Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.
Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.
Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.
As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.
Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.
To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana.
Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.
Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.
When tasked with describing the origins of the ruinous heap of rubble sitting amongst their villages, the people of Central Java chose to err on the side of the fantastical. Long ago, as all legends must start, there were two rival kingdoms, one ruled by a man and the other a man-eating giant. Eager to expand his empire, the giant waged war on the neighboring kingdom, but was defeated by his counterpart’s son, who was said to have supernatural powers. The victorious prince, whose name, Bandung Bondowoso, sounds like what one would expect an Indonesian Marvel superhero to be named, immediately fell in love with the giant’s daughter, who, stunningly beautiful, had apparently not gotten her looks from her father. After being asked to marry him, she reluctantly agreed to, but only if the prince could fulfill one impossible request: build 1,000 temples over the course of one night. Employing his supernatural powers, Bandung summoned an army of spirits and demons who helped him construct the first 999 temples with ease. Worried that her request would be met, the princess and her maidens lit a fire and began pounding rice (a traditional morning task) so as to make it seem like it was dawn. Fooled into thinking it was, roosters began crowing and the spirits fled into the darkness, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince turned the princess to stone and used her statue as the finishing piece in the 1,000th temple where it still sits to this day.
While the temple’s true origins were not quite as captivating a tale as the one conjured up by locals (its building was commissioned by a king sometime in the 9th Century), our imaginations were captured all the same as we caught our first glimpse of it in the distance. Rising from a pile of incoherent rubble were the imposing spires of the main temple complex. Tall and seemingly rooted in the earth below, they dominated the horizon. Serving as their backdrop was a sky that seemed undecided in what kind of weather it wanted to convey for, at any given minute, it fluctuated from blue and sunny to gray and rainy. As we approached the main buildings, it had apparently settled on rainy and we found dry refuge under a nearby tree which gave us time to contemplate the grounds.
While the towers reigned supreme in the sky, less spectacular piles of rock and haphazardly assembled structures dominated the ground, looking as we imagined they would have the day after an earthquake rattled the area half a millennia earlier. When restoration began on the site in the early 1900’s, it had been decided that any buildings that were missing more than a quarter of their original structure would be left to their ruinous state. Given that locals had been using stones from the site for centuries to construct their own buildings and 19th century looters smuggled out statues to serve as unique ornaments for their homes back in Europe, it was no wonder that a majority of the buildings were left unfinished. One could only imagine what the site must have looked like fully restored, though the present state of it, rubble and all, was still enthralling. In fact, our imaginations had been kindled the most walking amongst the rubble, with its half-finished shrines and lonely statues rising up from the pile of rocks beneath it. It was no wonder that locals were able to come up with such an incredible myth about the temple’s origins.
As the rain spell passed and blue skies returned, this time for good, we made our way into the main temple complex. If the piles of rubble had enticed us because of what wasn’t there, then the main temple did so because of what was. Standing amongst the towers we had appreciated from afar, we were overwhelmed not only by their magnitude but by the amount of inviting details that covered every inch of them. Bulging-eyed faces knowingly peered out from corners and from atop doors, cheerful lions sat tucked away in darkened nooks, and reliefs depicted grand tales that, like the temple itself, would remain largely unknown and mysterious to us.
After spending a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, it still felt like every time we turned a corner we had been hit with a bout of amnesia, experiencing the temples anew as before unseen details emerged. While this phenomenon would never truly wear off, our desire to see new things conquered our hesitation that we might have missed something at the main complex, and we left it to walk to the nearby Sewu Temple.
Welcoming us to the temple grounds were two bulbous stone guards, whose bare, protruding bellies and bewildered expression ruined any chance they had at looking intimidating, even with weapons in tow. The temple itself, pixelated-looking as each brick that made up its facade took on a different shade of gray, was well-worth the walk. Like it’s cousin a kilometer away, Sewu existed, for the most part, in a ruinous state which did nothing to diminish its intrigue.
