Archive for the ‘Mountain Bike Touring West Sumatra 1998’ Category

Yesterday, when I rode into Padang from the south, I was very low on Rupiah and stopped at the first money changers I saw. It was in the Dipo International Hotel’s lobby and the only money changers that are opened on Sundays are in big hotels with bad exchange rates. The Dipo is one of the larger pretentious hotels to face the Padang waterfront at that time and I had considered staying there, until got into a conversation with it’s owner/CEO or the owner’s son. That would make him the day manager I guess. What I remember was that he got into a conversation with me rather, and it felt like 20 questions.

Why are you cycling here ?

Are you trying to promote cycling as a form of tourism here ?

Do you intend to come back and bring many cyclists to stay at this hotel ?

If you do we have, many rooms facing the ocean, meeting rooms, room service, a money changer, a karaoke (sometimes croaking) room with many hostesses, a disco etc etc.

Like most Chinese Indonesians trying to assimilate with the local bumis, or ‘sons of the soil’ he wore an intricate batik shirt with brown floral patterns and had a very un Chinese name of Chandra Gunawan. It is a given that his Chinese surname was either “Chan’ or ‘Wan’

And to think I just wanted some money changed, as I needed dinner more than a hotel room at that very moment. Then I rode into Chinatown, as it’s easy to find dinner there, as well as seek out a place to stay. It was Godsend that at the entrance of Chinatown was also the Batang Arau Hotel, a former Dutch bank that had 1907 inscribed on its roof. It’s original website is old, but Sumatran Surfaris a surf operator, has brought it somewhat up to date for those into details. Inside ah well, I stepped into another world more suited to the Dutch colonialists of old. The only difference being I had a nice bicycle, and my luggage came in pairs.

“Just call me Norma” sealed the deal, showing me all 5 rooms they had then, had a staff member put my bike in a safe place and apologised profusely that their kitchen was closed, but hey I was in Chinatown where food never sleeps, and Norma even had a few good recommendations.

No karaoke, no disco, just idyllic peace and quiet, with nice views across the Batang Arau and some greenery, from my very own terrace for the next 2 days.

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Batang Arau river and it’s hotel namesake at the top left. Dutch banks looked like that in the past

 

 

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Norma

 

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$50 bucks of colonial charm

 

It was not easy leaving such a nice room, and I wasn’t even checking out till the next day ! Another surprise was that while I was heading for breakfast on the ground floor terrace, I saw my bike covered in soap suds and there was a puddle of water below it. My bike had a bath even before I did. Norma showed me the hotel’s library/den/music room on the ground floor which had a big screen TV and about a thousand CDs, if I were to get bored with my room.

Breakfast deserves a mention, bread baked on site, bacon, eggs, home brewed coffee, a platter of fruit etc. This didn’t feel like a bike trip, but places like this make a very nice end to the trip though climbing up to the room on a narrow spiral staircase, with overworked leg muscles I was reminded that I still had to explore this city. With the bike too clean, I decided to walk, after all Chinatown was just 2 kms by 2 kms with some narrow alleys with an interesting morning market in full swing.

As I am more used to seeing Indonesian Chinese communities say in the larger cities of Jakarta and Surabaya in their element, meaning posh businesses, cars and homes, somehow the folk in smaller towns were more open. Not every encounter (for example, at the Dipo Hotel) has to end in a money making opportunity. Maybe it was that they didn’t head conglomerates or were busy scheming trying to acquire another, but the exchanges I had here were heartwarming. I think their richer cousins in the big cities would be shocked seeing their own folk selling dough fritters, soya bean drinks and noodles outside their wooden homes here in Padang. I wasn’t complaining though, their snacks were good and I am heading back the next day.

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Walking was very good, and I managed to see things at an even slower pace and soon enough I had to succumb. There was a very fancy hair salon in a very fancy neighbourhood (for Padang) One can tell by the new cars parked outside, their drivers killing time smoking. Creambath time. For the uninitiated, this treatment can last from an hour to a crazy 3 hours, and the least time is spent on your hair. If you expect to have a sudsy bath with a total stranger, I am sorry to disappoint. All the action is entirely above board, or should I say above the waist only.

Creambath is an over the top massaging of your head and scalp with a thick conditioning cream while seated in a barber’s chair. The first sign of ‘weirdness’ in this place was that it was full of women, but I was welcomed in. With creambath, one has to be topless, easy for me and I was given an opaque plastic sheet to wear, closed upfront but with a slit at the back for easy access. So while sitting in a room of technically topless women in Padang was a tad weird, I’ve had stranger, unprintable encounters.

The better salons will use local products like aloe vera, ginseng, avocado, carrots and seaweed, anytihng believed to soften the hair and scalp. The massage usually continues south to the neck, back and arms. Today I got the works (and a 90 minute head and back massage) and was left under one of those alien pod like steamers over the head for 30 minutes. If this is what a lobster feels like in a steaming boiling pot, I came very close to it. After it’s removal there was such a sense of light headed relief and coolness not unlike a nice hangover. Next the chair was reclined and I was told to take a nap. Yes, ma’am.

After 2.5 hours of immobility, I paid the Rp 30,000 (a massive $9.00) bill and made a quick exit, as the oh so gentle owner of the place was already starting 20 questions and the stinger was, if I was free tonight he would show me around town etc etc.

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Concrete and tiled modernity in a Minangkabau house

 

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Padang’s Catholic Church

 

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Le klenteng

 

Spending the hot mid day hours at the salon was a pretty good idea. It was a rest day after all, but now at 4 pm I was refreshed yet restless and got on my bike to cross the Batang Arau and explore a huge swath of hilly green hills south of the city. A few scenic dirt trails will lead you to the new port at Telok Bayur and some sandy beaches south of town.

