called Gual. I've never heard of it and look at my map and wonder.

What now. A bus to Padua is doable. That road is not cycling friendly. 

After a visit to an internet place that I clocked while flitting between hotels this morning and a splendid chicken korma in the hotel's restaurant, I opt to hop on a bus that will zip me north. Padua it is.

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A young man, Abdul - whom I wrongly presume to be the ticket guy - is obviously glad to make my acquaintance and becomes a self-appointed best friend, giving me the lowdown on the area's historical significance and showing me where to get off. He proceeds to lead me enthusiastically to the site that's furthest from Maldah. It's actually in a place called Adina, some 18 km north of the city. There's no sign on the road and the structure is set back about 50 metres, so is easily missed. No wonder I cycled by oblivious to it.

Abdul whisks me around the ancient red-brick mosque, which he says was once the world's largest. It's still number two, he reckons, but I'm dubious. A sign at the entrance informs in English that it dates from the 1360s.

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There's a huge courtyard, now transformed into a garden, which seems disrespectful and not to mention sacrilegious. The brickwork and inset black stonework is wonderfully detailed and includes some Hindu motives as well as ornate Arabic-looking calligraphy. 

A pulpit reached by carved steps looks out over where the faithful would have gathered in their thousands. Bengal must have been some place back then.

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It's a short trip to the next site and to get there we wait on the main road for a bus. 

The sun is getting low now, but the buses whiz past, horns blaring and each chock full of passengers. In the end we get a rickshaw-trailer together with a family of five. The puller is rakishly thin with a headscarf wrapped around his skull and a snazzy tartan shirt and a broad, photogenic smile.

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Even though the countryside is relatively flat, the slow inclines cause him to struggle and me cringe. He's pedaling squares - triangles even. Traffic is flashing up and down and we're stuck at a snail's pace on the tarmac. It's got to be quicker and safer to walk. That's what I do.

The second ancient monument is a huge brick-built mausoleum with a single dome that dates back to the 1400s. A sign also tells me it's called Eklakhi mausoleum because it cost one lakh (thousand) rupees to build.

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 It's very dark inside and without a tripod, I set the camera's self-timer and programme a 10-second exposure, then rest it on its back pointing upwards on one of the tombs to capture the dome, which seems to have detail, but with the light so dim it's too hard to make it out. 

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There's a granite-like stone mosque nearby, but by the time we get there the sun has dipped behind some distant trees and it's a bit late to get colorful, well-lit snaps - the 'golden hour' that photographers love is practically gone. It's all a bit of a rush now.

The pulpit is richly carved and it's a shame that I can't get a nice shots. There is wonderfully crafted stonework with lotus flower motifs. I should've come a couple of hour's earlier really.

After more quick photos we're asked to leave as they want to lock up and go home, so we walk the couple of hundred metres back to the road - no way I would have seen this place this morning - to wait for a bus to take us back to Maldah. 

A guy there tells Abdul that Padua is just up the road, so actual Padua remains elusive. Like I said, I should have come a couple of hours ago, or asked this morning instead of riding and riding. 

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Back at the Purbanchal Hotel, I treat myself to a chilled Kingfisher beer in the bar, the first in ages. It's a head-banging eight percent pint bottle and I can't finish it.

Today's ride: 80 km (50 miles)
Total: 1,496 km (929 miles)

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