Friday, January 28, 2011

Georgetown, Malaysia

In Georgetown I was very lucky again. Although the whole town was pretty much fully booked due to the upcoming Chinese New Year festival I got a very nice and cheap room in the very first hotel I asked. For 6 EUR I had a single room, even with my own shower. And of course, around the corner were plenty of food stalls and an internet cafe for 0,50 EUR per hour. Well, I ended up staying for 5 days....

Before I came to Malaysia I had always thought that it is a Muslim country. But inside the country I had to learn that this is not always the case. Some provinces are mostly Muslim, but the province of Penang for example is predominantly Chinese.

Buddhist Temple
Some historical anecdote here: When both Malaysia and Singapore gained independence from the British they were both ONE country for a couple of years. But then Malaysia decided to more or less "expel" Singapore. Why? Singapore is big and predominantly Chinese - in a combined country the Chinese would have been the majority. But Malaysian politicians wanted a Muslim country - and therefore decided to get rid of Singapore to outbalance the majority.

Georgetown has a lot of Chinese monuments - for example the Chinese clan houses. When the Chinese came first to Malaysia in the late 1800s they formed clans to help each other according to the region where they came from. When these clans got wealthier and wealthier their clan houses or meeting places cum temple got more luxurious - and are a big tourist attraction now.

Chinese Temple
Another Chinese monument is the Sun Yat Sen house - don't worry: I had not heard of Sun Yet Sen before either. Sun Yat Sen became the first president of the Republic of China in 1912 after the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy. As a revolutionary and political leader he was not liked in China before 1912 - actually there was a bounty on his head and therefore he was hiding in Georgetown for many years and planning the revolution from there. The house were he lived in is a museum now.

Fun War Museum?
But there are other, rather weird monuments as well, like an old British fort converted in a war fun park cum paintball now. The fort was built by the British in the 1930's in expectation of a Japanese attack. But when the attack came, the fort fell quickly and was occupied by the Chinese until the British regained it at the end of WWII. The fort is situated in the outskirts of Penang smack bang in the jungle. And despite the outrageously high entrance fee it was an interesting site. The new owners have "rejuvenated" the fort, added some rather tacky attractions for the daily night tour (advertised with "Don't miss the fun") and also created a paintball war game zone. The result is some Rocky Horror War Show Malaysian style..

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Malaysia: The food

Indian Banana Leaf Curry
I am a hiker after all and therefore food is one of the most important things in life for me....
And the food is one of the best things in Malaysia!!! Because there are so many ethnical groups, there are also so many food choices... There is Indian food, Chinese food, Thai food and Malayan food. You never get bored here.

Roti Canai with Milo
My first food problem was breakfast. I spent the first days in Malaysia eating overpriced Western style breakfasts with horrible toast, no butter and mostly no jam. Even the baked beans tasted horrible. I decided to try something else and tried Indian - and that is the solution. The normal Indian breakfast here is Roti Canai. Not that I had ever heard of that... It is some sort of chapati with a little bit of dhal on the side. It is made fresh in front of your eyes! The stalls have a big supply of little dough dumplings and when you order it they are squeezed into a rectangular form, put on the grill for 2 minutes and that's it. They come in all sort of varieties from plain (Roti Canai) to Roti with eggs, sardines, bananas and/or chocolate - but even with chocolate Roti you will be served dhal, which makes a weird combination!