If you’re used to Indonesian traffic, meaning there’s lots of it in a ‘go with the flow’ kind of organised mayhem, you’ll live to ride another day. The trick is not to make sudden moves, that will throw everyone else who has an engine at hand, off guard. They’ll appreciate hand signals, and know that this is an ignorant yet brave foreigner, who dares to ride a bicycle in their fair yet smog engulfed city. And for such bravery, they’ll usually slow down to let you pass.

I decided to up the bravery quotient a bit more by riding in the dark. What else was there to do in Padang, I had explored most of the town that was interesting, the river front and century old shop houses, went offroad into the hills, had a cream bath and did not feel any earthquake. Although I fly home in less than 24 hours, life was good and it got better at the town’s waterfront. Watching the sunset is a major pastime here and it was a carnival like atmosphere, small town style. Lots of finger food, snacks and drinks to keep one satiated while watching the sun go down on yet another day in Sumatra.

And yes, having a significant other to share all this with would be nice, but getting back to scheming, I mean work in a few days, meant no more time to find a significant other. Maybe, I’ll go buy another bike. Yes, that sounds like a plan.

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You would think that by looking at Mr Subandi’s rustic little guest house and my dingy room that I had a great time in (the living room and veranda as well) for the past 2.5 days, nothing could get dingier?

The hotels in Sungei Penuh somehow managed to top that. I don’t need to go into further detail, but in keeping with the town’s main attraction of a century old mosque made out of wood, the place I stayed at seemed older than the mosque, even though it was made of concrete from Padang semen. I was missing Mr S’s linoleum floors already, where we sat cross legged for 2.5 nights brainwashed (Mr S at least) by CNN and the BBC.

OK one slight detail. The toilet was an after thought as it and the bath were higher than the room floor itself. A foot higher. Of course it leaked and water flowed into the room. I had to repair the bed, as the planks holding it up were falling onto the floor. I chose to sleep on the planks as the thin mattress was, well thinner than the 3/4 inch planks, also by now my back muscles are harder than any wood. Changing rooms didn’t matter as the place was full, being a Saturday. Imagine if you can, Leonardo de Caprio in The Beach, staying at the run down On On Hotel, 19 Phang Nga Road, in Phuket Town. He didn’t have a toilet that leaked. They were downstairs. At least he had a ceiling fan and all the Thai massage that was within spitting distance from the hotel. I didn’t.

Ah well. I did survive an earthquake, and finished 30 months of military service without having a girlfriend.

My mega dollar ti bike was minimally locked to a banister near reception if you could call it that. One saving grace in this hovel with no name, the sign board was too faded, was the 10 year old kid who seemed to be doing all the work here. I told him to keep an eye on my cheap looking unpainted bike as there would be a present for him the next day if no one stole it.

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I had the good fortune to meet a Chinese looking couple staying at the same hotel, who asked around about dinner and we actually drove in their car out of town to a little eatery that had the best food in as many days. What a gem it was. Fried Hokkien noodles with NO potatoes. They too knew that the choices in town were grim and were adamant that SP has a small Chinese community, so stir frys here are not a dream but a small God sent reality. They were headed to Padang on the same scenic inland route that my bus 008 took. They were not enthusiastic about that, as that way had no services at all, compared to the coast road. Apparently the road across to Tapan on the coast had been closed for months from landslides, the road that I needed to ride on tomorrow. Drats.

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Surprisingly sleeping on bare planks turned out pretty well. I slept like a ….. log. While packing, there was a knock on the door and ‘the Kid’ as I fondly remember, appeared with breakfast in hand, French toast and piping hot coffee. Now that was a good start, and as promised I tipped him in the thousands of Rupiah. The country has legions of such children working in servitude without a hint of any income, just food and board, and sadly with abuse thrown in. Without his masters around that early in the morning, we managed to talk a lot about life in SP and he said that if people were coming from the coast at Tapan to SP on motorcycles and on foot, surely a cheap unpainted bicycle could go the other way. Now this kid, I hope he has a brighter future. He wasn’t sure about cars, but who cares about cars?

The road started to defy gravity just as it left town. I was in a happy mood, the air was fresh and cool and the shallow inclines didn’t tax my legs so much. I kept thinking about the kid who in another place and time would achieve so much more, but he looked happy in an earnest sort of way, folding the notes that I put into his small palm to quickly tuck them into his front pocket, at the same time keeping a wary glance to his left and right for busybody eyes nearby. In no time, I had ridden most of the 15 kms up to a ridgeline which I had seen from the valley floor yesterday.

There were a few interesting moments when a truck tried it’s level best on very un level ground, zigzaging it’s way up a slope. An assistant, with rocks in hand had to place them under the rear wheels, each time the driver hit the pedal. Really slow progress at a snail’s pace. After being sufficiently entertained, I moved on to the top of the long broken road with stunning views of the valley and Mt Kerinchi for the very last time.

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Seeing some faded signs for a park ranger’s office , I had high hopes in confirming my directions for today. Alas I came upon an empty wooden shack with burnt furniture, probably set alight for some warmth in the night. It seemed that there was little chance of getting lost, as this was the only road for miles around, and it was headed west on a welcome down hill. It carried on for at least 20 kms without so much as a motorcycle passing by. Dense jungle, with water flowing onto the broken tarmac and a lack of litter suggested that there wasn’t much traffic for months. Instead I was rewarded with the sounds of nature, flowing water, whoops of giant hornbills flying above and screaming monkeys in the trees. Wait, no, they were gibbons with their distinctive calls. It was fun returning those calls, there would be silence for a while, and then more screaming from small white faces in the trees. In gibbon speak, it could have been. “Hello Misterrr!” or “What a nice bike you have” I don’t know.