However impressive Prambanan and Sewu were though, with their alluring grandeur and inexhaustible intricacies, we always felt our attention being drawn back to the shadowed form of Mount Merapi, a local volcano that loomed menacingly behind a veil of clouds over the entire area. For all the ingenuity of the civilization that built the temple complex, the volcano served as a reminder that anything can be dismantled, whether it be by the forces of nature, time, or another, less romantic trace of humanity, division and destruction. Historians believe that either an eruption from Mount Merapi or a power struggle between neighboring kingdoms had caused the temple to be abandoned and within generations, its origins had become a mystery and the civilization that built it it and religion that inspired it, supplanted. It was now just a hollowed shell, its once hallowed halls now only filled by myths and imaginations of those who set their eyes upon it.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Musings From an Amateur Ornithologist
An abundance of feathered creatures
stand against stone.
Tethered and flightless
they display curved beaks
with sharp points
grown smooth by age.
They don’t understand
the significance of this once holy place
buried by jungle, claimed and reclaimed.
Or perhaps it is we who don’t understand,
placing too much significance on our mark
and perceive our time to be much grander
than the score in sandstone that it is.
When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of“oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.
To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.
Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.
To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.
As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world.
With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
A Kelimutu Fairytale
Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.
A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.
Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.
The surface is still
Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
It was with this paragraph that the world was introduced to the beloved hobbits and their seemingly unattainable simplicity that still entices the imaginations of movie-goers and book readers alike today. Having long been enchanted by the creatures in Tolkien’s tales myself, I was surprised and delighted to find that Ruteng, one of the stops along our journey across the Indonesian island of Flores, had a site near it called the “Hobbit Cave.” Looking at pictures of the cave before going however, we found that it was wet and dirty, though we couldn’t speak for the ends of worms, oozy smells, or it’s overall nastiness. There was no round wooden door opening into the cave nor anything pleasant filling it, certainly no places to sit down on, and nothing that spoke of comfort. The cave however, didn’t get its name for its resemblance to the fictitious dwellings of the hobbit but rather from the real life species that used to live there, by some estimates, as recently as 50,000 years ago. Human in form, the homo floresiensis, as it is known, topped off at under 4 feet tall much like the famously stature-challenged hobbit. They also had large, flat feet disproportionate to the rest of their body and are thought to have been particularly hairy.
Unfortunately, the resemblances stop there, especially when it comes to lifestyles, for hobbits, most of them anyway, led quiet, predictable lives whereas the life of the homo floresiensis was believed to be anything but. Far from the sleepy, uneventful hillsides of the Shire, the prehistoric island of Flores was home to a slew of other uniquely-sized creatures that made the island a volatile and dangerous place to live. On the outsized and horrific end of the spectrum were nearly 6-foot tall storks, the island’s endemic giant rat, and Komodo dragons that may have been even bigger than the ten-foot long versions that still roam Flores and its neighboring islands today. And on the wrong end of the spectrum, being victims of insular dwarfism, was homo floresiensis and the Stegodon, a dwarf elephant whose maximum height reached anywhere from four to six feet and served as a food source for the fierce hunters of the island, among which the homo floresiensis was included.
Eager to see the site of one of the more surprising and puzzling anthropological finds in recent memory, we rented a motorbike and began making our way toward Liang Bua, the local name for the cave that predated the discovery of the “Hobbit” bones. As we set out, a thick fog descended on us, reducing our already cautious speed to a crawl. Other motorists, undeterred by the lack of visibility, zoomed around us. However dense, the fog seemed intent on passing through the countryside rather quickly, dissipating with almost as much urgency as it had appeared with. Slowly out of the white nothingness of our surroundings came shadows of trees and houses, creating a haunted landscape. Aware of its fleeting beauty as the fog continued to unroll itself at a captivating pace, we stopped the motorbike to watch the scene play out until the fog had all but vanished, leaving a crystal clear view of terraced fields that had only moments before been completely unknown to us.
If you’re expecting the next part of this tale to be an account of our arrival at Liang Bua, so were we. As it turns out though, operating a vehicle you’ve only driven twice before in your life on a slick surface more rubble than road that frequently dips and curves unpredictably, mistakes are bound to happen. And so, while in the process of correcting the previous and harmless mistake of taking a wrong turn, I made the much more crucial mistake of accidentally accelerating off of the road and down a six-foot drop to a spattering of jagged rocks below.
