Harbin Ice Festival

My first excursion in China goes to Harbin, which is famous for its annual ice festival. Any time you check into a hotel or hostel in China they need to report to the government that you’re staying there, so even if I’m travelling within the country, I still need to bring my passport.Beijing train station For that reason I wanted this trip “out of the way” as soon as possible, since I also need to turn in my passport to the immigration authorities, in order to get a residency permit. And before I have my residency permit, I can’t get the rest of my things from Sweden into the country. So right now I’m still living out of my vacation bag, which of course is packed for 30 degrees, and not the -20 which Harbin is expected to bring.

My colleague Tanhsin has helped me book a night train for the way up (Harbin is located way up northeast, due north of the Korean peninsula) and my first task is to get to the station.The Russian Church Turns out that it’s not as easy as I’d imagined to explain that to a cabbie that speaks no English.  I get waved off twice before I think to just give my ticket voucher to the driver and after studying it intently for almost a minute he says “Beijing cha4? (fourth tone, black finger down is the memory aid), which I assume means station. It turns out to indeed be that and I’m dropped off outside the impressive looking behemoth of a station, tastefully lit up in the February darkness.

I remember Tanhsin saying something about first having to get the real ticket, and that it’s off to the side of the station. So by just showing my voucher to random official-looking people I finally find my way over there and get my ticket. Then you need to go back to the real station house and show the ticket to a guard before being let in. After passing through a metal detector you get in to the actual station, which looks more like an airport terminal than a train station. Too bad, I had my hopes up for one of those impressive old-school station house ceilings. Instead the ceiling is really low and the place even manages to feel cramped.

At the marketBoarding starts as early as half an hour before departure and to my delight I actually recognize the character for car/wagon on my ticket, to mean the cart number I’m in. The interior is just like any other sleeper train, nor fancier or worse than a Swedish one and the ride is uneventful. We arrive in Harbin at seven in the morning, and as you might expect, it’s bitterly cold. I discover almost immediately that it’s very slippery, oddly enough I seem to be the only one having a problem though. The fucking joker who designed my so-called winter boots ought to be stripped, dipped in honey and buried in an anthill! They can’t possibly have tested them in real winter conditions, since the Vibram rubber in the sole seems to turn into almost hard plastic when subjected to lower temperatures. This means that I spend most of the weekend walking like a grandma, and even though I’m amazingly close to taking a spill roughly 44 times during the weekend, I never actually do it. If there is one super power I have, it has to be “getting around in low friction”.

Tunnel of love?My very nice colleague Frigg (awesome name, eh?) has prepared a vacation package for me, since she’s from a town very near to Harbin. She has equipped me with maps, a suggested list of sights and written them down in Chinese so that I can show taxi drivers. I start off by just walking around though, to get a feel for the place. The ground is littered with the remains of firecrackers since yesterday was Lantern Day, the finale of the Chinese New Year.

Crossing the street, I go for an underpass (most Chinese streets will have a hard-to-climb fence in the middle, making it not really worth crossing where there aren’t crosswalks). The underpass has doors, which seems a bit strange, but I enter and find myself in what could almost be called a mall! Right there, under the street, are rows upon rows of tiny shops, all selling clothes. Relishing the warmth, I walk around a good while, finding that the place is huge! It just goes on and on and it’s pretty fun to just browse. I come upon an area selling men’s dress pants, and I’ll have to admit that they look really nice. It’s hard to judge the fabric quality, but the workmanship is very good, and there are lots of cool details incorporated into the designs.

SwordfishEmerging back topside, I decide to turn on the GPS to see where I am. When it finally gets a reading I am somewhat shocked at seeing how far off I am, I’m usually pretty good at gauging where I am and where I should be going, so this discovery stings a bit. I’m in the northwestern part of town when I should be in the northeastern. Well okay, I start heading back, regularly checking in on the GPS to make sure I’m not veering off course. But the GPS behaves rather erratically and doesn’t seem to follow along as it should. Finally I hit a larger street and some street signs (which thankfully are both in Chinese and English) and is able to locate where I am. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, the GPS is actually _wrong_! This goes against everything I know about the technology involved, but it aside from that, it all makes sense. It’s not off by a little either, it’s something like a kilometer! Not sure what to believe, I write it off as the cold doing a number with on tablet. I guess I will have to rely on plain old map reading from now on.

