Archive for the 'Hiking' Category

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

As an avid hiker and trekker, I have taken the KTM train from Tanjong Pagar to the rural areas of Malaysia. The train often was a more direct means of getting to those places than the buses were, since it passed through many small towns that could be reached by bus only after transferring buses at a major city.

As someone who trekked as a means of escaping the stresses of city life, I thus associated Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as the gateway to relief from my oppressive ordinary life. Once I stepped into the station, I could look forward to a few days of “simple” living, where my primary activity would be putting one foot in front of the other. I would be uncontactable by phone. If anyone wanted to come and get me to do things, they would have to walk to me through a few days of leech-infested jungle. That element of physical obstruction made me feel further away from my ordinary life than I would have if I’d flown to Tokyo.

For a few days, I would not have to observe daily the expressions of desperate and earnest striving written all over the faces of the workers and students of Singapore. For a few days, I would be exposed to a wider variety of sights than I had been in the entire year before. Not just the natural sights, but the more inhomogeneous look of Malaysian urban areas, compared to Singapore’s.

The tidiness of Singapore’s urban scenery becomes oppressive after a while. When everything is orderly, one wonders what terrible things have been done to the disordered. One gets bored from the predictability of things. Why do I prefer trekking on an obstacle-strewn jungle trail to walking on a smooth concrete pavement? Because I get bored walking on the latter. In a similar way, even negotiating the broken, dirty sidewalks of Malaysian cities becomes a fresh stimulus to my dulled mind. For once, I have to look where I’m going, because there might be something unexpected. The unexpected has no place in Singapore.

This mental association of Malaysia with escape from mind-numbing dullness strengthened over the years to the extent that even seeing the railway tracks would send a warm fuzzy feeling through me. When I worked in Biopolis, I would cross the railway tracks every day walking to and from Commonwealth MRT. There was a more ‘civilised’ route to Buona Vista MRT, but I loved the ‘back route’ to Commonwealth because there was a very short trek on a muddy path down a steepish hillock to the railway tracks. Even this short section of ‘greenery’ (by Singapore’s standards) lifted my mood a little. Across the tracks were the Tanglin Halt HDB flats, some of the oldest in Singapore. Their age and striking difference from the newer flats turned them in my eyes into a symbol of resistance against homogenisation in the name of development. Going to and from work, I would expose myself to these symbols of resistance, each time nursing a kernel of sadness at the thought that they could not resist for much longer; that Development would soon be victorious. I have not been back in Singapore for two years. I have no idea if they are still there, and I do not really want to know, for fear that they are not.

The moment I mounted the high kerb of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I would feel that I was ‘in Malaysia’. In Singapore, the kerbs are all of a uniform height, so that one’s legs grow accustomed to it and one does not bother to mentally register the height of any particular kerb that one is stepping on or off from. Just as one’s mind grew accustomed to following instructions in a predictable environment, one’s legs grew used to the features of a predictable physical environment. So the mere fact that one had to mind the height of the kerb at the railway station would, every time, send a jolt through my mind that told me: “You’re somewhere different now.” Then I would enter the main station hall, espy the scruffy yet oddly charming decor, and it would hit me: I was effectively in Malaysia. I would shortly be in a queue in Customs, and I would get into a metal snake that would take me away. Away from the routines that had so numbed me for the past year.

Scruffiness. Another of my primary impressions of the railway. Walking up Rifle Range Road on my way to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, I would observe the railway tracks by the road. On one side, orderly terrace houses. On the other side, shopping complexes, in the middle, these dilapidated colonial-era tracks, surrounding by exuberant vegetation. A little tube of unruliness cutting through this spick-and-span island.

To this day, I enjoy hearing the hoot of trains and watching them pass. And I wonder if it’s because I associate trains with KTM trains, once my means of escape from homogeneity and predictability.

On hiatus

Doing this.

Kuala Tahan to Gunung Tahan

(I truncated an elevation profile chart of the Merapoh-Kuala Tahan traverse route that I’d found elsewhere.)

Dreams

What I will write here is a partial explanation for why I am such an angry idealist. Not the ‘idealist’ part, because I was always that, but the ‘angry’ part.