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The first signs of human life thereafter were whole families on motorcycles heading to SP. I must admit that I felt relieved after hours being by myself. It was Sunday after all and upon hearing them, I’d stop and wait in the shadows like a gibbon wearing lycra. Some did a double take, first noticing the bike, then I’ll step out into the light. More screams of surprise and a bike or two even stalled as they had to keep throttling uphill. 65 kms from SP, I rode into Tapan, or at least the outskirts. It was still a long ways to the Indian Ocean, but here was the turnoff NW to Padang. 212 kms read a road marker. 212 kms ???!!!

Time for an ice cream, while planning the next move. Within minutes an ice cream loving taxi driver pulled up at the warung, I was at, and we started talking, while I weighed my options in the back of my mind. The same ol questions, where you’re from, where you’re going ensued. Now a metered taxi in the middle of nowhere is a rarity. They seldom travel alone in the countryside. Who would hail them down? Not me, but the 212 kms played in my mind. It was only a question of getting ripped off, and by how much. He had driven 400 km from Padang the day before, as someone had a medical emergency, and now had to head back empty, before his boss sends out a search party. City cabs aren’t meant to do inter provincial rides. The opening offer was about US$25 then dropped to $20 or 10 cents per km. I felt that I had a slight upper hand, also as providence would have it, the taxi came to me. By now half of Tapan had gathered around us and I did some magic tricks like quick releasing the wheels without any tools to put the bike in the boot (English) trunk (American).

The coast road though flat was narrow, hot, shoulderless and monotonous, with Painan being the only town before Padang to stay at. During the 4 hour ride I did what I couldn’t do on a bike ride. Doze off in the humidity at sea level. Well rested I asked to be dropped of at Bungus Bay, an idyllic fishing village about 20 kms south of Padang. There were possibly a few disappointing beach huts to stay at, the kind Leo likes, but I think I was more than ready for the big city.

Subandi’s home stay has just 3 guest rooms but a large cosy living room. That’ll take 6 guests in those rooms and up to 20 when high season approaches and the village is swarmed with hikers wanting to climb Kerinchi and Letter W. With room # 1 always locked I thought that we might have another guest. Mr S told a sad tale of this perpetually locked room. What else to do but exchange tales on long dark nights here while nursing a pot of hot black Sumatran coffee.

Room # 1 had a young Swedish guest who decided against better advice to climb Kerinchi alone. After a few days there was no sign of him, except for some personal effects that a search team, Mr S included, found near the summit 3 weeks later. Lost for good his family makes an annual pilgrimage to Kerisik Tuo and the mountain to pay their respects. Mr S sighed a lot when recounting as he put it a sad chapter in his life, as he felt ‘a heavy responsibility’ for that 21 year old Swede, being his guest and all. He wasn’t afraid of the repercussions from his own authorities, and there were quite a few, the usual threats to his business and trekking guide license etc etc,. Those were nothing compared to his immense burden of guilt, so much so that he neglected his family and farm to continue searching for the next few years, climbing to the peak two or three times a month, a mean feat in itself, for any sign of human remains, but to no avail.

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300 mm zoom

 

 

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The weather got even better on the 3rd morning as I reluctantly left the guest house. Sure the UV was high, but UV again is an alien western concept to the locals here. By now I too, was trying to adapt and forget that this far in the trip I was totally sunburnt but happy, and in life, happiness is paramount. I am also lucky in that I usually fade back to my lighter skin tone in about 14 days after any bike trip, so no wasting money on vain dark tanning lotion.

Sun block works minimally when I dont sweat it away, and yes, let’s all try sweat less cycling in the tropics, another universally alien concept. Sure I could just stay at home, but how boring would that be? Mind numbing middle class wandering in air conditioned malls.

I could look at this Mt Kerinchi all day and that’s pretty much what I did. Pulled up a chair in front of the lodge, sat and zoomed in through my telephoto lens, till I left at almost noon. Mr S brought on the good news that the next 40 kms or so was mostly downhill by a rushing river to the next town Sungei Penuh or ‘full river’ in Jambi Province. To his knowledge he has not had any guests who arrived on a bicycle, so it’s safe to assume that I was the first cycle tourist here. Yes !

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Wispy

 

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I’m actually heading in the opposite direction, but turned around for this shot

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Gorgeous

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The snaky downhill road to SP

I don’t recall having a photo of the legendary Mr Subandi, but if you can visualize a leaner version of guitar maestro, George Benson without too much eye shadow, that’ll be him.

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This is the motherlode of the whole trip. I get to see the highest volcano in Indonesia in the clearest weather imaginable. Plus it did not erupt on me. My cameras are happy and so is the home stay owner as I stay 2.5 nights, have all my meals there, except one, had a few smoke filled chats and checked out late.

In my daypack and elsewhere are 2 SLR bodies, a fully manual Nikon FM2 with ahem, titanium shutters, and a battery draining F90, 3 Nikkor lenses, 3 circular polarizers and a Yashica T Zoom compact with a Carl Zeiss lens. They comprise about 25% of luggage space but 50% of luggage weight. My handle bar bag is full of negative and positive film rolls. 20 or 30. I am glad that mankind has progressed into the digital realm thus far, but there’s still some work to be done on bulky peripherals like battery chargers, transformers and cords.

I’ve made it up to 60 kms today up to Danau Atas yet another lake in the mountains. Note the emphasis on ‘up’ Those were 60 kms of winding and climbing mountain roads that made Maninjau’s winding switch backs seem like a walk in the park. Half of those 60 kms was on the Solok to Padang highway, meaning truck traffic. I’d like to blame the slow progress on lurid dreams of Indonesia’s ‘kupu kupu malam’ or ‘butterflies of the night’ but the hard reality is that, the mountain slopes won and I lost.