For lunch and dinner there are so many choices that I always have a hard time deciding what to eat. My favourites so far are:
  • Indian dhosai: a sort of rice/lentil flour pancake - very crisp and served with 3 sorts of dhal
  • Indian Thali: is vegetarian, contains rice and various sorts of dhal, curry and dips. The locals just pour the sauces over the rice and eat it with their right hand - but I have not managed that art yet. In the cheap version you get all this served on a banana leaf.
  • Tom Yam: is a very spicy Thai soup. Comes as a soup but also as a rice dice.
  • Mee and Nasi: Mee is the Malay word for noodles and Nasi for rice. Goreng means fried, so the famous Nasi Goreng is nothing else but fried rice. Here you get all sorts of variations on rice and noodles - fried and in soup - with meat or vegetables - spicy or mild.... and so on and so on
  • Satay: is either little pieces of chicken or pork on a wooden skewer barbecued right in front of your eyes and served with peanut sauce.
  • Laksa: This is my favourite Malay dish so far. A very sour and spicy soup with noodles and seafood.
Peanut pancakes
And what do you drink? Again, various choices. In all the Indian places you get wonderful lassi. Then there are tons of food stalls that serve freshly squeezed fruit juice - with ice. And of course there is hot drinks as well and as I do not drink coffee or black tea my favourite is Milo. Milo is a sort of chocolate powder for water and you can get the drink cold or hot.

Desert was a bit of a problem for me first as I am very much chocolate oriented - and due to the climate chocolate is not very popular here. But then I discovered Mr. Sweet - and Indian sweet shop where you can buy all sorts of delights, usually made out of nuts, ghee and condensed milk. Definitely not dietary stuff and very sweet, but ultra-delicious. I will probably come back to Germany overweight! But this would give me an excuse to go hiking again... which I will do anyways.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

    I came to Cameron Highlands to do some hiking. Unfortunately, this did not work out at all due to two reasons.

    When I arrived I already knew that I was getting a cold. This came as no big surprise - the climate change between hot and dry Australia and hot and humid Malaysia was just too much for me. Plus the constant temperature changes between the hot and humid outside and the air-conditioned freezing cold hotel rooms, shopping malls and museums. But this cold lingered quite long and was pretty tough. I basically stayed the first three days of my stay in the Cameron Highlands in my guesthouse room. Fortunately, due to its altitude the Highlands have a very pleasant climate. Still warm, but not hot during the day and in the evening you want to put on a sweater. So no need for air-conditioning. Within 4 days I went from a sore throat to constant sneezing and a running nose to coughing. I have almost recovered now but I still can't hear properly because my ears are still blocked.


    I stayed in a nice guesthouse, but you have to climb about 50 steps to get up to it. On top of the stairs I generally had half of an asthma attack - and decided that hiking in this condition might not be such a good idea.

    Reminded me of Eastern Europe
    But on day 4 I just could not stand lying around any more and decided to go for a little hike. I purchased the local hiking map and set off. The town of Tanah Rata, which is the major center of the Highlands is quite disappointing. I had expected a quite little village in the mountains - but I found a huge communist-style resort town with holiday apartment complexes sprawling all over the place. Still, once you set out from the main road and walk for 10 minutes you are smack bang in the middle of the jungle. I really enjoyed two short hikes on the edge of town and decided to go for a long hike the next day.


    Jungle Trail No 5
    I guess I can claim to be an experienced hiker after having completed the Triple Crown, but these so called "jungle walks" were too much for me. Not because they were diffult - no, just because I could not find them. The so-called hiking map sold by the tourist office and all hotels was the worst map I have ever seen. Even a hand drawn sketch would have been better that this. No contour lines, no trail description, just a pathetic little sketch and lots of advertising. For my hike I was supposed to go to the little village of Orang Asli from where the map showed the start of the trail. I eventually found Orang Asli - but no trace of the trail. To be honest, there were plenty of trails and each local I asked pointed in a different direction. But I really did not want to start walking on an unsigned steep trail with plenty of side trails and no signage, blazes, sign posts or any other sign that this is a maintained walking trail. I walked around for about 2 hours in a nice pittoresque Malay village talking to children, shopkeepers and old men, but still could not find the so-called "Jungle Track No. 10". In the end I got so frustrated I took a taxi back to Tanah Rata....

    But I still was not defied and decided to try the trail from its other end. I got instructions from the tourist office and set off again. This time I even found a signpost saying "Jungle Track No. 10" and an arrow. Victory seemed to be close and my spirits lifted - but alas, all trails were dead ends....either in a private property or a huge construction site. I had wasted half a day to find a trail that probably exists only on the map. I went back to town, bought an onward bus ticket and will leave the Highlands tomorrow.

