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Bangladesh

Getting around

On buses, unaccompanied women are expected to sit at the front. If you are travelling with ‘your husband’ you are expected to sit on the window side, away from the aisle. Avoid travelling alone at night; Bangladeshi women avoid going out alone at night as much as possible.

There are three words that can be used to sum up Bangladeshi public transport. Cheap, uncomfortable and scary. If you so wished, you could travel straight across the country for little more than a few hundred taka using rickety old buses or squashed into a 2nd-class train carriage. However, the journey won’t be pleasant, particularly in the cheaper seats on any form of Bangladeshi public transport. Travelling here can also be a scary experience. Buses are the worst offenders – the drivers show no regard whatsoever for the safety of their passengers or other road users, though the one saving grace is that most roads are fairly quiet, and if the bus does topple over it’s only likely to drop into a paddy field rather than off the edge of a cliff. The DhakaChittagong road and DhakaBogra road are real death traps: take the train instead. Do all you can to avoid travelling anywhere by road at night.

The distinguishing feature of internal travel in Bangladesh is the presence of a well-developed and well-used system of water transport. Rivers and streams outstretch roads in total distance, making water transport an essential of daily life. For the traveller, a long Bangladeshi ferry ride, especially on the smaller rivers where you can watch life along the banks, is one of the undisputed highlights of a trip to Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, travelling by boat is slow compared to travelling by bus and it’s usually avoidable, so many travellers never go out of their way to take a long trip, settling instead for a short ferry ride across a river or two, but this really is a mistake.

Boat

Given that there are some 8433km of navigable inland waterways, boats are a common means of getting around. You may have to pay a few taka here and there to be ferried from one side of a river to the other, or hire a wooden boat to get from town to town.

The rocket

Rocket is the generic name that is given to special (paddle-wheel) BIWTC boats that run daily between Dhaka and Khulna, stopping at Chandpur, Barisal, Mongla and many other lesser ports en route.

The BIWTC is in the throes of trying to procure more Rockets, given the chequered history of the four in its possession. As the result of some major incidents that have left hundreds dead, the boating community is becoming more and more conscious of safety on the waterways.

If you’re heading to the Sundarbans, Kolkata or the ruins at Bagerhat, travelling by Rocket is a great way to go for a major part of the journey. The north–south journey all the way to Khulna takes less than 30 hours, departing from Dhaka at 6pm every day but Friday and arriving at 8pm the following night. Going in the other direction, the Rocket leaves Khulna at 3am and arrives in Dhaka at 5.40am.

Classes

Inter and deck classes are similar to those in ferries, and again, foreigners are highly unlikely to be sold tickets in either of these classes.

Rockets are not particularly glamorous by Mississippi paddle-wheel standards, but they do have paddle wheels. All have two levels. The front half of the upper deck of the old paddle-wheel steamer is reserved for 1st-class passengers, most of them, typically, Bangladeshis – this is not a tourist boat. There are eight cabins in this section – four doubles and four singles. Inside, floors are carpeted and each cabin has a washbasin and a narrow bunk bed or two with reasonably comfortable mattresses, freshly painted white walls, wood panelling and good lighting. Bathrooms with toilets and showers are shared. Bathrooms get progressively less clean as the trip goes on.

The central room has overhead fans, a long sofa and dining tables where meals are eaten. Meals are not included in ticket prices. There are both Bangladeshi and Western options, or you can go for a walk into the lower-class areas, where you can buy cheaper snacks.

The real highlight of 1st class, though, is the outside deck at the front of the boat, where you can sit while stewards serve tea and biscuits, and the Padma flows by.

Second class is at the back of the boat. Rooms are smaller than those in 1st class, and have no washbasin and no bed linen. There are small fans, though, and some chairs outside your door for scenery-gazing. If you are staying back here, it might be possible for you to dine in 1st class, for a fee, naturally.

In Dhaka tickets are available from the well-marked BIWTC office in the modern commercial district of Motijheel. Book your tickets in advance. The boat leaves from Sadarghat terminal on the Buriganga River and, on rare occasions, from Badam Tole, a boat terminal 1km north. When leaving from Khulna, you should be allowed to sleep the night before in your cabin as departure is at 3am. They move the boat to a different anchorage for the night, so get aboard early. Sometime after midnight the boat steams back to the loading dock.