Having blacked out briefly as I crashed down the hill, I came around to the sound of the motorbike’s engine still revving, my leg being trapped between the motorbike and one of the aforementioned rocks, and the sight of Kate, who had luckily gotten off the bike prior to me turning it around, rushing down the hill towards me. Immediately, she stopped the engine and lifted the bike up long enough for me to crawl out of under it. A few local villagers, who had seen the accident, arrived shortly after to help. While two of them took the mangled bike up to the road, another began plucking what looked like weeds from the ground, chewing them up and then stuffing the frothy mixture into my wounds. My faint protests at this development were blatantly ignored. Miraculously, it appeared I had no broken bones. Perhaps more miraculous yet, the man still applying chewed leaves to my wounds was able to utter the phrase “traditional medicine” amidst his other reassurances in Indonesian.
Already feeling invincible at the optimistic state of affairs given just how bad the alternative could have been, I tried standing. Hobbled, but able to walk, the villagers pointed me in the direction of a house sitting at the top of the hill. “Doctor,” one of them said; we were astounded at their ability to communicate even the simplest of things in English. After arriving at the house, a woman, who seemed not at all surprised by the bizarre situation on her doorstep, got some chairs for us to sit down on, disappeared back into her house, and returned shortly after with oils that she applied vigorously to my leg. What appeared to be the entire village had gathered around us. Adding to the crowd were passing motorcyclists who stopped, parked their bikes, and put off wherever they had been going to take in the spectacle.
Meanwhile, Kate was frantically flipping through our phrasebook, trying to communicate with the herbalist about my condition and with the other villagers about arranging transport back to our hotel. Among the pages of a phrasebook one never hopes to venture into, namely those under the heading of”at the hospital,” Kate learned and became very familiar with the Indonesian words for “broken” and “leg.” It was with this knowledge that she became panicked to hear the word “rusak“ (the Indonesian word for broken) muttered over and over again among the gathering. We would later find that they were referring to the bike, not my leg.
As the situation calmed down, which did nothing to dispel the crowd, the herbalist said a word that needs no phrasebook to translate in any language: coffee. We told her that we would like some and she came out several minutes later with a tray of cups filled to the brim with the steaming, black elixir whose medicinal contributions, however placebic, rivaled those of the oils. After serving us first, she handed out the remaining cups to other members of the gathering. As we sipped our coffee, we noticed that the witnesses to the accident had taken it upon themselves to explain what had happened to the new additions to the crowd, which seemed to expand by the minute. With each telling, eyes seemed to grow wider, tones more serious, and hand gestures more exaggerated to the point where a casual passerby could have been forgiven for confusing my off-road mishap to the stunts of Evel Knievel.
As coffee cups and conversations ran dry, the crowd slowly began to diminish, its members returning to the agendas they had so readily abandoned upon seeing my predicament. Shortly after, our transport back to the village arrived and we bid the villagers farewell. Their kindness had been overwhelming, made even more so by the matter-of-factness that they administered it with. From the herbalist who scoffed at the idea of us paying for the oils and coffee she so readily distributed to the English-speaking local who drove his motorbike around nearby villages looking for a cell phone he could use to arrange our transport, the warmness we were met with seemed reactionary rather than dutiful. Even back at the motorbike shop, the owner’s only concern was whether or not we were okay. “The bike is just a thing,” he said before giving us a pack of gauze and oils from his home to keep (we of course would pay for the repairs).
The day had been far from what we had expected it would be, but, given all the circumstances, we were thankful for the way it had turned out; if not for the lessons learned, at least for the story it provided.
Mystified by tales of giant creatures roaming on one of the forgotten isles of the Indonesian archipelago, a group of intrepid filmmakers sets sail for the fabled land in hopes of capturing the beasts on film. So goes the plot of King Kong, and, while we most definitely would never have chosen Skull Island as a destination, we were planning to visit the island and creatures that inspired the 1933 classic to see not the oversized ape that starred in the movie, but rather a different giant and ancient creature that sparks fear and fascination: the Komodo dragon.
