Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Fiery Land of Indonesia

  It shivers and it rumbles. It will exhale with frustration. It will make you know of its own temper and tantrums. In Indonesia, you begin to believe that the Earth is alive. 

I'm used to travelling independently around a foreign country, mainly thanks to James whose fascination over trains and public transport links in general makes planning route an exciting puzzle than a chore. However, despite the fact that Jogja - Mount Bromo - Kawah Ijen - Bali is a popular route, there wasn't an obvious choice we could take. There are no direct public transports between the routes so we have to make a choice of risking a complex itinerary or using a tour company.

Now I have an obvious dislike for using a tour company to exploring a country - you aren't given enough time. The route we wanted to take have an infamous reputation for gruelling 11+ hour cramped bus rides and unpleasant accommodations. After pouring over blogposts about alternative routes, I secretly knew I would fall back on the tour company option. I didn't want to admit it so James and I kept postponing our decision until we got to Jogja. Staying in Surabaya and making our own way seemed risky at such a short notice while we had an endless amount of tours available at Yogyakarta. We took the easy option.

Jeep packed adventure at Mount Bromo

Waiting for the sun
At 3 am, we had the convenience of hot water shower to wake us up and refresh us from the 13 hour minibus journey. Bearing in mind how awful people have rated their experience with tour companies, I was relieved that road trip flew as I alternated between sleeping and reading as well as that our room was not freezing and falling to pieces. We walked out to see a line of jeep ready to start our adventure. James and I got pushed onto sharing a front passenger seat (well, that's not dangerous) and we drove off in the pitch black. Well, it wasn't exactly pitch black... we could see the path we were taking as a bright trail of headlights and rear lights trailing into the distance - Mount Bromo is definitely not Indonesia's best kept secret.

Our jeep parked on the side of a steep road and we had to continue walking for another fifteen minutes. I looked up and it was the first time I noticed the starry skies since... Mexico? It was already busy once we reached the platform at Mount Penanjakan. I still wanted a good view of the the volcanoes or sunset but that was proving a little difficult due to my height. I found a little gap against the railing but before I could lean against it, a French man next to me turned around and said:

"What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm trying to see the volcano."
"That's my space."
"But there's space for two people." (Bearing in mind he was adjacent to me, I wasn't trying to squeeze in front of him).

He then proceeds to push in front of me and gets on the railing to block my view.  A woman then told me that she tried to get in there earlier but he blocked her too. I recall a friend believing that travellers are the best kind of people in the world. No, they could be the worst too.

I couldn't let the selfish attitude of the man spoil my experience, but I was really hurt. James came into the rescue and pulled me to another side of the platform where he found space for us to watch the sunrise instead and boom, I was happy again. 

Cemoro Lawang can be seen on the edge of the caldera (bottom left).
Amidst the selfie sticks and tall western tourists, I was still one of the first to catch the moment the sun broke into the horizon and watched Mount Semeru erupt quietly. I finally saw the Tengger massif for the first time and I was amazed to see how perilously Cemoro Lawang (the town we were staying overnight) sat on the edge of the caldera. I realised that we had driven from the town, down into the caldera and across the "Sea of Sands" in a jeep to get to the top of Mount Penanjakan. We went past the volcanoes and I was oblivious to it? The crowd slowly started to thin as everyone started going back to their jeeps to get down to the Sea of Sands as it was time to get up and personal with Mount Bromo.

Starting our journey through the Sea of Sands
Mount Bromo vent!
Failing to walk confidently around the crater rim
Mount Batok - now an extinct volcano
Always a selfie with a volcanic vent
The Sea of Sands is a vast plain of volcanic ash and just like san, it's incredibly tough to walk across. There was several touts ready to rent a horse so you can gallop across the ash but as awesome as that image may seem, we thought we'd give that a pass. We reached the bottom of the cone and braced ourselves for the walk up. A staircase was built right onto the slope of the volcano, which seems like a strange thought but a much easier alternative to trying to climb up the steep slippery slope. We tried walking along some of the rim of the volcano but the path was so thin and I wouldn't help but panic with every step I took. We thought a better way to enjoy the volcano was to sit as far (safely) we could towards the vent and listening to the volcano rumble. Despite the number of active volcanoes I've walked on, I wasn't prepared for the deep ominous sound Mount Bromo made as it degassed. I was mesmerised.