Huge doggieI find a café that has Internet and a waiter that speaks passable English and decide to sit down to defrost and come up with a plan. Frigg had suggested that I first go visit the Russian church and after some thinking I decide to swallow my navigational pride and take a taxi to the church. (it turned out that I’d taken the opposite direction right off the bat and was actually in the southeastern part of downtown)

The Russian church is indeed nice, and next to it is an indoor market, filled with all sorts of wonderful things. Everything from sausages, nuts and candy to sea cucumbers, river turtles and cakes. Now that I’ve gotten my bearings it’s not hard to find my way to the next location; the pedestrian precinct. From what I’ve gleaned so far, it is not very common to have streets exclusively for pedestrians in China, so this is very welcome to my European sensibilities. The street is really nice, and there are beautiful ice sculptures at regular intervals, giving me a first taste of what to come.

Near the end of the street is a park that Frigg suggested I visit, it’s a smaller version of the main exhibition, but still pretty large. Admission is a whopping 200 rmb, but since I’ll likely never come back here I fork up the cash. The sculptures are really beautiful, but are probably even better viewed in the evening, when it’s dark and they’re lit up from within. Even though it’s really nice, there isn’t much variety and there aren’t many people either, undoubtedly due to the steep price (normally it is 80, but since this weekend is Lantern Day and all, the price is higher).

Up on the castle wallMoving on to the nearby river I find the next stop on my itinerary; an activity area out on the river itself. It’s filled with people doing the most amazingly boring things, like renting a sledge with ski poles and then using those to get around. There are other kinds of sled rides, pulled by horses or some of the largest German sheperd I’ve ever seen (the poor dogs aren’t very well suited for that though, they can hardly get around without slipping even before being strapped in front of a sled). Over on the side is a really shifty looking fellow, it looks like he just stepped out of a Tintin comic!Buddha He has a table with two positively adorable arctic foxes and he charges a ridiculous amount of money for you to pick one up and get a photo with it. Even though they are amazingly cute, I resist the urge as they don’t seem to be treated very well and I don’t want to support that kind of behavior. Off to the side there is some kind of escalator filled with people, it turns out that they all have tractor inner tubes and up on the river bank they all line up before, on a given signal, go down the slope like a rubber avalanche.

The sun is finally setting now, so it’s time to head out to the big ice exhibition. The cabbies are reluctant to go out there, I guess because it’s a ways outside of town and it’s hard for them to get a fare back. So in the end I have to pay an exorbitant 40 rmb to get there. It’s now around seven in the evening and the exhibition area is bitingly cold. It’s another 300 rmb to get in and I actually have to start worrying if I have enough money to get back since scrounging up all that cash for the rent has made me run up against the withdrawal limit on both my debit cards. After some calculating it seems like I’ll be fine if I just steer clear of any more unforeseen expenses, but there’s this gnawing doubt at the back of my mind throughout that isn’t much fun.

Ice festivalThe exhibition is beautiful, but bitterly cold, and there is really nowhere to defrost. When I was downtown I could at least duck into stores every now and then, now I’ll just have to tough it out. The coolest things they have are the large snow Buddha and the really big Disney-esque ice castle that you can even go up on the wall and look out over the area. The exhibition area is of course packed and getting around is a hassle, especially with my shoes being in the state they’re in. The cold makes my camera battery drain super fast (I changed it just three hours earlier, and normally it lasts about a week). So when the battery finally give up, so do I. In the interest of saving money, I take the bus back to town (public transport is amazingly cheap in China, the bus is 3.50 rmb), hoping it will stop somewhere recognizable… Turns out I’m in luck and it stops at a bus station I passed earlier.

To get to the hostel I booked I have to take a taxi though, since it’s a bit off. I had the waiter back at the café earlier write down the address in Chinese so that I can show the cab driver. Despite this he drops me off totally wrong, and since I don’t really know how to argue with him I decide to walk the remaining ˜2 km. When I finally get to where the hostel is supposed to be according to the map, it simply isn’t there! There is a hotel there though and with some gesturing I’m able to communicate that I’m lost. They speak no English at all but seem to indicate that if I just walk over to the side road, it should be there.More Ice Festival So I head back over there, but find that it’s all stores, and all closed to boot. I go back and try the neighboring hotel this time. This time I show the lady the address instead of the map. The hostel is supposed to be at 63 Huashan Road and the lady tells me that this is number 8 Huashan Road. So yet again I’m screwed over by the map!

Grudgingly I start walking again. Ironically 63 Huashan Road is really close to where I was originally dropped off by the cab, making this whole misadventure even more infuriating. Checking in at the hostel I get a room that happens to be 11 degrees, I just can’t catch a break this weekend! It takes ten minutes to explain to the staff (again, no English whatsoever) that even though I’m running the AC full blast, nothing is happening to the temperature. Finally one of them gets it though, and they put a space heater in my room (which runs amazingly hot!). Finally things are looking up and I get all cozied in.