    I came to the conclusion that Malaysia is probably not an ideal hiking country...

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Melaka, Malaysia

    Old Dutch Stadthuis
    Seems like I have eventually found a place where to relax. I mean, I really liked Singapore, but it is difficult to relax in a place where the accommodation alone costs almost double than your average daily budget....

    Melaka in Malaysia is more suited to my budget. I have found a guesthouse with a really nice and quiet room for 10 EUR. Around the corner is a fantastic vegetarian restaurant where I can get a meal for 1 EUR. Melaka has dozens of small weird museums that charge around 0,50 EUR to 1 EUR. And my guesthouse has a cafe with FREE internet. Need I say more? Maybe you understand now why I stayed in Melaka for 6 days - and each day doing less and less, except sitting in front of the internet and doing research 8 hours a day....

    Well, I did some sightseeing.... Melaka's museums are rather bizarre. For example there is the Museum of Enduring Beauty. It showcases bizarre beauty rituals from all over the world like tattooing, foot binding and scarification. As a Westerner you assume that only primitive tribes would use these painful beautification methods, but to my big surprise the museum dedicates a big chapter to corset wearing in Europe.....

    Old Dutch Fregatta
    I also visited the History Museum and the Malaysian Democratic Museum and was put to shame again not knowing much about Malaysian and especially Melaka history - which is actually quite interesting. There is hardly anyone who has not been governing in Melaka. First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. They were defeated in WWII by the Japanese and after their surrender the British moved in again followed by the Emergency. The Emergency was actually one big insurance fraud: After the Japanese had moved out and the British in again some sort of civil war erupted led by the Communists. But an official civil war would have made insurance for the big British rubber plantations impossible and therefore it was officially called the Emergency....Finally Malaysia became independent and has now some sort of Islamic Democratic institutional monarchy. Of course there is a Malaysian Islamic Museum as well...

    I was really worried what sort of a feel Malaysia would have. I have traveled in many Muslim countries and hardly ever felt comfortable. I am too much of a feminist to feel comfortable around women with head scarves! Well, there are a lot of women with head scarves around here, but there are also a lot without. Malaysia is a big mixture of Malay/Muslim, Chinese and Indian people. I still have not figured out how they all communicate.

    I had hoped to meet fellow travelers in a popular spot like Melaka, but alas travelers are not what they used to be. Instead of socializing with fellow travelers people sit in front of their laptops socializing with their friends back home via facebook... Well, I am not much better. Still it is frustrating after such a long period of hiking and cycling. When you are on the trail or on a bike, you always stop and chat when you meet a fellow hiker or cyclist. I am not used to such autistic behavior...

    After 6 days of basically doing nothing I will move on tomorrow - to do some hiking in the Cameron Highlands. I wanted a long rest from hiking, but after not even 2 weeks without I already miss it. I guess I am an addict.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Singapore

    My arrival in Singapore was pretty much horrible. I had booked a very cheap flight with Tiger Airways and that flight landed in the middle of the night, at 2.50 am to be precise. Unfortunately, I had not been able to sleep the night before and Tiger Airways has the smallest and most cramped seats I have ever seen in a plane. I did not sleep a minute on the flight. At 2.50 am Singapore airport is pretty much deserted, but sleeping was still a problem as all the seats in the airport are made of hard plastic and made as uncomfortable as possible. I ended up stretching out in the handicapped toilet. Luckily Singapore is a very clean place and that includes airport toilets. I still had to drag myself through half a day as I could only check into my hotel after noon and had to take more naps in handicapped museum toilets.

    But after a decent nap things went uphill pretty quickly. Singapore is a very expensive place, especially for accommodation, but food is cheap. Especially if you come from Australia. There are food courts everywhere and you can get almost any food. Therefore most of my sightseeing consists of visiting various food courts and eating my way through every food stall.
    Tacky Buddhist theme park

    Singapore is the most cosmopolitan place I have ever been to. To give you an example: My hotel is next to a Catholic church, opposite a synagogue and further up the road is a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple. And next door is a food court and another one 200 meters away.... Because there are so many ethnicities here the common language is English. Everyone speaks English, albeit with a rather weird accent. But everything is also translated into Chinese (70% of Singaporeans are of Chinese origin), Malay and Hindi.