At least now I know also not to stay in seemingly posh hotels like the oh so refined Taufina in Solok. But why should I not stay there? I got there earlier on my ti bike. When male hotel guests arrive in nice cars, carrying nice luggage, their company for the night is also ramped way up a few notches than say compared to truck stop Ombilin. I’m talking red high heels, batting eyelashes, flawless caramel skin tones, cheap perfume and peek a boo dresses. The Taufina ran out of Do Not Disturb signs that night. My strategy of getting a room far from the lobby and parking lot did not work as the place was filled up fast after 9 pm. Another ah well moment.

As an aside, even the 5 star Hyatt Regency in Surabaya is not free from the scourge of such butterflies in high heels. This being Indonesia, money buys anything and I once saw hotel security ‘delivering’ women to hotel guests via the fire escape ladders outside the building ! At that time I was more tolerant of such reprehensible goings on, because as Oprah would say, I had a gurrl-friend with me. She (not Oprah) has since flown the coop, and I am forced to take up this hobby of solo bicycle touring in lush volcanic landscapes.

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After a quick lunch, I spot a bus pulling in and waited for a while (the driver went home for a bath!) Lucky me, this bus plies the route once a day, and half of the passengers got off here at Danau Atas, a tourist spot, and I got in. 5 hours to get to Kerinchi and Kerisik Tuo where there are some hiking lodges to stay at. The bus covered at least 150 kms through wild beautiful cycling country with steep gorges and tea plantations hugging the hill slopes. So what else is new right. Get on a bus and the road heads downhill through spectacular scenery. My map does not show any sizable village or town to stay at in those 150 kms. As an overpaying tourist with a bike on the roof, I get to sit up front, riding shotgun on bus 008. Here is where the women get to sit too, sort of a privilege, where the driver and conductor can see them and they won’t get molested, if seated in the tight rear quarters of the bus.
I too get my fill of female companionship, even though it was limited to just chit chatting about the obvious. Oh, going home to the village, I see. Nice scenery, yes. Are you a tourist? Yes.My ride even traverses through the Kerinchi Seblat National Park, one of the island’s last remaining refuges for endangered wildlife like elephants, rhinos. tigers, bears and various primates. By now even the bus was getting devoid of passengers (a rare thing in Indonesia) in the fading evening light, and cycling here with the threat of death by mauling is quite real. Anything to console myself. I got into Mr Subandi’s home stay in Kerisik Tuo in the dark. The long day and previous lonely night was over.Kerisik_TuoKayu_Aro_traffic_copy

 

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Yellow light bulb, pink curtains, new and clean squatting toilet, 3/4 ultra light Thermarest, silk sleeping bag liner, Sony ICF SW22 short wave radio, Daily Bread devotional, 16 degrees C at night. My paradise, all of $3 per 24 hours, was shattered when they turned on the TV and CNN came on.

When not guiding trekkers up the mountains here, Mr S. and family will gather round his 21 inch ‘Sohny’ TV to indulge in the outside world, Back in the yard there’s a satellite dish the size of a small car, bringing CNN, BBC and a dozen Indonesian channels of home shopping and soap operas in to the linoleum lined living room. Since the start of this trip, I haven’t seen any good TV much less CNN, (aka ‘see an end’ for bad news) but I must admit it was a welcome distraction from the pitch black darkness outside and I had a funny feeling that I was the only one who fully understood what Larry King was saying.

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The next day, having not gotten over that long bus ride, I decided to cycle back on the Kerinchi Padang road to see what I had missed in the dark. Backtracking 10 kms from Kerisik Tuo, I came across a huge waterfall and the trailhead to Danau Tujuh another highland lake that’s ringed by 7 mountain peaks. From the road there’s a clear view of a mountain that looks like the letter W, hence the name letter W mountain.

I mess around with some very mud encrusted local trekkers, by telling them that I’d like to cycle up there. You should see their disbelief, and I thanked them for their genuine concern. The road that I bused follows the huge base of Mt Kerinchi for another 20 kms. Apart from sparse tea plantations, there’s nothing else but dense and denser jungle. The odd local on a motorcycle will actually stop and ask if you’re lost. I return to the village of Pelompek, 10kms from Kerisik Tuo to sort out lunch but the choices ranged from grim to none.

I was prepared for biscuits and coffee, and I had biscuits and coffee from a small stall, when the lady manning it (or is it woman-ning it?) pointed to a house across the street. The curtains were drawn and it seemed locked but the doors opened on their own when I approached it. I think I was being watched and what looked like the Bates Motel lobby was actually some one’s living room and had a neat kitchen attached.

All they could muster up was some scrawny chicken and fried noodles. Couldn’t complain really as Mr S. food choices ranged from rice, potatoes, leeks, long beans, onions and eggs in whatever combination, way, shape or form. During my stay I had 6 meals of the above, stir fried, deep fried, boiled and refried. I was ready to join Carbohydrates Anonymous. The meals were excellent for the first few mouth fulls as they say hunger is the best condiment, but seeing the huge portions, I had to politely ask Mrs S to halve them. I don’t think I was being over fed nor over charged but Mr and Mrs S were actually eating those large portions every meal. Must be the cold weather, fresh air and long walks into the countryside that they take.