Dragon TowerAt 1 am, someone knocks on the door. Fortunately I’m still up and as I open the door, one of the staff hand me a note with the words “Bank card is not just money do you think you can brush card trouble can not pay cash you use” scribbled on it. After some back and forth I understand that the Visa I paid with is not coming through. They want me to pay cash instead and they’ll refund the money to the card. Problem is that the refund isn’t working either… The staff are getting really frustrated by not being able to communicate and finally they phone someone up (it’s now 1:30) that speaks a little English, problem is that the sound quality is awful so I can barely make out what the guy is saying. In the end I’m able to verify that the money has indeed been drawn from my account, even if it hasn’t reached them. So I grudgingly get my cash back (the poor kids probably have to make it up out of their own pocket, too bad I really can’t afford to be generous at this point).
The next morning I wake up with a sore throat, that, and seeing the thermometer is showing -23 makes it an easy decision to sleep in. When I finally get going it’s almost noon, but since I crammed almost everything I’d planned to do into yesterday, today is more ad hoc anyway. The hostel is right next to a pretty cool looking TV-tower, called Dragon Tower. It basically looks like a slightly more steam punky version of Tokyo Tower which is a look I really like.

With a ticket in my hand I naïvely assume I can just go up the elevator, but no, the elevator ladies just wave me away and points up to the second level. So I head up there and find that there are little exhibitions, each one worse than the former. There are terrible 3D paintings where the Chinese delight in pulling down the shorts of opponents to Yao Ming (the NBA basketball hero of China) or photographing themselves pulling off the sheets of a sleeping, nude, woman. There is a tiny science museum where you can lift yourself and all that usual stuff and a natural history room with plastic dinosaur skeletons.Yao Ming At each of these you get a little stamp and as I’d visited most of them I was finally let into the elevator.

From down below it had looked like a reasonably clear day, but up top you can’t really see far, the smog is still there. Not that there seems to be much to see anyway, the cityscape looks really drab, the building all alike in their dirty, off-white facades. They’ve made an effort to fence the platform up, but I cannot help but thinking that a determined BASE-jumper would have no trouble scaling it. There are a couple of additional levels above this one, but they are both indoors and doesn’t offer much of interest.

Optimus PrimeI grab a taxi back to city center and stop in at the café I found yesterday to try and find out how to get to the zoo northwest of town that has Siberian tigers. The waiter explains that there really isn’t any way to get there except for taxi, so I decide to give it a miss and instead ask him for suggestions. He tells me I should visit the convention center and a nearby place where I can eat all the regional foods of China in one place. Okay, fine, that doesn’t sound too bad, so I get him to write them down and he also gets me into a cab.

As I get to the convention center, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do there, it’s really just a mall like countless others. It’s focused on outdoors equipment so I browse a bit, only to find that if you get the brand stuff, it’s just as expensive as in Sweden. I come to another part of the mall and there it is gold, gold, gold as far as the eye can see. It seems that the Chinese really fancy gaudy golden figurines, much like the ones I saw in Hong Kong. I do find some adorable Doraemon earrings though. The mall doesn’t hold my interest for that long, but at least it’s warm, so I stay longer than I normally would have. I remember seeing a big Optimus Prime statue across the road when I rolled up with the taxi, much like the Gundam Wing statue in Tokyo. So I decide to make my way over there, remembering that the waiter had said something about “being able to play” over at the convention center. The statue is of the newer incarnation of Optimus Prime, the pointy one from the movies, which I’m not very fond of. Regardless, it’s still pretty cool. But when I get inside the building next to it I’m sorely disappointed since this is just another mall… At this point it has gotten dark and I realize that I won’t have time for the buffét restaurant, so instead I head to the airport to get back to Beijing.

Beijing – First week

Descending into Beijing, the ground looks funny, like the light is hitting it in a special way. It takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s not just a light phenomenon I’m seeing, it’s snow. Coming from three weeks of 30 degrees heat to Beijing’s -5 is not all that pleasant, but I finally get some use of my winter jacket that I’ve been lugging around Indonesia. I can’t be arsed to change into pants though, as it would entail having to fit all my luggage into one of the tiny airport restrooms.Lights! So I just wear the shorts, something that draws a lot of eyes and smiles from people.

Not wanting to attempt to navigate the streets to my hostel I set out to get a taxi from the subway station. But after being waved off twice in a row I get pissed and decide to walk anyway. It turns out that it wasn’t very far, and that there are surprisingly good street signs. In the end I have no trouble finding it, even though it’s up a back street among the hutongs (old Chinese quarters, which are not in any way built to be accessible by car, which likely is why I was waved off by the cabbies).