To see the dragons we would have to visit one of two islands (Komodo or Rinca) that make up the greater Komodo National Park. Our base for the visit, as there’s no accommodation on the islands themselves, was Labuan Bajo, a rusty port town situated on the westernmost point of Flores, one of more than 17,000 islands that make up the country of Indonesia. The town, as we would discover, was well-accustomed to the tourism scene being a popular stopover for holiday-goers in Bali. Hotels, dive shops, and tour operators crowded the town’s main street among the more surprising establishments like bakeries and Italian restaurants. Along the sidewalks, English-speaking locals functioned as walking advertisements, chatting up any tourist showing even the slightest amount of insecurity in hopes of securing a future client.
It was in this atmosphere that we discovered that finding a tour for the next day would not be a problem; finding one that fit our needs and budget however, would. After hearing sales pitch after sales pitch and having our requests for a tour be met with an enthusiastic “Yes!” followed by a shamelessly exaggerated price to a disgusted “No!” after which the operator returned to playing games on his phone, we finally settled on a place that neatly fit in the middle of those two responses, a reluctant and almost bothered “Okay” followed by a price estimate that we decided was only slightly ripping us off.
The next morning we were back at the shop which was running a group tour that morning as well. While waiting for our tour guide we met an Australian man who began chatting us up. Well into his fifties if not sixties, he was unapologetically boastful about his newfound relationship with a girl barely in her twenties whom he had met while wandering the streets and had paid heavily to show him around the town. Between sporadic and unnecessary reassurances of her beauty as he pointed a greedy, prizewinning finger towards a shadowy figure under a nearby street lamp, he told us of how he had paid for her to go on the tour with him that day and was in the process of getting her a job back in Australia to take her back home with him. Gathering that he had treaded from jolly vacationer looking for an authentic experience with a local to the much murkier waters of trying to secure a reluctant prostitute, we were quite glad that we wouldn’t be sharing a boat with him that day and hoped the best for the girl.
After our guide showed up, and we use the term “guide” very lightly as this came in the form of a high school student who was more ornamental in his accompaniment of us than guide-like, often trailing behind us in a pondering sort of walk that hinted at him thinking whether or not this was really worth getting a day off from school, we made our way to the boat dock past stalls of sleepy-eyed tour operators who clearly hadn’t secured any clients for that day, their heavy eyes trailing us regretfully as we paraded by.
Our boat, wooden and charming in its neon color scheme, was dwarfed by most other boats on the harbor, looking much more equipped to putter across a small pond than brave the testy ocean waters that had forced the harbor to close just a day earlier. As we peered closer at the boat, we found that our captain and his first mate (there was no second mate) were asleep on the deck. After a couple of half-hearted shouts from our guide, they promptly woke up and within minutes we were out on the ocean, beginning our three-hour journey towards Komodo National Park.
After being on the water for a short while and taking note of the pace at which our boat was moving towards the islands in the distance, eternity seemed like a more accurate time estimate than the already lengthy three hours. At times, it appeared we were even moving backwards, our boat losing the battle of progress between itself and the ocean, which swelled with pride as it moved past us and towards the coast. An incessant and deafening rat-a-tat-tat echoed out from the engine, an audial metaphor for the boat’s struggles to push back against the waves. As if the assault on one of our senses wasn’t enough, an inescapable cloud of gasoline fumes encompassed the entire boat for the duration of the journey. And yet, despite these inconveniences, the boat ride, all three hours of it, would end up being one of our favorite parts of the day. The journey was an enjoyable slow, the engine noises and gasoline smells were treated with fondness rather than scrutiny, and the views accompanying us on our trip were at all times breathtaking.
The scenery, grandiose and expansive, stretched out in the form of oceans and mountains and islands that, oddly enough given their scope, had a miniaturized feel to them. Perhaps what made it appear this way was the almost-artificial looking green that carpeted the smooth island peaks that always seemed to exist in the undefinable gray area between a hill and a mountain. Like the greenery of a toy train set, it appeared almost felt-like and if we could have reached out and touched it, and at times it felt as if we’d be able to easily enough, we imagined it would feel velveteen. In some cases the soft and smooth slopes gently slid into the ocean, disappearing beneath the ever-changing color and texture of the water, and in other cases it’s descent into the water was ended abruptly in the form of a cliff made up of a jagged, craggy rock face that heroically bore the brunt of the waves endlessly crashing into it.
