Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It’s tea time again

Two things travelers have to know about transportation in Malaysia. Firstly, there is not much information available. Secondly, it’s kind of hard finding buses or trains, which locals are using, compared to the easy accessible commercial tours provided. Third, Malaysia is a small country and what looks far away on the map, is usually only a few hours’ drive and last, most buses no matter where they go to include Kuala Lumpur in their itinerary. So traveling in a circuit is hardly possible with public transportation, because the road system is star-like, connecting all the interesting destinations with KL, but not directly.
From the wild jungle I took an overnight bus to the remains of the British Empire, the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. Actually I should call it an into-the-night bus, because after surprisingly seeing the Twin towers of KL again, we arrived at the final stop in Ipoh in the middle of the night. There I had to spend 6 hours until another local bus would leave to the highlands. You cannot imagine how incredible warm it was in the bus station and that I had problems falling asleep!
A bit exhausted after my 20 hour journey I finally arrived and wondered if it was worth to take the slightly cheaper, but local transportation solution. Since I still had to keep my time schedule in mind, because in the end of January I was expected to be in Indonesia, it could only afford to stay in Cameron Highlands for 2 days and one night. Without wasting time I took the first cheap hotel room, had lunch and headed towards the tourist information. Obviously they had a pretty good package, which would allow me to see most of the attractions in my limited time! Convinced that it’s not always the best to do things on your own, I took the deal for the next day. The rest of the day I was walking a short distance to a close by waterfall and relaxed. Honestly, the jungle run from the days before was still notably in my legs.

The next and already last day started kind of early, because at 9 am my tour started. At the meeting point we noticed that it will be only two Scottish, I and of course our guide, who will be driving through the tea plantations, enjoying the lookout from the highest hill, walking through the mossy forest, watching the tea factory processes and finally visiting an insect farm! It was quite a lot to do until I had to sit in another bus only 6 hours later. So, let’s hurry with the story…
Our tour started with a drive through the tea plantation and various explanations from our guide. As I had seen similar fields in Darjeeling and different ones in Assam, I kind of new a bit of the tea plant already. Not very surprisingly, but also not expected Malaysian tea from Cameron Highlands is not picked by hands as it’s common in India, but gathered with diesel harvesters, which basically cut the tea tree like a conscienceless hedge trimmer! Stated on the tea estate’s homepage, it all sounds fine: “Tea used to be plucked by hand as the workers move laboriously through the long rows of low tea bushes. Today, innovation and research within the Company has led to mechanization and upgrading of its operations with the development of several labor and time-saving methods.“ I think it’s a rape of all tea lovers, because marketing makes them believe they drink some really special drink and additionally it’s most likely associated to attributes like environmental friendly or natural, but in the end it’s only a big business trying to use the cheapest production method, which generates the biggest or fastest outcome. Honestly, looking behind the stage and seeing how the profit maximizing tea industry made me sad… In India I learned that the tea plant uses 20 years to develop seeds, but here in that plantation it will never come so far, because the trimmer cuts all the attempts of the plant to flower and produce seeds. At least the landscape was nice as usually ;-)

The next destination was a lookout point on the top of the highest hill in the highlands. From there we were supposed to see as far as to the coast, but clouds during the rainy season prohibited that perfect view. Still it was nice letting our eyes crawl over the rainforests. Those forests were also one of the four vegetation zones, which we were observing in the next hours. It’s quite unique that there are so many different sections in such a small area.

As we were walking down the mountain, we saw bushy trees and small flowers at the top, followed by a zone called mossy forest. Our guide was promising us that we’ll see forests like in the movie Avatar and it almost was looking like an animation! Each square centimeter of trees, stones and the ground was covered with moss…

After the mossy forest we stepped into an area where heaps of pitcher plants were growing. In various colors, sizes and life stage we were able to see nature’s beauty from very close.