My first three days are not very pleasant; I’m coming down with a fever and Ericsson has lost my transfer details, so it will be a good while before I get a computer, phone, or even an ID card. The hostel is very cold, with the AC struggling at 31 degrees, I’m not used to the cold and I have to find an apartment to live in.My home I do manage to power through however, and after some haggling I manage to get a never-lived-in studio apartment, right next to Lido place – for those of you familiar with Beijing geography. For those not so familiar, it’s right outside the 4th (out of six) ring road, positioned at about 1:45 if you look at it as a clock face. The upsides of the place are that it’s brand new (no previous owner that has smoked in it), just the right size, has floor heating, is fairly close to work (around 45 minutes door to door when taking the bus), nice area, the owner speaks great English and that the real estate agent is operating out of the very same building, so it’s easy to get help when it’s needed. The downsides are that it’s fairly far to a subway station, the apartment is designed by a moron and that it’s pretty far from city centre.

The apartment design merits a bit more explanation I guess. The place is obviously built with the express purpose to be impressive rather than useful. There is for instance no place at all to put your shoes or hang your jacket. Additionally, the bathroom sink has no cabinet to put your toiletries in, only the one under the sink, which incidentally contains no actual shelves.Interior There is a big light fixture in the shower (five lamps) that is not controlled by any of the light switches in the apartment. And the entertainment center around the TV is apparently built to house large bronze busts of Mao or something, because anything else would just be dwarfed.

There are also several glaring building quality issues. The floor boards are not fitting flush together, but have almost centimeter-wide gaps between them at places. The aluminum skirting board between the two floors have just been glued down, and every 20 cm or so a large gob of glue is sticking out from under it. The floor itself exudes little puffs of fine wood dust when you step on certain boards, so the entire apartment gets covered by that fine dust when I run the AC.Smog lies thick over Ericsson There are also little things like the fact that they’ve only used two screws for the hinges on the bathroom door, when there are holes for four. But that lack of attention of detail is something I will have to get used to, the same thing is evident in the building where I work. It looks very nice and impressive at the first glance, but as soon as you look more closely, you spot all sorts of glaring mistakes and omissions. For instance; even at Ericsson there is a sign not to throw toilet paper in the toilet! That’s something I’d expect to see in really old building in places like Rome or Mexico, not in a modern office building in Beijing…

Some tidbits from my first week:
There are so many women working at Ericsson in Beijing, and not only in HR, which traditionally is heavily slanted towards women. My gut feeling would say that it’s easily around 50% women, if not more, in the building I’m working.

Mmm durian...Electricity and hot water you buy as a pot, like a prepaid cell phone card. You go down to property management (where no one speaks any English whatsoever), wave a couple of bills and point to your hot water card and eventually they charge it with the money. Incredibly convenient for everyone but the actual consumer…

The streets are often 30-40 m wide and pedestrians are clearly not a priority. Beijing seems to have the right-on-red rule, so even if you have a green man signal, there will always be cars trying to run you over when you cross. You need to continually be looking in all directions while crossing if you are to escape unscathed.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing that in Beijing everybody rode a bike. That certainly isn’t true anymore, these days the regular bikes are few and far between, instead you have the electric bikes and scooters. Silent and deadly, you can’t hear them coming, you have to be constantly looking around you and not make sudden course changes without looking over your shoulder first.

Mask on!There is surprisingly light traffic, but when I talk to my boss’ boss (who is Swedish) I get the explanation: The Chinese New Year isn’t properly over until Friday when it’s Lantern Day. Right now the city is missing about five million cars…

Every time you enter the subway you have to put your bag through an x-ray machine. I’m not sure what they’re afraid of, aside from that car crashing on Tianamen Square back in October last year, I haven’t heard of a single terror incident in China. But I guess that doesn’t mean anything since China has a habit of manipulating news and other shenanigans.

Apartment contracts run over a year and rent is paid quarterly in China, which meant that I had to come up with 3 x 6000 rmb, plus a deposit of an additional 6000 rmb (that I will lose if I terminate the contract early). Since the owner is a private individual, I couldn’t pay using my credit card either so I had to get the cash and make a bank deposit. Not all that easy when no one at the bank spoke any English either.

IMG_8205_smallI’ve never been to a country where English is less of an asset. Not even kids in their late teens, something that’s usually a safe bet, speak any English. That is mind-boggling to me. I thought Japan was bad in that respect, but Beijing is so much worse. If you find someone who speaks decent English, have them write stuff down for you, like the location of your apartment/hotel. Stuff you want to buy at a store, addresses. That’s not always a guarantee though, because not everyone can even read. The best solution is to have a Chinese friend you can call for an impromptu translation of course, but now everyone has that luxury. Also, showing a cabbie where you want to go on a map is surprisingly useless. In China people more or less don’t use maps, they go more by neighborhoods apparently. Even if you have everything written down in Chinese, chances are that your cabbie won’t know the address, Beijing is a really big city after all, so after a while I had a friend write down the closest well known landmark as part of the description, which helps a lot.