Journey into a Volcanic Crater: Kawah Ijen

A glimpse of the Blue Fire
We were still euphoric from our journey around Mount Bromo when we had to be whisked away to our next destination. Another twelve hour journey, another cold night's sleep. We had to be ready so that we could be picked up at one am so that we could be at the national park before two to meet our tour guide and sign in. It didn't take long before the group separated from each other but our guide was close by us. We were by no means alone or deserted, there were plenty of people who opted for the blue fire tour. We reached a lodge about forty-five minutes into the hike which was a short pause for everyone to have a chance to rent a gas mask to make it easier to breathe through the sulphuric emissions - we were only at the half way point! We continued to zigzag with the path when we noticed more and more sulphur miners walking past us, we must be close. We reached a dense crowd and a stairway going downwards along with a sign warning "No Visitors Allowed in the Crater". That didn't stop anyone.

Aren't we the cutest?
Cover of my next music album
Mount Raung erupting in the background
Our journey into the crater was unstable. There was no path, just Ioose rocks and ash from past eruptions. As I made my way down precariously balancing on one volcanic rock before making it to another, I was grateful for a tour guide. He held onto my hand and found the best route for us to get down while being prioritizing the sulphur miners. The miners continued on with their business, carrying heavy loads of sulphur through the crowds of tourists. I was too worried about slipping to be conscious about time but all that frustration was gone once we made it to the blue fire. One of the only two places in world where the blue fire is known to be - such a beautiful shade of electric blue caused by the ignition of sulphuric gas after it travelled up under higher temperature and pressure. 

We had to make our way up by sunrise, it was quicker to walk up especially under pressure, and we caught a glimpse of the crazy path we had just taken. We saw the crater lake from above and the beautiful texture of the crater. The gas emissions were getting heavier and within few moments of sunrise, the volcanic gas engulfed the whole region - crater lake and all. 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The first taste of Indonesia: Yogjakarta

We never prepared ourselves for Indonesia. We had so much trouble in Taiwan to keep us busy that it felt like we were spiralling from one whirlwind to another. Taiwan is very different from every part of Indonesia we visited with its tall skyscrapers, bright neon signs and crazy street food. Indonesia's craziness lay in its crazy drivers, overbearing touts and quietly erupting volcanoes. As soon as we arrived, we were overwhelmed and pushed around: into the airport, into the bus, onto the streets. It's almost suffocating how crowded everything was. Despite all of that, I couldn't help smiling cheek to cheek. Looking out of the bus, I felt like I was back in Dhaka and just like my first home, it was the start of bustling atmospheres, lively people and endless amount of good food.

The Local Culture of Yogyakarta 

We decided to spend the first day exploring Jogja. We started with a visit to the Sultan's Palace, Kraton, where we learnt about how much Yogyakarta loves its royal family. Next we visited the Water Palace, Taman Sari, a few blocks away from Kraton and then took a becak to Jalan Prawirotaman for lunch at Via Via. I had the Sambal Udang and Lime Juice, which I am craving to this day. Jl Prawirotaman is another tourist hotspot, after Jl. Sosrowijayan, so we spent the rest of the afternoon walking up and down the road to talk to different tour companies about a trip to Mount Bromo and Kawah Ijen. We were taken by Bottle Trip tour's Maria charisma and lovely character as she spoke about all the things Java Island had to offer. We decided to stick to a cheaper, more well known company for the volcano tours but we wanted to use her service so much that we were sold when she mentioned the "Golden Sunrise" of the Dieng Plateau. Now, I hadn't heard of Dieng before coming to Yogyakarta but I saw it mentioned in all the tour companys, so I did a little research online to see previous tourists' experience. It seemed that everyone who went for the sunrise loved it, but it's not worth it for later visits. Since James and I had a day to spare, we thought... why not go for it?

