Semerang, Java. Tuesday 21st November 2017.
Twenty eight hours on a ferry; sleeping on a hard floor; a late arrival into port. It’s no wonder I slept until 9am, although it had probably been 2am before I got to sleep anyway.. Most places in Indonesia provide breakfast as part of the deal, and in this hostel it was pot a noodle and a teabag. And some hot water too, fortunately. Not thrilling, but it did the job when added to some ferry journey leftovers.
I’d carried out a bit of research regarding what to do on the way west. And one of the first decisions was to head south out of Semerang to avoid the busy north coast road to Jakarta. Although there are some places worth visiting in Indonesia’s capital city, I didn’t really have the time nor was I keen to deal with the traffic there. Call me a wimp if you like, but I had become extremely fed up with chewing on truck fumes. I was quite adept at getting past clutches of them, but in this area there’d always be another mob right in front. I’d bought some medical masks to wear, in an effort to protect my lungs, and seeing how dirty they were at the end of a day’s ride was quite shocking.
The town of Bandung became the target, with the map suggesting a nice ride through the countryside. Which it was, once I’d finally escaped Semerang. There’s certainly plenty of it but eventually I was up in the hills, enjoying the views across the rice paddies, the cloud enshrouded hilltops and the rain. Yes, it was so nice to be up where the air is clear that I didn’t mind the rain. But it did become persistent enough that I opted for an earlier than normal finish to the day in a reasonably priced hotel. I was glad I did because it then hammered down for three hours solid. A wise move then.
I made it to Bandung next day after another ride through paddy adorned, misty hills. The weather had looked rather gloomy at first but the sun came out in the end, making it a pleasurable ride. At one point I saw a bit of a commotion at the roadside. Stopping for a look I realised a truck had managed to go backwards down a small embankment and was in the process of being hauled back up. A very ancient tow truck was on the job, with lots of people ‘helping’ in various ways. Later I saw another one with its nearside rear wheels down in a ditch. I couldn’t see any obvious reason for either incident. Just careless driving I suppose. To be fair, I’ve ‘enjoyed’ a few of these moments myself.
There were times, when I was riding through towns and villages, that I felt a bit like I was stationary and that the roadside scenes were rolling past me as I sat on my bike. People sitting around smoking and drinking coffee; unloading a truck; pushing a food cart; getting off a bus. Life passed by me but I wasn’t involved in it at all. Sometimes though, I’d get a wave or a smile, which broke that spell and helped me remember that it was all real.
As I neared Bandung the traffic turned into an endless stream of trucks, with endless cars trying to get past them. Soon after, the rain started again and my earlier feelings of pleasure were washed away into the drains along with the rainwater. I was very pleased to arrive in Bandung and finally find a hotel. They had a room service menu, not too expensive, so I completely abandoned all pretence of being an explorer and picked up the phone.
Located up in the hills, Bandung is West Java’s main city and is surrounded by tea plantations. It has a colonial past and some of the old buildings are now museums. I had my eye on two: The Museum Geologi and the Museum of the Asian-African Conference. I set off for the walk there on a sunny morning, and although the roads were busy the buildings in this part of the city were often surrounded by flowerbeds and gardens. Even so, there’s never a shortage of small shops, broken up walkways and keen-to-get-there scooter riders to make walking an exercise in alertness and avoidance. On one of the main streets they were busy upgrading the pavement, often forcing me into the road to negotiate my way around piles of paving stones or sand. The walk took me down side streets too, which had areas of grass and flowerbeds between the path and the road. I quickly reached the conclusion this city was much more focussed on maintaining a nice ambience than most I’d been to so far in Indonesia.
The Museum Geologi was housed in a former colonial building and was set up by the Dutch in 1926. It has displays relating to Indonesian geology and palaeontology, the history of human life and the history of the Earth. Unfortunately not all of the information is in English but the displays are excellent and the focus on local geology is great for adding context to what I was seeing as I travelled. One example of this is how much of the country sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a serious of mostly active volcanoes which frequently bring their fire and fury to bear on the region’s daily life. Think back to Bali, for example. They have some excellent archaeological exhibits too, and although in many ways the material on display is fairly well known to me, I always enjoy being reminded of our, and our planet’s, story and getting the local flavour added in. A bit of Indonesian spice, you might say, such as the meteorites they have on display, which had fallen on Java.
One of the streets I walked down as I headed to the next museum had a very bohemian air to it and contained several art and antique shops. The paintings racked up against the exterior walls were all cheap reproductions but I had the feeling there may have been some quality hidden away in the back, had I been interested enough to explore. There was something of a heritage air to that area too, with decorative lamp standards around, and several other colonial buildings to admire as well.