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Like most Indonesians, this genial couple thought that I was crazy to ride a bicycle for the long distances unimaginable to them. Why didn’t I take the bus or rent a motorcycle? Then there was the fact that I travelled alone, as most Indonesians can’t go to the market without a family member of friend in tow. I tried to answer as best I could but that was lost on them. In the late afternoon, I went out again through the dirt roads that laced the tea plantations all around, a haunting green that changed colours whenever a cloud passed by, covering the broad valley like a lush green carpet. I must have stayed out, turning the cranks for 2 to 3 hours, till the final moment when the sun cast it’s last rays almost horizontally on the tiny tea leaves. Better get back before dark, and true to form Mr S will be waiting on his varandah again for my return. Taking deep breaths of cool mountain air, wiping some sweat off my brow, I smiled and told Mr S that this was what a bike trip was all about. He killed his cigarette and asked if he could borrow my bike for a while.

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This route can be done from Bukittinggi or combined with the route from Maninjau to Bukittinggi, The latter is long and just a tad more than 100 kms and involves that 10 km hill climb out of Maninjau lake at the very start.

The former is easy, meaning a late start from Bukittinggi is fine, as it’s also mostly downnhill to Payakumbuh and flat to the Harau Canyon. Bicycle touring is easy here, almost like a Subway sandwich, make your choices, a six inch or 12 inch, and live with the consequences.

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N Eastern end of Maninjau

 

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1916

 

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Village mosque

 

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Huffing and puffing at Matur’s summit

 

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Mosque at Embun Pagi (morning mist)

 

I found it hard to leave Bukittinggi even though I survived an overnight earthquake. Besides cycling I was on a mission to photograph some of the scenes that I so fondly remember from the guidebooks that preserved my sanity while stuck on a 21st floor downtown office. I woke up early, forsaking breakfast, got my cameras, lenses and mini tripod to some nice viewpoint like Panorama Park above, and wait.

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Mt Singgalang above the Ngarai Sianok canyon

 

After setting up, I wait. Wait for the mist to clear, wait for a horizontal ray of light, chase away pesky early riser kids that got in the way of that ray of light. I multitask, keeping an eye on my bike nearby, while sucking it up and holding my bowels, as I am ‘a morning person’ While distracted by scenery, my stomach rumbles and cries for food, but at the same time, yesterday’s food wants to leave the scene, badly.

My record for holding back is an impressive hour or so, and such practice has left me with a 32 inch waist since time immemorial. After I’m done and happy with my photos, I shift into high gear and speed back to the hotel and ride something with more porcelain than titanium in it.

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Old Payakumbuh shops

 

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Harau Canyon countryside

 

It a real easy ride to Payakumbuh and the Harau Canyon. Easy as in ‘lets go after lunch’ kind of ride. I think it’s 60 or 70 kms and a large part was a rolling downhill. I might have to come back the same way uphill for a while before heading south towards Lake Singkarak and another cross roads town of Solok that is in the middle of the second figure 8 loop. Solok is at the foot of Mt Talang, and yes that volcano has erupted causing death and misery in the mid 90’s. I’d give some credit to Mt St Helen’s but that’s in Washington State. What has California got ? Besides Arnold ?

The Harau Canyon is a small valley hemmed in by tall limestone cliffs. You cant miss it. The cliff walls stick out like sore thumbs in the flat Payakumbuh valley. I stumble upon the beautiful Echo Homestay and decide there and then to stay here. It’s wonderful to check in at 2 pm and have the rest of the day to laze about or explore with an unloaded bike. Though I’m not into rock climbing, I might enjoy seeing others doing it and hopefully not slipping up while 200 m up a rock face. BTW that Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible whatever, swinging in slow motion from one cliff to another, in Utah and not dying, that’s Hollywood and CGI. Even mountain goats dont have such skill.

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Canyon walls attract the new in thing, rock climbing

 

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Check out the humans below

 

Today I rode the longest distance that I could muster. 125 kms. The tarmac is new and smooth in parts, the tailwinds were encouraging, and as I was leaving the highlands, gravity was my best friend. All that plus I survived an earthquake in the dead of night. I backtrack about 30 kms toward Bukittinggi but veer south at Plading toward Batusangkar and then Lake Singkarak which brings me closer to Solok. I was tempted to see the lake at lake level as I also saw it from the plane. As my guidebooks made it look so enchanting that I had to ride my bike there and get a picture of the lake, to rival those in the guidebooks.

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Tabat Patah panorama

 

 

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Batusangkar carraiges

 

At Batusangkar, navigation gets a bit hairy as I need to traverse a major east west road while trying to connect onto a north south road to Ombilin which is just a few kms either east or west of Batusangkar. Ever get the feeling that either way, you’ll be half right or half wrong? I finally find the village road to Ombilin after spotting a village sign the size of my rear rack’s platform, That was how ‘large’ it was. It read ‘Ombilin’ and pointed down a broken road.

After a few kms of bumping around, you start to wonder whether you’re on the correct road, as there are many more kms to go and the skies are getting dark with intermittent thunder and lightning. Breakfast and lunch have long disappeared and light drizzle turns to heavy drizzle and then all hell breaks loose. You try and be a smart ass cyclist and carry on till visibility is zero. You carry on a bit more and almost get side swiped by a cerebrally challenged Sumatran truck driver trying to light his cigarette, while negotiaing a blind corner, in a 40 yr old Chevy truck with bad brakes.

If I perish on the road to Ombilin, and you see a kid on a titanium mountain bike there, please tell him I want it back or my ghost will haunt his generations forever. But I carry on and pull into a small store with a leaky roof. These warungs are everywhere, family run and possibly the best places to take shelter for the lone cyclist. They’re the 7/11s of the Indonesian village economy, just without a Jumbo Slurpee.