The anger comes when goals that you work hard for are undermined by people who claim some sort of moral high ground in doing so. When your painstaking preparation is dismissed as insufficient by people who have absolutely no expertise in the field in question. When the value in what you do is dismissed again by those who are unfamiliar with the field in question and in any case have no notion of value other than monetary and social status.

It comes when the suffering you went through is tossed aside at will by these people, and you can do nothing but rage helplessly, because knowledge is not power — plenty of ignorant shits are in power. When people belittle your hard work on the basis of gender/sex alone, notwithstanding that you went through everything that your counterparts with in supposedly stronger gender/sex did.

When people who claim to be ‘doing things for your own good’ reveal themselves to be using you as know more than a tool for their own self-gratification, for if they gave a shit about your mental well-being would they really choose to teach you that hard work should be compensated for by the complete slaughtering of your dreams by those who do not even attempt to understand those dreams? “I don’t care that you’ve spent 400 hours of your life on this, gone through extremes of mental and physical suffering, including second degree burns all over your palms that I could not have failed to notice; this unknown thing that you want to do gives me the heebie-jeebies, therefore, for your own good, I shall forcibly stop you from doing it.” Certainly breeds respect for these enforcers, doesn’t it? Certainly breeds faith in the correlation between social seniority and wisdom. Perhaps those who lament the lack of “respect for elders” in today’s society would want to reflect more on why that is happening, instead of shunting the blame onto Evil Western Culture?

From that I learned that the most worthy ideals and intentions, the most thorough preparation and justification, can be shot down at will by those who have the power to do so. That by itself isn’t why it is so enraging. It is enraging because the same idiots doing it paint themselves as saints for doing so. Politics as usual, y’know. As it was possibly my first try at anything resembling a coherent long-term effort towards a goal that I cared about, it was not particularly encouraging. As a chronic idealist, I was not discouraged from my ideals, but I was certainly divested of a large portion of any optimism about people I still had left at that point.

It was perhaps one incident, but the pattern kept repeating. On small and large scales. Everywhere, there would be ignorant, arrogant pricks who could not reason to save their life scuppering other people’s dreams for petty reasons. Mostly what in this society would be termed ‘pragmatic’ reasons. And some of the worst offenders are those who are charged with nurturing the future workers of our society. But society is constituted in such a way that these people would be praised, rewarded, for dream-killing. For ambition-killing. ‘That person has his feet on the ground,’ observers would remark approvingly.

Those who keep their feet on the ground for too long eventually become permanently rooted to that one spot. When that becomes your exemplar of a good life, it’s no surprise that society remains in an infantile state. They haven’t even snipped their umbilical cords.

Footwear

The sole of my left Timberland boot is beginning to split away from the main body of the boot. It would probably still suffice for another weekend trip but I wouldn’t trust it to last a week of Tahan. So I have to either get new boots or go up Tahan in trail running shoes (of which I need a new pair too anyway, since my current Salomons also have incipient cracks between the sole and the shoe bodies). I really like the idea of going up Tahan in lightweight footwear, but I’m not sure how my feet would take to seven days of load-bearing trekking without proper ‘protection’. I’m not as agile and light-footed as your typical Malaysian mountain guide, so just because they can walk for a week in rubber water shoes, doesn’t mean that I can. And let’s not mention people (they exist) who did the whole thing in slippers.

Pros of going up in boots:
Better ankle support
Can splash in small puddles without getting wet
Potentially better padding
Possibly less toe-mashing compared to running shoes? Not sure on this point, checking with others who’ve done it in running shoes.

Cons:
Heavy
Will get wet during river crossings unless I bring an extra pair of water shoes along. Which would mean more weight, and also much time changing in and out of shoes (14 times!). Unless one wears water shoes for the whole middle portion of the second day?
Will get weight during heavy rain too (which is… almost guaranteed, for that mountain?). And when wet, will dry slower than trail runners would.
Less maneuverability when negotiating obstacles

Gunung Rajah

This was one of the most unpleasant Malaysian hiking trips I’ve done — not difficult, but decidedly unpleasant.