Prices are generally for 1st/2nd/deck class.

Traditional river boats

There are about 60 types of boats plying the rivers of Bangladesh. Steamers are only one type – the rest are traditional wooden boats of all shapes and sizes, some with sails but most without. These smaller boats plying the smaller rivers are the only way to see life along the riverbanks. On a bigger boat out on the wide Padma, you’ll see lots of big launches, traditional boats and maybe some river dolphins, but you might not see people fishing with their nets, children waving from the shore, farmers working in unimaginably green paddy fields and women brightening up the river banks with their colourful saris.

The problem with taking boats on the minor rivers, and the reason why travellers almost never do this, is the difficulty in finding out where to board them and where they’re heading. There is no ‘system’; you simply have to ask around. If you see two towns on a map with a river connecting them, you can be sure that boats travel between them, and if there’s no obvious road connecting them, there will be lots of passenger boats plying the route.

Barisal is a great place in which to embark on such memorable adventures.

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Hitching

Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs, and let someone know where they are planning to go. Solo women are particularly unwise to hitchhike. Unless you get picked up by an expat or fellow tourists, you will be expected, as the locals do, to pay for any ride.

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Car & motorcycle

Car

Travelling by private car has some obvious advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it gives you the freedom to quickly and easily go where you please, when you please, and allows for all manner of unexpected pit stops and adventures. On the minus side, it does insulate you somewhat from Bangladesh and it is far more expensive than public transport.

Travelling by car has two possibilities: either you’ll be driving your own vehicle or you’ll be the passenger in a rental car, which comes complete with its own driver.

Hire

Self-drive rental cars are not available in Bangladesh, and that’s probably a good thing. However, renting cars with drivers is easy, at least in the big towns.

In Dhaka there are innumerable companies in the rental business. Expect to pay about Tk 3000/2400 a day for a car with/without air-con, plus fuel and driver expenses. Almost all taxis now run on LPG as well as diesel – filling a tank with gas will cost around Tk 100, but as yet this can only be done in the biggest cities, which means that on any extended road trip you will need to refill with diesel, which currently costs an ever rising Tk 68 a litre. There’s only one other extra: when you stay out of town overnight, you must pay for the driver’s food and lodging, which should come to around Tk 350. They don’t try to hide this, but make sure you determine beforehand what those rates will be, to avoid any misunderstandings. Insurance isn’t required because you aren’t the driver.

Outside Dhaka, the cost of renting vehicles is often marginally less, but actually finding an available car and driver is much harder and virtually impossible if you want an air-con vehicle. Asking at the nearest Parjatan office or the town’s top hotel can normally produce results (though they will add a percentage fee).

Owner-drivers

Driving in Bangladesh, especially on the Dhaka-Chittagong Hwy or within 100km of Dhaka, takes a bit of guts (stupidity?). On the major highways, you’ll be pushed onto the curb every few minutes by large buses hurtling down the road. Dhaka presents its own unique driving perils because of the vast number of rickshaws and baby taxis. It’s a far better – and safer – option to hire a car and driver.

It’s sad to say, but if you’re in a serious or fatal traffic accident (and, God forbid, you’re responsible), the local custom is to flee, if you can. No-one has much faith in the justice system, so there is an element of self-law in the form of an angry crowd. Newspaper reports of road accidents typically end with words like ‘the driver absconded on foot’ or ‘miscreants beat the driver to a bloody pulp’.

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Bus & tram

Bus

Bus travel is cheap and, though it might not seem so, relatively efficient. A six-hour trip on a coach costs around Tk 200, and about half as much for a local bus.

The country has an extensive system of passable roads. When your bus encounters a river crossing, it generally comes on the ferry with you, and the smoky queues of buses waiting to be loaded is one of the more frustrating aspects of travel here. If you don’t mind paying another fare, you can always leave your bus and get on one at the head of the queue.

