Archive for September, 2011

West Sumatara, Tour of Singarak
September 2, 2011

Im in Sumatara, my first ever visit to Indonesia, and its not quite for rest and relaxation.  Im back in my ‘other life’ – managing and massaging for a cycling team from Australia, and we’re here for the ‘Tour of Singkarak’, West Sumatara.  The race is a week long so I’m ready to experience as much of Indonesia as energy and practicalities permit, in that short amount of time.

The good thing about the bike racing world is, though our days are long and busy, we get to see places and countryside that, Im sure, I wouldn’t get to otherwise, and, we’re exposed to perhaps more cultural display than your average backpacker, with race organisers vying to put on the ‘best tour yet’, so that competitors can go home and rave about what they saw, heard, ate, and how good the racing was.

Our flight from KL was direct to Padang (one hour flight time) – where our first couple of nights are, and where the race begins, beachside.

Padang airport and my first error – forgetting I needed to buy my entry visa before I went through passport control.  However, its easy and cheap to buy ($25USD for one month, and you need to pay in USD) and I was pointed in the right direction, to a small booth just inside the doorway.  I got my visa and then I was able to take my place back at the front of the long, long line.  Second error – the bag carousel is right there as you enter from passport control, and there are uniformed employees who will bring you a trolley and then get your bags – and they want to be paid for it, but they wont tell you that.  (I mean DOH.. of course they will.. but Id been up since 4am  and this really was my first experience of this sort of help!) Plus, the other reason I ‘fell for it’ was because, I was also met by race officials, and I thought these luggage guys were part of the organisation to!

We’re taken to our hotel, given breakfast, two locals to help us and then a bit of time to relax, before all the ‘official’ stuff began.   Breakfast wasn’t much of by way of representation of  local, let alone Indonesian cuisine, which set the standard for breakfasts the rest of the week.  Such is the hotel world.

My very first impressions of Indonesia?  Smiles, Blackberry phones and cigarettes!  Young and old, inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs… they all seem to be smoking!  There’s tobacco advertising, billboards, posters.. its like stepping back into the 80s!

And the cuisine – in this part of Indonesia, they use lots of spice.  Salads that look like they have small pieces of red pepper and green beans in them? They don’t, those are diced chillies.  Thick hot curry sauces, rice, eggs, fish and chillies!  (and none of the spice was taken out, or reduced, for the visitors, even those who are racing every day – I even joined an Australian team one night for a meal at Pizza Hut, such was our craving for non-spicy, western style and then a simple eat and go affair.)

Every night, dinner was out, many times at the local mayors house for whose city we were staying in, and many times, I didn’t go, not enough energy! Dinner always included local entertainment but even for bike riders, its preferable to be able to eat nearby to the accommodation, and then sleep.

But, I did see some of the dancing and singing!  The opening nights dinner had various groups performing, to welcome us – clad in colourful dress with lots of gold.  Reminded me of what I’ve seen, culturally, in Thailand.

Aside from the opening stage, beachside, every other day took us from one city to the next.  The countryside was stunning, lush, green, palm trees, rice paddies and beautiful blue skies with big, shapely white clouds.  And the support for the race was amazing – the roads were lined with people, taking time out of their day, to watch the riders and vehicle convoy speed by.  I cut back on my water during the stages, as it was hard work finding a clear spot for a toilet stop – there was that many people.  (not so easy to pee readily, in a Muslim country!)

 

 

The first stage is a race around Padang – beach and ocean views for most of the circuit.  The opening ceremony was big! Colour, music (loud, Arabic dance music – we’re in an Islamic nation), dancing, local, live music, traditional dress, red carpet… and heat. The sun and the heat was merciless.   (have to hand it to the organisers though, there were team tents set up at all the stage finishes, with cold water, food and chairs inside for each team – and of course, avid, cigarette laden, locals, closing in for photos and autographs).

