Indonesia-Sumatra – Evrim and Elif Yiğit Tour Journals, November 22, 2011
After giving a break for a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur, we want to head to Indonesia by ferry. However we cannot get any precise information on the take off times and places. Thus we go to the Malaysia tourism office where they told us that we could learn it precisely. We learn from them that there’s only one ride at 10:30 every day and it takes off from Port Kalng which’s 50km away. They tell us that it’s possible for us to go there by train in the morning and in this way we can avoid the trouble of riding our bikes on the busy traffic and reach the dock by train.
Next morning as we go to the train station near the hotel we find out that there’s a train as we were told but as opposed to what we were told, we cannot take our bikes with us. I find myself in the middle of a complication, with a dead end. As long lasting bargaining doesn’t work, I gather information to travel to another town with an harbor by train. What we were told doesn’t make us feel any more comfortable. Because there’s a possibility for us to go to Malaka or George Town by train. Train arrives both cities before dawn and they both are 30-40km away from town. It’s meaningless to arrive the city at 3:00am by bike and catch the ferry in places you know not much about. Only remaining option is to reach Port Klang by bike which’s 50km away, to spend the night there and get on the ferry on the next morning.
We discover the way to Klang without a mix-up thanks to the precise description. Even if we had to follow the highway, there’s a seperate part for the motorcycles and it proceeds non-stop to our destination. This highly secure road puts us in a better mood and denotes that our luck turned. As we reach the city, we continue riding to the dock 12km away and get the necessary information. After spending the night in a hotel that couldn’t be considered cheap, we head to the dock early in the next morning. Just in case, we buy round trip tickets and place our bikes on what they called ferry which was more like a small boat. It’s impossible to put a motor-vehicle because you have to carry the vehicle on your shoulders to the boat through planks. The ship is made of poliester after all and it barely can carry the people’s weight. A young man we meet at the dock who wants to name his child RTE gives us information about Indonesia which thrilled us more and more and believes as he speaks that it’s a country that accommodates people even nicer than Thailand. As we find out later, he’s never been to Thailand but that doesn’tdiminish our excitement.
And Indonesia, we fostered high hopes for… From Dumai, the town we came from, you can get a visa for $25 from the border. And they didn’t make things difficult much. Immediately after we got off the ship, a couple of people get by us. One of them tells us about an English teacher. He says that we can be his guests and wouldn’t have to pay anything. Even if we don’t trust them much, we cannot offend their insistance and I talk to the English teacher on the phone. I tell him that we didn’t decide what to do yet, we’ll resolve our plans in the first place and I’ll reach him by phone if we decide to stay. In other words I refused his offer kindly and after that we leave the dock. We learn the whereabouts of the city center from the dock’s security and we try to follow the directions. But motorcycles and trucks come out from everywhere. At first we try to ride through the left side, then we decide that traffic flows from right like in our country and switch sides. Then again we change our decision and switch to the left, then again to the right… Continuing for 4-5km like this, we find out the reason of this mess. They dropped the two-way lane forward to one lane. In this situation people began to use both sides beacuse of the narrowed down road. After a troublesome bike ride, we go to a place that makes soups which it’s quite hard to find in Malaysia and drink some soup. A couple of people get around us while we’re having our soups and start to take our pictures and videos with their phones. In a sudden, I feel like a monkey in a cage. After we got our pictures taken with them since we couldn’t offend them, we start exploring the town and try to find a hotel. A car crosses our path and a young man from inside the car who seemed trustable wants to speak with us. He says that he’s a cyclist, too and mentions the famous English teacher. After so much reference we decide that we should meet this teacher and cyclist boy on the front, us at the back, we go to the teacher’s house. Teacher Muhsin is quite gracious and faithful. In fact he proudly adds that he’s in the management of the adjacent mosque. He gets quite happy to see us and of course as he finds out we’re Turkish he insists that we stay for another nigh and watch as 6 oxen and 2 goats being slaughtered on the first day of the Greater Eid. We accept his offer with joy(?).
