Sunday, 5 October 2008

The overlooked attractions of Central Java's north coast

Semarang and the Gedong Songo Temples

Originally published in The Jakarta Post, 5/10/08

The gunpowder smell of fresh rain in the night air hit me as I climbed down from the train in Semarang. By the time I reached the station gates and had clambered into a waiting becak (pedicab), a thunderous - and highly unseasonable - downpour had begun.

I peered from beneath the becak's dripping hood as it rolled along the empty streets. This was an old city, and I caught glimpses of heavy Dutch rooflines, crumbling columns and arched windows. Shadowy figures sheltered beneath shuttered balconies, and other becaks rolled swiftly through the wet night, their drivers straining urgently at the peddles.

I stopped at the only place open on this dark street: a cafe in a high-ceilinged old building with slow-circling fans. The walls were decorated with photographs of Semarang in years past, and the cafe was known simply as "No. 29" (opposite Blenduk Church). I ordered a plate of juicy sate and a glass of iced tea, and sat peering out at the wet darkness. The rain continued to fall.

Semarang is not high on any must-see list for travelers. Overshadowed by its southern counterpart, the touristic behemoth of Yogyakarta, it's easy to forget that this coastal city of 1.5 million people is the capital of Central Java, and one of the oldest settlements in Indonesia.

With a couple of days to spare I had decided to eschew the more obvious attractions of Yogyakarta to see what this lesser-known place and its surrounds had to offer - if only it would stop raining!

Colonial history, Chinese culture

To my relief, the dry season returned the following morning. I picked my way over the puddles back into the old part of the city - still sometimes known by its Dutch name, the Outstadt.

While Yogyakarta is a truly Javanese city, Semarang is the archetypal port, built on colonialism and immigration.

Semarang's history can be traced back to the first millennium - ancient by Indonesian standards - but it was in the colonial era when trade networks spread from the harbors of Java that it came into its prime.

The ruler of the ailing Mataram kingdom, Amangkurat I, ceded Semarang to the Dutch in 1677 after they came to his aid against the Madurese renegade Trunajaya. Semarang soon developed into a seat of colonial government and commerce.

The loudest echoes from this era can be felt around Jl Jendral Suprapto, the street that my becak had rolled along through the rain the previous evening.

The atmospheric gloom had cleared with the dawn, but what had been ominous silhouettes in the wet darkness, now revealed themselves as fine 18th and 19th Century buildings.

This was an area of hipped roofs, stocky columns and some of the finest Dutch domestic architecture I had seen in Indonesia. Best of the colonial buildings was Gereja Blenduk, the domed Church of Immanuel opposite the cafe where I had eaten the night before. Built in 1753, it is still one of the most important Protestant churches in Semarang.

Its heavyset white clock towers and red brick dome were bright against a clear blue sky.

Wandering along narrower alleyways south of the church, I found my way to the edge of the river that once carried trading ships into the very heart of the city. This was an area of tiny doorways and outdoor kitchens. Fighting cocks preened themselves haughtily under wicker baskets and finches twittered in bamboo cages hanging from trees.

I followed the river south to the 18th Century Tay Kak Sie Chinese temple. It is an impressive building with dragons writhing along its bowed roofline. Inside, old ladies raised bunches of smoking joss sticks before the altars while old men with bony knees sprawled on benches outside. The air was thick with the heavy scent of incense.

Semarang has a large ethnic Chinese population. There is a suggestion that the name of the place may be a corruption of that of the famous Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who came here in the 15th Century and to whom another temple on the outskirts of the city is dedicated.

Across the river I wandered into Chinatown. Here there were old shop-houses and more temples at unexpected street corners. Flashes of red and gold showed above the counters of pharmacies and hardware stores.

Semarang's modern center lies to the south of all this history, focused on the broad expanse at the heart of Simpang Lima, a five-road intersection lined with hotels and malls.