It’s really cool to be able to go out at nine in the evening and find a mall that is open for another hour! That’s when you really know you’re in the big city. The stores are usually hilariously overstaffed as well, an employee on every corner, engrossed in their smartphone and bored out of their minds.

The infamous Beijing smog was not very bad the first few days, I could even see stars at night the first two days. But on Thursday, when I had to go to the police station and register my new address, it really hit me. The rest of that afternoon my throat was burning and I was coughing constantly. It was extremely unpleasant and on my way home I bought my first breathing mask at a pharmacy. The clerk asked several times if I really wanted that color since it apparently was meant for ladies. The Chinese are really hung up on gender roles. The mask came with a separate filter that you’re supposed to change once a week.


Instead of walking up the volcano all night and then down in the morning, we get to sleep in. Our flight is at noon, but is delayed a fair bit, so the plan to meet up with Jourdan and Alex for dinner in Jakarta ends up falling through. In no small part due to the fact that Jakarta is huge and getting around, even by taxi, takes forever. It’s cheap enough though, which is nice.Decorative car The Jakartan girls we met at Jomblang had given us a few suggestion of things to do, but we didn’t write them down so they’re pretty much forgotten. There’s this market street that the guide books recommend though, so we head over there to have a look.

The market sucks soo bad though, I wouldn’t even call it a market. It’s more like a shopping street filled with regular stores. So we don’t linger long, but instead start walking to the nearby art museum. All the museum-looking buildings in that direction appear closed though, so we keep walking, aiming for a cool looking statue, standing high atop a pillar in the middle of a park.

ParkThere isn’t much more to the park than the statue though so we wander off in search of the cathedral tower we saw earlier. It proves somewhat problematic though, mainly because Jakarta seems to hate pedestrians, so we finally get a tuk-tuk to take us there. The cathedral has a wedding going on so we just sneak around on the outside and briefly peek inside. (too bad we didn’t know what we learned later when talking to Rara and Vera (the Jakartan girls), that Indonesian weddings are very public affairs and that generally anyone is welcome to just walk in and join the festivities!)

The fact that most things are closed, that you can’t really walk anywhere and that it’s raining finally add up and we decide to head to another part of town. Something had caught my eye earlier when researching things to do; there is a JKT48 show in town! Now, the JKT48 phenomenon requires a bit of explanation: It all started in Japan as the all girl group AKB48, short for Akihabara 48 (which is a district in Tokyo). It is an all-girl constructed pop group where most of the girls are teenagers or early twenties. They usually perform in groups of 12, called teams, and do two or three shows a day.Cathedral I was fascinated by this concept back when I worked in Japan, but trying to get tickets for a show is very hard if you don’t know any Japanese so I never managed to go. I did manage to go to their gift store though, which is pretty fascinating all by itself. There are all manners of collectibles, including albums you put stickers in with the different members, much like the sticker albums I had as a kid with the Transformers.

So the place we go to is the mall where the JKT48 are performing, but since the show isn’t yet for a few hours we roam around the pretty cool mall. In the middle of if there is an open space that runs all the way up to the ceiling on level 5 and in it is a long tube spiraling down. As we trace it up with our eyes we suddenly hear a trundling noise and inside the tube there is a person zipping past! Obviously this is something we need to investigate, so we head up to the top floor and find the entrance to it. The guy shakes his head though and says we need to buy tickets down at the slide exit. We’re pretty much used to this kind of nonsense at this point though so we head back down again (in the end it did make a certain amount of sense though since you have to leave your bag and such in storage since you can’t take it on the slide). When we finally get to ride it’s pretty cool, you get a little rug to sit on and off you go at breakneck speed. When you exit the chute at the bottom you slide and tumble for several meters before coming to a halt on the padded mats. I guess there is a good reason they make you wear a helmet…

ArtistWe roam around some more before the show until it’s time for the lottery. We weren’t really sure what the lottery was but it turned out to be that you don’t buy a specific seat, rather they call out a random number, and everyone with that number on their ticket get to go in and choose a seat. A pretty good system when you’re dealing with fans who otherwise would be willing to wait for hours to get in. We get seats in the back but the hall is pretty small and there are no really bad seats in there. We notice that the fans are almost entirely teenage boys, with the occasional sprinkle of girls (and one or two men in their fifties, as you might expect…).

We’re seated next to a university student who speaks great English and can explain a lot of what is going on. The show is mostly prerecorded singing and a lot of (rather good) dancing. Every now and then though, four of them will be alone on stage and do some sort of dialogue with each other. The student explains that they talk about their plans for the future, favorite foods and so on. One of the girls repeatedly talks about how she’s going into politics and becoming the president of Indonesia. All in all the show is a rather fun spectacle and something you really only see in this part of the world (but give it a few years and I’m sure it’ll come to Europe as well).

