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Jakarta to Yogyakarta 8 – 18 March 2015

In theory we shouldn’t have liked Jakarta: an endless sprawl of dirt and concrete; chaotic, congested roads; choking traffic fumes; shabby guesthouses; swarms of voracious mosquitoes; an endless stream of atonal buskers interrupting our dinner at least three times a meal in the hope of a tip (sadly this includes children apparently coerced into singing by a guitar-wielding parent)…and of course, across all of Indonesia, when the buskers go quiet there is the inescapable droning of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer (occasionally a rich and soulful sound, but most frequently sounding like drunk karaoke amplified badly). And yet, somehow, Jakarta manages to add up to be more than the sum of its parts. There’s a charm to the place. We can’t quite identify what that charm might be exactly, but it must have been there or how else could we have enjoyed our time in what should be a completely unlovable city? We joined the locals pedalling around in the carnival atmosphere of a Sunday evening at Merdeka Square, watched dockers agilely navigating precarious gangplanks whilst laden with goods, had a drink in the faded colonial opulence of Cafe Batavia, bought a new tyre for the trailer and some maps, and generally pootled around having a great time. Perhaps it was simply excitement at being in a new country that made us more forgiving – it was, after all, our first new country since September 2013.

Ondel Ondel puppets  in Merdeka Square

Ondel Ondel puppets in Merdeka Square.

Practicing Pencak Silat (an Indonesian martial art) in Merdeka Square.

Practicing Pencak Silat (an Indonesian martial art) in Merdeka Square.

Jakarta's Old City Hall.

Jakarta’s Old City Hall.

Traditional Pinisi schooners at Sunda Kelapa harbour.

Traditional Pinisi schooners at Sunda Kelapa harbour.

Nimble dockers loading ships.

Nimble dockers loading ships.

Old guy salvaging plastic bottles and any other sellable floating debris at Sunda Kelapa harbour.

Old guy salvaging plastic bottles and any other sellable floating debris at Sunda Kelapa harbour.

Pasar Ikan – the fish market.

Pasar Ikan – the fish market.

Making cargo nets at Pasar Ikan.

Making cargo nets at Pasar Ikan.

Making drums at Pasar Ikan.

Making drums at Pasar Ikan.

After a couple of days sightseeing we set off south. The urban sprawl of Jakarta continues for over a hundred kilometres, fully consuming Bogor some 60km away, and even in the alleged ‘countryside’ three days ride from Jakarta, the traffic remained an unrelenting snarl (and to be honest our patience was starting to wear a little thin at that point).

City traffic between Jakarta and Bogor.

City traffic between Jakarta and Bogor.

Rural traffic on Puncak Pass.

Rural traffic on Puncak Pass.

Rural traffic on the way to Bandung. We were forced to a halt a couple of times on this climb simply to let the choking truck fumes dissipate sufficiently for us to proceed without fear of asphyxiation – not our favourite climb.

Rural traffic on the way to Bandung. We were forced to a halt a couple of times on this climb simply to let the choking truck fumes dissipate sufficiently for us to proceed without fear of asphyxiation – not our favourite climb.

As we bulled our way through the chaotic traffic, Keith followed the locals’ lead of not letting more than a 10mm gap appear between my toes and the bumper of the vehicle in front. Any gap large enough to squeeze a toe into was fair game to squeeze a Pino into…and if we didn’t take the initiative then someone else would. Railway crossings are hilarious. When the barriers descend motorbikes on both sides overtake the queuing cars and pile themselves into the lane facing the oncoming traffic, thus ensuring that the first 10 minutes after the barriers are raised are spent in a cacophony of furious horn-hooting as over a hundred motorbikes try to do-si-do back to the correct lane whilst crossing railway line, and the car and truck drivers are completely unable to move…to the extent that on one occasion we saw just three cars get across before the barriers descended again for the next train.

