Thursday, 29 September 2011

Day 26: Two Days In Jakarta

It's all been pretty easy so far. Sydney and Singapore, two modern and attractive metropolises, that speak English and are designed for convenience. Well, it's time to being properly travelling. Hello Jakarta.

When reading some descriptions of Jakarta, I began to fear the worst. Smoggy, overcrowded, aggressive, congested, chaotic - it sounded just like a description of many of the African cities I've been to. And perhaps that's why, as it turns out, Jakarta actually seems like a pleasure. After having experienced, albeit within the bubble of being with an oil company to hold my hand, cities such as Lagos, Luanda and Port Harcourt, to experience Jakarta seems like a breeze.

Alright, it still takes a bit of effort, but upon arriving on Monday everything seemed to go remarkably smoothly. We arrived by air from Singapore, after deciding it was the best route given pressing time issues and a host of Wonders still to visit. The ancient temple of Borodudur in central Java in Indonesia was supposed to be the second Wonder on my travels, but due to the Singapore Grand Prix this order was shuffled, thereby creating the necessity for flights, which the purist in me had hoped to avoid. Jakarta seemed like the obvious starting point, and the flight from Singapore was less than £35, so it seemed a no-brainer.

A bus took us to one of the city's train stations, from which it was a cheap tuk-tuk (called bajaj here) ride to our hostel, in the area catering for Jakarta's few backpackers called Jelan Jaksa. I say cheap, we only managed to haggle him down to £1.50, after an initial insistence on £2.10 - subsequent rides have usually been around £1. As these prices may indicate, Jakarta is a cheap city, with decent meals costing not much more than £1. Our hostel is an extravagance, with a twin room with air-conditioning costing a total of £12 per night; with no hot water and a toilet that doesn't flush, it's not quite the bargain it may seem.

Both our days in Jakarta were centred around exploring the area around the city's vaguely nominal centre, Merdeka Square by day, and enjoying a few beers and some sheesha smoking on Jelan Jaksa by night. Jakarta isn't a big tourist draw and it's not difficult to see why - it doesn't have a great deal of attractions and it's exhausting getting to them. Singapore seemed pedestrian-unfriendly, but Jakarta humbles it in that regard. Occasionally, busy roads might have a battered old metal overpass, complete with holes and the suspicion it was ready to collapse, but otherwise the only way to get across is to gamble with your life and skip through the oncoming cars, buses and masses and masses of maniac motorcyclists. On the first day it was exhausting and scary; by the second day I was quite enjoying it.

Regarding the city's sight, not far from the hostel was one of Jakarta's premier attractions, the 132 metre tall Monumen Nasional (or just Monas) surrounded by Merdeka Square square. Built by the first Indonesian president, Sukarno, taking a protracted fourteen years to complete from 1961 to 1975, this massive obelisk was designed to celebrate Indonesian independence. It isn't much to look at. Blocky and unsubtle, it was drably reminiscent of Soviet monuments, much like the vast and empty square around it. On a hot, sweaty day, few people - mostly tired hawkers - were dotted around the massive space. It looked as faded as my energy levels. It was possible to go inside the tower, although it took a bit of figuring out. Direct approach was all sectioned off, but a small structure opposite led into an underground tunnel which emerged at the tower.

At the base of the tower was a small museum on the history of Indonesia, and more curious was a room called "Independence Hall" which had signs insisting on reverential silence, but inside reminded of a skateboard ramp, and had a bunch of children running up the slopes and sliding down, to their noisy excitement. It is possible to go up the tower and enjoy spectacular views of Jakarta's smog, but it closes at 3pm and we missed it by minutes. I intend to one day recreate the experience by putting my face next to a car exhaust.

Merdeka Square was tired and listless, but much better was just across the road, the National Museum. I went in expecting not very much, and came out quite impressed. It is two buildings, old and new, with the old being of neo-classical colonial design, and the new simply like a three-storey office block. Though it seemed like not much had changed with the old building's exhibition for some time, it was still a genuinely interesting history and record of Indonesia's many islands and cultures, featuring masks, weapons, musical instruments and models of the various types of traditional homes. It was done well, and gave a snapshot of how varied this sprawling country of 300 million is. The best exhibit, which captivated both myself and Burness, was on the small upstairs. It was a stone metre-tall statue of the goddess or female bodhisattva Prajnaparamita, and was simply astonishing in its detail. It had been found a couple of hundred years ago, but was much older, and was one of the greatest pieces of art I've ever seen. The craftsmanship was astonishing and impeccable, Burness observing that a single mistake during the sculpting would have ruined it. I would have taken a photo but it was a no-photo zone and the guard was standing right there (in fairness, the guard was a very young-looking girl, and I think I could have taken her down quite easily).

The newer part of the museum wasn't quite as captivating, although that may have been museum fatigue setting in after almost two hours in the old part. However, it did have a great scale model of my next Wonder, Borobudur.

The final main attraction in the area was the Istiglal (Independence) Mosque. This one had special interest for me as it was one of my recently rejected candidates for my list, and I wanted to see if I'd been right in my rejection.

I was.

Istiglal Mosque is big, but that's pretty much it. It's very square and plain, and looks every bit the 60s building it is (it was built from 1961 to 1978). Jakarta is so crammed and busy that it was difficult to get a good view of it, and area around it was especially unimpressive - open sewers do not enhance the look of a place. When it the grounds, it was too big to properly see or appreciate, although I think if I'd made it up the Monas tower it could have been seen in its full glory. Unlike most mosques, there was just one minaret, designed so to be representative of the one true God but I would sincerely hope that the one true God is less spindly and scrawny than Istiglal Mosque's disappointing effort.

I'm happier to say that inside was significantly better. It is a huge mosque - the third biggest in the world according to the security guard-turned-guide that showed us around there - and can hold either 120,000 (according to Wikipedia) or 200,000 people (according to our guide). Either way, it's massive, and the dome interior, which is golden on the inside, looks especially good - it is, we were told, 45 metres in diameter to represent Indonesia's 1945 independence. I've only ever been to one other mosque before, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and this one shared with that an immense sense of peace. Scattered around were people, a small number praying, but most just relaxing, maybe chatting with friends, or just lying face up looking at the dome.

Indonesia is 97% Muslim, but just across the road from the mosque was Jakarta Cathedral, built in 1901. It was the inverse of Istiglal Mosque - it looked detailed and impressive on the outside, but inside was a bit pokey and, unusual for a cathedral, stickily warm.

Sticky heat has been a theme of Jakarta, with a daytime of wandering leaving us somewhat less than refreshed, so what better than to recuperate in the evening with a cool beer? Beer is maybe the only thing that isn't cheap in Jakarta - perhaps not surprising given that it's a Muslim country - and costs between £1.60 and £2.10, but comes in large 620ml bottles. The beer too - Bintang is the standard variety, but I've developed a taste for the marginally cheaper Anker - although plain tasting, is very drinkable, and so it's been all too easy to go for a few and find we're a little tipsier than intended. The drinking scene isn't very extensive though, so most of our drinks were in an upstairs bar with a free pool table.

That was Jakarta, and though I don't see it being a big tourist draw for some time, it was a decent diversion for a couple of days. Now though, it's off to the much smaller central Javan city of Yogyakarta, our intended base for the next few days as we explore, among other things, my next Wonder, the lost temple of Borobudur.

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