When the show is done you get to shake hands with all the performers and I even get a present from one of them; a cute little origami box. You can also take a picture with one of them, but only if you buy a single as well. They’re a moneymaking machine after all… Afterwards, all we really have time for is to get our luggage and go to the airport. Jen hops on the plane to Hong Kong while I board for Beijing, feeling like my adventure is just about to start.

Yogyakarta Caving

From Bali we fly into Yogyakarta on Java, where we’ve booked two adventures; the Jomblang cave and a trek up the volcano Mount Merapi. The hostel we’re at is cozy little place with a quirky atmosphere.Psychedelic bathroom But not until I open the door to the bathroom am I able to fully appreciate the how truly bonkers this place is! The bathroom looks like it was built by a hippie on an acid trip, it feels like stepping into the bathroom at Willy Wonka’s factory. Colors everywhere and a sort of lovingly hand crafted bath tub and a mirror masoned into the wall! It would have been really funny to see the other bathrooms at this place! The owner is probably an amateur artist, because the entire hostel is filled with awesomely bad paintings and questionable taste.

The cave tour is early next morning, so we make sure to set our clocks for 7 am. Too bad we forgot that there is a time zone change between Bali and Java… So of course we’re up one hour early, which is too early to get any breakfast even. Back when I was booking this tour I spoke to the owner of the hostel and I got the feeling that he wasn’t really booking us. Miscommunications like that aren’t uncommon when the staff doesn’t speak great English though so I reconfirmed several times, using different wordings to try to convey that we wanted it fully booked. He repeatedly said that it wouldn’t be a problem though, but never explained why, so I’m still a bit skittish when we get into the car with our driver.

He’s a really nice guy, but doesn’t speak a lot of English. He probably is the world’s biggest Aerosmith fan though, and we lose count of how many times we’re forced to listen to Cryin’, Pink and “I don’t Want to Miss a Thing”. The few songs that aren’t Aerosmith range from Dido and Roxette to Europe – a rather unexpected mix I’d say. After about an hour of driving, we start to realize that the driver is lost. This doesn’t help the already uneasy feeling we have. Luckily he’s not too proud to stop and ask, so we’re soon back on the right track.Going down! The road leading up to the cave is a rather small dirt road, and just as you think it can’t get any smaller, it does. Towards the end it’s scarcely more than a foot path, but we do manage to get there.

Going up to the house, it seems like my fears were justified. There is hardly anyone around and our driver speaks to a few workmen who are busy making some sort of huge drums. It looks to us that no one here was even notified that we were coming… The driver seems calm enough though and tells us to sit down. The thing with this tour is that you go down into this cave and you make your way over to a natural shaft where the light shines down in a very special way, but only at a very narrow window of time. So the fact that no one seems to be aware of that we were coming is rather worrying. Well, not much to do but to wait though.

After a good 45 minutes or so a guy comes and tells us to try on rubber boots. He actually seems like a guide, so we start getting our hopes up that this is happening after all. We get geared up in safety harnesses and everything and we walk down a few steps. What we didn’t realize was that the cave was actually right there in the back yard all along! The entrance to the cave is basically a big hole in the ground, some 60 meters in diameter and about as deep.Looking up You enter by being hoisted straight down into the hole. When I read about it, I got the impression that we would be rappelling down, but no, you’re pretty much dangling like an earth worm on a fishing hook the entire way. This is of course rather scary if you’re afraid of heights like I am, but it went surprisingly well.

Down in the pit it is very hot and humid. For some reason we are told to wait around and finally our guide is able to explain why. Apparently while we were going down, two more tourists arrived. So we have to wait for them to get down as well. Fortunately it goes rather quickly, and since it is two rather petite girls they just took both of them at the same time. The girls are two architecture students from Jakarta; Rara and Vera. They speak excellent English which is really nice, since the guide hardly does at all. They are also cool as cucumbers and doesn’t even blink when Jen does what she usually does; i.e. finds a millipede and picks it up.

Pillar of lightThe way down into the cave is super slippery. It’s basically a mudslide with tiny steps. When you get to the bottom, there is nothing but ankle deep mud, except for a line of stepping stones laid out for us to walk on. It is a rather precarious walk and we try our best to light the way for each other. It’s not that far, maybe 300 meters, and we do manage without embarrassing slips to finally find ourselves in the shaft. Here we have to take our boots off in order to protect the sensitive calcium deposits, accumulated over god only know how many years.