The most annoying drivers on the Indonesian roads however, are those at the wheel of the ubiquitous mini-vans: they are an absolute liability. They seem to take a perverse pleasure in overtaking us then cutting in to pick up a fare, almost whipping my feet off the pedals in the process. Other liabilities include the flag-waving, whistle-blowing men who leap into the traffic to help other drivers join from side roads (for a fee); motorbike riders who are incapable of holding their line whilst craning their necks round to gawk at us; and, rather worryingly, the occasional large sheet of aluminium falling from an overhead gantry. Thankfully we were off the road when the 2 x 4m sheet fell into the road. A couple on a motorbike were not so lucky: it landed right in front of them and they had no chance to avoid it. Amazingly they escaped with just scrapes and bruises.

Despite (broadly) sharing a language, rough and ready Indonesia has a very different feel to that of urbane Malaysia. It reminds us more of Central Asia than South East Asia. On our travels we’ve become used to seeing petrol sold in all manner of inappropriate containers (used coke bottles and the like), but Indonesia took it to a whole new level when we saw a guy pouring petrol into his minibus from a plastic bag. At least he hadn’t got a cigarette dangling from his lip.

In Bogor we bumped into Jerry Green again (the cyclist we met when leaving Georgetown a couple of weeks earlier).

Jerry and Keith in the Wisma Firman Hotel, Bogor.

Jerry and Keith in the Wisma Firman Hotel, Bogor.

Then a couple of days later we bumped into him again and since our schedules coincide we’ve decided to join forces across the rest of Java. It’s really nice to have his company.

Jerry normally starts his day at 4am whereas we usually start around 8, but we can see the benefit in trying to beat the heat so have split the difference and are now on the road between 5.30 and 6am, which means we’re managing to get a few more kilometres covered before wilting in the heat. It’s come as a real shock to us to see how early so many Indonesians rise. The roads are really not much quieter at 5.30am than at 8am.

As we headed from Western to Central Jakarta the traffic finally began to thin a little, and we’ve enjoyed some excellent riding on quiet roads with beautiful views of conical volcanic mountains across lush rice paddies.

Misty Mountains.

Misty mountains.

Endless paddies with volcanic peaks in the far distance.

Endless paddies with volcanic peaks in the far distance.

Civet Coffee.

Civet Coffee.

We’ve met some great people in Indonesia so far, most notably Harley Davidson enthusiast Eddo who befriended us as we stopped for a break on a long climb, and then, when the heavens opened, invited us to the closest of his several cafes for a coffee. And what a coffee it was! We’ve heard of this particular coffee before, but never been prepared to pay the premium price for it. Its unique selling point is that it is made from beans that, prior to harvesting, have been through the digestive system of the Asian Palm Civet….yup, someone somewhere thought it would be a great idea to make coffee from beans that have been plucked from the excreta of a small omnivorous mammal. Who’d’ve thought?! Anyhow, it’s delicious. Sadly we’ve since discovered that the civets are not kept in particularly good conditions and are often taken from the wild in unsustainable numbers, so I guess we won’t be having that coffee again in a hurry no matter how delicious it tasted.

Eddo outside one of his cafes.

Eddo outside one of his cafes.

(As an aside, for the meteorologically minded of you, that particular spell of rain was the first time in SE Asia that we’ve been cold enough to need raincoats. Up at 1500m above sea level there’s a distinct chill in the air even though the sun is still scorching.)

Another nice encounter was with a 71 year old cardiologist in Tasikmalaya. He checked our pulses whilst we had our early morning coffee and declared us fit to pedal…so that was reassuring. And a special mention has to also go to the lovely lady at the water purification shop who not only filled our bottles for free but also gave them a good clean.

The lovely lady who washed all our disgustingly green bottles for us.

The lovely lady who washed all our disgustingly green bottles for us.

The Dutch influence can, as anticipated, be seen in the architecture and canals – particularly in Jakarta – but it’s also apparent in more unexpected quarters, like on the shelves of supermarkets and corner shops, which are filled with packets of chocolate vermicelli. In the UK we would only sprinkle this on ice-cream or on top of a cake so couldn’t think why there was such a market for it here….but apparently in Holland, and in Indonesia too, it is sprinkled on sliced bread and made into a sandwich.

