Monday, January 19, 2015

Riding into the belly of the MCP - Day 1, The Longest Day


Pic KC

My little space for 13 hrs on the long train ride! Note missing tray table.

Pic KC

Pic KC

Pic KC

It's always hard to sleep the night before an adventure as the excitement and anticipation were just uncontainable. As I woke up really early, I decided to go to our usual meeting point, Kranji MRT to meet Uncle KC and wait for him there. Although we were supposed to meet at 715am, I was there 10 minutes before time, and so was KC! He had ridden all the way from the East, while I must sheepishly admit that I just hopped on a bus, as I felt a bit lazy.

We rode smoothly across the Causeway into Johor Baru, Malaysia and headed straight for Johor Sentral, the train station. It has been more than 10 years since I boarded a train from here and was very impressed by the amazing 4 year new building that resembled a modern airport. RM$50 was the fare to Kuala Kangsar and since we had more than 50 mins before our 850 train, we got comfortable and enjoyed a nice breakkie.

Just to make sure we won't have any trouble with the railway officials, we bagged our foldies as we boarded the train and acted as normal as possible. Somehow, it felt like we were carrying onboard some illegal cargo as trains here are not exactly bike friendly, and it is often a touch and go situation. Stepping into Carriage #5 was like stepping into a time tunnel, from 2015 to 1970s as these 20 year old Hyundai carriages have certainly seen better days. Although our tickets said "Kelas Superior", there was clearly nothing superior about our abode for the next 12 hours. Frayed curtains, broken plastic seat casings, dirty windows, unworkable auto electric door, smelly toilets, dangling wirings etc plus a darty welcome from the resident roach all made for a grim journey. This was really in stark contrast to the Thai trains we took in August. We placed our foldies at the corner of the carriage where it was out of everyone's way, and settled bravely into our worn out seats.


As our diesel train chugged away northwards, it was lovely to see the green Malaysian countryside whiz past. Passing through small towns, some which I recognise, it was interesting to see it from the train. Although this was Express Rakyat, it stopped very frequently and I can only imagine how much longer a normal train would take. At least the airconditioning was cold and at times, too cold and that meant more trips to the awful loo.

Pic KC

The rotund conductor in his blue uniform came around to check out our tickets and much to our dismay, asked for RM $10 each for our compact foldies as in his eyes, they were considered extra large luggage. I pointed out to him that our backpacking Portugese fellow passengers had packs that were as large as coffins and made our covered foldies look like peas. But this fell on deaf ears as he coldly brush that aside and said it was company policy.

At noon, the sudden arrival of the food cart manned by 2 young gentlemen in red sporting punkishly cut hair brought quiet satisfaction to our growling stomachs. We ordered Bee Hoon Goreng that was served in a white disposable box, and was grateful it was still warm. That with a piping hot 3 in 1 coffee drank from a straw due to the rocking of the carriage, was our simple lunch, eaten with a good dollop of faith. KC pointed out a vomit bag dangling from his broken seat table in case of any "disagreements" with the menu and that got us laughing!

I put on my music and drifted into another world but woke up at 2pm when the train stopped again. It was 2pm but we were only at Tampin, not even at the halfway point. With the soothing strings and rhythm of Deep Purple's Temple of the King in my ears, it brought me to the days of my youth that has passed by so quickly. This time of "forced" reflections is truly good for one's soul. I felt a great sense of thankfulness at the many blessings poured out generously to me, and said a grateful prayer to God. Truly, we should all count our blessings because gratitude brings about contentment.

I recalled the immense joy I had when my Aunt Ruth unexpectedly bought me a orange red German made Cito bicycle when I was 10. Riding that bike with my brother and the neighbourhood boys brought endless fun. I later upgraded that to a Raleigh Chopper GT. This had drop bars and skinner tires and that took me on my first solo touring ride from my home in Bukit Timah to my grandma's home Pasir Ris, a respectable 30+km. I sort of snucked out early in the morning as a 13 year old without my parents' permission and instead of scolding me when they found out, mom marvelled at my achievement! I supposed that encouraged me on to be a bicycle tourer, and I am very pleased bicycle touring still thrills me to bits.

It was good to finally see the tall buildings of KL as we approached the Malaysian capital city at about 4pm. KC and I were trying to capture the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and this was easier said than done as the background changed ever so quickly. As we pulled into the new KL Sentral as well as the old 1910 Railway station (built when the country was known as the Federated Malay States - FMS) , many passengers left only to be replaced by even more passengers heading north.

Our boys in red appeared again, this time serving dinner and that was very appreciated as our stomachs were starting to growl. They recognised us and were surprised we were still on the train! Freshly cooked Mee Goreng was recommended and although it was very ordinary, it was good to have something to eat.

At about 6pm just after Tg Malim, our windows were suddenly sprayed with black oil. Something had exploded in the front engine and we soon found ourselves coming to a grinding halt in the middle of nowhere. I was glad this happened on a train and not on a plane. Everyone was curious wanting to know what had happened. But there was no annoucements whatsover and soon, we disembarked to stretch our legs and to check out the situation. If ever an organisation needs to learn how to communicate with its passengers, KTM really should take note. After all, we were in Kelas Superior and entitled to know what went wrong, and what is being done. Also, how long the repair would take. Their silence was defeaning, to say the least.

The good part of this was we got to see the beautiful setting sun and that made for beautiful pictures. All the smokers were out in full force as they lighted up, compromising the fresh country air I was enjoying. Salvation came 1.5 hrs later when KTM sent another engine to pull the long train, and it was wonderful to be moving along again but we still had 200km to go.

As night fell, the rains came down and we were glad to pull into the beautiful British Colonial designed Ipoh Railway Station. Apparently, the movie Anna and the King shot some scenes here, a testament to the majestic architecture. It seemed that the train travelled faster at night and at 10pm, we arrived at the new Kuala Kangsar Station feeling a little bit worn out. Quickly, we got out carrying our foldies and panniers, and waved goodbye as the train disappeared into the night.

Apparently, we were the only ones at the station as we assembled our foldies and put on our raincoats. The security guard was waiting patiently for us to leave before he locked up the deserted station.

Our hotel for the night was the brand new The Shop, which truly stands out with its coffee cafe theme and bright lights and neon name. Riding through the rain, it was refreshing and the hotel was just 1km away. Though we looked rather wet and tired, the hotel staff gave us a very warm welcome and checked us in efficiently.

They recommended us to a very special Chinese eatery about 2km away just after the hospital and when we got there, we were very pleased it's signage proudly proclaimed it was appointed by the Royal Danish Court. How can this go wrong?

The customers there were also very curious at our small wheeled bicycles and our obviously out of town look. The owner suggested his signature dishes - a tempura style kway teow noodles with chicken and vegetables, as well as a stewed pork sauce yellow thin noodles. Both were absolutely delicious, and truly perked KC and I up to the heavens.

Going back to The Shop hotel, we got waylaid by their excellent cafe and despite our full stomachs, had had to order their excellent coffees, cake and ice cream. Enjoying these in warm, soothing surroundings with music from the 80s really was worth every mile of the difficult journey. 

We were so ready for bed when we hit the sack and were very grateful to arrive in Kuala Kangsar safely. The words of William Shakespeare, all's well that ends well, could not ring more true as we drifted into dreamland.

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