    War cemetary
    Singapore is sort of Asia light: Fantastic food, lets of temples and colorful neighborhoods, but all is very clean and safe - although expensive, but I have mentioned that before. Being a dutiful tourist I visited all the flash museums - and I can assure you, they are very flash. In the National Museum you even get your personal multimedia gadget that guides you around. Most fascinating for me is Singapore's history: Singapore was a swamp with not much on it before the British discovered it as a safe port. They developed Singapore as a trading port and it flourished until the Japanese occupied it in 1942. The British surrender was signed in a Ford car factory, which has now been transformed into the most fascinating museum. I always feel ashamed in Asia that I know so little about Asian history. I thought I had learnt everything about WWII in Asia while in Japan in 2009, but the Singapore/Malaysia history was pretty new to me. And right now? Singapore seems to be some sort of democratic dictatorship which might explain why the modern art scene is sort of very tame.

    There are only two bad things about Singapore: It is expensive and the hot and humid climate makes it feel like a steam sauna. Whenever I left an air conditioned bus or museum my glasses would fog up..... I am moving on to Malaysia now, where the climate will be the same, but at least it will be cheaper!

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    What happened in 2010 and what's next in 2011

    I left Germany in early January 2010 and had a hard year of hiking and cycling. I accomplished almost all the trails and bike trips I had planned with just some minor alterations. So that is the numbers and stats for 2010:

    about 200 km in a canoe on a weird flip-flop on the Wilderness Waterway in the Everglades in Florida
    1.770 km on foot on the Florida Trail
    1.287 km on the Arizona Trail
    about 2.000 km on bicycle in Utah, Nevada and California
    223 km on foot on the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory in Australia
    about 1.700 km on bicycle from Darwin to Alice Springs
    250 km on foot on the Great South West Walk in Victoria, Australia
    1.200 km on foot on the Heysen Trail in Southern Australia
    4.500 km in a campervan through New South Wales and Queensland (luckily with my friend Maik driving...)
    440 km on foot on the Hume and Hovell Track
    1.000 km on foot on the Bibbulmun Track

    Best towns: Salt Lake City in the US and Adelaide in South Australia

    Biggest problem: Constant bad weather - I was flooded and drenched wherever I went, even in Outback Australia

    Saddest event: To learn of the death of my hiking friend Dave Blumenthal in a mountain bike accident

    Worst accident: To fall into an unpredictable underground cave on the Heysen Trail

    On the AZT
    Biggest surprise: To see how well couchsurfing and warm showers worked and the wonderful and interesting people I have met through it

    Nicest people I have met: My couchsurfing host Monte in Sacramento and my warm showers host Gray in Adelaide - I came as a guest and left as a friend. And of course the farmers who "rescued" me after my accident on the Heysen trail.

    Equipment problems: 2 broken Garmin GPS (one brand new!), 1 defect Suunto outdoor watch (brand new, too), 1 worn out zipper on my sleeping bag, twice zippers worn out on tarptent, 3 defect Platypus bottles, 2 defects on the Therma-a-Rest, my backpack had to be stitched up at least 5 times and I ruined 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of shoes, 1 T-shirt, 1 shirt, 1 outdoor pants, 1 cap (lost in accident)

    On the AZT
    2010 has been the toughest year so far on my long trip. The constant bad weather has been wearing me down, both mentally and physically. I never wanted to go back home, but on some occasions I just sat down and cried because everything just got to much for me. But these moments passed and I was rewarded with some of the most exotic ecosystems I have been in.

    So what is next? I will spend 2 months in Singapore and Malaysia just as a normal tourist, backpacking and sightseeing and eating... In March I will fly back to Germany and prepare the next adventures.

    April and May I will spend hiking in Germany - after one year in swamps, deserts and Eucalypt forest I am longing for German pine trees..