It’s a really neat feeling walking around barefoot on the calcium and we just go around exploring a bit, waiting for the time when the sun is supposed to start shining down the shaft. When it finally does you instantly understand what all the fuss was about, it’s a truly awesome sight and we hurry up to pose for photos. The phenomenon only lasts for about 30 minutes, so you want to be there in time for sure. We linger about for the full half hour, just enjoying the special atmosphere of it. The entire time water is dripping down from the surface and you have to take care not to get the camera wet. There are little pools forming on the ground and Jen even spots a little crab in one of them! There is also an underground river down below that you can swim in if you come at the right time of year. But right now is rainy season and the river is quite unruly.
Going back out is a fair bit quicker now that we’ve gotten a hang of mudwalking and once back at where we landed our guide shouts something to the guys up top and down comes the rope again. Going up is surprisingly fast, about two thirds up the ascent comes to a sudden halt that sends me spinning round. (not at all helpful if you’re already scared) Once back up top I see why; there is a team of maybe ten guys that just grab the rope and start walking down a path, away from the hole. After 40 m or so the path stops and they put the rope down and walk back to take it the rest of the way. (the rope goes through a thingamabob that prevents it from going the wrong direction of course)

Civet catOn the way back the driver has promised to take us to a small family run coffee roastery where they make some of the famed Kopi Luwak coffee. Kopi Luwak is not like other coffees in that the production of it involves the civet cat. This creature feeds on coffee berries, and it is very picky, only taking the very ripest berries. The kernel (which is the actual coffee bean) then passes through its digestive tract, which supposedly make the beans lose some of their acidity. The turds are then harvested (we got to see them, they are actually neither smelly nor sticky), the beans peeled (by hand!) and then roasted. This roastery had the cats in cages though so I doubt they’re fed only the ripest of berries… I bought two bags, which were certainly cheaper than in Sweden but still rather expensive. But hey, it’s java from Java, bought fresh right from the producer.

Our driver also had a suggestion for lunch that was a bit too cool to turn down: bat skewers! He pulls up next to a shed and shows us inside. There are a few benches and a makeshift stove with an open fire and we get to choose between soup and skewers. Jen gets the soup and I get the skewers and we sit down to eat. It’s actually rather good, but the meat isn’t exactly tender and there are lots of sinews. Still, it’s pretty cool to have tried bat. Our driver drops us off back at the hostel after that and we get some sleep before the tonight’s trek. But Jen once again comes down with the mysterious nausea she got back on Kinabalu (no, she’s not pregnant =P) and we decide it’s best to cancel it. I can’t say I’m all that torn up about it though, climbing one mountain was enough for this vacation.

Monkey Wrestling

Back in Bali we have booked transfer along to the inland town of Ubud.Hostel backyard! When we finally get there it’s after four in the afternoon instead of noon like we planned and the tour we booked has to be cancelled. The hostel Jourdan found for us is super nice though, I’d call it a hotel actually, and has a very cool temple-like backyard with an infinity pool and everything. Ubud itself also seems like a rather nice town, certainly bigger than I’d imagined when looking at the map. The sidewalks are terrible though, meandering up and down in sometimes inexplicable level changes.

It seems like every other citizen of Ubud is either running a taxi service or a massage parlor, according to our rather unscientific sampling. They generally only ask once though and can take no for an answer, so they aren’t that annoying. We end up eating at a rather upscale-looking place that has about twice the price level of Gili Air, but also twice the food (and drink-) quality.

Monkey feedingJourdan and Alex have a cooking class the next morning, so Jen and I are off by ourselves. We start by going to the nearby Monkey Forest. It’s a very pretty area in the middle of town with lots of vegetation, and of course, monkeys. There are tourists everywhere, feeding the monkeys bananas that you can buy at the entrance. Finally I too cave and get some, and sure enough, along come the monkeys. But there is one big, surly one that gets most of them on account of being rather scary looking and insistent. We do eventually find a smaller one and as instructed by the lady selling the bananas we hold them up high to get the monkey to climb up. Jen has one sitting on her shoulder happily eating as we snap a few pictures, I also get one and even if it’s very touristy, it’s quite fun.

We walk back and find ourselves in a rather deserted end of the park. There are plenty of monkeys here as well and we get some nice pictures, they’re even more climber happy than the others and several of them try to munch at the Docomodake mushroom plush toy I have on my bag. They are sorely disappointed though and another climbs on top of my head and start gnawing on my hat.Monkey king? Fortunately their teeth are much like human teeth and not sharp at all, it wouldn’t do to have them breaking skin and having to get rabies shots.

