Posted in travel

Back to Bali

My stay in the Perhentians was thoroughly enjoyable, yet it was somehow not difficult to say goodbye. When the time came, after only four days, I felt privileged to have seen such a magnificent part of the world. But staying there four days was enough – sticking around longer would’ve given me no greater experience of the islands. It is a small place, and easy to get a feel for in a short time.

I took the fast boat back to the mainland at 8am and then a coach from Kuala Besut to Kuala Lumpur – two towns on opposite ends of the peninsula, and opposites in a great many other ways, too. I was lucky to have caught the bus at all… I’d been walking in the wrong direction and a taxi driver offered to take me to the station for free. The bus was the most luxurious I’ve ever seen, with huge reclining seats and reasonably fast Wi-Fi. It was almost empty, but a man sitting diagonally from me managed to spoil my journey somewhat. He had a giant hole in his right foot, which he spent most of the journey picking and sniffing and eventually chewing. The bus rolled along the spine of peninsular Malaysia, huge rocky formations shooting vertically up from the jungle into the skies on either side, yet it was hard to enjoy the view while an old man ate his own foot just in front of me.

I’d been told the trip to Kuala Lumpur would take only six hours, but it took almost nine. On the way, I managed to book a flight to Bali, in Indonesia, and a night in a hostel with a cheap airport pickup. I rushed to the airport to catch my flight, but it was delayed. Worse, my flight was with Air Asia – I’d booked on a Chinese app and hadn’t realized. Air Asia is my least favourite airline and the reason for that is somewhat related to the fact that when I checked in I had to pay extra for my luggage, making this budget flight not so cheap.

After an extremely bumpy flight, the plane landed at Denpasar airport at around midnight and I was pleasantly surprised that I was given a visa exemption. Last time I’d visited it had cost me $25 for a visa on arrival, and everything I read online said that was still the case. I strutted through immigration feeling very pleased by this turn of events.

Unfortunately, at customs, I was pulled aside and thoroughly searched and interrogated for a long, difficult time. A strange man with a fake friendly persona went through everything I owned, asked me weird pseudo-casual questions, and went as far as to swab my fingernails in an effort, evidently, to prove I was some sort of international drug smuggler. This was particularly frightening, as in Indonesia being found guilty would land you a minimum twenty years in prison, and more likely a short stint in front of the firing squad. My paranoia grew as the interrogation dragged on, and I became convinced that someone had planted something in my backpack during the bus ride, and the authorities had somehow been tipped off…

Of course, given that I am no drug smuggler, I was reluctantly turned loose around two o’clock, feeling shaken and irritated. Thankfully, my driver was still waiting, and soon we were at Gandhi Hostel, in the middle of Denpasar. I had planned on setting off for Lombok the following morning, but it was three o’clock when I got to the hostel, and I didn’t fancy setting my alarm for two hours later… The hostel owners were outrageously friendly and, although very small and basic, I was thoroughly impressed by Gandhi Hostel during my short stay.

In the morning, I rented a motorcycle from Putri, the woman in charge, and set off for the north of the island. In 2009 I explored Bali for a week or so, and saw most of the well-known tourist spots. Bali had never been someplace I wanted to return – not that I disliked it, but it’s a bit touristy for my tastes, and it had only gotten worse in the past seven years. However, with a day to kill, I thought I’d take a look around from the vantage point of a little scooter, hopefully exploring some lesser-visited places, and getting away from the crowds.

I set off north, through Ubud, and then veered northwest along a circuitous route through the countryside toward Mount Kintamani. The traffic in the south of Bali is nothing short of horrendous. Cars and bikes seem to move frantically, yet get nowhere fast. It is slow and frustrating, yet at the same time incredibly dangerous. All the way to Ubud it was like this, and the short trip took around an hour. Beyond Ubud, I deliberately kept to the smallest roads, and gained some freedom and distance from the oppressive traffic.