During these two days in Dumai we attend to a couple of English classes and talk to the children. I guess it relieves them that we learnt English after as a foreign language like them. We respond to the memorized questions which must’ve been asked to victims like us for maybe a hundreds of times and ask questions to them. On our last night we meet with a couple of students and drink some fruit juice in a place. Lucky for us, they put something like a movie on the video screen. I feel lucky to watch a local movie. However a piece consists only of words “Allahu Ekber” begins and it doesn’t end, keeps on going and going. Elif and I look at each other to move on after we’re done with our fruit juice. “Allahu Ekber”s are so loud that no one can speak with each other. After that a convoy of cars which’s back seats were decorated as a mosque and plays “Allahu Ekber” incredibly loud gets by. As we get to our room, the same voice from the adjacent mosque “Allahu Ekber, Allahu Ekber”. I listen to it until 1am and fall asleep. I recall that as I woke up time to time and it still kept on. I get up around 5-6am and it still goes on. I guess in this country, staying in towns is more tiring than riding a bike. These “Allahu Ekber”s will chase us everywhere during thr Ramadan. Whenever we pass by a mosque, go into a mall, go to a hotel with a turned on television, walk around a marketplace, to cut things short; whenever we stay in a town, it’ll be in our hearing. Don’t misunderstand but it’s unbearable for a person to even listen to their favorite music for 24h non-stop.
I get up a little late in the morning and stay in my room until the end of the salaah. After that we quickly prepare our bikes and take pictures of the slaughter outside. I guess it’ll be better not to share these photos in here. Maybe a couple of photos can be added after a strict censor.
Finally we watch the slaughter of the 8 animals I mentioned before and head to Duri straight away. Even if I didn’t say it out loud on the first days, day after day a growing depression; a will to go back was always on my mind. As I got away from the tormenting traffic and gruelling towns at last, I could say it out loud: “If I haven’t seen the pictures of Sumatra on the internet, if I haven’t read Ahmet Mumcu’s tour journals, I wouldn’t stay a minute, leave Dumai on the first day and would head to Thailand from there.” However after a couple of messy roads and towns, at last the roads started to get better after Bangkiang and prepare the most pleasant views of our tour. I’ll be glad if you won’t expect me to tell about what happened before Bangkiang. There’s no more than a headache to write about. But after that, it’s totally a different world.
The road between Bangkiang and Harau Valley is 145km and it must be experienced. Structure of the hill road fascinates you even if you only climb for 1000m. As you get completely exhausted, a long descent will be waiting for you. However as this descent keeps on, you’ll start to get worried. Because whatever you do, no matter how early you start riding, you won’t have time to begin climbing again and you’ll have to reach Harau. After this long lasting descent, crooked hill road continues along a rift with a nice slope which doesn’t require any pedaling for 25km and ends near an abyss in a sudden. To get through this abyss, Indonesian engineers who I’m sure are the most unskilled ones in the world built an interesting detour which has inclines up to %20 on the bends with curves. This detour got quite famous in the country with a name which I learnt – and of course forgot immediately. I even don’t want to imagine how two crossing cars from opposite directions manage to pass by each other. The one told me about this detour strongly recommended me to see the engrained engineering between Padang and a lake near here which consists of 44 curves. As I’ve only seen the 9 curved one and surprised, hearing about the 44 curved one shocked me. I guess Indonesia will use the cutting edge technology to kill their people on the roads. I have to confess that for a cyclist, going down from these kinds of dangerous roads where other vehicles can only go up to 15-20kmph nothing’s more thrilling.
At the end of this interesting detour, as you expect the uphills to begin, roads find a rift among the mountains and continues with a nice incline and as the sun goes down, it brings us to the junction of Harau Valley. Here you have to pedal for 5 more kilometers to reach to valley but the road gets so nice and secure that I wish if only the road would last not 5 but 50km. After all we reach to a village at the entrance of the valley stuck among the mountains and settle in a place that’s one of the most beautiful examples of the traditional architecture called Eco Homestay. We immediately decide to stay here for two nights and forget about the roads full of non-stop stress, dust, mud, honk and engine noises. I suppose from now on it’ll be possible to write something good about Indonesia. First of all, people are nicer and more humanistic here. Second, nature here is full of amazing volcanic hills which you cannot see anywhere.