Sooner or later it was time for a break and according to our schedule we were heading to the tea factory, where we got a slight insight into the manufacturing processes of tea. As we knew about the harvesting conditions of the tea leaves already, we started with the transport to the factory. Deported there, a tea leaf makes its way through a two days processing of containing withering, rolling, fermentation, drying and sorting. Withering will stop the tea leaf to grow fungi, rolling creates the twisted wiry looking tea leaves and breaks them for enhancing the next processing step, fermentation is turning the leaf progressively darker as their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released, drying under well maintained temperatures again prevents mold and fungus to grow and last but not least in the process step of sorting, different qualities will be distinguished. Again heavy machines are in use.

After all, we had seen so much tea stuff today that of course we had to try a freshly cooked tea while again enjoying the landscape and a piece of cake, hehe. Despite the fact that some production processes could be reconsidered, the tea was very good, but a bit bitter though.
As the day passed by, it was time to go over to our last program point. At the insect farm we were introduced to all insects, which grow bigger than you think it’s necessary, and some smaller reptiles. Unfortunately my camera battery died in the middle of the show off and so I could take pictures of the 30 cm sticky insects, leaf imitators and the snakes, but here you go with some of them…

Monday, February 14, 2011

Into the wild, into the Taman Negara NP

After three days in KL it was about time to say Goodbye to my awesome couchsurfing host Jason. Next destination: Taman Negara National Park in the centre of the Malaysian peninsula. Because time was a crucial factor in my whole travel itinerary I was pretty keen on making it to the bus station very early, but to get there I had to take Jason’s offer to drive me to a metro station first and take a train to the bus. A three hours bus journey to Jerantut and a 30 min taxi ride brought me to the jetty in Kuala Tembling, from where a boat left for another 3 hours drive on a river system through the rainforest. It sounds like a long and exhausting journey, but the opposite is true. In the bus I could sleep, from the taxi I could see nice nature and in the boat I met my new travel companion Katharina and again could see amazing parts of the 130 million year old rainforest.

When we arrived in Kuala Tahan, the tourist basis of the national park, we just in time escaped the agent selling tour packages. Katharina and I both agreed in looking for our own place to stay and explore the forest by ourselves. Since it was low season, prices for accommodation were cheap according to the few people staying. We decided to stay in a little hut off the centre and do jungle walks and canopy trails from there. On the day of our arrival we just explored a bit of the city, made plans for the next days and were relaxing.

The second day was reserved for a walk through the rainforest and doing the longest canopy trail in the world. Therefore we had to take a small ferry to the other side of the river, get some information and maps for the jungle and finally make the first contact with the local wildlife, as the picture with the millipede is proving. According to our map and clock, we used pretty much time to walk the 1.2 km to the Canopy Garden, but that of course must have happened after taking heaps of pictures in the jungle.

The Canopy Walk was a very highlight, because its dimensions are just incredible. Along the 530 m swinging bridges we could see through and above the trees from up to 40 m height. Monkeys howled from every side, but we actually couldn’t see too many of them. Nevertheless we enjoyed the walking and crawling and didn’t want to let it end. Therefore it was reasonable to have a little break with cookies in the tree crowns.

Since we didn’t had enough of hiking, it was compulsorily for us to walk some more kilometers to the 334 m high Teresek Hill, from where we gained a very beautiful view over almost the entire forest. On the way there we’ve even seen squirrels, monkeys (probably Macaque), a very rare big black bird with a white tale, face and huge bick (most likely a Hornbill bird), heaps of leeches and millipedes. What slowed us down this time was rather taking off the leeches from our ankles than taking pictures! These nasty beasts “luckily” only attached Katharina and spared me out ;-) On the way back to our accommodation we also found a river, which was perfect to find a rest after the whole day of walking. I guess that more comfortable and convenient nature and forest friends like the tour participants on boat tours would miss out most of the beauty of such activities. Additionally, in a survival of the fittest like the ants on the following picture were fighting those lazy boat people probably would have become pretty wet.

