Posted by: Mark | April 2, 2008

Chinatown 1

In the spirit of doing things while I still have time to do things, in a move which shocked many an Indonesian student, I decided to drive to Semarang and back.

This requires a cultural explanation as background. In general, Indonesian people will not walk anywhere. Even the shortest distances are travelled by motorcycle, unless it’s raining, of course. However, the idea of driving between cities is mostly unheard of. What contributes to this? Perhaps the fact that thousands of people die each year in traffic accidents. Or that the cost of petrol is marginally higher than taking the bus. Perhaps they just feel that driving hundreds of kilometres on a bike is uncomfortable. All of these things are true.

To an Australian, driving 3.5 hours to another city is not that much of an accomplishment. I’m pretty sure I’ve gone further than that in one solid day of op-shopping. However, driving in Australia is an absolute cakewalk compared to driving here. Rains that never stop, no road rules at all, the bare minimum of traffic lights, 110 million other people that all seem to be driving at the same time, bus drivers that will stop anywhere, overtake on corners, blow past you at 100, so close that my handlebars have been hit, twice. The roads are terrible, with the biggest potholes you’ve ever seen, covered in sand and rocks, not to mention debris from uncovered loads. In summary, it is dangerous and not that fun, especially when you are driving 110cc’s of plastic and (hopefully) metal. By the way, if you are my mother, you probably shouldn’t have read that paragraph.

So, I set off at dawn on Friday morning, when it was fairly quiet and not especially sunny. Having passed the turnoff to Borobodur, I was in unknown territory. After about twenty minutes, I got to Magelang, which is also the name for fried rice that includes kwetiau noodles. Due to, in my opinion, a signposting error, I ended up driving all the way to the base of the impressively big volcano Gunung Sumbing, then turning around and driving all the way back to Magelang. This taught me an invaluable lesson; follow the path of most traffic, as pretty much everyone is going the same place as you.

I continued on the path to Semarang, stopping once to give my buttocks some much needed respite. At about 9:30, I arrived in in the city proper, at the kos of Universitas Diponegoro student and future corporate attorney, Elisabet, from now on referred to as Ibeth. After some forced pisang goreng, peanuts, and lukewarm water, we set off for a day of touring the city, starting with Sam Po Kong temple.


Non-Buddhists were only allowed into the temple complex at set times, which seemed kind of strange considering Sam Po Kong was a Muslim. Also, they didn’t even ask if I was Buddhist, outrageous!


Non-Buddhists also weren’t allowed to go up the stairs or into the old temple. Sam Po Kong was a eunuch who spread Islam in Java, and is also revered by Muslims, but apparently that doesn’t count either. Conspiracy!

Next on the agenda was Lawang Sewu, Javanese for “one thousand doors”, a Dutch colonial building that was also used for imprisoning people and lopping off their heads. Fun!


The Dutch used it for office space and dancing (also some imprisonment). Oh, can’t you just imagine the shindigs they had.


You can fit five guys into each of these stone holes. Most of them will probably die though. I think six, but Pak Harto knows best!

Masjid Agung was next on the agenda.


Agung means impressive, and the mosque is just that. Those ballistic missile looking things are huge umbrellas which fold out when it’s raining. As of late that’s every day from 2-8.


We also climbed this tower. Semarang doesn’t look that impressive from above. No skyscrapers, just a big port. Looks a bit like Adelaide actually.

Seeing as we’d already checked off Buddhism and Islam, a church seemed a good way to round off the afternoon.


Gereja Blenduk, a nice little church from 1753 in the Outstadt. One of the clocks has seen better days. Other one is fine. Neither of them work.


One of only two pipe organs in Indonesia, but a churchgoer confided in me that it doesn’t work, as no one has the skill to fix it. He almost begged me to find someone with the required expertise, or fix it myself. Personally, I’m not able, but if anyone has a friend graduating from the pipe organ department at UniSA, let me know.


You can tell the Outstadt by the paved roads. Also the buildings in disrepair. If these were fixed up, and located in a different country, they’d be worth millions I say!


Not favouring one group over the other, to balance my visiting a Protestant church I attended Friday Mass at a Catholic cathedral on Simpang Lima. I have trouble remembering the words in English at the best of times, so Indonesian was a total loss.

During the jalan salib, a dog ran in, rolled around on the floor, and then ran out. Also, it started raining, with thunder so loud it kept setting off car alarms.

Next, I went to the Chinese markets, which themselves are very ordinary, but provided the highlight of the trip. I had pork sate and barbecued rice, and it was amazing. Not only that, but there was open-air karaoke going on next to my table, and an elderly Chinese man gave a killer rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Pretenders. In fact, I ate a lot of great stuff at the Chinese markets. I would probably drive all the way back to Semarang just to eat there again. But rather than gorging myself until the wee hours, I went home to get a good night’s sleep for another long day of driving around looking at and taking photos of things, and eating other things… speaking Indonesian all the time kind of messes up your vocabulary.

More to come!



  1. Nice trip…

  2. I hope you provided backup vocals for that guy.

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