At this point we feel rather done with the monkeys and head back to city center. After wandering a good while we stop in at a Italian restaurant called Blackbeach, boasting to have an Italian owner. The pizza is actually decent, but their bruschetta with black olive tapenade is to die for! We end up staying there for most of the afternoon before we have to head back in order to catch our taxi to the airport. The cabbie has a terrible taste in music and it seems that if I put my mind to it I could make a breakthrough recording artist around here; the music is filled with cheesy synthesizers, uninspiring vocals and awesomely bad drum fills.

Gili Air

Since we arrive in the evening we have one night at a hostel in Bali before heading out Gili Air the following morning. It’s a good thing too, since the hostel is pretty skeezy – lots of older men with younger, local, women. The food is really great though and in the morning we’re picked up by a van that will take us to the speedboat.Mellow cuttlefish We’re not very impressed by the fact that the speedboat leaves dock at 1.5 h after designated time. Equally unimpressive is the freezing temperature they’ve set the AC and the hysterical techno beats pouring out of the speakers just overhead.

It gets us to Gili Air though and as we find our way to the dive shop and everything looks very good; super nice rooms, a big reception area, their own beachside restaurant with cozy cabanas to have your breakfast in. The diving part of their operation is less impressive though; they only have two full time dive masters and we find out that we can’t even do a dive the same day since they’re short-staffed – even though we booked over a month in advance…Harlequin shrimp They also don’t do more than two dives a day, which isn’t very much (we were planning to do at least three a day). It all works out really well though and there is never a problem doing a dive, they are also very nice about us being late a couple of times when lunch service had been terribly slow. (whatever you do, don’t eat at Zipp’s, even though their wood fire oven looks promising)

In terms of diving, Gili Air has some really nice features, chief among them the abundance of turtles. I saw two within ten minutes of my first dive, so you’d have to be very unlucky to not see turtles here. Our most memorable dives were probably our muck dives – dives where you go fairly shallow and look at small stuff and get rather long dive times. Outside Lombok we saw spiky sea horse, ghost pipefish and ribbon eels; on our night dives out in the house reef we saw decorator crabs, juvenile sweetlips, spanish dancers and even a mandarin fish! We also witnessed a tussle between two squid, ink in the water and everything.Bike inspector Additionally, the probably most unlikely thing to happen to me on any dive so far was when we found a green turtle at the end of our night dive. We followed along with it when it swam, when it suddenly veers sharply towards me and then takes off like a rocket. I suspect the turtle was as surprised as I was when it hits me square in the chest! It was never aggressive though and went on its confused way after that.

There was also the fabulous Secret Garden, or Turtle City as I’d call it. Immediately upon descent we meet two turtles and a trigger fish, munching away at some coral. We pose for some pictures while our dive master goes off and finds us some more, even bigger, turtles.Hermit crab They are all very friendly and don’t mind the attention. In the area Jen finds a mantis shrimp (head on over to The Oatmeal and read about these awesome critters right now!), this one is rather shy though and doesn’t really show itself. Just a few meters off though, I find another one. This one is out in the open and is even stalking a fish. I get some great video of it all, or so I thought. Turns out that I’d double-tapped the button and immediately ended the recording… Mantis shrimps are super cool, and I’d never seen any before this trip, but around the Gilis they seem to be relatively common. Just be on the lookout for those big freaky eyes poking out from under a coral rock, after a while you’ll get pretty adept at spotting them.

Another memorable dive was the second one I did, at the so-called Bounty Wreck. It’s actually a jetty that sunk during a storm back in 2005 and it has become the home to a lot of fish and corals over the years. This day however, it was super strong current, so strong that you had no option but to just go with the flow at most times. It was both scary and fun, even though we didn’t see much on that dive. At the very end we did find two turtles taking shelter from the current behind a rock.Duuuh

In the end we were pretty satisfied with both the diving and the dive center. 11 dives, of which two were night dives cost me roughly 1600 sek, but then I also lugged my new BCD along and only rented fins, tank, weights and wetsuit which earned me an additional 5% rebate.

Getting back to Bali turned out to be harder than we thought. We’d already booked speedboat tickets through the dive center but over the days we’re there we hear that the speedboats aren’t running due to bad weather.What are you looking at?! That sounded rather strange to us since the weather seemed just fine. Little did we know… On the departure day we get word that there will be one speedboat leaving, but that it will be leaving at 10 instead of 8 as we booked. Not much to do about that, but when we get there they say it’s 11 instead. When we finally leave, it’s more like 12 o’clock and as we get out on the open sea we find out why. The waves are something like three meters high and we’re bobbing along at what seems like far too high-speed. The captain seems to really know his/her stuff though and even though we’re blazing along at full speed, it never felt unsafe. It’s a good thing I don’t have any motion sickness, poor Alex wasn’t as lucky and ended up spray painting all four 150 hp engines in one glorious stream of puke! Rather impressive if you ask me.