Tag Archives: asia

Two long days in Aceh, Sumatra

Are we there yet?

We had our first glimpse of Indonesia on our first trip to the Far East and we started with one of the less popular islands, Sumatra. We only had 12 days, barely enough to make quick stops at four distinct destinations: a volcanic lake, the top of an active volcano, the bustling capital of Aceh and a real tropical paradise, the Island of Weh.

More pages from an old travel diary…

Tuesday 11th July 2000

It’s Tuesday today, the first day of a long and not the least pleasant journey. The entire trip can be divided into 7 smaller sections, the half of which takes place today.

After breakfast (not porridge for a change) the minibus transformed from a pickup to suit the high local demands sets off from Iboih to Sabang, the port of Weh, with a little delay (this word will gain special importance later on). Following an hour’s jolting ride, spent sweating and sticking to one another, we are dropped at the ferry, 20,000 rupiah poorer.

We suffered at this place for three days and our bungalow even boasted with a bathroom - the others had their bath at the public well...
We suffered at this place for three days and our bungalow even boasted with a bathroom – the others had their bath at the public well…

We no longer worry about the timetable just wait in the shade patiently. We have a few words with an elderly man, whose hobby is to collect tourists’ addresses and coins from their countries. He proudly shows us his collection and gets a 100 forint coin from us.

Unlike when we arrived here, we now settle down on the upper board with the captain’s special permission. It’s certainly better than the smelly and crowded lower deck but it’s also stifling hot. Luckily, it’s only 2 hours to the mainland!

A short break in the capital of Aceh province

You can take a minibus to Banda Aceh from the port. We quickly hop into one and it leaves within fifteen minutes.

We kind of feel at home in Banda Aceh now; everybody says hello and shakes our hands, etc. We find an internet cafe and get up-to-date with our letters and then head to the CFC (next to a Burger Queen). We try to buy some souvenirs to get rid of our remaining rupiah but only find some basic stuff.

At the time Aceh was far from being a tourist destination. The province had been suffering from civil war conditions for years as the local community wished to become independent, which the central government didn’t quite support. We were chatting with a young Acehnese man by Lake Toba and he said we were in the middle of a half-year ceasefire. It was enough for us to go. Then the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 abruptly ended the fights but it demanded the lives of more than 170,000…

Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh is arguably one of the most beautiful of its kind in Indonesia and the symbol of Acehnese culture and nationalism.
Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh is arguably one of the most beautiful of its kind in Indonesia and the symbol of Acehnese culture and nationalism.

We take two becaks to the bus station, where we find the bus to Medan after a little search. It is indeed a luxury bus with large comfy seats and even seat belts.

We set off and it all goes fine until…

Wednesday 11th July

…until the driver hits a huge pothole somewhere between Aceh and Medan (it’s not hard, there are plenty of them) and it destroys one of the tyres. However, they decide to carry on after a short examination and discussion. It’s only in the car park of a petrol station some time after 5 that we learn from one of the passengers why they didn’t change the wheel. It’s because they’d lent the spare wheel to another bus. Right now we’re waiting for yet another one to fit its spare wheel on ours.

The rescue bus finally arrives and we can get going again at 6.30. By the way, we were supposed to arrive in Medan at 8 the latest in our “nonstop express bus” to catch the free ride to the ferry.

Meat for sale - in one of the small towns where we stopped for a coffee.
Meat for sale – in one of the small towns where we stopped for a coffee.

All’s well that ends well

It turns out that we have another 80 km ahead of us, which means a good 2 hours in this part of the world. Two nerve-wrecking hours for us. At 8 it becomes clear that we’ll miss the bust to the port so now we pray to get there at least by 9 and somehow reach the ferry, scheduled at 10.

At 9.30 the bus finally stops somewhere in the outskirts of Medan and we get off. After a mild physical insult of the driver (Anita, the little spitfire), we get in a taxi.

Although we clearly explain to the cab driver that our ferry sails at 10 and he should hurry, he drives as if we were on a sightseeing trip. At last we reach the port at 10.10, park and then run to the gate. Of course, we didn’t miss anything and still have to queue for half an hour.

To our surprise, this boat doesn’t swing up and down like mad and nobody vomits. In only 5 hours we are back in Malaysia.


Vintage cars and crusader castles in Syria

After visiting the southern and eastern parts of Syria, let me share with you the experiences we had along the coast and the around the mountains west of Damascus. Vintage cars in active use, hitching a tractor and the depths of Syrian bureaucracy. Plus the photos.

