A tale of triple jeopardy
It’s 3.45am, and I’m standing outside a 7-11 store in Kota Bharu, Northern Malaysia. I’m about to embark on the final train of a looping 11-month overland journey from Mumbai to Singapore. There’s one problem. No taxi driver.
Fresh from a 10-day meditation, I try to put what I’d learnt to use. “Calm and balanced mind, Andy, stay equanimous…” But inside I‘m a knot of anxiety. My 32,000km journey from Mumbai has been spookily trouble-free. Surely I am not going to be tripped up at the final hurdle?
3.55am. A dilapidated taxi rounds the corner on two wheels and screeches to a halt in front of me, five minutes after my panicked call to the driver’s mobile. An impossibly scrawny Malay man, procured the night before to get me to the station, takes my bag and slings it in the boot with half-open bloodshot eyes. We set off at high speed.
“How long?” I ask. “Twenty” he replies, with a gold-toothed grin, momentarily removing both hands from the steering wheel to signal twenty and nearly giving me a heart attack in the process. This is going to be tight – the train leaves at 4.18. I breathe deeply and try to remember that there’s nothing I can do to change the situation.
“Sorry… three people…” he grins again. I look over. He is making that unmistakeable hip-and-fist-pumping action that indicates carnal activity. I raise an eyebrow. “Three people?”
“Three people… very good…” There is no mistaking that grin. I ponder the unsolicited addition of this information, wondering what the correct response is. He is suddenly apologetic. “Sorry… English…” he adds. Given the potential for sordid details, I am rather relieved at his lack of communication skills.
4.11am As the station looms out of the darkness, I realise I’m going to make the train. The driver makes one final conversational gambit.
“Where from… US? Bush NO! Obama OK…” I tell him I‘m from the UK.
“Ah… good language , good people, good economy…” he replies with a tinge of envy, as if to remind me that the UK’s not that bad after all.
We draw up to the station. I hurriedly get my bags out of the boot. Suddenly I am enveloped in a warm hug. Clearly Mr Taxi feels we’ve connected. I disengage carefully, trying not to betray that I can’t get the thought of “three people” out of my head.
I buy a ticket and board the crowded 4.18 from Kota Bharu to Gua Musang, the first stage of my final journey to Singapore.
Newcastle to London – via Wick
Actually getting to KotaBharu in the first place had been something of a challenge.
As an analogy (and with apologies the international reader(s) unfamiliar with British geography), most of you will agree that going from Newcastle to London via Wick is both mentally and geographically loopy in the extreme. But 11 months ago I left Mumbai by train, and I was determined to arrive in Singapore by train.
The problem: Kuantan (Newcastle) had no train station let alone trains to Singapore (London). So getting to the start-line for this final train journey involved an 8- hour bus ride from Kuantan (Newcastle) north to Kota Bharu (Wick) in order to take a 17-hour train ride to Singapore (London). Nice. (I suspect it’s the kind of thing that only appeals when you travel without deadlines).
Once I’d figured out that the three different trains that I had been told I had to catch were in fact one train (you just had to get off and buy another ticket for each section, rather bizarrely), I settled back to enjoy my final 17 hours of railtrack on this overland journey through Asia
And boy was it worth it. The first stage of the line from Kota Bharu on the Thai/Malay border to Singapore (off the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia) is aptly named the “Jungle Line”, cutting a swathe through the virgin jungle and plantations that cover the interior of the Northern part of this country.
I was reminded of everything that I love about train travel in Asia – the relentless movement towards a destination, however slowly; the wonderful rural stations, the changing faces as passengers board and alight. And the stations themselves – always deeply pragmatic buildings, the guards proud in sparkling uniforms, the tired plastic waiting seats firmly affixed to the walls, the signs in varying fonts for sub-master this and assistant-platform-manager that. They are a place of practical expectation – a place to wait – comfortably and without concern – for the future to arrive.
My reverie was broken as we arrived at the Singapore border, the quasi-military efficiency of customs and immigration a reminder that this is a city that feeds off a mix of pride and paranoia, and one that keeps a foot in both the East and the West.
315 days and 32,000 kilometres of overland travel were finally over.
Singapore – sterile? Self-consciously superficial? Or just Singapore?
Two days is hardly enough to start to understand a city, but there is something wonderfully honest and self-consciously superficial about Singapore, so I think it‘s OK to try. There is no pretence here – they’re just trying to build a city that works, financially and commercially, and one that provides the cleanest and highest standards of living
In that sense, the accusation that it’s “sterile” is both true and false. It’s true that there’s little room for anything the government and the residents don’t consider “hygienic”, but the people that live there do so happily, and in peace, which is hard to argue with.
I explored the city on foot, walking through the Arab area, the bits of the colonial era that still stand, and along the river which for so long was the beating heart of trade in the area. The roads (at least those that weren’t blocked off for the Grand Prix last weekend) are so clean that it was almost disquieting to see a rhododendron blossom ( they are in season) on the immaculate pavement.
Personally, I’d take the messy chaos of India every day, but each to their own.
I am now in Indonesia, enjoying more free-diving and scuba on pristine islands (the Gili islands, off Lombok).
Next stop – by air – Australia.