As we try to gather information about the road between Bankinang and Harau Valley, we encounter a strange incident. Let me briefly tell about it; As I’m wandering around in Bankinang, I ask a motor-taxi driver I see in town about how many km Harau Valley was far from there. As he carefully thought and made sure about it he answers 211km. Hearing such a precise answer surprises me. One cannot have such a prime number with a simple multiplication after all. I consider that I faced a genious driver and keep on. After a while I ask someone else to be sure. He answers 300km without being so sure. From someone else we get an answer of 100km. As they try to calculate the distance, they think that it takes 4 hours by car and since it’s around 150km, they spend a long time to get the result and you have to wait for it with patience. In the evening as all our hopes to learn a precise answer wore away, we meet a college student who knows English and we get the highest number; 400km. The sole thing I could derive from all these is that people here don’t travel much. That’s why they know so little about the neighborhood as if it was a foreign country. To learn about the direction of the road you need to follow, you have to ask a couple of people to make sure that you get the right answer. In conlusion, it’s around 135km and you can get the answer from Google Map with 10km difference. Since towns aren’t pinned exactly in Google Map, you need to measure the distance from an approximate point.
After the Harau Valley, we decide not to enforce ourselves a lot and after 50km we arrive to Bukittingi and I finally get the chance to write somethings. After spending a night in Bukittingi, we arrive to Lake Maninjau where we’ll get through passing 44 curves with an average speed of 18kmph where we’ll descend from steep downhills. It doesn’t reveal itself when we first arrive there. As you stand at the top of 44 curves and look down to where the lake should’ve been, you only can see a white fog. Only one of these 44 curves is courageous enough to reveal itself from among the whiteness of the fog. Others will be continuing surprises for us. As we go down to Lake Maninjau going left and right continuosly the fog disperses part way and the lake begins to appear. I suppose to arrive there, you have to take the lake 22 times to your left side and 22 times to your right for a descent of 700m. Since the curves require 180 degrees of turn, many wide vehicles cannot manage to make the turn and block the way.
As we arrive at the lake, we meet a German cyclist who was 1-2 hours ahead of us, had arrived to the lake before us and preparing to go back to Bukitting after resting for a while before we can look for a place to settle down. After talking for a while, we let each other to move on and split up. We don’t spend time to fins a hotel around the lake and settle down to the first nice and economic home-stay. There’s not much activity to do around hear. But since it’s calm we decide to stay here for 2 nights and cleanse ourselves from the effects of noisy towns a little. If you happen to come here one day, I recommend you to spend time in the geyser and experience the nice conversation of the owner of the only place you can drink beer here – which I forgot the name of.
Here we find out an interesting thing. I guess it’ll be catcy for women; here is a region called West Sumarta and there’s a female-dominant structure. Which means if a man marries a woman, he has to change his surname. He has to carry the name of the one he marries. Of course this is not all. If he wants a divorce, unfortunately he has to leave all the belongings to his wife. Namely, women here are queens. We’re in a region which this situation is rare to encounter and I guess marrying 4 women at the same time is impossible for Muslim men over here.
After the lake, we go back to Bukittingi but we decide to follow a different road this time. At precisely from the 18th km we direct to the left of the junction and pass through a canyon, shortening our way for 10km and enjoing the unique nature.
After Bukittingi, Elif and I decide to go to Lake Toba by bus. But they unashamedly tell us that the bus will complete the 450km in 17 hours. I guess their bus goes around 22kmph. As you may guess, after this much training, we can ride the same distance in the same period of time. We go to bed early at night and in the morning as the rain eases off, we begin riding through the famous “Trans-Sumatra Highway”. This road must be recommended and not. I think it must be recommended because you proceed from the top of the hills, mastering the view around and get through numerous forests. In spite of the equator, it’s cool and there’s no wind. Moreover, you can enjoy passing through the aclinic line by bike. And at the same time it mustn’t be recommended because time to time you may encounter unpleasant difficulties. First of all, you have to ride through a Muslim region for 4 days. Do not be offended but I only encountered people trying to throw us out from the road, riding onto us with their cars here in this Muslim region. The second reason is people, and the third is people again. However as you approach to Lake Toba, people seem to get nicer and will behave nicer to you.