But why is a conference so important, enough for it to deserve a museum? The Asian-African conference could really be summed up as ‘muscle flexing’. Not in an aggressive way, but in order for this new and democratic country to say: “Look, we’re here and not only that, we’re important.” Held in April 1955, both Asia and Africa were now in the post-colonial era and felt the need to come together to state their views and ambitions to the big powers. They wanted a voice. They also felt the need to encourage other countries in the two regions to achieve their own independence. The sponsors of the conference were Indonesia, India, Burma, Ceylon and Pakistan. The invitees numbered twenty nine in total, from countries as diverse as Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Looking down the list of participants it struck me that only six were from Africa, all the others being from Asia and the Middle East. But at that time not many African nations had shaken off colonial rule. However, I was surprised to see both North and South Vietnam sitting at the same table, given that they were in conflict with each other from November of that year.
For the participants it was a very successful event and at the end they came up with the Ten Principles of Bandung, a list of fundamental principles for promoting world peace and international co-operation, as well as being a guide of principles for which newly independent countries should aim. The conference also delivered the phrase ‘Non-Aligned Countries’ into the political lexicon, making the point that they wished to stand separate from the Western and Eastern powers. Additionally it enhanced the standing of these smaller countries within the United Nations, formerly mainly focussed on the Western and Eastern Blocs. It was a great success from Indonesia’s point of view, putting the country, and its President, firmly into the international gaze. Having visited it, I can now see the point of having the museum. More info here:
Walking back the way I’d come, I spotted, among all the art shops, Hangover Bistro, which actually sold beer! It had been a while since the last one and I couldn’t resist that temptation so a large Bintang was called for, and very much enjoyed. As I walked on further I came across some street musicians. “Ah”, I thought, “Some cultural entertainment.” As I listened the music took on a Gypsy-ish tone, then I realised they were playing a Wham tune! Oh well, so much for local culture.
On the main road back to my hotel I passed rows of small businesses, all in lock up premises, with people beavering away inside. Putting logos on T shirts, stitching clothing, packing goods into boxes. They were happy to give me friendly waves as I took photos. I called in at a small warung for some food. At least, I thought that’s what I stopped for but it turned out to be mostly for the amusement of the young women working in there as they giggled at my efforts to find out what was on their menu and what was in the dishes. But at least I tried a couple of different things, which is always a good thing to do.
It’s strange how days that ought to be good can sometimes turn into total disaster. My second day in Bandung was one of these. I’d decided to head out of the city to visit some natural beauty as a change from the man-made stuff. The first place was the White Crater, up in the hills and south of the city. It lies on the side of Mount Patuha which meant that the ride up there, once I’d escaped the city, took me further up into the hills, through agricultural lands and into an area of tea plantations. Now this was a first. I’d not seen any so far and I was fascinated by the way the planted areas wound across the hillsides, seeming to have no particular pattern or design. The neat rows of bushes, with pathways between them, just seemed to occupy whatever spare ground was available, regardless of size or shape. Clearly there must be a plan to it all, but you could have fooled me. All the bushes had the same shape, seemed to be neatly trimmed and reminded me of an English privet hedge, as much as anything else. There’s clearly a purpose to it all and I definitely need to find out more about them.
I had to park the bike at the bottom of the hill and we were taken up the steep, winding track in a very hard working minibus, being pushed to the limit by its driver. The area at the top was well organised for the benefit of tourists; toilets, good signposting and well signed pathways. The usual hawkers of this and that were also there, of course. What would any tourist attraction be without them? I walked up to the lake, guided by the strong sulphur smell as much as anything else, and there before me was a stinking, yellow, steaming body of water looking like a discharge from the chemical factory from hell. The German botanist who first brought it to European attention in 1837 had been alerted to its presence by tales of a place where birds didn’t want to fly, and villagers’ stories about the strange forest surrounding it. And it was easy to understand that feeling. There weren’t any birds around and the water’s edge was dotted with petrified trees. And the smell was overpowering. The notices telling people not to touch the water were, to my way of thinking, somewhat superfluous. I was glad I’d brought my mask up with me.
I didn’t hang around up there as there was nothing to do other than look and take photos. Back at the car park I joined some other visitors for a cup of tea, a couple of Dutch girls and a Singaporean lad. The girls were studying there, on a swap scheme, and had taken a week’s break. Studying abroad is something many students find value in doing but I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer they’d go on for, what with the amount of shutters being pulled down and doors being closed in various parts of the world.
My next destination was to be the Pengalengan Hills, where there was some nice riding to be had and good scenery to be enjoyed. It sounded interesting and should have been worth a look. Google maps gave me two routes, the shortest one taking the longest time, oddly. I decided on the shorter one but should have been alerted by Google’s estimate because as it wound its way up into the hills, through ever smaller villages, then turned into a rough, stony track which went up through a tea plantation, finally disappearing. Google didn’t seem to know where to send me and I ended up thinking, “Do you know what, I can’t really be bothered with scenery and nice riding today after all” and I decided to go back to Bandung. It was when I was half way back that I realised my backpack was missing from the rear of the bike. Cursing hard, I stopped and turned round, then rode back the way I’d come, right up into the hills again, hoping to see it laying by the side of the road. I’d thought it was well strapped down but I’m guessing that rough track was what shook it off and it clearly hadn’t been secured well enough. I ought to know better by now. I’d last used it at a servo when I refuelled and had eaten some lunch. Inside it was some gear that I really didn’t want to lose; an expensive waterproof jacket; my Camelback water bladder; my expensive Tilley hat; Aussie trucker sunglasses; other small odds and sods.