While this scene and others that the island had to offer were captivating, our attention at times drifted towards the horizon where our eyes played tricks on us again as what we thought to be the faded outline of clouds jutting across the ocean would slowly materialize into mountains as we crept closer to them. Out of one of these mirages came our first stop: Padar Island, famous not for its reptilian inhabitants but for the sweeping views offered from its peaks.
After leaving Padar, we began making our way towards Rinca Island to see the Komodo Dragons. To visit the park you had to be accompanied by a park ranger and could choose between several hikes around the island varying in length. Our ranger welcomed us and introduced the park with all of the enthusiasm and routine of a theme park ride operator, spewing scripted facts about the island in a monotone, almost robotic fashion. After choosing the longest trek possible in hopes of it increasing our chances of seeing a dragon, the ranger nodded obligingly and took us to our first stop, the rangers shelters, where a worrisome gathering of dragons sat in waiting. Almost sedated looking as they basked in the midday heat, we quickly learned just how terrifying they could be after a loud noise coming from the nearby forest made them spring to life, gargoyles turning to the monsters you feared them to be. As they strutted and slithered menacingly about the grounds, we began to look at our ranger and his tool for fighting off a dragon should they attack: a “Y” shaped stick, with increasing dubiousness.
As we stood and watched the dragons slowly return to their sedentary state, our ranger, as if suffering from amnesia, deemed it necessary to tell us several times without being asked that they never feed the dragons and then posited that they must be lured to the shelters by cooking odors. “Ah, so they feed them,” we thought to ourselves. Eager to see ones in the wild (and not eager at the same time) we left the shelters to begin our trek across the island.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were traversing the same hillsides that had so enticed us during our boat ride to the park. Verdant and untouched, it was not at all difficult to imagine spotting a dinosaur munching on vegetation in the distance let alone Komodo dragons. Sadly though, our imaginations would have to suffice for both as for the duration of our hour and a half walk across the island, the ones perched outside the ranger shelters would end up being the only ones we’d see.
Sitting on our long boat ride back to Labuan Bajo, we had plenty of time to contemplate our time in the park. Disappointment at not seeing Komodo dragons on our trek came to mind first but then disappointment suggests an expectation to see such things. Too often in our travels we have witnessed and fell victim to the allure of seeing unique, wild animals through means that don’t keep them wild. Whether it be a parade of jeeps falling over themselves to box in a family of elephants in Sri Lanka or a fleet of boats dropping anchor in an already depleted coral reef in Vietnam, tour operators often pay no adherence to the protection and care of the wild animals that keep their operations afloat in the name of leaving a site with a satisfied customer. Like the filmmakers in King Kong, businesses and travelers alike can get greedy about the experiences and profit that wildlife can provide, but it’s important to remember that nature isn’t an entertainer and adheres to no schedule. Expecting it to do so is selfish and the only truly disappointing thing is that it took us until this trip to finally realize this. It was encouraging then to hear that the park would be closing sometime this year to allow dragon and deer populations to recover, a positive first step that hopefully turns into a long journey for the tourism industry and tourists alike towards a more sustainable relationship with nature.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
in the tropical heat
I scout out a sunny patch
to bathe in the rays,
creeping slowly to a shady bit
under the trees
when the sun begins
On this island
friends surround me.
I snap to attention
in unison with the throng.
Is it my next meal?
just a brick.
Thrown for the amusement
of the crowd of humans
that stands around
day after day watching
me and my bank
I get up and amble toward one
She jumps back in fear,
Just like the brick,
it works every time.
To wander into a restaurant in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, is to find a scene not too unlike one you might find in a ski lodge. Red faces appear frozen in their last expression, hands cling desperately to hot beverages, mounds of clothes lay piled on any available furniture, and, perhaps most notably, the warm interior air is filled with a murmured excitement.For, while the restaurant offers a necessary respite from the freezing temperatures outside of it, the weather itself, no matter how cold, is exhilarating, and the experiences that can be had in it, whether it be exploring the dusty backstreets of a Russian city left from a bygone era or marveling at the towering ice sculptures that give the city its fame, are so unique that you want to duck into a warm place not out of a want to escape the cold but out of a reluctant necessity to avoid frostbite. And so was our dilemma for the duration of our time in Harbin, balancing our desire to see as much as we could with our desire to feel our limbs.