    Giving a speech on the FT
    June to August I will be paddling the Yukon River in Alaska!!!! Yes, that is the one Jack London wrote about... How did this idea come along? Well, an old hiking friend of mine, Adrian aka Matterhorn from Switzerland has been planning this as a present to himself for his 60th birthday. I had never really considered to join him, but after hiking and being on my own for a year straight I thought it is time for a change. I also want to get more experienced in paddling. So Adrian and I have booked our flights already and on June 1st we will both fly to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and start a thrupaddle of about 3.000 km of the Yukon.

    From September on I do not have any definite plans yet. I might do some more hiking in Alaska if I find a decent trail or hike John O'Groats to Land's End in the UK. Remember, I try to hike with the exchange rate and the British Pound is pretty low now. But no matter what, I think it is going to be a pretty exciting year 2011.

    Bibbulmun Track: Conclusion

    Shelter on the Bibb
    Even after hiking it a second time I still think that the Bibb is the best track in Australia and definitely one of my favourite tracks in the whole world. Why is that? It is definitely the best planned and laid out trail I have ever hiked. It was modelled after the Appalachian Trail but I personally think it is much better than the AT. The huts are just incredible - the Hilton type of all trail shelters. On the AT you will rarely find any hut that is as nice and comfortable as the Bibb huts. The trail marking is impeccable, the guidebook is great and logistics are easy. This is a fool proof trail even for beginners, although I have read in the trail registers that people managed to get lost or found it hard. But for a long-distance hiker it is a walk in the park... and it is great fun!!!

    Old tramway
    I definitely recommend this trail to everyone, as really everyone can enjoy it. You decide yourself how hard you are going to make it by determining the distance you want to hike each day. You can either just go from one hut to the next hiking only about 20 km per day on easy terrain or you can double hut and do about 40 km every day - or you can just camp in between the huts and do any distance you would like! It is a great track for a holiday on the trail as staying in the huts is so relaxing and comfortable. The trail is almost 1.000 km long and it both times it took me 35 days to hike the whole distance. You could hike it faster, but the huts are so tempting to have half a day off relaxing..... 

    Grass trees
    But although it is incredibly interesting and varied (especially for someone from Europe or the US), it does not have any "WOW" sights - except for the beaches. If you are looking for breathtaking alpine scenery than look somewhere else. But if you are happy hiking through an interesting and unique environment this is for you.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Bibbulmun Track: Trail towns

    Terminus in Albany
     Knowing that another good hiking friend of mine will hike the Bibbulmun Track soon, I want to write something about the trail towns. It will give you a good idea about what to expect when you hit civilization after a week in the bush:

    Albany: Southern Terminus of the Bibb with 3 cheap and good backpacker hostels. My favourite one (because it is the quietest) is the YHA. There is a big IGA supermarket very close and it is open every day. Internet is available at all the hostels. There are two daily connections from Albany to Perth.

    Walpole: Free showers in the toilet block next to the Visitor Centre. Two good backpacker hostels, my favourite is the Walpole Lodge. Decent IGA that is open every day. Very expensive internet in hostel and Visitor  Centre.

    Gloucester Tree
    Pemberton: YHA hostel, but it is always full with workers. Book ahead or stay at caravan park either in a chalet (expensive if you are on your own) or camp. Good IGA that is open every day. Expensive internet in Telecentre. I stayed at a rather obscure Christian place, the Karriholm Christian Centre. I nearly left when they started praying for the unborn life threatened by abortion, but other than that people running it are extremely friendly, albeit a bit zealous. They try to bring the word of God to street kids, homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts. If you don't like weird places, don't go there. Outside Pemberton is the Gloucester Tree drawing big crowds of tourists during holiday season.

    Buddhist pagoda at Origins
    Balingup: Best place for accommodation is the Origins Centre right on the trail 2 km out of town. It is a Buddhist retreat centre and you pay by donation. Very nice, clean rooms, fantastic communal kitchen and interesting library. Very relaxed people, no proselytizing. There also is a backpacker hostel next to the post office and you can camp for 10 AUD near the town oval. There is a small and very expensive supermarket open every day. Going north you only have to buy food for a couple of days which is doable. Expensive internet at visitor centre.