A mosque with a nice shadow in Hama, Syria
Mosque dome in Hama. I didn’t have my camera when I first saw the shadow of the tower on this mosque but I remembered the time and returned the next day

The port of Syria

As we looked out of the train from Aleppo to Latakia, we noticed how the landscape turned from shades of brown to green. There were farmlands and even forests near the Mediterranean coast.

Fishing boats in the port of Lattakia
Fishing boats in the port of Lattakia

Latakia itself is a sizeable city, the most important port of Syria. We walked a bit by the sea and in the central streets. The first thing that struck us was that the place had a very European atmosphere, compared to other towns. Lots of women wore western clothes and the shops also looked richer.

Street in Latakia with the image of the country's leader, Basar al-Assad.
Street in Latakia with the image of the country’s leader, Basar al-Assad. (Photo by Yazan Badran)

In fact, we used Latakia as our base to visit one of the Crusader castles, 30 km to the east in the hills. It was tricky to get there by public transport but we soon found out that hitch-hiking was the easiest thing in Syria. The first vehicle always stopped as a general rule. In this case, it was a tractor and it was full already. Still we could climb on its trailer and what a ride it was! Taking photos was out of the question, though…

Two Crusader castles

Salah ad-Din Castle neat Latakia
Salah ad-Din Castle neat Latakia (Photo by Dan)

This beautiful citadel of Salah ad-Din (also known as Saladin) dates back to the 10th century though most of its wall are from the 1100s. It was an important stronghold of the Crusader knights and the Mamluks in the Middle Ages. Today it is a World Heritage site.

One of the most astounding features is the pillar of its former bridge. The ditch by the castle was painstakingly carved out of the rock but the builders left a 28 m high needle. The bridge is long gone but we can still see the pillar.

The incredible rock needle of Salahaddin Castle in Syria
The incredible rock needle of Salahaddin Castle in Syria

Update: Thanks to the Russian air force, based nearby, Latakia has been relatively safe and calm during the civil war. However, it suffered attacks by the Syrian army in 2011, when dozens of people were killed. Salah ad-Din Castle has so far survived the war without serious damage.

Krak des Chevaliers

View from the nearby town from Krak des Chevaliers, a nicely preserved castle of the Crusaders
One of the bastions of Krak des Chevaliers, a nicely preserved castle of the Crusaders. The town below is where the French moved villagers from inside the citadel walls in the 1930s.

This gem is perhaps the best example of medieval castle architecture (and not only in Syria). Its name refers to the first residents, the Kurds but it lived its golden age under the Knights Hospitallers in the 11-12th centuries. At that time it was defended by up to 2000 soldiers and controlled the strategic route between Tripoli and Homs.

A magnificent example of Crusader castles, Krak de Chevaliers
A magnificent example of Crusader castles, Krak de Chevaliers (Photo by Dan)

We visited Krak on our way from Tartus to Homs and so we only had a few hours to discover it to ourselves. Even in its ruins it was impressive. And it was full of sheep and people in period costumes to our surprise. It turned out that they were shooting a movie about the Crusaders. 

Update: The castle was partly damaged during the civil war but no details are known other than that the damages were hastily repaired.

Tangled in red tape

Tartus is a pleasant enough seaside city near the Lebanese border. It has been inhabited since ancient times and it has its fair share of historical sights but I will always remember it for its bureaucracy.

Three lovely kids we met in the port of Tartus
Three lovely kids we met in the port of Tartus

It was our 15th day in Syria so we had to prolong our visas at the Office of Immigration and Passports. The LP book said it would only take an hour. You’d think it means that you hand in your passport and then get it back with the stamps. Well, it involves a little more legwork in the Middle East.

A piece of cake

First of all we had to wait for our turn in the basement outside what was supposed to be an office. In reality it was a windowless cell with a desk and a tired-looking policeman behind it. Queuing didn’t mean waiting in a line, either. It was more like 10-15 people elbowing each other, trying to thrust their greasy documents in the policeman’s hand first.

I waited and submitted our passports. The man asked for 60 lira and took two forms. He completed them in Arabic, stuck the stamps on them and gave them to me. No, that was not all. We had to take the forms upstairs to the captain. The door with the sign “CHIEF” was fairly easy to find so we entered shyly. The man put his signature on the papers and pointed at the opposite door. 

From there, we were sent to the end of the corridor after 5 minutes, where we disturbed an officer’s lunch. He entered something in his computer and we received 2 stamps on our forms each. Then he showed us to another office down the corridor, where our collection grew by four other papers. This time we had to fill them in.