If there was any part of us that thought that growing up in the frigid winters of Ohio and Iowa meant that we would be better equipped to handle the cold of Harbin, it was laughed out of the room the second we stepped off the plane and felt the arctic air gripping our body as we scampered to the shuttle bus. We would later find that the average January temperature in Ohio and Iowa sits somewhere around 30 degrees Fahrenheit while Harbin’s is down in the single digits. With those figures in mind, we applied layers to our body with reckless abandon the next morning before heading out to Zhongyang (or Central) Street, whose name implied an apt place to start our exploration of Harbin.
The street, and Harbin itself, got its start at the turn of the 20th century when Russian railroad builders chose the site as the terminus station for one of their cross-continent lines. In the ensuing decades, Russia’s influence on Harbin was unparalleled, even among the Chinese, as they essentially erected a city from scratch and filled its streets with its people and culture. After World War II though, with the Russian army in firm control of the city after wrestling it out of the hands of the Japanese, the city was hallowed out when its Russian population, which numbered into the hundreds of thousands, was forcibly deported back to Russia, leaving just 450 left by the early 1960’s. While the people who gave the city its unmistakably Russian character were no longer there, the skeleton of their influence remained in the form of buildings and a culture that were still very much visible during our visit to the city over half a century later; nowhere was this more noticeable than on Zhongyang Street.
Entering the street, we became a bit disoriented as surrounding us were Baroque and Byzantine-style buildings, cobbled streets, Russian cafes and bakeries, and fellow revelers so bundled that it was difficult to make out their species let alone their nationality; in other words, scenery that in no way hinted that we were in China. Pulling us back to reality though was the overly cheerful face of a Chinese girl etched into a block of snow that rose well above the reach of our heads. Surrounding her was an array of less eye-grabbing designs celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year and that, we decided, placed us firmly, and perhaps a bit harshly, back into the context of China.
As we wandered further down the street, the view of buildings and trees that had dominated our surroundings up to that point gave way to the more open scenery of the Songhua River where an army of amateur snowmen shot off in either direction along the waterfront. If army gives the impression of uniformity and seriousness, the snowmen were anything but, being similar only in number. Rather, they were decorated mostly with an absurd array of googly eyes, cartoon mouths contorted in a variety of exaggerated expressions, and colorful tinsel draped around their bodies like a scarf. Apart from their faces, their size also varied from one to the next from those that barely topped off at our chests to others that stretched well beyond the reach of the tallest tree.
Having taken in our fair share of snowmen, we ventured down to the river which was completely frozen over, so much so that trucks were able to move across it to load and haul away the two ton ice bricks used to build the city’s famous ice sculptures. Along with the trucks were crowds of people partaking in different ice-themed activities that ranged from the familiar skating to a game that involved whipping a spinning top to prevent it from toppling over. With no skates and our whipping skills rusty, we decided to partake instead in the timeless and all age-inclusive fun of running up to a patch of ice and seeing how far we could slide across it.
After doing this several times we walked on, though our ability to stay atop the ice was fleeting for, however cold we thought it was while not walking over a mass of frozen water, it couldn’t compare with the arctic chill invading our bodies not only from the ice below but also from the steady, numbing breeze blowing over top of it. No longer able to enjoy our surroundings, we headed back up towards Zhongyang Street, which seemed comparatively cozy, a feeling we would continue to pursue by stopping in a small Russian restaurant where we basked in its warmth like a lizard under a heat lamp.
Once feeling returned to our fingertips and toes, we ordered an array of hot dishes and tea to aid in the thawing process. As we sat, we watched as others sought the same warm refuge as us. Through the fog of their own breath, layer-laden bodies whose rotundness would make even the Michelin Man blush, made their way to open tables, peeling off coat after coat until a heap of winter wear lay piled up behind them, nearly pushing them off the front of their chair. Like a greedy baron stashing away his money, we kept our layers on, building up as much warmth in our bodies as we could in the fruitless hope that it would serve to keep us warm once we left the restaurant.