The funny thing is that if I am perceived to be an Indonesian from the big city, I get overcharged and get no attention or at least disdain as the poor are downtrodden by the rich, always. Go watch any 120 episode Indonesian soap opera. If I act as if I am Australian or Canadian born but with Indonesian or Chinese parents, people take more interest. Hey this stupid soaked cyclist speaks some twangy Indonesian and has come a long way to discover his roots in our province. I’ll still be overcharged as I am foreign. If I am Caucasian, the whole village will show up, stare and scream the few English words they’ve remembered from Baywatch.

My warung episode near Ombilin lasted 2 hours with pelting rain, 2 coffees in beer glasses, countless packets of peanuts and a few sticks of Indonesia’s finest clove cigarettes. After all, I was wet and cold and lived in the dark side for a few traumatic months of my existence.

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Lake Singkarak in the distance

 

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As if to add to the whole cycle touring experience in exotic Asia, my front tyre flips and flops and deflates while I am on the road bridge that straddles the Ombilin river. That’s the bridge that parallels the rail bridge across the river too. My only flat on the whole trip. The bridge shakes and rumbles each time a truck passes by and I thought that if I perish and drown in the swirling waters below, I would at least have deprived a village kid of a titanium mountain bike. I push my bike onto a safer spot like the local housing for the local highway repair crew or something like that. I fix and patch my flat tube to the amazement of the road crew. Usually it’s faster to just change the whole tube, but I thought, why not show off and do the patching thing.

Whilst pumping up my repaired tube with my magical Double Shot Zefal pump, (it inflates on the up AND downstroke) one of the locals must have got some inspiration and asked me if I’d like to follow him ‘to see a girl’ Obviously there was more to just looking and right across the street from the shabby housing was an even shabbier ‘chicken coop’ local parlance for whorehouse. Rain, grime, mossy walls, truck exhaust, slick roads, stone faced working girls yeah…..that’ll complete my day. I turned the bike around and pretty much cannot remember the ride to Solok, but it was quicker than usual.

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What a town. It’s the kind of place where one might tend to wallow in for too long. Even local Indonesians love it, for it’s slower pace of life and cooler climate. Many mundane attractions are within a half hour’s walk of each other. The clock tower, the fort, the dismal zoo, the 3 street markets on a hilly slope meaning flights of steps to negotiate. As if to push myself further I find the Benteng Hotel, high on a hill close to the Dutch built Fort de Kock. There’s a rusty canon or two there among the courting couples hiding among the trees.

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For the touring cyclist, Bukittinggi is an osais of rest especially when coming to and from Lake Maninjau or Padang. It’s the middle of the figure 8 route that I’m doing in West Sumatra. That is until I head further south and find another figure 8 loop to do. I try not to leave the Agam plateau as the area is known as because in doing so I hit the lowlands and climbing up back is not gravity friendly.

What’s interesting is also that in every small Indonesian town, there will be a small Chinese community which can only mean Chinese food. Stir fried, piping hot and fresh. Lard laced.

Man cannot just live on pure Indonesian food all day. Variety is the spice of life and too much Indonesian spice in your food can wreak havoc on one’s bowels and seriously cripple your daily milage. Therein lies the attraction and abhorrence of the local cuisine, Padang or Minangkabau food.

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Unknown spices, lots of curry powder, ground peppers, red chillis, green chillis, grated coconut, coconut milk mixed in with various meats except pork, overcooked vegetables are what you’re unlikely to see happening in the kitchens. What’s very visible are the many Nasi Padang or Minang food stalls with their display cases of food on dozens of plates that have been sitting out all day and for some curried dishes, days.

Everything looks good and the trick for the every hungry cyclist is to get what you want at the right time, usually mid morning when freshness is almost guaranteed. Cold Padang food is not something to have at 4 pm. If you have a weak constitution, do not mix your Padang meal with unfamiliar drinks, again some are coconut based. Stick to good old plain water or something non carbonated and not too sweet. Drink milk only if you really want to tempt fate.

When all goes well, Padang food can be the sole reason for traveling to Padang or Bukittinggi itself.

Usually when one sits down, many many small dishes are brought out for sampling. You’re alone but there are a dozen dishes on the table. You pay for just what you take and eat. That leaves say an untouched chicken wing or fried fish sitting on a small plate with fingerprints, in front you and you might just wonder if some previous diner has had the same experience? Yes, and many more before him and you! So to play safe I’d just get a plate of rice and point out what I want from the bigger plates on the shelves, though that doesn’t guarantee that what you ordered hasn’t been replaced from the dining table. Ah well.

A crowded restaurant will also mean that the turnover of food is higher. Eating as such is great with 12 of your best buddies at the table, a luxury the solo cyclist doesn’t have when touring alone. Also don’t fret about the flies, they’re the least of your worries, as some stall holders also use their bare hands to handle the food, as well as cash among everything else.

There’s also, get this, CFC, as in C for California. They do a mean spaghetti and meatballs for the really homesick. By now there should be even a Pizza Hut or two, so there’s greater impetus for those who have savoured the Jambi lowlands to head for the cultural heart of the Minang highlands.

One final technicality. The Minangkabau or Minang as the locals are known here have stuck to a system of matrilineal kinship. Descendants and inheritance (pay attention) are traced through women rather than men. Property, homes and yes rice fields belong to the women. A clash between ancient traditions and modern day Islam was inevitable. Most families now compromise where earned income and properties acquired after marriage are shared. In conclusion if an outsider settles here with a local Minang, besides converting to Islam, make sure that your quiet time and cycling time is wholly yours. Get it in writing.

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On one particularly memorable night, laced with too much coffee and the local brew, I felt my bed moving and thought it was just the drinks before and after dinner or just my dreams chasing each other. Looking at some fallen masonry and broken flower pots on the streets the next day, I realised that a mild earthquake had struck the town last night. Time to saddle up and leave then, not that that was going to be any safer.