The stamps and signatures we struggled so much for
The stamps and signatures we struggled so much for

Anita couldn’t finish hers because someone grabbed her passport but who cares. More stamps (3 each) but now in the passports (hurray!) Then they told us we needed 3 photocopies, which we could buy in a small house across the street. Down we went and then back with the copies. Now we took the passports to a previous office, where a man performed some more data processing. The next stop was the captain’s office, who now signed the stamps in our passports. And one hour had just passed.

A dizzying excursion

Tartus has a pleasant seafront area with colourful boats, fishermen and pelicans. And there’s a tiny island half an hour away from the city so we had to see it.

These pelicans were kept to catch fish. We saw them in the port of Tartus
These pelicans were kept to catch fish. We saw them in the port of Tartus

The sea was so rough and the boat so small that we thought we’d never arrive. We only spent about an hour on Arwad Island (and the first 30 minutes we were just sitting on a bench struggling with nausea).

A boat on Arwad Island, ready to return to the sea
A boat on Arwad Island, ready to return to the sea (Photo by Stijn Hüwels)

The whole rocky piece of land is full of stone houses and narrow streets. If it was renovated, it could become a popular tourist destination for sure. We especially liked the shipyard and the views of the mainland. Actually, we could have stayed forever (just to avoid the boat trip back).

Havana of the Middle East?

A beautifully preserved car in the centre of Hama
A beautifully preserved car in the centre of Hama

Our last stop in Syria was Hama, a city we will always remember for the weird groaning sound of its wooden wheels and the sight of its vintage cars. And we could experience Syrian hospitality once again.

One of the many operating noria in Hama
One of the many operating noria in Hama

There are not too many cities famous for a specific sound but Hama is one of them. It is the norias (giant wooden wheels) that cause it. There were 17 remaining at the time of our visit, some of them 5-600 years old. Originally they were used to get the water of the Orontes River to the nearby fields but today they are just there to be admired.

The noria we could access through a joiner's yard
The noria we could access through a joiner’s yard

The other thing we noticed the moment we arrived were cars. Even by Syrian standards, there were a huge number ancient automobiles from the 40s and 50s in the streets, many of them in great condition. Old Mercedes served as taxis and graceful American models were parked outside houses. Of course, the war took its toll on these beauties, too, as you can read and see here.

A retired vintage car in a side street in Hama
A retired vintage car in a side street in Hama

As it was the last city we visited in Syria, we wanted to take some souvenirs with us. We stumbled on a small shop selling everyday objects its owner collected when an old district was demolished. This is how we got hold of two intricate handmade tiles that now decorate our living-room.

One of the two tiles we bought in Hama
One of the two tiles we bought in Hama

Update: There were hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the single-party regime in Hama in spring 2011, which was followed by the siege of Hama in July and August that year. The Syrian army deployed tanks and snipers; hundreds of civilians were killed and many more injured in the attacks.

We left Syria rich in memories and experiences. And we were sure we’d return in a few years – well, we’ll have to wait with that I’m afraid.

Uludag trek in 3 days, Part 2

Three days in the Uludag Mountains in West Turkey, Part 2/2

The hike continues to the ridge of the mountain, where you can see lakes of amazing blue, and back to Bursa on a different route on the 3rd day

Walking trip, medium hard
Where: Uludag Mountains, West Turkey
Transport: you can reach the trail head by taxi from Bursa
Return trip: by metro after some more walk
Distance: about 56 km
Accommodation: hotel in Bursa (like Güneş Hotel, 75 lira (about 25 Euros/room)
Camping in the wild on the hill or there is an abandoned refuge on the ridge in case of bad weather
Supplies: just what you take with yourself (you can pick mushrooms)

Lakes in the Uludag, Turkey

This is the second part of a three-day trekking route in the Uludag Mountains. After spending the first night around 1900 m, you spend the better half of the second day climbing to nearly 2500 m to see the lakes beneath and then it’s a much easier walk along the ridge. After a short boring section along a dirt road you return to the forest, where you can camp, and spend the third day descending to the first village. 

Day 2:

Day 3:


Depending on where you found a suitable place for camping the evening before, you may have to climb a bit in the morning to get back on the right track (as in our case). The path is then easy to follow (I mean clear, not physically easy!) for the next couple of kilometres along one of the southern side ridges. Around 2100 metres, there is a spring with clear cold water in a small valley. It’s a good idea to fill your bottles as there won’t be another one till late afternoon.