We would need all the warmth we could get for a visit to the Ice Festival was in our near future and we expected that, whatever chill we had felt while atop the frozen Songhua River, the one we would be experiencing amidst a city of ice after nightfall would be even more. The sun set at a surprisingly early 3:56 p.m. (perhaps Harbin was a bit too chilly for even the sun to hang around longer than it needed to) and we arrived not long after with any traces of the sun, whether it be light or warmth, long gone.
As we approached the festival, we felt as if we had bought a ticket to another world. The uniform black of the night sky served as the perfect backdrop for the glowing brilliance of the ice sculptures which rose up from the snow-covered ground in every way imaginable. There were walls, bridges, towering buildings, churches, temples, and castles. The Roman Colisseum was even on display. As if the size and scope of the structures wasn’t enough, each one emanated a different color that, when looked at together with the buildings around it, created a rainbow of glowing ice across the landscape. Some of the colors remained unchanged within their given structure, while others faded in and out of each other, purples turning to blues turning to greens as they rose up through the ice, making the buildings they illuminated appear alive as they coursed into the night sky. Funnily enough, the way the ice blocks looked reminded us of embers in a fire, emanating a calm and steady glow. Far removed from the contemplative coziness of a fireside, the ice blocks drew our attention in all the same.
Standing in contrast to the radiance of the buildings were the people moving around them. If the buildings were the definition of light, the figures were the complete absence of it. Always in the form of a silhouette, they seemed an extension of the nighttime sky above them; an unwavering black. You would think that one would pay little attention to the comparative dullness of black when surrounded by a gigantic, illuminated ice city, but the crowd of shadows served as the perfect accompaniment to the buildings, always reminding us of just how bright and monumental they were.
While standing outside of one particular ice sculpture that resembled a church, we were approached by a reporter from a news channel who wanted to interview us about our experiences in Harbin (you can find the videos here and here). However exciting it was to do the interview, it meant standing still for an extended period of time which spelt doom for our waning ability to feel our fingers and feet. After the interview ended, out of sight of the reporter and cameraman of course, we danced and shook our bodies wildly to restore as much circulation to our limbs as possible (sorry, no videos of that one) before continuing our exploration of the festival. Not wanting to lose what little warmth we had managed to restore to our bodies, we would spend the rest of our time there in a constant state of motion, pausing only to snap a quick picture. When finally, the cold became too much to bear, we left the festival to head back to our hotel.
The next day would see us return to Zhongyang Street where, this time, we would be heading away from the river and towards the city’s most iconic permanent structure: St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Wanting to get off the crowded confines of the pedestrian street, we made our way through the Russian quarter’s less-trafficked alleyways which, unlike the restored and admired Zhongyang Street, were full of crumbling edifices whose influence had seemingly been lost along with the population that built them; a fate that the cathedral almost suffered itself.
Built in the early 20th Century to help restore confidence to Russian troops who had just lost a war to the Japanese, the cathedral stood as the center and symbol of the city until the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Like so many other cultural sights within the country, the communist takeover of it spelt doom for the cathedral. While it withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it would endure an equally miserable fate as it became nearly forgotten as concrete apartment buildings and factories were erected within inches of its walls, making the cathedral completely invisible from the street. It wouldn’t be until several decades later, in 1997 to be precise, that it would regain its visibility after wealthy donors pooled together their money to tear down the surrounding buildings and return the cathedral to its former glory.
As we approached the cathedral, the idea that it could have remained unseen and forgotten for nearly half a century became even more absurd as we were met with, what was to us, a work of art. While the buildings of Zhongyang Street looked far from Chinese, the Chinese signs and brands that filled them were steady reminders that they were indeed, made in China. St. Sophia’s on the other hand, looked as if it were ripped from the pages of a Russian travel book and plopped down in the middle of the large ornate square that held it. Apart from the faces moving around it, one would never guess by looking at the cathedral alone that it would belong anywhere but in Russia.