First sunrise in Dieng Plateau and our unforgettable driver, Tegu

James and I waited anxiously for our driver at 11 p.m., but even after fifteen-twenty minutes we were still waiting outside our hotel and we were getting worried. I didn't doubt our tour company at all, but I suspected there might have been a misunderstanding with the dates... but we were on a tight schedule we couldn't afford pushing our dates forward. James went to wait near the road and eventually I heard a car door slam shut loudly followed by:

"Mr James, I AM SO SORRY!"

So I and the rest of our street knew that our driver had arrived. I waved our hotel staff goodbye and headed towards the car when I felt two hands grab my shoulders as a new face started begging for my forgiveness:

"MISS, I am so sorry! Please forgive me!"

I knew we were in for a bumpy ride (and not just literally).

It was a little hard to convince our driver Tegu not to speed especially when he asked for our permission so politely and still insisted because "everyone does it" anyway but it was more forgivable when we were in ignorance of the narrow, steep highway he was flying across. My long lost motion sickness began to find me and I pretended to sleep as a way to fight it off but I didn't think it was a coincidence when I discovered that James was fighting the same battle too. Soon we arrived in Dieng with plenty of time but not enough layers. We started making our way up a trail, I had no idea where I was heading but there were plenty of Indonesians to follow as a guide. Then we reached the peak and I felt like a needle in a haystack. I was lost in a sea of Indonesians who also travelled many miles to see the wonderful golden sunrise... And what a view we had from the top! Sights of one volcano after another and the clouds covering the plains below, I never grow tired of the amazing landscapes our planet has to offer. 

We were feeling euphoric after watching the sunset and Tegu knew where to channel all our energy. He was blasting "Welcome to Paradise" on the radio and claiming that Bob Marley is Indonesia's religion (a claim that many drivers confirmed), so the only right thing to do was to sing along loud and proud with our driver as he took as around the plateau. We visited the sulphur crater open among the industrial pipelines and the hindu temples from the Kalingga Kingdom. We were continuously debating with Tegu about visiting the "Rainbow Lake" because, after the sunset it seemed the only other site worth seeing in the Plateau but it did seem to be unreasonably costly for the foreign tourists. Our driver wanted to take us home and feed us but we insisted on the colourful lake. That was suppose to be the end of our stay but it seemed Tegu had other plans for us...

With only a few hours of sleep the night before, James and I were on the edge of exhaustion, but it didn't seem like Tegu was sympathetic to our situation. I couldn't stand to listen to, let alone sing, "Welcome to Paradise" anymore despite Tegu enthusiastically yelling "One more time!" and the sun was getting to me more than it should. I went back to sleep, hoping that I could fast forward to arriving at our beloved hotel. However, I was woken up too soon and I was looking out the window to a unfamiliar green scenery. Tegu had taken us to a rice plantation. Tiptoeing between the rice terraces, we followed Tegu as two confused, lost souls to the rice plantation workers that showed us to how to harvest rice. As peaceful as the scenery looked and as sweet as the rice workers were, we were too tired to take in what was happening. We didn't stay longer than we were shown around and trusted Tegu to finally take us home... but he was clearly not done with us as he took us to his home instead. Unsure of what to do, we felt like hostages in his house as his sister cooked us Nasi Goreng while Tegu's manager interrogated him about us over the phone. Sure, we finally tried Snake Fruit and we were fed very well by Tegu and his family... but we just wanted some sleep. Finally, it looked like Tegu wanted to give in to sleep too... after he dropped us home!

The Two Giants of Yogyakarta

James and I were debating whether we should pay extra to see the sunrise from Setembu Hill or Borobudur itself, or if we should just skip seeing the sunrise and go to the Buddhist temple at a normal time. I'm a sucker for sunrise related events as you can see, so the last one wasn't a real option. In the end, we decided to enter Borobudur through the Manohara hotel and watch the sunrise from the top of the temple. Watching how bizarrely misty the temple is at early hours and exploring Borobudur before it gets crowded was worth the experience for me. It's easy for the temple to get crowded, each passage is quite narrow and there are only two staircases to move across each level. I loved the atmosphere of walking around Borobudur when it was still dark, it felt eery. We needed the whole time from sunrise to our pick-up time at nine to wander around until we were satisfied. 