Bali is incredibly mountainous, and the roads, while in mostly good condition, feel like off-road tracks, going up and down steep slopes through the jungles and rice paddies. Eventually, I joined a larger road when it had come far enough north to be relatively free of traffic, and was able to open the bike up, heading uphill at great speeds, past the unique Balinese red brick walls towards the volcano.

When I reached the rim of the crater containing Lake Batur I stopped here and there to soak in the view. Sadly, like most of Bali, tourism is rampant, and it is hard to enjoy the spectacular sights because every vantage point is staked out by vendors. Still, there were perfect blue skies and the scenery at this part of the island is incredible. Mount Kintamani was mostly steeped in clouds, but at times the cover broke to reveal the great volcano, which last erupted some sixteen years ago. The crater and the lake are surrounded by sharp green hillsides which on this day were bathed in sunlight.

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I started down the road to the lake and fortunately found a derelict building site from which I could enjoy the view unaccosted. Then I zipped down to the lakeside and drove in a long arc around water to the northern edge, just as the sun was coming down over the volcano. My map told me I could take a road up to the crater rim from here, but some locals told me it was “extreme” and “dangerous.” I liked the sound of it, but upon closer inspection it was actually far more dangerous than I imagined. I made it up only about a kilometre before very carefully driving back down, defeated by the broken, steep, dusty trail, and returning along my route around the lake.

Almost as soon as I got back to the top, a huge cloud swept in and the temperature very suddenly dropped. The sun was gone, and the moisture in the cloud, along with the elevation, made it rather chilly. All the tourists had disappeared and the businesses that catered to them were all now closed, leaving behind an eerie ghost town. I drove back to Denpasar, going past the famous rice terraces, although it was getting dark at this point, so the view was far from optimal. In Ubud I was stuck for a long time in traffic, which persisted the entire way back to the hostel, which I only managed to find with the help of GPS, taking a convoluted route through altogether far too many backroads. Driving in northern Bali can be a lot of fun… but driving in the south is an absolute nightmare.

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Back at the hostel, I booked a ferry to Gili Trawangan, near Lombok, for the next morning. I was satisfied that I didn’t need to spend any more time on Bali. It may have once been “The Island of the Gods,” but tourism has caused it to lose much of its splendour, and while it is still certainly a pleasant place, I prefer my tropical paradises to be a bit more like the Perhentians – quiet, relaxed, and with the impact of humans far less obvious on the natural surroundings. I hoped Lombok would prove to be that way, as suggested in numerous tour guides.

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Posted in travel

Breakfast with Werner Herzog on a Volcano in North Korea

Last year I visited North Korea to run a half marathon on Mount Paekdu, in the remote north of the country. Most people correctly think of North Korea itself as a “remote” destination, so just imagine how far into the middle of nowhere you are in the north of the country, miles from Pyongyang.

To get to Mount Paekdu required a flight from Pyongyang’s wonderful new airport to the less impressive Samjiyon airport, which was an airstrip with a shed beside it. The tiny, ancient airplane made a very bumpy landing, barely skipping over the tree tops of the endless forest around us.

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Then came a long, bumpy drive through the mountains to Paekdusan. The roads in North Korea, it probably won’t surprise you, are far from smooth. They are in awful disrepair, and driving along we could feel every pothole.

At Mount Paedku we were unfortunately not able to see the spectacular views due to being in the clouds. It was freezing, too. I hadn’t anticipated the cold and wore only shorts and t-shirt, as in Pyongyang it was very hot and humid. The altitude was causing problems, and people – myself included – struggled to breathe.

After a heavy lunch (not well-prepared considering we were about to run 21km), we drove down to 2,000 meters and began the half marathon. I was caught off guard and didn’t realize the race was about to start, and sprinted the first 500 meters to get near the front. After 1km I was in 6th place, and stayed there for the next 20km. I finished well behind the 5th place runner and well ahead of the 7th.