60 kms or so of undulating hills to Payakumbuh and the majestic limestone cliffs of the Harau Canyon. That’s the day after leaving Lake Maninjau, which in this journal, is the day after tomorrow.

Padang is the capital city and gateway to the province of West Sumatra. There’s a scenic waterfront which faces west to the Indian Ocean and that explains some very stunning sunsets.

A constant overhanging light grey cloud in the city outskirts is usually mistaken for romantic fog hugging the hillsides. It’s the Padang Cement plant choking the population for miles around. In Indonesian ‘cement’ is also spelled as ‘semen’ I have a photo somewhere but I have to scan it first, so just take my word for it.

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Batang Arau

The international airport has convenient direct 90 minute flights to and from Singapore as well as many domestic connections. It’s a world away from what I am used to. The old airport buildings are wooden and the window panes would shudder each time a plane lands or takes off.

When everyone has taken their luggage and cleared customs, the porters go back to sleep on the conveyor belts, the lights switched off till the next plane lands.

The ac wall units are brand new but do not work because there are no plugs at the end of the electrical cords. Wait, that was in April 1998, so defects like that should be fixed by now, especially so when there’s a whole new airport now, even further out of town, 25 kms NW further compared to a convenient 15 kms NW a decade ago.

Like all Indonesian airports, the runways and land within the airport perimeters are shared with the air force. They might have 10 US made, but Indonesian maintained, F16s, meaning 5 are capable of taking off. Landing in one piece, I don’t know. When not at war, or running revenue depleting businesses like a Harley dealership, top military brass and their underlings often dwell in socially uplifting enterprises like mini marts, taxi companies and brothels. This is done with clever accounting of their yearly military budget.

I say this because other legit taxi companies cannot drive their cabs into or out of the Padang airport without threat of bodily harm to their drivers and damage to their cabs.

With such intel, I decided to set up my bike right after clearing customs, refusing all offers for a cab ride to God knows where at twice the price. There was even an offer for 2 cabs, one for me and another for the bike. Unbelievable. I then make a quick right out of the airport gates, destination Bukittinggi, a cool, rustic, slightly touristy mountain town 90 kms away.

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Sublime sunsets across the Indian Ocean

The lovely road climbs gently through the lush Anai valley, with fast flowing rivers, waterfalls and even a golf course which I have no interest in. In some parts a railway line follows the winding road, which follows a winding river.

As my flight arrived at mid day, the 90 kms is made easier by riding a pick up taxi for some steep 20 kms before Padang Panjang, a major cross roads town. I cycle the final flat 20 kms into Bukitinggi. At 930m, the air is cool and crisp, a welcome change from hot and humid lowlands.

I’ll end my trip in Padang 2 weeks later, after doing a figure 8 ride of the provinces of Sumatra Barat (west) and west Jambi.

Introduction.

Why redux, you might ask ?

Webster defines it as ‘brought back’ or used postpostively. I think a retrospective says it best. This journey happened 12 years ago. There is a mountain bike and some small British made panniers involved, so it’s safe to say that the next few pages can equate to a journal, in the broadest sense of that word journal, unless a forum thread comes up to the contrary and I have to put on a flame resistant suit.

On the other hand, if I get some praises from the guestbook, I might be tempted to dig up more slides and faded photos from at least 5 trips to say exotic Indonesia and redux myself silly. But who am I kidding? Choosing, scanning and editing images, though a labour of love, takes so much time that re cycling the whole route with a digicam might be faster and stave off blindness.

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Obviously any info a decade old is also really outdated. Photos are less outdated, but nice to look at and some may even stir emotions and induce a longing for bike touring, since winter has closed in, in the northern hemisphere.

While I wouldn’t mind reliving my misadventures for the benefit of others who need their daily dose of CGOAB, or researching a trip, it’s best that, someone else really plans and does a bike trip to say Sumatra and update some info on the ground for the rest of the good folks on this site. Just don’t take my word for it that Indonesia is a paradise for your next bike trip although it really is.

Someone whose journals I’ve been lurking, and then actually had the pleasure of meeting recently, even sweating together while cycling of course, has done this already.

We have ‘trail blazed’ (on CGOAB at least) the extreme ends of the province of Jambi in South Sumatra, the only difference being I was 12 years early, cycling in the highlands close to Mt Kerinchi, the country’s highest volcano, while he prefers the humid, mosquito infested swamps and riverside cities of Palembang and Jambi in the east, where the lay of the land is dead flat. This does not imply that riding flat roads are no less awesome. I just have an affinity for volcanoes, as long as they don’t erupt on me.

I must also add that as Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, in particular Sumatra which is a major part of that ring, it is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. There have been so many I’ve lost count. On a particular geographic note, Sumatra is about the same size as California, which fringes the eastern Pacific end of the Ring of Fire, but Sumatra wins hands down on the number of volcanoes. There are 65.

Why Sumatra ? Well, why not. When I first read travel books on it, you delve into phrases like, ‘Indonesia’s Island of Adventure’ or ‘A Paradise Untouched’ or ‘Asia’s Final Frontier’ It was no wonder that I ended up with a pile of books that will keep me awake for nights.

I got so good at it that I could quote places, provinces, towns, routes, road markers and distances, heights of mountains, etc without ever having been to places like Padang, Bukittinggi, Solok , Kerinchi, Sungei Penuh and back to Padang. Then there are the mountain lakes of Maninjau, Singkarak and Sungei Penuh, see it’s all coming back that easily.