Day 3 brought quite some change, because Katharina was traveling to that crowded Hindu Festival at the Batu Caves and I moved into another accommodation. I had only one day left before I wanted to go to the tea plantations in Cameron Highlands, so what to do in the rainforests? Right, another walk… This time on my own and maybe in a more jungle-parkour way of doing! Therefore I had chosen a 14 km track bringing me along a cave and to some waterfalls, but unfortunately the park authority prohibited me to go there. Their understandable reasons were that rocks were falling down from the caves sealing and thus it must have been closed as well as the fact that even experienced guides don’t find that area of the waterfalls anymore, because wild elephants regularly destroy the paths. After long time of still considering, I decided to go for plan B, which was the 18 km walk to some cascades. And this was very adventurous, I can tell you!
Macaque monkeys started to throw some fruits from the high tree crowns right when I entered the forest, but I guessed they just wanted some attention… Initially I intended not to stop for too many pictures, but of course I couldn’t take long until I was again clicking with my camera. Mostly I was shooting photos with plants, but the more deep I walked into the forest the more signs of animals I noticed. Tapir trays, millipedes, hens, monkeys, squirrels, everywhere! I was even lucky enough to see flying lemur, when it was jumping to another tree and a more than 2 m long snake! Most of them are surely to shy and too fast for a camera, but still they seemed not to be bothered by my presence. Still, trees are obviously the better photo models, so I again was playing a little with them. It’s kind of fun to climb liana or trunks though.

After being more than 3 hours alone I suddenly heard some voices from behind. As I would have lived in the forest for years and be not used to humans I decided to move a little faster. I definitely wanted to avoid joining the group, because if they are so loud even though I couldn’t see them, then they would ruin the whole nature experience. Unfortunately there was the problem with all those leeches! Every few minutes I had to make a stop to take several leeches off my shoes and ankles, and they were really annoying! Not only that they were everywhere, but also the issue with them being very slippery and hard to pull off … So, the two French guys closed the gap between us and we were now the three of us. It happened that we met right in front of a river, about what I was sure that we have to cross it. Somehow they were neither prepared with a map nor very keen on standing in hips-high water, so I needed all my strength to convince them! At the end we took the “risk to get eaten by huge snakes” and made it to the other side while one of those boats with two tourists was passing us.

An hour later we arrived at the cascades, where we had a nice time swimming and eating cookies, the only supply I brought. At this stage we also met the boat people, who told us that they’ve been very surprised to see other people so far away from the main village and even walking on their own ;-) .. For me it just sounded funny! Luckily for all of us, they had exactly two seats available in the boat, so of course I gave the two French guys the right of way, because they honestly would have begged to sit in that boat. Everybody was apologizing very much to leave me all in the forests, 8.5 km away from the base, at 5 pm and the knowledge the soon occurring sunset. For me it was totally fine, because it would give me the opportunity again to meet some animals and real nature. They only thing what I had to take care of, was not to take as many pictures as on the way up, because another 4.5 hours would definitely be to long concerning the rising dark. And for some reason they couldn’t afford to give me some water, so I had to get along with my few sips left… All that made me decide to run back! I wanted to turn the walk into a jungle run, like a competition to see their surprised faces how fast I could come back. Of course I wasn’t running all the 8.5 km, because the leeches needed some attention, I slowed down for a snake and was refreshing in the river, but still the result was 2 hours 15 min of fun, jumping over fallen trees, robbing through bushes and most excitingly swinging on liana to move over 2-3 m long and deep passages.