What amazed me about this race – my first ever half marathon – was that I was totally alone in North Korea. There were no guides, no observers, no police. Just the runners, and even they were too far ahead or behind me. I was free to enjoy the clean air, the beautiful countryside, and the amazingly friendly locals waving from fields. I passed a troop of soldiers who all said “hello” and groups of farmers who cheers and shouted friendly greetings. I even danced with some old ladies. I was glad to be doing the marathon, but I would have loved to stop and spend longer with these people. It is so incredibly rare to spend time with normal North Korean people.

After the race we were taken to Kim Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, Paekdusan Secret Camp, which was beautiful, but no one was in the mood for tourist stuff. We were all nursing blisters and aching muscles. Here, we met kids on school trips, and other random people from around North Korea who’d made the pilgrimage – a real privilege in their eyes – to such an important historic location.

Then we went to the Pegaebang Hotel. We’d been warned in advance to bring flashlights and expect little in the way of water or electricity, and indeed, when we arrived, there was neither. The electricity would come on periodically throughout the evening, but mostly we were in darkness.

Dinner was less than impressive, but who can complain about quality of food in a country where people routinely starve to death? The locals I’d seen from the road and from the bus were painfully thin. We drank North Korean beer (excellent) and soju (not so excellent). The night ended very drunkenly with one of our tour guides. When drunk, they spoke candidly – one moreso than the other – and I won’t repeat facts that I learned here in case they could be traced back and the guides punished.

In the morning, breakfast was as unappetizing as the previous night’s dinner. In fact, it was a potato. As I sat looking over my sad, lonely potato, prodding it and wondering if it was even possible to eat such a depressing-looking thing, I noticed another man at the opposite side of the room. His face was familiar, but that didn’t strike me as unusual. In North Korea, there are few tourists and few tour companies, and we are all taken to several of the most important locations, so you start recognizing people, even if you never speak to them.

Still, though, he looked more than familiar… He, too, was sitting alone, staring at a boiled potato, rolling it around his plate. He seemed melancholy.

I left my potato on the plate and checked out, had a walk around the hotel, and then our tour bus took us to Rimyongsu Waterfalls. They were spectacularly beautiful. Not spectacular like the Victoria Falls, but in subtle, gentle, way. Again, we met more North Korean people travelling around their country on special permission from the government. They were so happy and playful, and seemed amazed that there were foreigners here. When my friend and I took a photo together, a large group ran over to get in the photo with us. Just as in rural China, everyone wanted a photo with the foreigners. One man, sadly, broke my toe as he jumped enthusiastically into the shot.

Passing the through the countryside, we saw the real beauty of this country, but also the deprivation. People looked very emaciated. The homes and businesses were simple, yet looked comfortable. All the trees had calculus written on them so that children could study as they walked to school (or, perhaps, went to work in the fields).

We saw a few more tourist spots and met lots more North Korean tour groups, then flew back to Pyongyang to watch a football game. On the way to the “airport” at Samjiyon, our English tour group leader, who was usually off with other groups, said, “This is been a great day. I got to meet one of my heroes.” We asked who, and he said, “Didn’t you see him in the restaurant this morning? It was Werner Herzog.”

Werner Herzog! Of course! I was furious with myself. I’ve always loved his movies and actually spent two years trying to get an interview with him for Beatdom. I couldn’t believe I’d sat and watched the man muse over his breakfast potato, knowing his face was familiar, and not realized.

The guide showed me an hilarious selfie he’d taken with Herzog. “He was so nice! He told me he’s here shooting a film about the volcano nearby.”

I’d had a great trip to Mount Paekdu and the surrounding regions, but I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with one of my heroes. If I’d been anywhere else in the world I would’ve canceled the flight back and stayed another few days to hopefully run into the man and speak with him about his movies (apparently he’d been incredibly friendly and spoke at length about his movies). Alas, this was North Korea, and you did what you were told.