I was in search of lumpias, the fried South East Asian spring roll, and decided to ride the steel horse along the coastal track to the city of Semarang. The time it takes by either road or rail is the same but the experience can be resoundingly different.
According to what makes a place famous, it is in Semarang where the most delicious lumpias are stuffed, rolled, folded, fried, and devoured. I was on my way.
Once, when traveling in Peru and Argentina, I had a couple of train journeys that stand as experiences completely unlike each other but both incredible in their own way. The train to Puno in Peru took 12 hours and wound its way up, into the Andes. The view out the window was of breath-taking mountain scenery; snow-capped peaks in contrast against the deepest of blue skies; grass covered foothills swelling and receding like a sun burnt yellow tide. Then in juxtaposition to the topography stretching upwards were the plains. Like liquid these prairie grasslands formed the foundation for everything they surrounded.
It was stunning and remains as vivid in my mind today as if I were still aboard.
And that’s the thing. Staying aboard was optional. The 12 hour journey only covered about 154 miles. You could deboard, walk down the two-step rusty metal ladder, and plant your feet directly on the high altitude pampas. Go for a wander, take in the incredible fortune life had bestowed on you, and marvel at…absolutely everything!
Breathe in that pure air because you are, where few have been….then saunter back and reclaim your vantage point for slow motion viewing.
The other journey was one across Argentina. On-board you felt like you were in another era. The seats were a deep red leather and the interior was all richly stained wood. Not dark and claustrophobic, but light and airy. The grain of the wood radiant; teasing your imagination into unveiling its long and significant history.
Antique fans in black wrought iron casings spun with the dust of ages solidified on each blade. Six per carriage and intermittently spread down the ceiling above the center aisle.
The view of Argentina’s countryside, the decor of the seating carriage and dining car, along with waiters in white jackets, food on china plates beneath silver domes and…
Voila! A train journey to inspire.
The train from Cirebon to Semarang had two options. An Ekekutif First Class train, and a Bisnis Ekekutif. The latter really being the local Ekonomi dressed up in fancy words; that’s the one I took.
The road and railway tracks in between Cirebon and Semarang run alongside the ocean. It had been a while since I’d seen the ocean and was looking forward to the sight, if not the sound, of waves crashing against the shore.
I had in my head this picture of scenic beauty as we chugged along the Javanese coast. Cresting waves, white sand, fishing boats, clear blue water, and of course the temperature change caused by a balmy ocean-side breeze boosted by gusts both cool and warm.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the ocean is obscured from view.
Rice fields to the right make an alternative not to be dismissed but let’s face it; when you’re hankering for the ocean, rice paddies just don’t cut it.
The train journey itself was not unlike the one from Jakarta to Bogor except that I had a seat this time and the friendly guy next to me was out cold so any invitations for tea he may have been conjuring up remained with him in the land of nod.
Arriving in a city I have heard and read a lot about but never actually seen is always fascinating to me. Kind of an exploratory rush. I am pretty sure it’s the reason I continue to love traveling.
Semarang has three distinct parts; old beaten up colonial, modern, and well maintained functional colonial.
Its parts one and three I was most interested in.
The first night was all about wandered the streets of the old beaten up part of town. The buildings definitely need some love but the history and imagery is still there. One or two of the buildings have been restored but that’s about it and to be honest I kind of like it that way.
In Semarang you get to see both sides. The colonial era being left to crumble while right next door you see the other side of town that is thriving and making no bones about it’s success.
Lawang Sewu sits smack dab in the center of Semarang; otherwise known as the building of one thousand doors.
Currently it is slowly being restored to its former glory. Tours are available but wandering through alone and feeling the history, imagining the past, stepping back in time, is well worth the effort.
I had heard that Semarang was a town in love with food and so had to delve further into that. Toko Oen, a throw-back to the past, was at the top of the list and it did not disappoint. A visit to Semarang would not be complete without a meal at this restaurant and bakery which pays homage to the colonial past era.
On my first night I stopped at a street vendor for a famous Semarang lumpia. The next day I returned and had several made which I took home and ate later that evening in the hotel.
A lumpia in Semarang is like a souvlaki in Athens, a pizza in Rome, or a falafel in Tel Aviv…just one of those staples you cannot miss!
For photos of Indonesia click here.