Distant relatives from Indonesia were surprised at my hidden talent, plus the fact that I would ride a bicycle there, their wonder turned into shock, while an uncle even slyly suggested that I had a mistress or two in those towns. How could I, being single and all?

So instead of sitting in an office and missing many a sunset, dinners and dates, trying to sue the crap out of the guilty, not so guilty and totally innocent alike, my mind would often drift off to Sumatra, that giant land mass of an island just, 2 hours away from our airport.

I could also take heart that the piles of paper on my desk was also home piles of Mountain Bike Action, Road Bike Action, Mountain Biking and Bicycling. These kept occasional thoughts of embezzlement, adultery, and sometimes, suicide at bay and meant that my 2 wheeled equipment was always top notch and ready to roll at a moment’s calling.

In those silly wonder years of biking, I worshiped money because then I could also worship anything titanium, but at least, I was tour ready and that’s what mattered. Getting away from work, and other filial obligations, that required the utmost cunning and tales of woe, deceit and lies that I could muster from the heart of my bottom.

WestSumatra

Maninjau is a stunning crater lake. Rough estimates put it as 17km long and 8 km across. Lots of speculation as to it’s depth, depending on who you ask. The usual approach is a scenic 45 kms from Bukitinggi, but there is a short cut of sorts down into the Sianok Canyon floor and up the other side which leads to the village of Matur along the main road. I am proud that I made this discovery, but will be saddened if the trail is now a major highway. I rode this route twice, to and fro through quiet little villages, with thatched roof homes and wide eyed children. The single lane road ends at Matur when it meets the Bukittinggi Maninjau ‘highway’ It’s still distinguishable on Google Earth.

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At the top of the lake’s caldera, at the less steep eastern flank is the hamlet of Embun Pagi, meaning morning dew. From here the road literally dives for 10 kms down hill through 44 hairpin bends, some through a monkey infested forest. The elevation change is about 550 m dropping from 1050 to 500 m by the lake shore, something to ponder about when cycling the reverse back to Bukittinggi.

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For even more dizzying views, make a right turn at a T junction just before EP and head toward Puncak Lawang 4 kms on, to a break in the thick vegetation with stunning views. Maninjau after all means, ‘To look out across’ A rough hiking trail leads to Bayur down by the lake shore. Many a traveler without a bicycle will hike here with a slimy used Looney Planet Indonesia in one hand, and bottled water in another. The hike to and from Bayur is well documented.

Maninjau deserves 2 nights or more, so that I could ride along the lake shore in both directions. I don’t know if the routes are still open due to a major earthquake that struck the province in 2009, and some of the scenic 600 metre high crater walls have collapsed burying whole villages. Intel from friends however suggest that the cobblestoned road is no more. It’s occasional smooth tarmac round the lakeside, especially the more populated and cultivated northern half and of course best done without panniers. At Muko Muko where there is a hydro electric plant, the road leaves the highlands for the coast at Tiku and Pariaman. 25 kms of downhill bliss if you start at Muko Muko and 25 kms of torture if you ride the reverse.

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The southern perimeter is very primal, with steep crater walls, clad in the thickest vegetation leaving little space for the odd rice field or linear village. Every bit of tilling here is done by hand, with rocks and boulders used for terracing rice plots. Looking at some of the trim and fit farmers postures here, BMIs (body mass indexes) and fat percentages are truly alien concepts from the western world.

But how times have changed. Let’s say if a larger than life yuppie tourist from the big city like Jakarta decides to visit Maninjau after reading this journal. He will stick out like a pink mountain bike. Having been brought up on a strict diet from the unholy trinity of MacDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut, he will be fair game for anyone here in the tourist business, who can convince him to open his wallet. As for the hardworking farmer with fantastically toned abs and calves, I am envious, up to the point when rice planting season starts.

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On the water, fish farming is more common, though while waiting for the fish to mature, a smart farmer with a dug out canoe, offered to take me across the lake, for a fee of course. The cycling is slow here, averaging 10 kmp’h. Yes there were those pesky rocks and slippery coconut trunk bridges, but the scenery made up for it in many ways. It got quite rainy in the early morning, muddying up the trails, so I started late at 1000 hrs, but by mid day I was blessed with blue skies as the clouds moved on.

On the (once) rocky lakeside trail of 45 kms, my US made AMP F4 suspension fork worked flawlessly, eating up rocks and bumps large and small with aplomb. To have running it as new now, 1.6 decades later, I sought out the dealer I bought it from. The price of replacing it’s gas charged chamber is close to a new fork, maybe $400 or so.

I politely declined, as the Singapore distributor of the F4 was formerly the Godfather of local bike shops. Today with 3 shops to run, he’s stricken with dementia and I occasionally show him a bike with old components, for us to reminisce about the good old days when he took 6 hours to install a Chris King headset. I mean the waiting time on a Saturday for this service was about 345 minutes. Even with 3 assistants back then, the old guy insisted on micro managing. The point I’m trying to make is that, if you want things done quick and done right, learn to do it yourself. Also, go see the places that you want to before it’s too late.

AMP Research has stopped making forks and mountain bikes to concentrate on it’s core business of customised truck running boards. If you have one of their bikes in mint condition at not a ridiculous price, let me know.

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The lake’s main village aptly named Maninjau is at the bottom of that 44 hairpin bend road. Some grubby places to stay here near the bus station (which is also grubby) but with a bicycle I head north/anti clockwise and find nicer guest houses. The Maninjau Indah Hotel has rooms that open onto the water itself, and with no other appointments for the day I check each and every room to see that everything works. There are variations of working taps, TV and lights mind you, but how times have changed. They’re on Facebook !

Some of the guest houses have a foreign influence (usually European capital) and are done up better than others. If I ever go back this place must be it.

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