Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Eastern Promise


An East Java Road Trip

Originally published in Garuda in-flight magazine August 2012

Driving south from Surabaya into the great green hinterlands of Java is like coming up for air.  The heat and dust of the coastal plains recedes; the traffic thins, and in the distance monumental mountains rise into the clouds.
            The East Java capital is a place for top-notch shopping and fine food, but when you’ve had enough of the malls, it’s time to hit the road on a three-day journey which will take you from enigmatic temples to haunted hotels, from colonial relics to steaming volcanoes, and through some of the lushest of all Indonesia’s exotic landscapes.  So climb into the driving seat, leave downtown Surabaya behind and bear south through the town of Sidoarjo, to embark on a journey along historical highways and beautiful byways…
            You can see the smooth 1650-meter cone of Gunung Penanggungan from the center of Surabaya on a clear day, and as its green slopes slip by to your right, south of Sidoarjo, your journey has begun.  This perfectly formed peak is the outer bastion of the great mountainous heartlands of East Java.  It is said to be the tip of the mythical Mount Meru, home of the gods, which broke off when the mountain was shifted from India to Java with the arrival of Hinduism.  The forested slopes are dotted with temples.
The most easily reached of these relics stands in the roadside village of Prigen, a short detour west of the main route.  Rising through tapering tiers of carved basalt in a neat, moat-lined garden, is the 13th Century Candi Jawi temple, built by the rulers of the Singosari Kingdom.
Back on the main road, continue towards Malang.  The road is already rising now; in the distance tiers of forest climb the lower slopes, while higher up the plum-colored mountain walls vanish into cooling haze.  As you approach the little roadside town of Lawang, you’ll spot a distinctive building rising through five art-deco pink and white floors.  This is Hotel Niagara, originally built as a private home for a Chinese businessman in the early 20th century.  The interior still features tiled floors, teak paneling, and wrought iron banisters, but perhaps you’ll prefer to press on after checking out the rooms – the place is said to be haunted…
There’s another fine temple further up the road in Singosari, the spot that was once the capital of the kingdom of the same name.  It is a place where grimacing, bug-eyed shrine guardians stare out from the stonework.  There are more of these ancient relics to explore nearby – Candi Jago, Candi Kidul, Candi Sumberawan.  But lunchtime is looming, so it’s time to press on to Malang.
Today Malang is a bustling upland town with a fine climate.  In the 19th century it was an administrative centre and a refuge from the heat of the coast for the Dutch colonialists.  There are echoes of this era in the city’s cathedral, and in the fine colonial mansions that still stand on the quieter suburban avenues.  The city’s most famous colonial throwback, meanwhile, makes for a fine lunch stop.  Toko Oen restaurant, not far from the bustling town center, has scarcely changed since the 1930s – with slow moving ceiling fans, checked table cloths, low chairs and homemade ice cream. 