Back in the village I needed to go to the internet, because I had just remembered to change my original return flight tickets to end July 2011 (half a year extension for Malaysia, Indonesia and probably another move…). And guess who I met there! My fellows from the cascades were definitely surprised to see me back so early!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kuala Lumpur – Back into the Organised World

Air Asia is every travellers friend, because even you book short in time before your flight, it is still not expensive. From Bangalore to Kuala Lumpur it took only 1 h sleep, 1 h reading and another 1 h chatting with my neighbour until I reached Malaysia. Unfortunately it was in the middle of the night and without having had the opportunity to check my mails before leaving India, I did not know, if any of my couchsurfing requests were answered positively. So what I had in mind was the plan to stay at the airport over night and find out next things at a more proper time. It did not take long until I met company and did not had to rest alone. Ingela from Sweden was a way better prepared than I was, because 11 years of living in Bali made her quite experienced in visa-touring to KL. Together we could share our turns of getting food and drinks, the free internet on her laptop in front of StarBucks and some travel stories. Interestingly she is building a house over there, where she as a yoga teacher will open a centre as well. That will hopefully be reason enough to say Hello to her in April, if time permits after I will have finished my internship in the Small Hydro Power Project of the now called GIZ (German International Cooperation formerly known as GTZ). By the time we found out that one couchsurfer had replied and I, probably her as well, could sleep on his couch. But first things first! After spending about 6 h at the airport, we took a bus into the city, had a quick breakfast and took some passport pictures for our Visa application at the Indonesian Embassy. As both of us had not just exclusive tourist purposes for staying in the country of more than 17000 islands, we both had to visit the embassy. Usually it never makes any problems, but as you also do not know the exact outcome of the visit at the Visa office, we were a bit exited. And as we almost could have guessed, we both did not get the two month permit, but only one! Anyway, for me it seems like not being a big problem, because I can and now have to extend the Visa up to 4 times. Without our passports and the reminder to pick them up one day later we left to meet Jason, my couchsurfing host.

When Jason opened the door he had already seen us from the window before and were not wondering much that two people were standing in front of him. It was no problem for him and his “cousin brother” as he called his flatmate Andrew that the both of us wanted to stay at his place! For everybody, who doesn't know the couchsurfing project should check it out in the internet. Basically, the idea is sharing the knowledge and information of locations all around the world by staying at local’s places, especially their couches. It's free of charge, but in return you either participate in the same way and host other travelers, which come to your city, or/and you make your stay at nice one for your host as well. In my 5 years of couchsurfing experience I never had troubles hosting people from about 25 countries in Kaiserslautern and Berlin, but I actually haven't surfed to many couches myself. Thus, my travels through Malaysia should mainly be driven by that purpose! How much fun this can be, you will see on the picture.

After arriving Andrew, Ingela and I went out for lunch and thanks to Malaysia's great climate, which lets them grow mangos all around the year, we enjoyed one of the best ice-blended mango lassie I ever had! Since the mango season finished in India in October, I was very happy to finally get one again. Later, we explored the city markets with all its fake products of shirts, backpacks and watches, ate in Kuala Lumpur's famous China Town and finished the day with some beer in bar. Introducing me to the concept of food courts, made me wonder why we don't have such places in Germany and probably nowhere in Europe. Principally, the owner of a kind of big location is renting out slots to other people, which built up little stands and sell their one or two different dishes. While the owner of that location is making good money from the stands on the one hand and from selling the drinks on the other hand, customers can enjoy different types of food as they would go to different restaurants! When Ingela left for Bali and Andrew was busy with work, Jason was showing me around on the other days. Again in China Town we spent some more time, shopping some fake brand products and observing the strange food offers like the drought and flattened goose skin in the back of the next picture.
What makes KL as locals call their city famous through the world are probably the PETRONAS Twin Towers, which give a very nice photo set especially at night time. Other than that, the towers accommodating about 4 storeys of shopping area and offices above and cope with the western standard as the whole city is doing. Coming from India and loving the freedom of unrestricted daily life with heaps of unexpected situation every day, KL besides its nice sites seems a bit boring, because there is a way how to do everything. Continuing our city tour we drove to the lookout point, from where you have a nice view over the entire city after climbing a almost steep combination of stairs. At exactly 12 pm you can even see when the switch of the electricity at the twin towers. Up there we met Rayne, a friend of Jason. Together with her having Chinese roots and Indian based Jason I got some interesting details of society in Malaysia. When the British ruled the country, they needed cheap labour and where else would that come then from the most labour abundant countries in Asia. Since then there were Indians and Chinese living together with Malay, but an integration never really happened! Both told me, that a Chinese-Indian marriage for example is a No-Go and that friendships are usually restricted within their “natural” context! There are exceptions of course...