After riding for a week in Trans-Sumatra, at last we see the Lake Toba from the top. But before that I must tell about the couple of days we spent on the Sumatra higway. Our first lodging is a small village named Panti. Here we stay in a place consists of a couple of houses 5km away from the center. In the evening after a small tour around, we go to bed early to head through Panyabungan. First thing you must do in Sumatra is to find a good map. Because if you use Google Map, you cannot even distinguish the big and small towns. On our map, big settlements on our way are distinctive. But in order to see them in Google Map, you have to zoom all the way in.
After staying in Panyadungan for a night, we continue riding and arrive to Padang Sidem Puan. Here we meet a cyclist. This fellow helps us to find a lodging as we meet again in the evening and go to his house. We meet his brother at their house who has a hobby of collecting interesting stuff. First collection is an antique bike collection consists of 10-12 pieces which he thinks we’ll be interested in. We spend time among the various bikes he collected from countries like Italy, England, Germany that are nearly 60 years-old. Some of them has hub gear systems which’s getting popular again. These bikes have a ternary system and the brakes are connected to the hub. My favorite was a cargo bike which was made in Germany. Its trunk is longer than normal and it’s pretty durable. The important distinction is that it can be adapted both to male and female riders. The middle tube parallel to the ground can be removed for female riders.
Other one drew our attention is a complete opposite with the first; a cigarette collection. 800 different cigarette packs collected only from Indonesia’s locally produced cigarettes. Which means you get a chance to inspect 800 different brands of cigarettes made in Indonesia at the same time. To acquire all these cigarettes, he had had to travel different parts of the country and spend a lot of time. I want to add something here; even if Indonesia is a country, it’s very wide so it’ll make things easier to consider it like a continent as considering the cities like countries. Because they may not even know themselves how many different languages are spoken here. Solely on the road we passed through, there were 8-9 different regions speaking quite different languages than each other. My guess is that only in Sumatra, they must be speaking over 50 different languages. Likewise, it’s not possible anywhere else to encounter 800 different local cigarette brands. Already the state of the roads blocked the communication among the towns so much that you have to spend a day to ride for 150km. For instance two cities that are 150km away from each other is as communicated as Yozgat and Izmir in Turkey. (two cities in Turkey that are quite apart from each other, around 830km)
We have a look at the book, toy and comic book collections after bikes and cigarettes in their home. There must be a research topic on Indonesian comics; commonly known Superman, Spiderman are renamed and recreated here and made Indonesian. Thanks to this, you’re able to enconter Supermans who take off their shoes before going into the mosque. Besides we have a chance learn about their own legendary comic book heroes.
Next day we stay in Sipirok for a night then reach Tarutung. I can say this about Tarutung; And a civilization… At last people become far away from being disturbing. I’ll gather some important information about Tarutung in a couple of days but for now I may say a little. It’s the first area where Christianism first arrived in Indonesia and Christianism spreaded to the other regions originating from here. As I was told, this is the first Christian town not only in Sumatra but in Indonesia.
We clean up our bikes in Tarutung. Because we had to pass through the mud which was of an ankle height and continued for 1km. Even if we try to wash it up, we couldn’t have protected the chains and wheels. And during the continuing couple of km, brake pads had completely melted. After the clean up process is done, we find the sole brake pads in town. The reason I said sole is that these pads are on a brand new bike which’s waiting to be sold and after my insistance, they consent to remove and sell them to us. It’s impossible to find those pads for V brakes somewhere else.