Indonesia has a landscape of high volcanic peaks and craters, rising to over 2,000m along the central spine of Java. For the first few days we stuck primarily to main roads and enjoyed fairly steady climbs with only a few painfully steep sections, and then from Tasikmalaya we found some quieter roads and headed down to the coast to spin along on the flat….or so we thought. We knew the flat coastal road from Cilacap to Yogyakarta was interrupted by 8 or so kilometres of lumpiness over a shoulder of rock, but nothing we’d seen on the map prepared us for the reality of 20% inclines rising savagely and repeatedly from sea level to 150+m and back down again. Pedalling (on our heavy rig at any rate) was out of the question, and even pushing and pulling our 110kg of gear took every ounce of our endurance. Partway up the third or fourth climb we flagged down a passing truck and decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valour and scrounged a lift over the remaining appallingly steep ascents.

Jerry and Tamar enjoying the easy way over the hills.

Enjoying the easy way over the hills.

Deposited on the flat – thank you very much!

Deposited on the flat – thank you very much!

Back on the flat we bowled along merrily past vast rice paddies (all being farmed by hand despite their scale) and remarked on the absence, so far, of oil palm plantations.

Threshing by hand.

Threshing by hand.

Threshing with a machine.

Threshing with a machine.

Planting nice straight rows.

Planting nice straight rows.

Workers on their way to the fields.

Workers on their way to the fields.

After a few back-to-back long days we fancied some time off the bikes in Yogyakarta, but we also wanted to see the UNESCO Heritage site of the 1200 year old Buddhist temple at Borobodur, almost 40km away.

Easy Rider.

Easy Rider.

The cheapest option was to rent some motorbikes (something Keith’s been itching to do for a while) and so I was able to tick off something on my 2015 to-do list and learnt to ride a motorbike. It was made easier by the fact that Jerry is also a novice rider, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed by my hesitant throttle action. The ride out at 6am was relatively pleasant, fun even; the return at 1pm in heavy traffic, less so.

Borobudur itself was worth the visit: well-renovated bas reliefs around the lower levels of the pyramid depict Siddartha’s life and enlightenment to become Buddha (including such classics as “Siddartha encounters a diseased man” and “Siddartha cuts off his hair”); and the view from the top is breathtaking. It was also an opportunity to meet local tourists whilst away from our bike. Despite now just being regular Western tourists instead of a travelling circus we remained the centre of attention with several families asking to have their photo taken with us.

The approach to Borobodur.

The approach to Borobodur.

Jerry & Tamar sporting the lovely sarongs that all visitors must wear.

Jerry & Tamar sporting the lovely sarongs that all visitors must wear.

The one in which a sea monster attacks a ship.

The one in which a sea monster attacks a ship.

The view from the top.

The view from the top.

We’re now well into East Java and our next blog post will see us visiting a couple of active volcanoes before heading into Bali. Until then we’ll leave you with a few more pics of our first impressions of Indonesia.

Prambanan temple, which Keith went to on his own as Tamar & Jerry were all templed out.

Prambanan temple, which Keith went to on his own as Tamar & Jerry were all templed out.

Boats on the River Serayu in the early morning.

Boats on the River Serayu in the early morning.

Black sand on the beach, looking more like an oil slick or rich loam than sand.

Black sand on the beach, looking more like an oil slick or rich loam than sand.

Family selling canistel fruit.

Family selling canistel fruit.

Canistel, or egg fruit, so named for its very dry texture which is akin to hard-boiled egg yolk. It’s not totally horrible, but we won’t be rushing to buy more.

Canistel, or egg fruit, so named for its very dry texture which is akin to hard-boiled egg yolk. It’s not totally horrible, but we won’t be rushing to buy more.

Pony and trap taxi – from our point of view far superior to the minivan.

Pony and trap taxi – from our point of view far superior to the minivan.