For the lengthy ferry crossings of the mighty Padma, you may have to leave your bus and pick up another one from the same company waiting on the other side. These major inland ghats are a mass of boats, people and vehicles, so expect to be confused – pick out someone on your bus and follow them off the ferry. In any case, the bus assistant continues with the passengers, so you’re unlikely to get left behind if you take a while finding your bus after the crossing.

It’s illegal to ride on top of a bus, like the locals do, but the police won’t stop you. If you do ride on top, though, remember that low trees kill quite a few people each year.

Most bus stations are located on the outskirts of towns, often with different stations for different destinations. This helps reduce traffic jams in town (if you’ve come from India you’ll appreciate the difference), but it often means quite a trek to find your bus. Chair-coach companies, however, usually have their own individual offices, often in the centre of town, and it’s at these offices, not at the major terminals, that you must reserve your seat.

Chair coaches

The safest and most comfortable options are chair coaches, which are distinguished by their adjustable seats and extra leg room. Where possible, take one of these large modern buses on journeys of more than three or four hours. They are not faster on the road – nothing could possibly go faster than the usually out-of-control ordinary buses! However, departure hours are fixed and seats must be reserved in advance, so unlike with regular buses, there’s no time wasted filling up the seats and aisles. In addition, they are less crowded, often with no people in the aisles and, most importantly for taller people, there’s plenty of leg room.

Most chair-coach services travelling between Dhaka and cities on the western side of the country operate at night, typically departing sometime between 5pm and 9pm and arriving in Dhaka at or before dawn. Whilst you’ll save on a night’s accommodation, you’ll arrive at your destination very tired, having had little sleep. Worse still, the already dangerous daytime roads are treacherous at night. You would do well to try and avoid night buses.

There are two classes of chair coach – those with air-con and those without. Those with air-con cost about twice those without. All chair coaches are express buses, but not vice versa. Some serve snacks and drinks on board, and occasionally screen videos – but trust us, a video coach isn’t as good as it sounds!

Some of the best chair-coach companies are Eagle Paribahan (02-710 1504), Green Line (02-710 0301), Hanif Enterprise (02-831 3869) and Soudia (02-801 8445).

Ordinary buses

Among the ordinary buses there are express buses and local ones, which stop en route. The latter charge about 25% less but are slow. In more remote areas local buses may be your only option. Most buses are large, but there are a few minivans (coasters).

The buses run by private companies tend to be in much better condition than those of the state-run BRTC buses.

Ordinary buses are seemingly made for the vertically challenged – the leg room does not allow anyone to sit with their knees forward. On long trips this can be exceedingly uncomfortable, so try and get an aisle seat. Another option, and one that will really make you feel like the rich foreigner, is to purchase two seats so that you can spread out a little more. Having said that, though, when an elderly lady is left standing in the aisle for eight hours because of a lack of seats, you’d have to have a heart of steel not to give in and give up your additional seat!

Women travelling alone sit together up the front, separate from the men. If there is an accident, this is the most dangerous part of the bus to be on. Women travelling with their husbands normally sit in the main section, preferably on the window side. On long-distance bus trips cha (tea) stops can be agonisingly infrequent and a real hassle for women travellers – toilet facilities are rare indeed and sometimes hard to find when they do exist.

One of the most underappreciated professions would have to be that of bus-wallah. These are the men who half hang out the door helping people on and off, load goats onto the roof, bang on the side of the bus telling the driver to stop and go, and uncannily keep track of who needs how much change. They are usually extremely helpful – they often rearrange things so you are comfortably seated and rarely fail to let you know when the bus has arrived at your destination.

Bus

The only real difference between local buses and long-distance buses is how you catch them – in the case of local buses, literally. It can be something of a death-defying process. Firstly, assess whether the bus will get you to your desired destination by screaming the name of the destination to the man hanging out the door. If he responds in the affirmative, run towards him, grab firmly onto a handle, if there is one, or him if there isn’t, and jump aboard, remembering to check for oncoming traffic.

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Train

Trains are a lot easier on the nerves, knees and backside than buses, and those plying the major routes aren’t too bad, while in 1st class they are positively luxurious. However, travel is slowed down by unbridged rivers requiring ferry crossings, circuitous routing and different gauges. This means that a train ride can sometimes take up to twice as long as a bus ride.

