Indonesia, Sumatra, Berastagi
It was time to leave the north and head to Medan to work out what to do with our remaining days in Sumatra.
Our original itinerary should have taken us to Bukit Lawang next, a jungle retreat on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park famed for its Orangutans. Time was now against us so we had to choose between this or the Karo highlands of Berastagi. After reading online that Bukit Lawang was a bit of a tourist trap and that the jungle treks are way overpriced we opted for the latter.
A short internal flight took us to the steamy metropolis of Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city. With our days dwindling we took a taxi directly from the brand new Kuala Namu airport up into the highlands and Berastagi. On the map the distance looked to be about a hundred kilometers so we wondered why it costs 600,000 rupiah and took three hours to get there.
Our query was settled as soon as we left the airport and hit the chaotic traffic of suburban Medan. Driving in Thailand is a breeze compared to Indonesia, roads are invariably unmarked, single lane, and have more craters than the moon. Add hundreds of trucks, buses and bikes to this recipe and you get utter mayhem. Three hours was going to be a bonus at this rate.
There is only one road from Medan across to the western side of Sumatra, and every vehicle was on it. As the elevation increased the single lane road climbed and switch-backed, snaking its way arduously upwards. As if racing to the summit lumbering trucks and buses would frequently over take us and each other – sometimes three abreast – into the oncoming traffic causing waves of panic induced nausea, a hankering of horns and plenty of brake stamping. On one side a rock wall, the other an abyssal drop, and to make things worse a thick fog descended over the jostling rows of vehicles reducing visibility to a couple of meters.
We arrived in chilly Berastagi after dark, very tired and grateful to be there in one piece. Since we only had a couple of days before our return flight I booked a decent resort, this turned out to be a bad idea as the place was seriously overpriced and they wanted to charge us extra for pretty much everything. The more stars the more sting seems to be the pattern with hotels here.
We visited a huge Buddhist temple and garden complex which was totally empty, not even the monks were home. Berastagi is one of the few places I have ever seen where many religions live in harmony; you can see churches, mosques and temples all in the same place. To add a fourth religion the local Batak people are animists, believing in the tree of life and the souls of all living things as opposed to one central god.
Some expressed disappointment at the amount of money spent on the extravagant temple and the lavish gardens for the Chinese in Medan when there were still local villages in poverty and people going hungry.
We happened across a traditional Batak funeral on the way back and stopped to have a look, this was the real deal, not a show for tourists.