On the road with Jerry.

On the road with Jerry.

Keith on a cornflakes mission: asking for directions to a supermarket in Solo.

Keith on a cornflakes mission: asking for directions to a supermarket in Solo.

Keith trying out his “Bahasa Indonesia” before we tuck into some delicious Es Teler – a cooling concoction of shaved ice, avocado, melon, jackfruit, coconut, tapioca, rose syrup, condensed milk and jellies...mmm-mmm!

Keith trying out his “Bahasa Indonesia” before we tuck into some delicious Es Teler – a cooling concoction of shaved ice, avocado, melon, jackfruit, coconut, tapioca, rose syrup, condensed milk and jellies…mmm-mmm!

Looking inland from the coast road over shrimp farms towards some volcanic cones.

Looking inland from the coast road over shrimp farms towards some volcanic cones.

Rice paddies and bicycles.

Rice paddies and bicycles.

Our kind of traffic.

Our kind of traffic.

A study in green.

A study in green.

A Chengdu Wedding 24 December 2014 – 19 January 2015

Christmas morning!  We’d slept late and were awoken around nine by a knocking on our apartment door.  Keith got up to investigate and, from the bedroom, I thought I overheard my brother inviting us for coffee and muffins.  Scrambling into my clothes and hopping into the sitting room I was disappointed to find out I’d misheard (I’d rather fancied a muffin for breakfast), but the reality soon improved my mood: Duncan and Spring had decided to get married that morning.  And thus began one of the most surreal Christmas Days ever.

Chinese weddings are in two parts, part one being the official paperwork part.  Duncan and Spring had been informed by the Oracle that the most auspicious day for their wedding would be the 27th of December, but sadly for them, auspicious or not, it fell on a Saturday and the registry office was closed, so they decided that Christmas day would be as good a day as any (and a nice easy date for Duncan to remember).  In China, Christmas is a normal work day like any other so we piled into the car and Spring drove us across the city to the city authority registry office, only to discover that despite having phoned in advance to check it was the correct place, they could not register marriages involving foreigners.  Undeterred we headed back to the car and drove back across town to the province authority registry office.

Looking for the correct registry office

Spring, Duncan & Tamar, looking for the correct registry office

Job’s a good’un

Job’s a good’un

It was a bit like being in a bank or post office to be honest.  You wait in line, fill in some forms, have official ID pictures taken, fill in some more forms and are then presented with his’n’hers matching marriage documents (which look like passports), which then need to be notarised.  Because our morning had got off to a late start, by the time the marriage documents were ready the notary had left for lunch, so we followed suit and then returned mid-afternoon for the notarisation.  And that was that.  Somewhat anticlimactically, Duncan and Spring were officially man and wife!  All that remained to be done with the day was to prepare Christmas dinner and crack open the bubbles.

Checking the paperwork

Cheesy pre-marriage photo

Cheesy pre-marriage photo

Big sis making sure little bro looks suitably smart for the photo

Big sis making sure little bro looks suitably smart for the photo

Selecting the best photo

Selecting the best photo for their wedding licences

 Merry Christmas and Happy Wedding Day!

Merry Christmas and Happy Wedding Day!

Part two of the wedding is the big celebration with family and friends, which was set for the 17th of January.  Before then Duncan and Spring still had to get their wedding photos taken (an epic 10 hour day which ended only when the light failed and which Keith and I wisely declined to attend), have the final fittings for their outfits, be taken out to sumptuous dinners by family and friends (which we did attend), go to the wedding rehearsal, and, with just four days to go before the wedding, find a second bridesmaid and an assistant best man (Keith was honoured and of course said yes when Duncan asked him).  They had decided to follow a two thousand year old traditional Han dynasty ceremony – which was quite unusual and even the Chinese wedding guests told us they’d never attended one like it – but one disadvantage to using an unfamiliar ceremony was that they were reliant on the master of ceremonies to tell them what they needed to do, and he only mentioned that they required pairs of bridesmaids and groomsmen during a discussion in the final week.  Spring and Duncan also wanted to include some more modern/Western traditions, like the exchange of rings, so the Han ceremony was trimmed down a little.  To my lasting disappointment the part that got cut would have involved the presenting of a live goose to some lucky person.  To whom and why I have no idea and now will never know!