It only seemed logical to end our day by watching the sunset from the Hindu Temples of Prambanan. While Borobudur seemed to withstand destruction, it seems like Prambanan wasn't as fortunate. As we made our way towards the temple, you're first struck by how intimidating the main temples are with their tall, dark, jagged appearance. As you walk closer, you're struck again in awe by the remains of the devastation caused by the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake. The main temples are surrounded by rubble and you can't help but feel a little bit of sadness at what it once was.

We arrived around 4pm and spent most of the evening around the main Prambanan complex. Our main mistake was underestimating the time we needed to roam the whole park. We did climb all the main temples that were restored and walked around the complex but there were also Buddhist temples further north that we didn't have time for. We also saved sunset for Prambanan due to numerous travel blogs claiming how beautifully it is lit by the setting sun... I don't think I saw what they were seeing and if I did, it's not that spectacular. Nevertheless, I would have allocated at least half the day to explore the whole site.    

Our Wonderful Host, Faisal

One of that best parts of travelling, the aspect that romanticises it, is the other souls that you meet on the way. I've made friends with people I worked with abroad, cherished conversations I had with strangers in accommodations I stayed in and learnt a lot from fellow travellers I shared a hostel with. I have friends who want to travel solely so they could have that experience with other travellers. However, people seem to overlook the connections they could have with the locals. I always enjoyed meeting locals because they give different perspectives of the country you're visiting and provide a more authentic experience. I've always made it a goal to meet residents of the country I am visiting because they can show you what's best (or most extraordinary). I've been taken to the best restaurants, ordered the strangest food and received an insight to the local politics. Taking the time to meet the locals should never be under-appreciated!

I want to take the time to thank our wonderful host, Faisal during our stay at the Griya Wijilan hotel. While the rest of the staff were great, Faisal stood out in terms of friendliness and care. He had so much to tell us about about Indonesia in terms of what he has seen (he showed us photos of the places he visited) and about the culture. We spoke about migration within Indonesia and he taught us a few Indonesian phrases we could use. When we were worried about Tegu being late, he stayed up with us and talked about the history and religion of Indonesia and when Tegu was distressed about arriving late, Faisal calmed him down. I've never met someone who is integrated with their guests and I always looked forward to coming back to the hotel and talking to Faisal. If I go back to Yogyakarta, I would definitely stay at Griya Wijilan just for Faisal (though the hotel itself is fantastic too!). 

Monday, 19 October 2015

It doesn't always go your way: A super-typhoon during our visit to Taiwan

I remember looking at the weather section in the Taiwan guide book and clearly reading the warnings of typhoons during the summer months. A "grade ten" typhoon passed through Hong Kong while I was there and the worst I witnessed of the damage were fallen trees. It literally blew overnight and gave us clear skies the next day. "It wasn't so bad last time, how bad can it be next time?" I thought. This is the moment I looked back to as we walked through the damages of the typhoon: bent street signs, loose debris on the loose... being almost flown away by the wind. I would choose this time to back to and kick myself if I could. However, I knew I was in for trouble a while before the typhoon hit Taiwan, when we landed and loaded Facebook as soon as we connected to the hostel wifi: "Supertyphoon heading towards Taiwan in the next few days" was the first shared link I see. Shit.

Being in denial in Taichung   

My first move was not the smartest move. I thought, if I don't know when the typhoon is about to hit then I can keep being optimistic that it would never hit Taiwan while we're here. Sounds perfectly logical and scientific, right? So we put our heads down to stay naive and kept to our plan which was heading down to Taichung as our first destination. The city is located on the west coast of Taiwan and only half an hour away from Taoyuan Highspeed Railway Station. Our first sight of the trip was Lukang, a small town with beautiful temples and photogenic winding narrow streets. We started at Longshan Temple and then we followed the Lonely Planet street tour which guided us to some historically relevant sights between the temples (though not all as equally exciting... such as the Half-Well, ahem). We came back to Taichung in the late afternoon and took a break at Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, which is supposedly the birth place of Pearl Milk Tea.