We also added ours!
We also added ours! This is where we joined the path again after the first night
The last spring we found at around 2100 metres
The last spring we found at around 2100 metres

The path then leads towards an enormous mass of icy snow (in mid-July, anyway) that makes you realise how small you are. You need to turn left here, following the shallow valley as far as you finally reach another ridge. The snow was fine to walk on and we had lots of fun sliding and falling but of course you have to take proper care, especially near the edges. As you reach the top of this valley, you soon catch sight of the lakes situated deep (150 m beneath) under the peaks. At this point we weren’t following a path but don’t worry, the deep precipice stops you. 

A huge patch of hardened snow
My son is standing in awe facing the huge patch of hardened snow
Mountain lake in the Uludag, Turkey
lake Kilimli, one of the four small lakes nested under the highest peaks of the Uludag
Group photo on top of the Uludag
I can’t imagine a better place for lunch – we saw the lakes and the Uludag peak (2543 m)

Alternative routes

You have the choice here to walk down to the lakes (it would probably require an extra day if you also wanted to return to the top AND you’d have to mingle with with people who drive up to the lakes in 4WDs) or continue upwards to the main ridge, which is what we did. When you are there, you will find a clear path again that leads along the ridge, situated at around 2500 metres above sea level. If you turn left here, you can reach the highest peak in the Uludag (2543 m) in an hour or two. Our plan was to take another route down towards Bursa so we stopped here to take photos and just admire the views and then turned right.

Over the clouds
Over the clouds
Views from the Uludag
Views to the north from 2500 metres

The path along the ridge than takes you to an abandoned refuge that must have seen better days. Today it is partly collapsed and mostly empty but at least it’s not stinking of urine so it could be useful in case of a storm.

Not exactly a 5-star hotel but at least it is roofed
Not exactly a 5-star hotel but at least it is roofed
Walking downhill
The shortcut from the ridge to the dirt road actually took us an hour…
Winding road, Uludag mountains
There’s a winding road on the plateau, leading to the hotels and to the now closed wolframite mine

It would be possible to reach the top station of the cable-car (teleferikif you continue to the north-west. But the last thing we wanted was the crowds of day-trippers so we crumbled down from the ridge and then followed a dirt road to the south as far as a switchback (see the map). There is a path leading into the forest at that point. Not far from there we found a great camping spot by a small brook. There is enough level room for three or four tents. We even found mushrooms (huge boletus and puffballs) but I wasn’t absolutely sure about them so we didn’t take risks. 

It was too red so we just took a photo
It was too red so we just took a photo

Getting lost downhil

The third day is basically one huge descend with some tricky parts. As you leave the camping spot, you first continue in the forest and then arrive at a large clearing. The landscape is very different here from what you can see in the higher regions of the Uludag. There are large boulders with rounded surfaces among the pine trees as the path turns to the right after about one kilometre. As you follow the course of a small brook, you soon notice a group of houses that belong to two farms on the two banks. Huge fierce dogs barked like mad at us but the owners were very kind and took care of them until we passed. From there on you can still follow the brook. Soon you find yourself in a dense forest again and that’s where the tricky part is…

In fact we got lost at this point and just tried to keep the right direction to the north. (My phone switched off after nearly 3 days so we had no GPS. I tried to reconstruct the route as much as I could but don’t take this part of the map for granted). After crossing small ridges and ravines, we finally found a dirt road. It was unpassable for cars because of a landslide but from there on we knew we were on the right track.

Rocky landscape in the Uludag
Very different rocks greeted us as we walked downhill
The vegetation changes once again as you approach the village
The vegetation changes once again as you approach the village

Village from a soap opera

This road then leads you down to Cumalikizik along a long row of switchbacks that never seem to end. (OK, I guess it’s different when you know where you are but we didn’t). Cumalikizik is a cute little village at the foot of the Uludag mountains and it has narrow streets with old houses, many of which are now renovated. It is extremely popular with Bursa crowds and not only because it is within easy reach but because it was the scene of a Turkish soap opera a few years ago.

All this noise and the colourful shops and restaurants made us a bit disappointed. (We expected a quiet village with old people gossiping in the streets). You have a wide choice of places if you are thinking about dinner or just a tea before walking the last few kilometres to the metro station. But if you think you have walked enough you can also take a bus from the ourskirts of the suburb (Kestel).

Old house in Cumalikizik
Thanks to its recent popularity, many houses are now nicely renovated in Cumalıkızık
Tractor outside a house in the village
Tractor outside a house in the village

As I mentioned above, an alternative to all this walking is to take the teleferik from Bursa to the highlands. There are several stops along the way, the highest being Kurbağa Kaya (Hotels). From there  it is only about 2 hours’ walk to the ridge.