The recent introduction of computerised ticketing has made the purchase of train tickets from major stations far less of a headache than it used to be.

Classes

Intercity (IC) trains are frequent, relatively fast, clean and reasonably punctual, especially in the eastern zone. Fares in 1st class are fairly high (about a third more than an air-con chair coach), but in sulob (2nd class with reserved seating and better carriages than ordinary 2nd class) the fare is comparable to that in a non–air-con chair coach, and the trip is a lot more pleasant.

The carriages in 1st class, which have three seats across, facing each other and separated by a small table, initially seem little different from those in sulob, which have four seats across without tables. However, the difference is that there’s always room for just one more passenger in sulob, whereas in 1st class what you see is what you get. Some IC trains also have an air-con 1st class, which is well worth the extra money. Seats here are of the soft and comfortable variety and are similar to those found on trains in the West. This class is always very popular but seats are limited – it’s a good idea to reserve at least several days in advance to get a seat or berth in air-con 1st class, though a quiet word to the station master can often work wonders.

There are generally no buffet cars, but sandwiches, Indian snacks and drinks are available from attendants. If you’re lucky, these attendants will be sharply dressed waiters handing out dainty china cups of tea.

Second-class cars with unreserved seating are always an overcrowded mess and on mail trains (which do allow for some passenger cargo) your trip will be even slower than on an IC train. However, you may come out of the experience with a few good stories.

The only sleepers are on night trains, and the fare is about 40% more than 1st class.

On the poorly maintained local trains, 2nd class is crowded and uncomfortable, though remarkably cheap – less than a third the price of 1st class. Unreserved 2nd class has so many class categories and combinations above it (1st class, sulob, seating, sleeping, air-con, non–air-con) that it’s technically lower than 3rd class and it feels like it. On some trains there are only 2nd-class compartments.

Costs

As a rough indication, the 259km journey from Rajshahi to Dhaka costs Tk 630 for a 1st-class air-con berth, Tk 425 for a 1st-class air-con seat, Tk 290 for a 1st-class non–air-con seat and Tk 165 for sulob.

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Travel documents

Reservations

For IC and mail trains, ticket clerks will naturally assume that you, as a seemingly rich foreigner, want the most expensive seats, unless you make it clear otherwise. Buying tickets on local trains is a drag because they don’t go on sale until the train is about to arrive, which means that while you’re battling the ticket queue all the seats are being filled by hordes of locals. It’s almost always better to take a bus than a local train.

Printed timetables are not available, so understanding the convoluted rules of train travel is not easy, even for railway staff. It usually isn’t too difficult to find a stationmaster who speaks English. Dhaka’s modern Kamlapur station is the exception – schedules are clearly marked on large signs in Bengali and English, but you’ll have to double-check to make sure they are correct. Some schedules, particularly on the DhakaSylhet route, change by half an hour or so between the summer and winter seasons, and the signs may not be updated. You can phone the station, but inquiries in person are more likely to yield a reliable result. When making inquiries, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible: specify when and where you want to go, and which type of train you want to catch.

If your queries are too much for counter staff, try the District Information Officer (DIO) at Kamlapur station (in the administration annexe just south of the main station building).

If the crowds that silently follow you around the platform get you down (and they will), ask for the waiting room to be unlocked, or establish yourself in the office of an official who speaks English.

Rural railway stations are prone to power failures – hang onto your luggage if the lights go out.

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Water

Ferry

The river is the traditional means of transport in a country that has 8000km of navigable rivers, though schedules, even for the ferries crossing the innumerable rivers, are prone to disruption. During the monsoon, rivers become very turbulent and flooding might mean relocation of ghats (landings); during the dry season, riverbeds choked with silt can make routes impassable. Winter fogs can cause long delays, and mechanical problems on the often poorly maintained boats are not unknown.

The main routes are covered by the Bangladesh Inland Waterway Transport Corporation (BIWTC), but there are many private companies operating on shorter routes and some competing with the BIWTC on the main ones. Private boats tend to be slower and less comfortable but cheaper than BIWTC boats.