Our parents (Duncan’s & mine) arrived on the 14th  of January bearing gifts (chocolate, cheese, a few bike parts and several boxes of Twinings Lapsang Souchong tea, which despite being picked and prepared in China cannot be purchased in China.)  Spring was at work so we dropped their bags at the hotel then Keith, Duncan and I immediately took the folks on a tour of Chengdu’s panda sanctuary, then in the evening met up with some of Duncan’s friends (who our mum has met before) plus the new bridesmaid and best man for yet more sumptuous feasting…and Spring finally got to meet her father-in-law and step-father-in-law (having already met our mum earlier in the year).  Sadly poor health had prevented our step-mum from making the trip, and our sister was also unable to make it being otherwise engaged looking after her new baby, but hopefully Spring can meet them in the UK this summer.

It was during this dinner that our dad’s eyebrows were first admired – something that was to happen over and over as long eyebrows are associated with longevity in China.  Dad looks like someone’s stapled a pair of squirrel tails to his forehead so he may well outlast us all.  Perhaps it’s also an auspicious sign for the marriage – we like to think so.

Dad's long eyebrows: much admired and never outclassed.

Dad’s long eyebrows: much admired and never bettered.

Duncan with his best men, Mark and Keith

Duncan with his best men, Mark and Keith

After a couple more days of sightseeing and feasting the wedding day arrived at last.  Keith’s assistant best-man duties started early (after a late return from the final rehearsal the night before) and he and Mark (primary best man) escorted Duncan across town to the hotel where Spring had spent the previous night with her girlfriends.  The first step in a Chinese wedding is for the groom and his men to entice the bride from the protection of her girlfriends.  Red envelopes (Hong Bao) containing increasing amounts of money are slipped under the door, challenging questions must be answered, tempting treats are offered (Duncan had come prepared with Spring’s favourite brand of chickens feet) and finally, the groom must ransack the room searching for the bride’s hidden shoes, without which she cannot leave the room.

With bribes accepted, questions answered and shoes located, Duncan and Spring could finally descend to the hotel lobby to receive their guests.  Keith, Mark and the two bridesmaids were on hand to pass out cigarettes (for the men) and sweets (for the women and children) to the arriving guests and someone else was charged with collecting the Hong Bao that are the traditional gift at a Chinese wedding.  There is an extensive set of conflicting rules surrounding the giving of Hong Bao and Keith and I did our best to follow them, selecting an amount that we thought was large enough to respect my position of sister to the groom but not so high to be ostentatious, doing our best to find notes that were in pristine condition, and agonizing for days over whether to follow the rules for giving even numbers (particularly eights but not fours) or whether to go with nines, which apparently are good despite not being an odd number, or whether to just put a nice round number in which will be easier for the recipients to count.  After all that effort I then disgraced myself by forgetting the bloody thing and having to rush out to a nearby shop and buy an empty envelope to hand over in lieu of the real thing.  Idiot!

The wedding venue was easy to find due to the extensive signage both outside...

The wedding venue was easy to find due to the extensive signage both outside…

...and indoors

…and indoors

Duncan and Spring receiving guests

Duncan and Spring receiving guests

Duncan and Spring with David (a friend of our step-dad) and Tamar

Duncan and Spring with David (a friend of our step-dad) and Tamar

The wedding ceremony took place on a stage linked by a runway running through the centre of the room to an elaborately curtained area at the back of the room.  With the exception of the bride and groom’s parents (who sat on a row of chairs facing the stage), the guests were seated at round dining tables.

