By the time we reached the Bangladeshi road border at Malda, 11 laborious, bumpy riding days had passed since we left Pokhara. Our spirits were rising: Bangladesh was familiar ground. Indian immigration stamped us through and soon we were seated before our nemesis: Indian custom officials.
After looking over our papers, they picked up the phone and called the boss. No carnet, no go. After hours of furious discussion, we were turned away with tears in our eyes, a mere 300km from Dhaka. Dejectedly, we drove the thumper to Kolkata and parked it with some contacts there, and boarded a plane back to Dhaka. The journey was over for now.
Border Guards, Take 2
Determined to try again, I returned to Kolkata on a solo mission two months later. This time I would try Benapole, the busiest road crossing between India and Bangladesh. As I crossed into India to pick up my bike, American Mitch Lunes was crossing into Bangladesh on an Enfield—also sans carnet. His paperwork denoted a bike "borrowed temporarily from a friend," a humorous euphemism if I'd ever heard one. The officials had him sign a statement promising to return within 60 days and let him through.
I returned with my motorcycle a few days later, falsely confident I would be able to proceed in the same way as Mitch. But like so many mishaps on this journey, the customs officers thought otherwise. In a move of desperation, a few thousand rupees "fell" out of my paperwork. The officers feigned insult, rhetorically declaring "bribery was not proper in India anymore." I was turned away again.
Having totally given up on crossing into Bangladesh with the thumper, I glumly re–settled my sights on Siliguri, which is the gateway to Darjeeling, Eastern Nepal and Bhutan. I figured, if I had to park the thumper somewhere, it might as well be as close as possible to the mountains.
After two days of cruising the highway beside the West Bengal–Bangladesh border, I stopped at a police check post about 150km from Siliguri. Off handedly, I asked if there was a crossing nearby. Indeed there was, at nearby Kaliyaganj. The map showed a railway track plus a secondary road, but no official border crossing. After two failures, did I really want the whole song and dance again?
It was still a short few hours from dusk. After a deep breath, I veered off the highway. The village road became a paved pathway, followed by a dirt footpath and then finally, the aforementioned Bengali Bamboo Bridge.
After crossing, I discovered a pedestrian border crossing. For obvious reasons they were not used to seeing vehicles here. Maybe, I wondered, the officials here wouldn't ask about carnets because they didn't deal with vehicles at this remote village—there wasn't even a road to get here! And so I went to the custom office first.
Inside, a spectacled gentleman named Mr. Das sat behind a simple wooden desk. After 15 minutes of pleasantries, I didn't hear the word "carnet" or anything else suspicious. He enjoyed my battered attempts at Bangla and happily examined my foreign passport. I didn't try to hide my motorcycle and parked it right in front of the customs office. If there was to be any denying my entry I wanted the truth sooner rather than later. He then sent me to immigration first as per procedure. After I returned, he made the necessary entries in a tattered logbook, stamped my passport with the customs seal and directed me towards the border a kilometer away. Outwardly calm, I was bubbling inside—I might get through!
But then, at the border fence I was stopped again. The Indian army men manning the fence frowned at my thumper and shouldered their rifle straps ominously. After a protracted argument, they called Mr. Das and their CO to the border post, and eventually approved me to go. But by then night had fallen.
I passed the night in a village hut, next to the son of a local headman on a rock hard bed, swatting uselessly at buzzing mosquitoes. My nerves were frayed, plus there was a pack of barking dogs nearby. Drunken drumming and singing added to the shitshow. Eventually total exhaustion clawed me into a short, fitful sleep.
The next morning, I showed up at the border crossing at 7.00am, and the army men had changed shift. The new guys refused to open the fence, telling me to come back again at 10.00am. Adrenaline, driven by suspense and dehydration, fueled me forward. Eventually the indomitable Mr. Das returned and the army men stood aside. I kicked the thumper alive and drove through.All Muddy Paths Lead to Dhaka
On the Bangladeshi side, a motorcycle mud wrestle match awaited me. A worn footpath led into the middle of the derelict rail track. After a bumpy hundred meters there was another rail bridge—no bamboo slats this time. I had to roll the thumper down the 40–degree rail embankment and nearly dropped it. This was followed with 50 meters of muddy rice paddies. Finally, another stream blocked my way, this time spanned with a two–foot wide Bengali Bamboo Bridge that made the first one look like the Golden Gate. A few friendly Bangladeshi villagers appeared out of nowhere and pushed the thumper over the bridge on my behalf, which to their credit, they made look very, very easy.
With my wheels back on dirt road, I was off towards Bangladeshi customs and immigration at Birol. This time I knew there would be less of a problem, as I received a "temporary import permission" in Bangladesh before returning to Kolkata. But at this remote border check post, they didn't even ask for any paperwork. I was half–tempted to pull out the permission and show them—I'd endured so much bureaucratic pain to get it—but wisely decided to shut the hell up and smile.
Two days later I cheered into my helmet as I rode across the Jamuna Bridge, and screamed with glee even as I snagged a traffic jam on Dhaka's outskirts—I was finally home. Four months after I bought the thumper in Nepal, I was overwhelmed that I'd finished the ride I'd set out to do, carving my own Enfield story from the subcontinent.
Bradt author and radio correspondent Mikey Leung has now sold the bike and moved to Australia in search of better bridges to cross and bigger motorbikes. But in his own words: "Like your first great love, the first bike always stays close to your heart." See more photos and video from this trip at his Flickr page.
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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