6 Mar 2009

Medan and Lake Toba (1)

Istana Maimunah - last of the Malay sultanate in Indonesia

Repin and I have just come back from a 4 day 3 night trip to Medan, Lake Toba and Brastagi in North Sumatera. The first part of the journey was pretty grueling - narrow winding roads and in most parts so narrow you wouldn't believe the tour bus could make it. But it did and we all arrived in one piece! We had joined a tour group - something Repin and I rarely do. BUt this was almost like a free trip - given to us in lieu of our balance from a previous trip. Medan itself is like many Indonesian towns - sprawling, densely populated, very busy and full of traffic everywhere - buses, jeepneys or mini buses, trishaws, all kinds of vehicles actually. It was a hot day and Medan being near the sea is even hotter. But as we left it immediately for the hills it got cooler.
Lake Toba is actually a crater lake - the third largest in the world, according to the tour guide. Situated high in the mountains it is accessible only by road - a very narrow one filled with potholes!
It is only about 60 km away from Medan but it took us almost 3 hours of bone shaking to get there. The scenery along the way is of course worth all the pain. It's astounding - a panoramic view of the mountains, dotted with little farms all along the way. Here and there we could see silver streams rushing down the mountain sides. I never knew Indonesia has an abundance of wildflowers! If only someone would record them in a book. AS we climbed higher I could see yellow flowers that looked a little like the sunflower but this is a bush - not a single plant. Huge bushes of this smaller version of the sunflower abound along the mountain sides as are some whites daisies, impatients and the bright violet hues of the morning glory.
WE arrived at the lake around noon and the view is really worth every bit of the shaking we all received in the bus. I know it sounds a bit cliched but the first glimpse that we all got of the huge crater lake had everybody going "Ooooh". AS the bus rolled downwards towards the town of Parapat, which is perched on a very narrow ledge on the western side of the lake - I could see the town is actually hardly more than a village with narrow streets and even narrower houses. Lovely little houses full of flowers. Almost every house had a little garden in front of it. The lake itself was shrouded by mist but still we could see the longish shape of Samosir island in the distance.
Lake Toba was formed more than 75,000 years ago when a huge volcano erupted, blowing off its top and thus forming a crater. Today you can still see the edges of the crater forming a ring of mountains along the lake. The length of the lake measures roughly 100km and the width at its narrowest point measures 33 km. The island of Samosir, said the tour guide, is bigger than Singapore! Just think.
We stayed at a hotel facing the lake - the Niagara Hotel. It's not large - just 2 storeys high but long. All the bedrooms face the lake so when one wakes up early in the morning it is to this hugh silver view of water that is almost unending. It's so big you would almost think it's an inland sea. BUt there are no tides here and the only fish that that can be found are "purra pura" - a kind of silvery fish measuring about 6 inches in length, and a delicacy because it can be found only here. Some profit thinking Indonesian however has brought other species for example, the tilapia, lampam, and even some catfish. The lake is a fresh water lake. That afternoon was spent just resting in our hotel and Repin and I did a little exploring around it. The hotel grounds are really beautiful. They have kept a rose garden here and the roses are like those found in more temperate zones - bushes and bushes of them. There are pink and yellow ones as well as a deep dark red that is simpler gorgeous. Flowers are everywhere. Even the smallest of houses have a really spectacular garden in front.
The people living here are from the Batak tribe. They have their own language and practice Christianity so here and there one can see the sharp steeple of a church or chaple. They are clean and hardworking. I wonder though what they do apart from the tourist trade because there is not much land to farm. The mountain sides are pretty steep but we can still see farming activities and I suppose many of them fish. I guess food is no problem here unless you are lazy. Whatever you plant in that rich volcanic soul will bloom - peas, beans, cabbages and lettuce can be see even in front of each house. That night we had dinner at a restaurant in Parapat. It 's the only restaurant that serves Minang food and is supposed to be really good. Whether it was because we were all very hungry or the food was really good - every bit was eaten! There were no leftovers at all! That night we all went to bed early because the next day we would travel to Samosir Island, a half hour journey by boat.

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