I’ll begin this entry with a well-known travel fact: switched-on travellers don’t arrive in small towns after midnight. Only disorganised risk-takers do it; those who don’t mind bedding down for the night in, say, a petrol station. After meeting such a fate in Nepal, I’d said to myself, “Never again.”
But then, three years later, I found myself on a luckless mission to find the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse in the depths of Srimangal’s tea estates at 1am. The experience reminded of the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, when Alice is having trouble with keys and doors and potions that make her grow too tall…
When I arrived at what I thought was the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse I saw that it had no sign, and the men guarding the gates told me it wasn’t the place I was looking for (even though it was).
The Tea Resort had a sign, but the guys there said it was wrong and that it was in fact the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse (it wasn’t).
I went to another unnamed place that looked nothing like a guesthouse, and I spoke to a man with a big pot-belly and a frog jumped on my foot.
I returned to the first guesthouse and was told that even if it was the right place, I couldn’t stay there because the Prime Minister was coming.
For some reason I took this news as the most promising development yet, and somehow managed to convince them that I’d made a booking and that it would be bad form to make me sleep under a tea bush.
Why did I persist? Because Lonely Planet describes the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse like this:
“What better place to stay than right here in the heart of the Bangladesh tea universe. This charming guesthouse is right opposite the research institute and has large, well-furnished rooms with thick carpets, regal green curtains, inviting bathtubs, and best of all, lovely verandas with tables and chairs where you can sit back with – what else – a cuppa and admire the beautifully maintained gardens.”
Of course I wanted a piece of that.
But sadly, once inside Room 3, I realised that time had not been kind to the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse.
The bathtub had no plug, the taps were rusted, and the water was cold. The shower lacked a water supply. The ‘thick’ carpets were thinner than thick and ants were crawling all over the stains. The toilet also had wet brown stains on the seat and it didn’t flush – the bathroom stank of stale septic gas. When I used the toilet, aggressive ants crawled out of an old electrical socket and onto the floor around my feet. The bath rail fell off. The mattress had frightening lumps. I used a chair as a bedside table, but after checking underneath the seat, decided against it. A thick storm cloud of spider webs had gathered.
But wait, there’s more…
In the morning I was told that I couldn’t have a key for my room because it’s shared with the adjoining room. Two rooms, one key – go figure.
So I cut my losses and checked into Hotel Tea Town.
The epilogue to that little is saga is that when I was back in Dhaka I whinged about the weird vibe at the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse to my Australian friends, Robyn and Mark. They said: “We tried to stay there but they wouldn’t let us.”
* * *
One evening I was looking for Cyber World on Srimangal’s main street and a guy walked past and said: “Tourist?” and I said: “No, journalist,” and he said: “Me too.” And I was like: “NO WAY!” And so the next morning this rather dashing Bangladeshi journalist came along with me to the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (opposite the mucky hostel). I interviewed the director, and a scientist gave us a tour of the tea factory. I took photos but I’m not allowed to show you, lest you set up your own tea-making factory based on my photos… However I can tell you that Stage Two involves sifting the dust from the tea leaves using a big vibrating machine, and Stage Seven involves a bloody great furnace blasting heat onto the tea leaves at 93 degrees Celsius.
If you want to learn a little more about tea production in Bangladesh, make sure you pick up a copy of the January edition of Tea Talk Magazine.
For this same article, I was on a mission to find and consume the magic tea of Srimangal. It has seven different flavours and colours, and incredibly, they don’t mix. You can jiggle the cup and they still don’t mix. This beautiful brew was invented by a man called Roshem Ram Gour in 2006, and the only place in the world that you’ll find it is at the Nilkantha Tea Cabin. My new friend Russell came along and he made finding the tea cabin a whole lot easier than a guesthouse in the night.
Over the next three days I drank five cups of the stripey stuff. In one sitting I drank three cups because I thought it would be nice to line them all up and take pictures. So I am well placed to tell you that the tea tastes as good as it looks.
For someone who invented something so fun, Mr Ram Gour was a serious looking fellow who didn’t talk much. But he did confirm the rumours that he’s been offered thousands of dollars to divulge the recipe. However he refuses to spill the beans on his secret, so the seven-layered tea will not be coming to a Waitrose store near you.
I became friendly with a guy called Rashed and he and I rode bicycles to Lowacherra National Park. I wanted to see the freakily large orb spider (a.k.a. ‘banana spider’). They can grow to the size of a human head and their poison packs a punch – when Rashed’s mother was bitten by one her whole hand blew up. Although I saw plenty of them, my photos are rubbish because I didn’t adhere to Capa’s mantra: “If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” (Anyway now we know he faked his best photo).
I’d also hoped to see a hoolock gibbon, but I assume they were too frightened to make an appearance.
Rashed insisted on blasting Shakira out of his phone as we pitter-pattered along the trail… It didn’t bother the butterflies though.
We also visited a Khashia tribal village. I know it’s a big claim, but one of the young girls had the loveliest face I’ve ever seen (please refer to photo). It was quite a surprise to discover the Khashias are Christians, though their ancestors are from the steppes of Mongolia. We bought some of their hand-made beaded jewellery and were generously let inside their spotless homes.
Afterwards Rashed and I paid £1.50 for a luscious swim at the Tea Resort and I lost 40 takka playing ping-pong badly. But I couldn’t sulk over it because Srimangal had been so good to me.
I’m going to end this blog entry with the worst joke in the world. I made it up on the bus back to Dhaka, when my brain went moudly.
Q: What’s Srimangal like?