As we looked upon the cathedral, our attention couldn’t help but first go to its green, bulbous roof which crowned the rest of the structure in ceremonious fashion. Trickling down from the roof was row after row of patterned brickwork, whose intricate designs would look far more at home within the pages of quilting book than on the facade of a large cathedral. Pigeons flocked from ledges, swooping back around to their perches almost immediately in a way that could only befit a pigeon. Being smaller than other cathedrals we’ve seen, we were able to make several trips around it, with each one offering a new angle or detail that we hadn’t seen before. Once there was nothing new for it to offer, we headed back to Zhongyang Street for a late lunch and dark beer at Madieer Brewery before retiring to our hotel.
For our last day in Harbin, we would head to Sun Island to take in the other headliner of the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. While their icier counterparts across the river were best viewed at night, these, we had read, were at their best during the day. So, after a hearty hotel breakfast, we layered up and got in a taxi bound for the Snow Festival. We’re not really sure how Sun Island got its name, but, upon arrival we could venture some guesses for the midday sun was shining off of the snow to a degree that nearly blinded us in our attempt to view the different sculptures. Once our eyes adjusted, we were able to see that the park was full of the most elaborate snow creations we had ever seen. If the Ice Festival was impressive due to the size of its buildings, then the Snow Festival was so due to the intricacy of the designs on display. There were massive ones of course, but even the smaller ones were able to hold our interest due to their details and ability to tell stories in a way that the ice simply could not.
As we made our way further into the park, the sculptures grew bigger and we even were able to find intrigue in the unfinished projects and the monumental efforts being taken to bring them to completion. In the back of the park, and the grand finale of the festival itself, was a several story high sculpture that dwarfed anything we had seen up to that point and was the clear focal point of the festival as evidenced by the crowds of people staring awe struck at its base as well as the numerous activities set up in the large expanse of snow in front of it. After admiring it for a short while, we decided to escape the cold one last time in the form of a cafeteria and souvenir shop overlooking the massive sculpture. As we sipped our Harbin beers, we reveled in the joys and sights we had seen as well as the fact that, for the first time, we were finally able to enjoy the fruits of Harbin’s winter without having to experience the winter itself.
For those who have made it this far, firstly, God Bless You!, and secondly, there were a few snow sculpture pictures that didn’t make it into the blog that I though were still worth sharing. If you care to go on, here they are:
The word “mudflat” is not one that typically inspires images of beauty. In fact, upon hearing the word, you probably picture exactly what it’s name implies: a large expanse of flat land covered ingloppy mud, which, essentially, is what it is. Surround a mudflat with old fishing villages whose specialty is drying seaweed and the idea that a place like this could ever be considered beautiful now becomes almost laughable. It was to our surprise then that photos we saw of a place called the Xiapu Mudflats, a small coastal area in the north of China’s Fujian Province, could be some of the most unique and transfixing images we had ever seen. In the photos, thin layers of glinting water wove like veins over the mud, creating a tiger-like pattern over the earth. In the nearby ocean, a multitude of bamboo poles used for drying seaweed rose out of it like a dead forest. There were images of fisherman wielding strange devices and mist covered mountains looming in the distance. The mudflats, we decided almost immediately, were a place we most definitely had to see.
Our experience with them came on the morning of our first and, regrettably, only day in Xiapu. Not wanting to miss the much-hyped (for good reason) sunrises that were featured in so many of the images we had seen, we rose early and hired a taxi to take us to the nearby Beiqi Mudflats. After arriving at the site, we exited the taxi to complete darkness, the only source of light being the bobbing headlamps of fisherman making their way to the beach and a small food cart, conveniently perched alongside the path that led to the viewing platform. Walking past the food vendor and up the small hill, we eventually came upon a small group of people where we decided to stop and secure our spot for the sunrise.
As light began seeping out of the horizon, the features of the landscape before us slowly began to take shape; everything inhabited an eerie shade of blue. As more light made its way into the scene, the water transformed to a sheath of silver, its glassy finish being disrupted only by the ripples of fisherman wading knee-deep into the shallow ocean. The silver eventually lost its vibrancy and turned to such a degree of gray that we began to doubt whether or not the sun would make an appearance. Our worries were soon put to rest though when, about an hour and a half after we arrived, a sliver of orange peeked out over the mountains to cheers from the crowd which were soon followed by a uniform silence of admiration. Within minutes, the sun was fully in the sky and the water below was now golden. As we watched we knew, from that point on, that mudflat would be a word that we’d always associate with beauty.