Gunung Rajah is a 1683m mountain in the Main Range of Peninsular Malaysia. From its summit, one can purportedly see several of the Titiwangsa peaks. To get there, one can take a taxi from Bentong, which is in turn a 1 hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur.

Thanks to a bus screw-up, we started walking at 10.30am instead of 9am as planned. The first two hours are spent along a muddy, flattish, and boring logging trail, basically cut into the steep slope of the river’s gorge. After that the terrain alternates between stretches of scratchy fern-fields (the path is not well-cleared) and your typical jungle paths. It’s still only gently sloping, and this is perhaps the only part before mid-afternoon where one is far away enough from the river that one cannot hear it.

After about an hour of this one finds oneself back on the slope of the gorge, with the gushing rapids below drowning out any cries you might make to teammates who are too far front/back. The path gets steep and muddy, with leeches in the rainy season. With sufficient vigilance I was able to flick off all the leeches I saw on myself before they bit, but unbeknownst to me one had found its way to my butt and would gorge itself there for some time before I discovered it in mid-afternoon. The path is narrow and one has to cross many fallen trees. Very good practice for your classic ‘step cut into tree trunk’ crossing maneuver. It is a good idea to bring a smallish backpack for this trek, because the constant squeezing under fallen trees or past rattan trees rather inconvenienced those of us with big backpacks. On several occasions I had to get people behind me to detach my backpack from a persistent rattan branch. During the monsoon season, it was extremely slippery, and since we were on a narrow path on a rather steep slope looking down into the gorge, this made me a little nervous. One quickly becomes sick of the gush of the river below; I have never climbed any other mountain in Malaysia where one spends such a long time along the slope of a gorge. The terrain was not particularly steep so we were not gaining much in altitude but had to move slowly because of the narrow path, interfering vegetation, and slippery mud.

Two river crossings are entailed. My suspicion is that in the dry season, one can do this without getting one’s feet wet, but the river was quite full in December, so wading was unavoidable. As a result, my feet were wet for the rest of the day, and even though I changed into dry socks in camp, they still felt cold and wet throughout the night.

After the trail finally departs from the river (this is the second last water point before the summit), it turns ‘friendly’ for an hour of so. That is, less slippery, and steadily uphill but not so steep as to require scrambling. Kind of what one would typically expect on a sub-1500m Malaysian mountain. You then come upon the ‘false summit’, a pleasant clearing in which someone has constructed a ‘bench’. After the false summit there is a short stretch of going downhill, after which it’s uphill all the way. The terrain starts getting nasty at this point. Instead of firm soil one is now trekking on a kind of matted weave of soil, plant fibres, and tree roots. It is slightly bouncy and strong enough to take your weight, but your walking stick goes right through it. You are in the clouds so everything is wet. To compound the general instability and slipperiness, the trees become shorter and more fragile, so you need to be very careful about selecting your handholds and footholds when scrambling. At one stage you have to traverse a landslide. That in itself is alright, but at a fork just before the landslide, where both the left and right paths take you the the landslide, I unwittingly picked the more treacherous left side, which overlooks a sheer rock face that seems to go down the entire face of the mountain. A little higher up on the rock face you can see ropes going across it, and I didn’t want to think about traversing that rock face in such slippery conditions. Thankfully, it turned out that we didn’t have to do it.

We did, however, have to scramble up an extremely slippery short stretch of rock right after the landslide. There was a rope to help us, but it too was slippery. Waiting for everyone to negotiate that took some time. It was already well past 6pm at this point.

There was scarcely any room for everyone to stop at the junction to the last water source. It was a short distance off the main path, but one had to inch along a dodgy-looking, slippery tree trunk to get there. It was a pretty little mini-waterfall with mineral-tinged golden water, just like on Tahan. Since the path was so narrow we formed a ‘bottle chain’ passing empty and filled bottles to and fro from the water source to the main path. That took up more time than we would have liked, and it was getting dangerously dark.