Bangladesh averages about five major ferry sinkings a year, frequently at night and with an average of 100 people drowning each time. Despite this very unenvious safety record, you should try to experience at least one ferry ride whilst in Bangladesh. The one that most people take is the Rocket between Dhaka and Khulna.

Classes

There are four classes of ticket on Bangladeshi boats: 1st, 2nd, inter and deck class. Deck class simply means a space on deck, for which you’ll need to bring your own bedding, mattress, food and water. Inter stands for intermediate, and gives you a berth in a cabin with 10 to 16 wooden-slat bunks. In deck class you may find your ability to sleep in cramped, noisy spaces stretched to the limit. Bedding is provided only in 1st class. It’s quite unusual for a foreigner to use either the intermediate or deck class.

On all craft with 1st-class tickets you must book in advance to be assured of a cabin. On popular routes, especially the Rocket route between Dhaka and Khulna, you may have to book a couple of weeks ahead during the dry season. If you’re catching a boat at one of the smaller stops, your reservation for a 1st-class cabin will have to be telegraphed to another office, and may take some time. Inter- and deck-class tickets can be bought on board, so there’s always a scramble for room.

If you haven’t managed to book a 1st-class cabin, it’s worth boarding anyway and buying a deck-class ticket, as you may be offered a crew member’s cabin. Renting a crew cabin is common and accepted practice, but it’s technically against the rules, so there’s scope for rip-offs. Don’t necessarily believe the crew member when they tell you that the fee you pay them is all that you will have to pay – you need to buy at least a deck-class ticket to get out of the ghat at the other end of the trip, and other hastily thought of hidden charges may crop up. Some travellers have even had these sorts of problems when renting the captain’s cabin.

It’s a hassle finding the ship assistant, but if you want to avoid the possibility of minor rip-offs, involve him in negotiations for a crew cabin. He is responsible for matters relating to passengers and accommodation.

If you travel deck or inter class (and having a crew berth counts as deck class), you can’t use the pleasant 1st-class deck, from where the best views are to be had. You might of course be able to sneak in, but don’t complain too loudly if you’re thrown out.

Prices are generally for 1st/2nd/deck class.

Tips

In winter, thick fog can turn a 12-hour trip into a 24-hour one, although the captain sometimes doesn’t decide that it’s unsafe to proceed until he has a very close encounter with a riverbank. If you’re travelling deck class, make sure that you’re sleeping in a spot where you won’t roll off the boat if it comes to a sudden stop!

Porters waiting to leap on docking ferries jostle and fidget like swimmers on the starting blocks – if you don’t fancy a swim, don’t stand in front of them.

Watching the countryside drift by is amazing and relaxing. If you’re lucky, you may spot a sluggish river dolphin. Sometimes you find yourself gliding over thick growths of water hyacinth close to the jungle-covered bank; at other times you’re churning along a river so wide that neither of the banks are visible.

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Air

Airlines in Bangladesh

Bangladesh currently has five domestic airlines: Biman, GMG Airlines, United Airways, Royal Bengal and Best Air.

Biman’s planes have done an awful lot of air miles and the interiors are a bit tattered, but the pilots are enormously experienced.

The other three are privately owned and are classier, safer and also win points for punctuality and service. United, Royal Bengal and Best Air are recent start ups and remain relatively untested so far.

GMG is probably the best airline to use but don’t expect much reliability on routes. United is starting to receive positive reports.

Airlines mostly fly between Dhaka and regional cities; there are only a couple of direct flights between regional cities, including Cox’s BazarChittagong.

Prices are low (DhakaSylhet is around Tk 3700), but do change frequently.

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Local transport

Bangladesh has an amazing range of vehicles – on any highway you can see buses, cars, trucks, rickshaws, baby taxis, tempos (oversized auto-rickshaws), tractors with trays laden with people, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles carrying four people, bullock and water-buffalo carts, and bizarre home-made vehicles all competing for space. One local favourite in Rajshahi division is a sort of minitractor powered by incredibly noisy irrigation pump motors.

