This is two posts in one as I got a little distracted in Melaka…
After a nice – albeit devoid of wildlife – side-trip to Taman Negara, I headed for KL totally underestimating the length of the climb to the Genting Highlands pass. It wasn’t steep, but it just kept going. In fact, the gradient was so slight at the beginning I didn’t realise I was climbing and was starting to wonder where the strength in my legs had disappeared to. By the time I reached the top I was pretty pleased to have a nice downhill run into the outskirts of the city.
Riding a bike in a big city isn’t fun, and I try to avoid it at all costs. I’d planned on heading for Gombak station in the north of the city and catching a train across town to just near Echo’s place. It was super convenient and I was unashamedly looking forward to the 40 minute trip as it was guaranteed to come with frosty cool air-conditioning. When I arrived at the station, I saw a sign that said “No Bicycles”…. ok, so I won’t ride around on the platform, but surely I can take my bike on the train in the middle of the day when the trains are not full??? After progressing from ticket-selling/information-guy, through station security to the Station Master and all of them said “No”, I was starting to lose hope. When the Station Master called his boss and the answer was still emphatically negative, I gave up and surrendered to the hell that is a hot, polluted city in Asia and prayed that I would make it. I also asked the staff at the station to put in a word for me with their deities as well.
It was hot, and the traffic was thick, but the first part into central KL was actually pretty straight forward and I got to KL Sentral station in good time to meet Monika and collect some papers for my Indonesian visa (more on Monika’s role in a moment). After posing for innumerable photos with the local constabulary who are always fascinated by my adventure, and listening to their sage advice about how I shouldn’t be cycling in KL because it’s too dangerous, I headed south and into the suburbs towards Putra Jaya and Echo’s home.
The traffic got thicker and the roads more closely resembled expressways than roads suitable for cycling (as far as I could tell there are no alternatives). Road works, strange merging intersections and missed entry/exit ramps, left me totally confused and lost in a mega-city. Google maps kept wanting to send me around the long way to get back onto the expressway and I had no choice but to follow it. Unfortunately, after 80km and an energy-sapping climb my concentration was waning and I just ended up even more lost. After climbing up another hill, through a very expensive neighborhood with a great view of the KL tower and city skyline, the on-ramp to the expressway that Mr Google swore was there, wasn’t. So it was up another hill and a backwards loop onto the expressway.
OK, I was finally heading in the right direction! On the roads in KL there are no bike lanes and no emergency stopping lanes so I was forced to hug the gutter and hope for the best. The most exhilarating part was when the expressway I was on joined another and I found myself stuck in the middle of a six-lane monstrosity. Some frantic hand-gestures, innumerable head-checks, and a good dose of luck saw me across to the left hand side and relative safety. All up, it took five hours to get to Echo’s place and I was emotionally shattered. Coffee, iced water and good old fashioned hug from a friend made me feel much better though.
It was so lovely to see Echo again and just have some time to chill out and relax a bit after a few weeks back on the road. I even got to eat sushi and see a movie in a real theatre. Good times! Echo made some magnificent home-cooked meals and I felt like my battery was fully charged. So it was time to head south to Melaka.
I took the highway down to Melaka, and it was pretty good cycling, if a bit boring. On the second day, I thought I was suffering from a few indulgent days off because my breathing was a bit laboured and by the end of the day I had bad pains in my chest. It turns out that the foggy haze I had been riding through, and blessing because it meant it wasn’t as hot out on the road, was smoke from illegal fires in Sumatra. The slashing and burning of the jungle is still going on to make way for oil palm plantations and the smoke is choking the Malaysian peninsular from KL to Singapore. Oh happy days… Sumatra here I come….
When we arrived in Dumai (Sumatra) the haze from the smoke had visibility down to about 100m. Most people were wearing face masks, although I’d imagine they are getting difficult to source now. Herman, an Indonesian immigration officer, offered to guide us out to the bus “station” which was 8km outside of town. The smoke was burning my eyes, lungs and nose and made the going difficult but I made it in one piece. The bus station was an innocuous looking shop front in a row of similar shops so it would have been difficult to find without Herman’s help. More kindness from random strangers!
The bus trip up to Lake Toba was long, bumpy and quite cold as we ascended the mountains. After 20 hours and a random transfer to a local minibus we finally made it to Parapat, and the ferry over to the island in the centre of the lake. The air here is clear and free of smoke and the temperature is a delightful 25 degrees at the hottest part of the day. Hooray!
We took a little ride down the southern shore and were blown away by the distinctive architecture and the friendliness of the native Batak people. A local teacher invited us in for coffee and told us about the people an the area. She even showed us her wedding video and the traditional shawls “ulas” (or something close to that) that the Batak wear for special occasions. Her husband went and sourced some of the local coconut wine for us to try, which made for a lazy ride back to the guesthouse.
So, you may be asking “who the heck is Monika???”. I met Monika before I departed on this trip, she is a fellow traveller who has based herself in Melaka and has spent the last couple of years exploring Asia. She’s keen on cycle touring and had a great bike built before she left Slovakia to come travelling. We will be cycling through Sumatra, Java and into Bali together. She’s also a pretty mean photographer, check out www.yathabhuta.net.
Some more pics:
We will be cycling south from here today, heading towards Padang. There are some steep hills to climb, and I left my climbing legs in northern Laos about 5 months ago, so I think it will be a little taxing. The scenery is magnificent though, which always makes it easier.
I hope this post finds you well, not inhaling smoke unnecessarily and surrounded by people who frequently show each other random acts of kindness.
PS: last chance to donate for Aussies who want to reduce their taxable income for the 2012-13 financial year… Donate now!