Our last stop of the night was Fengjia Night Market - one of the biggest night markets in Taiwan. We thought that Taichung was very quiet city for one that is one of Taiwan's biggest but as we rode the bus into the night market, we realised we were clearly staying in the wrong part of town. You're not even near the entrance when you notice the mass crowd heading in one direction. Bright lights and smoke filled in the air and suddenly we were unloaded onto an endless chains of stalls and shops. I love night markets, so don't get me wrong when I say I was a little frustrated at the simultaneous overload and restriction of what my choices were. East Asia is not so easy when you have diet restrictions (they love their pork in East Asia) and top that language barrier, it can be really hard to get around food markets and to satisfy your hunger. 

Eye to Eye with the Typhoon in Taipei

The day we went up to Taipei was a relatively stressful one. We tried to find the Laughter Tea House and visit the Confucius Temple but both were closed. Having already wasted most of the day, we sulkily moved onto Taipei. As we were being shown to our rooms in Taipei, the staff joked how we arrived just in time for the typhoon and it was heading this weekend. As if the day couldn't get any worse. I couldn't be in denial anymore and so James and I put our heads together to make an itinerary around the the potential timing of the typhoon - what we wanted to see the most vs what sights are near each other. 

On our first day, I jumped out of bed to see sunshine and clear skies - we needed to make the most of this beautiful weather stat! We started the day with the Elephant Trail to get the breath taking view of the Taipei 101 tower among the rest if Taipei 101.  We then took a train to Longshan Temple, a beautifully intricate temple squeezed between regular residential and office blocks of Taipei. My second favourite place in Taipei was next on the list and it was the Chai Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, where the National Theatre and National Concert Hall can also be seen. We saw the Changing of the Guards and walked around the Gardens. In the evening, we went back to the Elephant Trail to catch a sunset view of the the Taipei 101. In the morning, the platforms were empty and all for us to make the most of but everyone is just waiting for the evening to get the money shot. The rain started coming in and it was the first sign of the approaching typhoon. I stayed until it hit pitch black but it wasn't without a little sacrifice of getting soaking wet. 

The rain were getting heavier and the wind was getting stronger, but we didn't let that tame our wanderlust. On our second day, we set out for the National Palace Museum which showcases some of the few treasures of China that were sent to Taiwan to protect from the Cultural Revolution. No trip to the National Palace Museum can be complete without a visit to the amazing Jade Pak Choi. While James and I love to indulge in a foreign country's culture, art has never been our forte (we prefer food culture) and could only spend a few hours before the visit felt like a drag. It didn't help witnessing new tourist buses overloading a new group every second and being swarmed by the growing crowds and tour groups. We made a visit to the Confucius Temple and Baoan Temple, which we had all to ourselves, before the rain became unbearable. In the evening, we explored more of Ximending, one of my favourite places of Taipei. I'm a shameless shopping addict and I loved the way Ximending came luminous and alive at night. This is where all the clothing stores, korean skin care and accessories can be found as well as some quirky food stalls. We ate some beef that had been BBQ'd with a blow torch, tried some baked potatoes with cheese and pineapple and enjoyed hotpot with duck liver. Ximending is the place to stay if you want to be at the centre of all the action. 

The eye of the typhoon swept over Taipei overnight. Every now and then I would wake up in the middle of the night to hear the heavy rain and the wind banging against the buildings. Unsurprising, weather for the third and fourth day weren't so great as the rest of the hurricane passed Taiwan. We thought we'd have a look at the damage and walked around Dihua streets in the morning where we were warned by a passing Police Officer to take care and we witnessed large pieces of debris being swirled and lifted once or twice. We went to see the Sat Yuan Sun Memorial, closed due to the typhoon, and decided to take pity on ourselves (on the current situation) by ending the day at Beer and Cheese Social House. The fourth day was less of a success: we planned to visit the Beitou Hot Springs but all the outdoor springs were closed due to cleaning up form the typhoon damages (you mean they didn't do it overnight?). Luckily the indoor hot springs where still on offer but they don't offer the same experience. We went back down to Shilin where a friend and her husband showed us about Shilin Night Market and we caught up on their life in Taiwan. He made us try Stinky Tofu, Buns and Shaved Ice. Shilin Night Market felt endless, every corner filled with new kinds of stalls ranging from clothes to food to toys... I could have seen myself getting submerged and lost at the next turn. 