Those villagers, having already wondered what this odd foreigner was heading up their track for, and having watched me come back down again, now had two more opportunities to switch their speculation into overdrive. Well, as you can probably work out, I had no luck finding it so eventually headed back to Bandung, tail between my legs. I was desperate to get another rain jacket and a backpack, neither of which could be managed without. I found a shopping mall where there was an outdoor store, but they didn’t really have what I needed. But down in the basement was a big and cheap ‘pile it high’ type of outlet and they had a plastic (and therefore very sweaty) rain suit and a cheap back pack. They’d do for now while I decided what to buy for the longer term.
Back at the hotel I finished the day off by adding costly stupidity to expensive carelessness by breaking the screen on my laptop. I won’t say how, but I will say that realising you can sometimes be your own worst enemy isn’t a very nice feeling to have just before you go to sleep. “Tomorrow is a better day,” they say. “It couldn’t be much worse than today,” I replied.
I planned to head for the ferry port, going south to the coast and following it round, thereby keeping well clear of Jakarta and its traffic. En route I thought I’d visit Gunung Padung Megalithic Site. Not quite Stonehenge, it seemed, but worth a look on the way. Google estimated three hours travelling, which puzzled me until I hit the Saturday traffic as I headed out of the city. Disheartened by now, I was even more so when the road once more wound up into the hills on ever smaller tracks until finally Google maps said “Where to now?”. To which I replied “If you don’t know we’re buggered!”. So I turned back, stopping for a tea break at a tiny little warung, just a roadside shack up in the hills really, then finding the road to the coastal town of Pelabuhan Ratu. While I was looking for a hotel there I spotted a bike washing place, so I pulled in and asked how much. IRP200k (nearly £12) was the price they quoted. I pulled straight out again, thinking “Cheeky beggars”. The bike was dirty, not desperate, and it had cost less than half of that in Kuching.
This little town was a fishing port so I had a walk around the market, amazed by the variety of fish they had for sale, all freshly caught. I couldn’t identify most of them but I did enjoy the one I ate off the BBQ later on in a café.
It was raining in the morning so I hung around until it had stopped. The road turned away from the coast, climbing up into the hills, and I discovered where the morning rain had gone to. My new plastic coat worked very well though, and I was enjoying the ride as the road wound its way through pleasant villages, many with prosperous looking houses among the usual sheds and shacks. As I passed through one of them I came across a group of riders who’d stopped to look at a memorial of some kind. It looked like a bike club run out, or something similar. A bit further on they all came hurrying past me, waving as they went by. I caught them up later and had a brief chat with a couple of them. They’d come from Bandung for a day out and were just as unhappy about the rain as I was. Most of them were on scooters but there was a couple of big bikes too, an unusual sight for Indonesia.
As I started to come down out of the hills the road I was on suddenly changed from smooth asphalt into a stony, muddy, slippery mess. It was a main road too and there was no real sign of resurfacing work or anything that might explain the change. Running overhead, and then down across the hillside, was an elevated conveyor system, clearly designed to carry quarried materials. It all looked very new, possibly only just installed, and that may have explained the state of the road. Further along I saw a processing plant and once back down on the coast I saw a ship loading facility with the name of a cement company on it. Mystery solved, but I wished they’d used some of their product on the road too.
As I approached the port of Merak it wasn’t too far away from sunset. The ferries to Sumatra run frequently, and late into the evening, so I had to decide whether to get the ferrying over and done with straight away or to wait until the morning. It was a one and a half hour crossing, which would have meant disembarking and then locating a hotel in the dark. Common sense said to find one in Merak, quite easily done after a couple of false starts. A cheap and tiny room, tinier bathroom, but somewhere safe to park the bike and less than a kilometre from the ferry. It would do the job. A local warung provided me with a dish I hadn’t tried before, Bebek. Which is actually just duck, so not all that exciting in the end, but tasty.
Well, that was another of Indonesia’s 13,500 islands done and dusted. Next, and last, would be Sumatra. I was, if I’m honest, glad to be leaving Java’s heavy traffic. It’s Indonesia’s most populated island, and it shows. Although rural areas are fine, the cities tend to be very spread out and their roads are choked. I sometimes felt like a hamster forever running on its wheel, and I needed a rest from it all. I hoped Sumatra would provide it.