From the last water source to the summit (where we were camping) is supposed to be an hour. I have no idea how long we took (it became too dark to read my watch, even supposing I wanted to depress myself by doing so), but I suspect it was significantly longer than that. We were tired by a long day and the darkness made it difficult to negotiate already demanding terrain. I learned to figure out where to step by ‘feeling’ around with my foot before putting my weight on it, and it didn’t seem to be any less efficient than my previous sight-driven strategy. We camped at a series of clearings just below the summit rock. It was quite a squeeze to pitch even my two-man tent in half of one of the clearings; I had to make do with an unsatisfactorily floppy flysheet. The wind was vicious, everything was wet, and everyone was getting into everyone’s way as we set up camp. Eventually, though, dinner was cooked and consumed, and I could retreat under shelter for an uncomfortable night.

I went up to the summit rock in the morning. There was no view whatsoever as we were still swathed in clouds (and moisture).

Going down wasn’t much better. I took a wrong turn shortly before the landslide, leading us to the wrong side of the sheer rock face going down the entire side of the mountain. Like we saw from below yesterday, there was a rope going across the rock face, but we figured we’d better backtrack and find the ‘right’ way to get to the other side of the rock face. The terrain seemed more difficult than it was in the dark last night and I was pretty weary by the time we got to the slippery rock section. I slid down the rock section on my chest because I had no grip on either the rope or the rock face (I miraculously escaped ropeburn).

There really isn’t anything of note on the way down. It was bloody slippery and I fell down more times than I care to count, leaving cuts galore on my shins. My palms were punctured, too, from gripping thorny things. We were reacquainted with leeches. It rained quite heavily at certain points. The logging trail seemed interminable. We were late enough to miss the last bus from Bentong to KL. Half of us managed to get a taxi to KL from Bentong, but the other half had to stay in Bentong for the night.

This could be a pleasant mountain to climb when it’s dry, but it’s literally and metaphorically a washout during the monsoon.

Full photo set here.

Today’s Hike

1. It rained again. And again, undisciplined me could not force myself to continue, even though I’ve hiked in much worse conditions before. Instead I took a long break at North View Hut and then proceeded on with umbrella. Yes, I am ashamed of myself.

2. I saw the girl with the heavy pack, ankle weights, and two poles again. This time I asked what she was training for. “Everest” was the reply. Her current pack is 15kg. She definitely needs to increase it. She’s already going pretty slowly.

3. I weighed my pack again. It’s now up to 12kg, and that was after depleting my water supplies by approximately 1kg. Also, I’ve lost 2kg in the last six months. Didn’t expect that — I’ve definitely not been pushing myself to my limits during trainings.

4. I broke something in my Komperdell walking stick. The lowest section now can’t be retracted, nor can it be tightened so as to lock it in place. It still stays in the same place because of friction, so it’s still usable. Less portable though. I’ll use it to death for my trainings, use it for Tahan if it’s still usable by then, and turn to its partner when it dies.

5. I’ve noticed that there is a damn lot of deforestation in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. There are huge clearings where there used to be trees before. On the Dairy Farm slope the construction of the new stepped path seems to have opened the surroundings to invasion by ferns, which are known to be so aggressive that trees will not be able to colonise the area again without external intervention. The part of Catchment Path near the pipeline clearing seems to have lots of fallen trees, and looks like a war zone after storms. The nature reserve was probably doomed from the start due to its small size and the BKE cutting it off from the rest of the Central Catchment Area. But the increased foot traffic in the nature reserve must have speeded up the deforestation process. I think it’s great that more and more people are visiting the nature reserve. But our nature reserves are so small and isolated that I suspect these visits will result in their eventual demise. How long before they basically become parks with short stunted trees and cowgrass?

Observations

1. Leech bites seem to swell and itch more when one pulls the leech off by force, as opposed to when one gets them to drop off my dabbing muscle rub on them. I hope the little buggers haven’t left anything nasty under my skin.

2. I still haven’t figured out the best way to get a grip on wet tree roots.

3. I have a lot more scratches on my left leg than on my right leg. Perhaps because I was scratched the most on the way down, and on the way down the river was on our right most of the time, so most of the scratchy things were on my left.

4. I made a conscious effort to avoid puddles on the way down, and attracted only two leeches (and more importantly, none that found their way into my shorts). Perhaps the two are not correlated, but almost everyone else seemed to get more leeches on the way down than on the way up.

5. Hiking in Malaysia during the monsoon season is simply not worth it.