A Train to the City of Lumpias

Cirebon Train StationTravel is more often than not an adventure.  The mode of transportation used while traveling can often enhance that sense of adventure; none more-so than the train.

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.

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41 thoughts on “A Train to the City of Lumpias

  1. I certainly agree with you. Trains are the best and something I’m looking forward to next time I’m in SE Asia. They seem way more interesting than here in Korea because they’ve got that colonial feel still to them. Everything here has a somewhat distopian or futuristic feel when zipping around staring at masses of apartment buildings, though the occasional rice paddy takes me back at times.

    Staring at the Malaysian countryside, on the other hand, was far more enriching of an experience. I wish train companies and cities would plan these things on purpose and consider people’s views while riding as a way to promote that method of travel. Not sure if the thinking is (or ever will be) in that direction though.

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  2. It sounds like you have had some amazing adventures! It seems like the trip was worth it for the lumpias and the overall experience.

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    1. Lawang Sewu means “Thousand Doors” in the local Javanese language. It was originally built in 1904 as the offices of the first Dutch East Indies railway. It was taken over in 1942 when the Japanese invaded and turned into a prison and site of many executions. After the war it became the offices of the Indonesian army and then later still it once again became offices of the Indonesian railway.

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  3. You’re my kind of guy! Traveling in search of food! Love it. I have been fortunate enough to travel by train several times although it was more of a high-speed variety. But a train is a train is a train, right? Riding the Eurostar through the Chunnel was as different as another train from London to Holyhead (to then catch the ferry to Dublin, Ireland). I hope to catch a part of the Alaskan railway at some point. I very much enjoyed reading and visualizing your adventure!

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  4. Your train trip looks like it was awesome. I’ve rode Amtrak once. It was a fun experience. I want to ride the train again in the US and also in another country.

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  5. Gorgeous post Tim! There is nothing better than train travel, I think. I love how there are so many different train experiences around the world. The ones you describe have made me long to be on a train right now, while eating a lumpia, sigh!

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  6. I like how you describe traveling and discovery of places as an exploratory rush. My experiences with trains are those of the commuter type. Unfortunately, no red plush chairs. And now I’m craving a lumpia 😉

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  7. Ah, trains! And spring rolls – all in one post! When we were in Kazakhstan adopting my youngest daughter, we rode a train from Almaty to Akylyk, the most terrifying journey of my life! Overnight and we were the only Americans, traveling with my Chinese daughter who was 8 at the time. My husband almost got into a fist fight with a passenger claiming he had reservations for our sleeping car. That being said, it was the best nights sleep I ever had because I love the rocking motion of a train. And we got to see the real people of Kazakhstan working in the fields. I could write an entire blog post about it. Enjoyed your blog, definitely brought back memories…

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  8. You have some amazing adventures! Your words and your pictures tell such a great story, and now I am hungry…perhaps some egg rolls for lunch today…

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  9. I have not had a train ride in a long time and the way you painted your trip brings nostalgic moments to my mind. Definitely not a microwave ride but it gives you time to adore the views and also think and put things into perspective.

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  10. Tim, I am jealous of all the places you have seen. It is so cool! One day I will get out of the country and explore more. I would love to take a train. I love that they have China and fancy waiters for the train. It makes the over all experience awesome. I would love to see the ocean from a train too. Great post . 🙂

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  11. Hi Tim,

    Your writing is sumptuous. What a pleasure to see, hear, smell, taste and feel what you write about.

    “… seats were a deep red leather… 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….”

    And it’s about times past and places I have never been to. Truly wonderful. Thank you!

    Ramona

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    1. I did the Starlight last year from Seattle to L.A. and that was very cool. Planning on doing the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian in the next couple of years; provided of course Russia doesn’t go and do something messed up.

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  12. Hi Tim, Thanks for a delightful read. I especially love the vicarious armchair travel.
    I used to take my daughter on a train ride every year as she was growing up. It was our special father-daughter time. We would visit all our favorite haunts. Your post enlivened those memories. I would enjoy vegetable lumpias, but not ones containing pork.
    Best Regards, Bill

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  13. Your posts are always interesting and this one is too. You paint such good pictures of your travels that I really want to go each place too. Train travel is different each time and I too enjoy it. Now, I’m really hungry for a lumpia.

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  14. That must be some kind of lumpia…though the journey seems well worth it. Semarang sounds like a really interesting place..juxtaposition between the crumbling colonial and the new and thriving. Loved the photos and the description of the train travel. Funny how trains vary so widely from country to country, yes? Mostly I am happy that you got your lumpia fix:)

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  15. Hi Tim. There really is nothing like train travel to put one in an expansive mood. The rhythm, the speed, the constantly changing panorama, the opportunity to stretch and walk around, to meet others all contribute to the experience. There is also what feels like a timeless aspect to train travel even though it is only a few hundred years old because we can at least put ourselves in the shoes of much earlier travellers. You do a great job of bringing each of these journeys to life and the lumpia do represent the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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  16. Now you’ve made me hungry! The last time we did any long train trip was in the late 1970s, in Italy. The main thing I remember from that is how much the Italians love children. A definite plus to travel with children there. It helps you get off and on crowded trains very easily!

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  17. Tim, thanks for the trip – you always make me feel I’m right there traveling with you. The last train ride I took was 50 years ago and it was on a full service dining-train and a wonderful experience that was. That’s no longer possible as all the tracks in our area have been removed – more’s the pity. Those lumpias frying up look awfully good.
    Lenie

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  18. Many thanks Tim for your wonderful posts. I hope to be taking this train journey in June this year but I’m still in the planning process. Cirebon is a favourite city of mine and I passionate about the batik from there- it is rich in colour and the motifs are diverse. I will make further comments on your earlier Cirebon post.

    You can see a number of examples of Cirebon batik on my blog: http://www.northcoastjavanesebatik.com

    Many thanks.

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    1. Thanks so much. I visited your site and the batiks you display there are beautiful. I have always hung batiks in my house to keep Indonesia always in my thoughts.

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