I struggle with a deep stressful source of a problem of mine here. At first, I had a flat tyre going back from Lake Maninjau a week before. Even if I patched the hole, it died down again. Since I became an expert on patching during my previous bike tour, I didn’t even consider about the possibility of patching it in the wrong way so I removed the inner tube one more time. A bad surprise was awaiting me. Lousy inner tube started to rend from inside. Every time I rub it with sandpaper, it was getting bigger. There’s a classic situation about this kind of tours. If there’s a problem about your tyre, it’ll patiently wait for 3000km and will come out in one of the worst places possible like Indonesia. During my previous tour I had had to open up the hubs at every 250km and had had to pass Laos and Cambodia like that. I repair the hole with my largest patch. But next morning blows out again. The rend have got bigger… I add two more patches and two more two days later. Worse part is that I don’t have a spare tube with me and I have to go on with this patched one. The tyre I use is 26″ and needle valve. It’s impossible to find this kind of a tyre in this area and my only chance is to reach Medan. Not long after, in the middle of Trans Sumatra road, I find out that it began to rend from both sides of the valve. I fix the valve with 3 patches. I had to use 9 patches in 5 days. On the other day, I slash a 28″ inner tube, adjust it for 26″ and unite. At the end of 2 hours of sandpapering and glueing, the tube endures to the air pressure for 5 minutes and than burst up. Furthermore the previous day on our way to Lake Toba, it begins to blow out again. I remove all the patches I’ve applied before and renew them. Now it’s a total of 14 patches but at the 20th km I have to repair the tyre again, this time from the valve… I add 2 more patches on the 3 I’ve applied before and I’m writing these lines with the 16th patch this week. My only consolation is that we’re 180km away from Medan and if necessary, we may go to the town by bus in 7-8 hours. Even if I cannot find a solution there, I know that we’ll definitely solve this in Malaysia where we’ll go by ferry.
After Tarutung, at last we see Lake Toba from above. In the meanwhile, we encounter the second cyclist in Indonesia and thanks to the information he gives, we get sure that we’ll have a pleasant time in Tuktuk Island, in Lake Toba. Of course we warn him about the unpleasant surprises he’ll encounter on his way.
Balige is the first town near Lake Toba and the ambience of the lake successfully relaxed the people here. We spend quality time with the people we meet. In fact we promise to meet one of them at 8:00am for breakfast. Here in a place we’ve been to and drank some tea, a group of teenagers surround us and we try to speak using gestures and a few simple words. Not long after, I get disturbed by an oil smell. If you purchase a goldfish from an aquarium, they’ll probably hand it to you in a plastic bag full of water. A bigger version of this plastic bag is being carried by one of the teenagers beside us and as I ask what he carries, he responds as fuel for the motorcycle and continues to smoke his cigarette with his other hand. As I watch the boy carrying a bag of gas like a goldfish, smoking his cigarette with his other hand at the same time and sometimes holding the cigarette and the fuel bag with his same hand, I’m trying to come up with excuses to keep him away from the stoves. With Elif, we get out of there before we finish our teas and leave the place before the boy blows up with his fellows. Maybe I’m being too cautious but 1m away from 3 stoves used feverishly for cooking and 15cm away from a lit cigarette, it’s not acceptable for me to witness 3 liters of fuel beside me.
Next day we head towards Lake Toba. 2 patches on the valve I mentioned before is applied on this road and successfully covers me up through Tuktuk Island. As I arrive at the hotel, I deflate the tire immediately and prevent the pressure to harm the patches.
I guess Lake Toba is the biggest crater lake of Sumatra. Lake is at an altitude of 1000m but in order to reach the lake, you have to climb higher. Lake is formed on a crater of a passive volcano and there’s an island in the middle of the lake which has a circle of 150km. Our lodging is the Tuktuk Peninsula to the north of this island where lots of tourists come to visit. There are lots of lodging options so you have to do a research before you come here or take your time before you choose a place to settle down to find the best place for you to enjoy without a hurry. Because all places here are beautiful enough to charm you and it’s possible to stay in the first place that charms you and regret it as you see a better one on the next day.
Tomorrow we’re planning to take a stroll around the island. Of course we’re not going to do this by bike, but rental motorcycle. Even if the environs is 150km, it’s quite hilly. And volcanic mounts here can be cruel here like no other place.
That’s all for now that I want to tell about Sumatra. I hope you enjoyed it. Sumatra is a tough place for a cyclist. If I may compare it with the places I’ve been, first Cambodia and second Indonesia-Sumatra has the worst roads. Turkey, Malaysia, Syria has the 3rd place after them. Best are without a doubt Thailand and Laos. If you’re going to ride a bike here, you must definitely start from Medan and see the Christian regions. This’ll provide you a more pleasant trip. Despite all difficulties, it has a better nature than Malaysia. And something I learnt from what I experienced; Your bike might not have caused a problem for 3000km but that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to. So, you must have all your equipments with you in a place you cannot get any help like Indonesia. Or else you’ll have to get creative to find a solution as you’re 1000km away from a bike store.