In Dhaka and Chittagong motorised transportation has increased tremendously over the last 10 years, and traffic jams in Central Dhaka are a nightmare. The problem continues to be due more to rickshaws than cars, and Dhaka has to be the only place on the planet where you can get caught up in a snarling hour-long traffic jam consisting entirely of rainbow-coloured bicycles and cycle-rickshaws.

What freaks out new arrivals the most is the total chaos that seems to pervade the streets, with drivers doing anything they please and pedestrians being the least of anybody’s worries. Accidents do happen and sometimes people are killed, but the odds of your being involved are still fairly slim.

Where possible it can be wise to negotiate fares beforehand to avoid hassles at the other end, though you will be surprised at how often people don’t overcharge you on principle. If you are hassled, a good strategy is to keep the discussion going long enough for a crowd to form, which won’t be long. This crowd of strangers is something of a people’s court, and more often than not is an impressively fair adjudicator. Once deliberations are over and the court has handed down its verdict, the honourable thing for both parties to do is graciously acquiesce.

Baby taxi

In Bangladesh three-wheeled auto-rickshaws are called baby taxis. As with the rickshaw-wallahs, baby-taxi drivers almost never own their vehicles. They’re owned by powerful fleet-owners called mohajons, who rent them out on an eight-hour basis. Also like rickshaws, they’re designed to take two or three people, but entire families can and do fit.

In Dhaka and Chittagong baby taxis are everywhere – most people use these instead of regular taxis. Faster and more comfortable than rickshaws on most trips, baby taxis cost about twice as much. You’ll also find them at Dhaka and Chittagong airports and they charge less than half the taxi fare, but the ride into town from either airport is long and not ideal after a tiring long-haul flight. Outside of these two metropolises, baby taxis are much rarer. In towns such as Rangpur, Dinajpur and Barisal they virtually don’t exist.

In Dhaka you can go from Gulshan II to Central Dhaka for around Tk 100. For distances that won’t clock over Tk 25, you are better off taking a rickshaw.

In addition to baby taxis, every so often you’ll see a mishuk (mee-shuk), which is a similar vehicle that is slightly narrower and, if you look closely, is driven by a motorised chain like that on a bicycle.

Tempo

This is a larger version of a baby taxi, with a cabin in the back. Tempos run set routes, like buses, and while they cost far less than baby taxis, they’re more uncomfortable because of the small space into which the dozen or so passengers are squeezed. On the other hand, they’re a lot faster than rickshaws and as cheap or cheaper. Outside Dhaka and Chittagong they’re a lot more plentiful than baby taxis – you will find them even in relatively small towns.

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Bicycle

Bangladesh is great for cycling and this is an interesting way to see the country. With the exception of the tea-estate regions in the Sylhet division, the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the road between Chittagong and Teknaf, Bangladesh is perfectly flat – you can pedal around very easily with a single-gear bike.

Cities, particularly Dhaka and Chittagong, are not easy or safe places to ride, given manic traffic and pollution. If you leave early, say 5.30am, you should be able to get out of the city without incident. Alternatively, you can put your bike on the roof of a baby taxi (three-wheeled auto-rickshaw) or bus. Some travellers have reported not being allowed to take their bikes on board trains.

The trick to cycling in Bangladesh is to avoid major highways as much as possible; look for back streets that will get you to the same destination. Unfortunately, maps of Bangladesh aren’t detailed enough to be of much use, so be prepared for some interesting though unintentional detours.

Most paths are bricked and in good condition, and even if it’s just a dirt path, bikes will be able to pass during the dry season. A river won’t hinder your travel, since there’s invariably a boat of some sort to take you across. At major bridges a sympathetic truck driver is likely to pile both you and your bike in the back for the crossing.

The ideal time to go cycling is in the dry season from mid-October to late March; during the monsoon many tracks become impassable.

Though cycling can by and large be a relaxing way to explore Bangladesh, don’t get complacent about your belongings; snatches from saddlebags are not unheard of.

It’s best to bring your bicycle and all other gear with you, though bike repair shops, catering to all those cycle-rickshaws, are two-a-penny almost everywhere.

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