Shopping is not my scene, so after tracking down an edible souvenir, the local speciality known as wingko babad - small, sticky coconut-flavored cakes - I retreated north and took refuge in another relic of the colonial age.

Toko Oen is a venerable institution, a restaurant that has hardly changed since it opened its doors in 1936. The heat and traffic noise seemed to stay respectfully outside and four superannuated Chinese women sat dabbing at homemade ice cream at a table near the door. I slipped into a creaking wooden chair and settled down to read the newspaper over coffee and cakes.

Hindu temples at high altitude

The next morning I headed for the hills. Yogyakarta may have Borobudur, but Semarang has its own classical temples within easy reach of the city.

A battered local bus carried me south. Ahead, the ghostly outline of Gunung Ungaran formed like a photograph from the haze, and soon we were rattling along a rising road through green forests. Just beyond the little hill resort of Bandungan, 45 minutes from Semarang, I left the bus and took a motorbike taxi up a narrow lane through fields of cabbage and potatoes, into the clouds.

It was a weekday afternoon and the cool hamlet of Duran, 1200 meters above the sizzling coastal plain, was deserted. I left my bag in a little caf* on the edge of an empty car park at the end of the road, and made my way uphill to the temples of Gedong Songo.

Strung out among the pine trees and terraces above Duran, these 8th Century Hindu temples have a truly stunning location. And as the light faded and skeins of damp mist crept down the high slopes, I was the only person there to enjoy it.

Gedong Songo means "nine buildings" in Javanese, something that may puzzle modern visitors: There are only six distinct temple groups. It is said that the name has its origins in the dubious counting skills of early Dutch surveyors who ignored the more evocative local name: Candi Banyukuning, Temples of the Yellow Water.

These finely decorated temples were dedicated to the worship of Shiva. Bug-eyed demons grimaced above entranceways and naga or dragons flanked the steps. In the wall, niches carvings of Ganesh (Shiva's elephant-headed son) and the goddess Durga had survived, all with swollen bellies and tilted hips.

Inside the empty inner chamber of one the buildings, a small pile of petals and a curl of incense ash showed that someone was still venerating these places.

I picked my way along the white stripe of the footpath, zigzagging through the forest. The valley below had disappeared under smears of bruised cloud and the pine trees hung limp in the damp air. There was a faint odor of sulfur. I found its source - and that of the temples' old name - at the bottom of a narrow ravine where smoke was issuing from the cracked rocks, and steaming water was bubbling in shallow, yellowish pools.

There was a small bathing pool here where the geothermally heated water was at perfect bath temperature for this cool climate. After a relaxing dip I hurried downhill and found a clean, quiet guesthouse in the village.

Mountain vistas at dawn

A crimson stain was seeping along the eastern edge of the morning as I hurried uphill at first light. The blue mist of the evening had gone and the only mark on the slopes was the sulphury smoke from the hot springs.

It was cold and I kept moving swiftly until I reached the temple on the highest ridge. Shards of sunlight were spilling across the mountainside now and a warming breeze was lifting from the valley.

A sea of pale cloud all but covered the landscape of fields and forests below, but I could just pick out the faded mirror of Rawa Pening Lake away to the south. Beyond it, rising in a smooth purple cone was the high summit of Gunung Merbabu, and peering over its western shoulder, trailing a smudge of pale smoke, was the belligerent peak of Merapi. To the west another pair of high volcanoes - Sumbing and Sundoro near Wonosobo - were slipping away into the rising morning.

Semarang might not have a kraton (palace) or endless reams of batik, but it has palpable relics of another side of Javanese history. And if the dignified remains of the Gedong Songo don't match the giddying splendor of Borobudur, they do occupy one of the most stunning locations in Java.

As I sat there, alone and untroubled, the warmth of the new sun on my face, the sound of insects creaking in the forest, I thought of the hordes of sweating sightseers that would already be swarming up the steps
of Borobudur, just 50 kilometers to the south. I was glad that I had come here - and it had stopped raining!

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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