Anyway, I was not coming to Malaysia for staying in big cities, but for exploring more of the nature sites, so Jason also drove me to the Batu Caves. This extraordinary and huge cave system functions as a very important pilgrimage site for Hindus from all over the country. Not just that they knee up the 260 stairs carrying milk pots on their shoulders, but also the fact that on certain festival days (e.g. 19th January Thaipusam Festival) they come in herds of 2 million people! Luckily we went there some days before and thus, could also get a snapshot of Malaysia's broad variety of nature. The ever-present Monkeys and some snakes, as well as palms and fern made me forget the bit of visa issue and looking forward to my next destinations in the Taman Negara National Park, one of the oldest rain forests in the world. Besides its religious attraction, the caves must also drag some people because of its climbing site. Unfortunately I've only got to known that fact when it was to late, but if any climber should ever go to KL, he or she should definitely check it out and post me a mail.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Goodbye India and welcome in Malaysia

Guys, I know... it has been a too long time since I was updating you on my life and travel adventures, but as you can imagine, a lot happened and prevented me from writing. Today is the 5th February 2011, Chinese new year just took place and I´m right now sitting in a train station in the centre of Jakarta, Indonesia. As I said, my last login is long ago and it seems that ages have passed, but I will try to tell you everything what happened since then. Hopefully I will find the time to type all the articles, which I wrote on paper during the travel through India and Malaysia...

Today, I will give you an overview, what has happened in the last weeks and month and soon you can read about each and every step alined in the right time order. So let us start in Delhi!

My intership in the Indo-German Energy Forum (IGEF) officially finished on the 26th November 2010, but due to my delay in returning from a trip to the North-East of India and the exceeding of my holidays, as well as some interesting field trips in beginning of December, I joined GTZ for one more week. After all it was an very interesting internship, which I can highly recommend to everybody who wants to learn about the structures, mandates and engagement of Germany within Development Cooperation with India (or other countries). GTZ offers a sound package with insight into its operational and strategic work, the respective project work especially, participation in internal and also international-level processes, in interesting field trips, the fostering of contacts and additionally financial and organisational support of your stay. You will not be the coffee boy for anybody and develop soft skills and learn from experiences. Beside some long days and weeks at work, you also get enough holidays for recovering or exploring the country.The fact that I am recently started another internship in the now called GIZ (in the Small Hydro Power Project in Indonesia) proves that I enjoyed it!

In the very early morning of 6th December 2011 I had said good by to my friends in Delhi and was ready to start my big India travels, which took me on a journey through the magical world of Rajasthan, showed me the buzzing city life of Bombay, let me make good friends, made me read books again (reading White Tiger and Shantaram in India is a very good combination), drove me up and down, made me relaxed on the beaches in Goa over Christmas, lead me to the mystique Hampi for bouldering over New Years and made me say goodbye in Bangalore. Six month has passed then, but I did not feel like leaving India, nor Asia. But due to my visa I had to leave for at least 2 month, so some weeks in advance I was applying for the above mentioned project in Indonesia. Since I knew that I got into it, I was planning to take 2 weeks off in Malaysia and be in Jakarta by the end of January. Read about my stops in the following map in a few days...

1) Kuala Lumpur
2) Taman Negara National Park
3) Cameron Highlands
4) Penang
5) Kota Kinabalu
6) Kota Belud
7) Mount Kinabalu