 

One of the highlight towns for me was ‘Sawalhunto’, a small town with a European feel, surrounded by lush, green mountains, plus, probably the nicest hotel for the trip, with a small balcony overlooking the street below.  Every time I stepped out onto my balcony, there was a throng of locals nearby, to stand and stare at this white apparition (aka ME) before them… )  but, that balcony had a definite ‘Parisienne feel’ – and I’ve never been to Paris!

The next morning, we had a transfer by steam train to the stage start.  This ‘old girl’ steams her way through lush forest to the start, around 4km.  We were told we all had to ride the train, so, I boarded a bus, to get to the train, with about 40 other riders – and we were taken straight to the stage start, and arrived just as the train was arriving. Oh how disappointed the locals and organisers were that we didn’t get to ride on the train! Through no fault of our own though! Not sure what happened there!

 

We had a stage finish in the coastal spot of  ‘Gandoria Beach’, Pariaman  and boy was it hot! SO hot! It was hard to walk, my clothes were sticking to me so much.. However,  the drive into the beach was stunning.  First we had a few km of narrow, twisting, turning streets with houses sitting right on the roads edge. Then the road opened up and we were along side the beach, of white sands, framed in palm trees with an expanse of blue ocean right out to the horizon.  Picturesque is barely fitting of a description.  It would definitely be somewhere for me to go back to.

 

Bukkitingi, which means ‘high hill’ in Indonesian, is one of the larger cities in West Sumatra, with a population of over 90,000.  I get the feeling its more famous for its ‘Lembah Harau Valley’ about one hour out, a spectacular natural playground of steep, vertical rock faces, waterfalls, greenery and a river.  We had a stage finish there one day.   The lead in was a narrow, winding, tight-fit road (yeah, there was a kinda bit accident near the finish!) and each side of the road was hemmed in by these sheer, vertical sandstone rockfaces going up and up for at least 1000m in places.  Nearby is ‘Bonjol’, where the line of the equator is officially marked.  Actually, there’s a lot to do in and around the valley – rock climbing, rafting, museums, paragliding, all easily accessible from Bukkiitngi.  I did get a wander into the town centre.  Wasn’t a hell of a lot to see, but I must have been a sight to behold, because I was getting majorly ‘ogled’ at!  (West Sumatara is not known for its tourism, not like other spots of Indo)

The stage that took us from Pariaman to Bukkitingi included the famous ‘Kelok 44’, a mountain pass over ‘Puncak Lawang’ that has 44 switch backs – yes, 44!  And I much preferred doing it in the car than having a crack at racing a bike over it!  The drive up gives stunning view of Lake Maninjau – formed after a volcanic eruption around 50,000 years ago.

 

Another highlight was Singarak Lake.  Yet again, the road took us right alongside the waters edge and the view is stunning.  The lakes located between Padang Panjang and Solok, is 21km long and 7km wide, and houses an endemic species of fish – ‘ikan bilih’ , now harvested (not sure of how you ‘harvest a fish, and I never found out) so there’s enough to go around, however, I’m not sure that we sampled it though as I get the feeling its pretty special.

 

Im going to sum West Sumatara up again – green, lush, rice paddies, palm trees, plains, mountains, amazing cloud formations, heat / hot, hot, HOT (food and weather), smiles, smoke (cigarette smoke), blackberrys (the phones, not the fruit), beaches, colour, music, mosques and friendly, friendly locals.  As we passed through towns enroute, where the locals were out in force, Id lean out my vehicle window to wave and this gesture was extraordinarily received.  Cheering, screaming and waving.  And the cuisine – eat the rice, cos of the spice! Unless, you’re a ‘low carber’, like me – eggs a’plenty, and meats and fish – but be warned, the sauce they are served in are not going to be even mildly mild.

West Sumatara is home of the worlds largest flower, the Sumatran tiger, Malayan sunbear and the bornean clouded leopard – to name but a few of the exotic sounding local species’.  Maybe a localised safari is on the cards to check things out on a more upclose and personal level!