The Parental Group, L-R Duncan’s dad, step-dad and mum; Spring’s grandmother, dad and mum

The Parental Group, L-R Duncan’s dad, step-dad and mum; Spring’s grandmother, dad and mum

Flanked by his two assistants and resplendent in embroidered robes, Duncan mounted the stage, bowed to his guests and then strode down the central runway to claim his bride from her curtained hiding place.

Duncan, Mark and Keith looking resplendent...

Duncan, Mark and Keith looking resplendent…

...and doing some bowing

…and doing some bowing

Together Duncan and Spring returned to the stage carrying a red cloth draped over their arms, linking them as a couple, and then bowed to their guests.  Bowing was to be a central theme in the ceremony.

Duncan and Spring making their way to the stage, joined by a red cloth

Duncan and Spring making their way to the stage, joined by a red cloth

The ceremony proceeded, orated in both Mandarin and English, and with solemn faces Duncan and Spring washed and dried their hands then cut a lock of each other’s hair and placed them in a small bag, to be together for all time.  Rings were exchanged and a tea ceremony was held.  Traditionally unmarried men and women would have eaten separately and the wedding would be the first time they had eaten and drunk together.  In the ceremony the eating and drinking was mimed, which was definitely a smart idea as the food and drink had to be consumed in a very specific way, with the participants hiding coyly behind their huge draped sleeves.

Locks of hair, entwined forever in a red bag

Locks of hair, entwined forever in a red bag

Drinking tea together for the ‘first time’

Drinking tea together for the ‘first time’

Mind your sleeves!

Mind your sleeves!

There was some more bowing, both individually and as a couple, to each other, the four compass points and their parents, and they then served tea to their parents as a mark of respect.

Keith helping Duncan serve his parents tea

Keith helping Duncan serve his parents tea

Spring serving her parents tea

Spring serving her parents tea

During the ceremony servers had been bringing food to the tables and as Duncan and Spring left to change into their next costumes the guests began eating and drinking.  After a few minutes the newly-weds returned, with their assistants, and then had to make a tour of the room, drinking a toast at each of 20 tables.  Duncan cunningly brought his own flask of ‘special baiju’ (ie water) to try to minimise the carnage that might ensue if he was forced into drinking 20 shots of the strong Chinese rice-based spirit.  He was worried that some of his more astute friends would call him on it and force him to drink properly, but amazingly no-one did.  Perhaps his reputation is such that no one could believe he’d ‘wimp out’ like that.

Partway through the round of toasts it appears that Duncan swapped his flask of special baiju for some ale

Partway through the round of toasts it appears that Duncan swapped his flask of special baiju for some ale

Chinese weddings mix formality (in the solemn-faced rituals and complex Hong Bao rules) with a distinct atmosphere of laissez faire.  Many of the guests were dressed casually in sweaters and jeans, and despite the couple having chased people for RSVPs, four extra tables (with ten people per table) were needed at the last minute to cater for everyone who turned up.  This meant that there was nowhere for the wedding party to eat and in any case by the time they had made the circuit of the room drinking toasts, all the food was gone and the servers were beginning to clear the tables.  The Chinese are well used to dealing with rapidly changing circumstances though and the newlyweds and their assistants slipped away to eat downstairs in the hotel restaurant whilst the rest of us mingled.  Throughout the afternoon our ranks diminished as people drifted home.  At five o’clock, when the hotel needed the room back, the die-hards who remained relocated to the downstairs restaurant where more food appeared as if by magic.

There had initially been no formal evening entertainment arranged, but (at Keith’s suggestion) a karaoke night got a resounding vote of approval from Chinese and Western guests alike and so the wedding day eventually ended (well into the next day for some people) with dulcet (and not-so-dulcet) renditions of Chinese and Western pop songs and some awesome dance moves.  What a perfect day!

Echo and Spring – Karaoke Queens

Echo and Spring – Karaoke Queens

A classy chick shaking her booty on the table

A classy chick shaking her booty on the table

Many congratulations to Duncan and his clever and beautiful wife, my lovely new sister, Spring.  We wish you a long and happy marriage.

The perfect couple

The perfect couple

Wedding rings

Wedding rings