Post Typhoon Recovery in North Taiwan

It soon became clear that we couldn't be optimistic about continuing our itinerary onto Hualien. Despite that being the main drive for our trip, we couldn't fight the struggles of the typhoon any longer as the National Park website declared all trails closed. Luckily North Taiwan still had a lot to offer in terms of beauty and culture, so we grabbed a train to Jiufen on our penultimate full day. For those who love Ghibli Studio movies would know that this place is one of Miyazaki's inspiration. Beautifully decorated with lanterns, the place looks pretty at day but even more spectacular night. We spent most of our time at the Jiufen Tea House and then walking around the streets and picking our a tea set to pass the time until night. We didn't have any plans to stay for or after sunset but I had a hunch that we should. We noticed the tourists gathering on the streets and we joined in to see the beautiful lit buildings. Unfortunately, Jiufen is very tightly squeezed together, the narrow side streets may be fun to explore during the day but it becomes suffocating and difficult to bear with the extremely busy crowd. The streets were filled wall to wall with people and the police had to come in and control the crowd. Our memories of Jiufen still reflect the tea houses and lanterns, which I look back at warmly. 

Our last night we went out on a bang. A trip to Taiwan would not be complete with a visit up to the Taipei 101 (thought the view of Taipei 101 is much better than the view from 101).  The love of mascots if definitely clear as you learn about O Bear and the Damper Babies. We then headed up to Shifen Railway Station. The railway station is on the Pingxi Branch Line, a former coal mine railway that is mow a photography paradise for the Taiwanese Youths but more famously, the site of theAnnual Lantern Festival. Visitors can come in during any time of the year to decorate their own sky lantern which they can realise into the sky... we couldn't resist!  

We still had half a day left before we caught our flight to Yogyakarta. Hualien was still off limits (sadly) so there was only one plan we hadn't visited it: Yehliu National Geopark. Now, the word "Geopark" may give you the impression of spectacular geological formations and dramatic landscapes when in reality Taiwanese love this park because if you squint hard enough, the rocks look like things. There are rocks that look like candles, birds, ginger. The highlight of the park is the rock that looks like a "Queen's head"... maybe if you look at it from a specific angle. Visitors have fun running from one rock to another, trying to find out what it's suppose to look like while the park staff spend their whole day blowing this whistle telling pesky tourists they are crossing the line.

Lessons Learnt from the Experience

This isn't the first time I've told myself not to go to East Asia during the summer - Last year in China we experienced miserable rains during the time we stayed in Hangzhou and in Thailand, we had flee from the monsoon once per day. Now that I don't have fixed holidays, I have more freedom to choose when to travel (if I am on top of my work). Looking at the climate will be my second top priority when choosing somewhere to travel and I'll focus looking at travelling during shoulder seasons when I can. What to do if I have no choice but to travel during low season? I need to learn to be flexible - or be willing to spend more money and research how the typhoon affects different parts of the country. Looking back on my Taiwan trip, I should have made a typhoon friendly plan. I know the west coast is less affected by typhoons and speaking retrospectively, I would have done Hualien first and then Taichung last. More importantly, I need to check the weather!

It wasn't all gloom and doom for my trip to Taiwan. I do feel a little selfish complaining about a typhoon during a trip when this is a regular occurrence in numerous countries which always end with devastations. But no typhoon can keep Taiwan's spirits down and even when the hurricane was still moving over Taiwan, the people were already at work to restore Taiwan to normalcy. Taiwan is one of those countries what treat their tourists like guests. Despite the language barrier, people were prepared to go out of their way to help us. If we looked like we were struggling to find which bus to go on, they'll stay by us and point out which one to take, when we tried to take photographs of the sunset, a photographer gave up her spot for me and when we tried to order food they'd respond with such enthusiasm that I felt like I was in a surreal child's TV show. Taiwan was a incredibly beautiful country for its culture, atmosphere and especially for its people.