            After sampling the steaks, cakes and coffee at Toko Oen, it’s time to head back to the road, bearing past the churches, mosques and mansions of Malang, and back into the countryside.
            The road bears west to Blitar, taking you through in an overwhelmingly green world.  Rice fields roll away, veiled in a thin skein of lavender haze.  To the north the dark eminence of Gunung Butak rises beyond a tangle of dark ridges, scored by tumbling streams.  Farmers in conical hats work in the fields, and red-roofed villages line the roads.
            As the day draws to a close this jaunt through Java brings you to Blitar.  This is the quintessential small Javanese town, with a grassy central square flanked by huge banyan trees, and in the backstreets the rattle of becak still rules over the roar of motorbikes.  The best place to take a break from the road lies just a few steps off Blitar’s main street, at Hotel Tugu Blitar, an attraction in its own right.  The hotel features a restored colonial mansion decked out in the finest of Javanese style.
            Blitar’s greatest claim to fame is as the childhood home and final resting place of Sukarno, independent Indonesia’s first ruler.  He was buried here in 1970.  The tomb features an impressive Javanese double gateway, and a magnificent three-tiered joglo pavilion with an intricately carved ceiling.  Pilgrims from across Indonesia come here to pray, and to absorb a little of the great man’s karisma.
            Once you’ve paid your own respects, stop off for breakfast across the way on Jl Slamet Riyadi for a portion of Blitar’s best known specialty – nasi pecel, rice with fresh greens, crackers, and a peanut and chili sauce that manages to be as fiery as a Sukarno speech and as fresh as a mountain breeze all at the same time.  The best is served here at the simple little Mbok Bari café…
            After a quick round of Blitar’s other sights – including Istana Gebang, the lovingly preserved house where Sukarno grew up – it’s time to head back to the road, and further back into the past.
            Knee-deep in the rice fields, 15 kilometers north of Blitar, stands the magnificent Candi Penataran, an epic14th century temple complex built by the rulers of the realm that replaced Singosari – Majapahit.  If you come on a weekday you’ll likely get to admire the stunning carvings, Ramayana friezes and bug-eyed garudas in solitude.
            Beyond Penataran the journey takes you through some of the finest countryside in all Java.  Fields of sugarcane and pineapples slant away on either side; boulder-filled brooks slip beneath the bridges, and old women wander down dusty lanes to hidden villages.  To the east, close at hand, the mountains rise into ominous bruise-colored cloud, and this is where the next stop lies.
            Gunung Kelud, 1731-meter western buttress of the great mountain complex that surrounds Malang, is one of Java’s most active volcanoes.  Happily, however, when it’s not letting off steam, it offers the best chance to see volcanic activity close-up for those who don’t want to hike – you can drive right to the top!
            From the car park it’s a short walk through a gloomy tunnel to the crater.  Razor-sharp ridges rise on all sides, surrounding a vast, steaming heap of black rubble, coughed up from the bowels of the earth in the most recent bout of activity in 2007.  This is a new landscape, but somehow it feels older than the temples you have seen earlier on the journey.
            After taking in Kelud’s surreal spectacle, head north to meet the road from Kediri to Batu.  Smooth switchbacks wind through cool forest, the palm trees on either side giving way to pines on the ridges above.  The mountains fall back at the tranquil lake at Selorejo, a lozenge of pale water, cupped between green hillsides.  Then it’s onwards and upwards, the road rising alongside dancing streams.  The sunsets from the high vantage points here are spectacular, and once you cross the little pass above Songgoriti, a great sweep of lights opens below you, like an inverted star-scape showing through the trees.  Batu, the stopping point for the second night, is in view.
            Batu sits in the belly of the mountains – Arjuna, Welirang and Kawi rise on all sides, and the nights are cool.  There are dozens of places to stay, and this is the place to feast on rabbit sate, grilled over hot coals and dished up with sweet peanut sauce. 
            After a night here it’s time to take the final mountain road on this long loop through Java, heading uphill past the gardens and swimming pool at Selekta and into a high landscape swollen with neat little onion and cabbage plots, and studded with apple orchards – the crops which grow best in the temperate cool of the hills.
            The great peak of Welirang, trailing a smear of smoke from its highest point, rises ahead and the road crosses a narrow pass and drops into dense, green forest.  A little way below the pass are the Cangar hot springs, the perfect place to stop for a relaxing soak in the thermally heated pools, surrounded by cool jungle where leopards are still said to hunt.
From here it’s downhill all the way.  The forest falls back to reveal a spectacular landscape of ridges and gorges; shy ebony leaf monkeys watch from the braches, and eventually the road reaches the little town of Pacet.  From here it’s an easy cross-country ride through the fields to Krian, and back to Surabaya.  But the smog and the traffic can wait a while: find a spot in a roadside café; order a glass of coffee, and take in the distant view of Penanggungan, that same sentinel peak which marked the start of this Javanese odyssey…

© Tim Hannigan 2013

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