    Collie: My favourite trail town!!!! Two big supermarkets (Woolworth and Coles), but they are closed on Sundays. Laundromat and nice cheap public swimming pool in city centre. Go for a swim!!! Plenty of accommodation, but all rather expensive and no backpacker hostel. Easy to camp 4 km out of town though. Nice and big museum with lots of bric brac.

    Store in Dwellingup
    Dwellingup: Free cold showers in toilet block next to visitor centre. FREE internet in visitor centre!!!!! Small supermarket with small selection and rather expensive. Going north you have to resupply for 6 days there. It is doable, but will not be great and rather expensive. No hostel, but easy to camp just 1 km out of town (South!).

    Kalamunda: Buses every half hour back to Perth, takes 30 minutes. Big supermarket right next to terminus, in case you can't wait till Perth.

    Perth: You will probably start and end in Perth. Before starting a thruhike I recommend visiting the office of the Friends of the Bibbulmun Track. It is open on weekdays only and stuffed by volunteers. Here you can buy the guidebooks and get the latest info on trail conditions, especially the situation of the inlet crossings. The office is located directly above a big outdoor shop so in case the office is closed you could get the guidebooks there. 

    Donnelly River Store
    There are tiny little shops in Donnelly River Village and Peaceful Bay, but there is hardly any selection and they are outrageously expensive. Only buy there in emergencies. No decent food or resupply at North Bannister roadhouse and according to last hiker info they do not accept resupply packages mailed to them either (not that you would need it).

    All above mentioned towns have gas cannisters!!!!!! Enjoy your hike!!!!

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Bibbulmun Track revisited: Part 2


    Well, one of the very few problems of the Bibbulmun Track is that there is no cheap internet in the trail towns and therefore I have not been able to update my blog for so long. But I have finished my thruhike now and want to tell you a bit more about it: I felt quite like a memorable person because I kept running into people whom I had met 2 years ago and who still remembered me. Unfortunately, I also ran into people I did not want to meet again like Reiner from Germany.

    Reiner wanted to hike with me in 2008, but he was about the most negative person I have met on any long-distance trail and therefore I politely declined. He banged the door and disappeared without saying goodbye. But to my big surprise I saw him again in the Bibb Track registers this year. He must have hiked behind me for almost 3 weeks before overtaking me in one town. I assumed he wanted to avoid me as much as I wanted to avoid him after our last unhappy encounter 2 years ago. But on the contrary: He had decided to do a mini flipflop in order to see me again because he thought that he would not be able to catch me otherwise. So he showed up totally unexpected in a shelter one day. Although we got on a bit better this time and chatted for quite a while I was still happy to leave. Some people I just cannot hike with - and he unfortunately is one of them.

    On the beach
    Other than infamous Reiner, I did not meet many interesting people on the trail this year. Most of the time I was alone - probably because it is very hot in December and most Australians prefer to hike when it is colder. I still met a puppeteer with an eye problem, 2 uni students, a homesick American expatriate and a desperate woman who had left her husband after 35 years of marriage. And for the first time on the Bibb Track I also met some really rude hikers who arrived at the hut with 2 sixpacks of beer and started smoking immediately. I left immediately then!

    Christmas swimming pool
    What was different this year? There have been more insects - lots more flies, lots more mosquitoes and unfortunately lots of march flies. I had not seen a single march fly in 2008 - luckily, as these flies have an extremely painful bite. It has also been much hotter this year. One day it was so hot that I was even sweating buckets in the complete shade of a hut, but luckily this was only one day. Christmas was unbearably hut, but I hiked only one day and spent the afternoon in the shade and splashing in the nearby water pools of a river.

    But altogether it has been a good hike - even the second time. But I am pretty sure I will not hike it a third time in the near future....there are other hikes to do!!

    PS: My friend Reiner has hiked the trail NINE times now!!! That is dedication!!