Chinese New Year escape to Indonesia
Indonesia, 29.01.2019 – 09.02.2019
2018 has passed in a rush and the lunar new year provided us with a whole week of (extra) holidays yet again. Every year we contemplate to just stay in Beijing and boycott the exorbitantly high prices airlines and hotels charge for travels on these Chinese holidays, and every year we remember that first year we did stay in the city and had virtually nothing to do. Close to no one is originally from Beijing and people living and working here return to their hometowns or provinces to spend time with their families. It’s the equivalent to “Western” Christmas. During this time, even in a city as huge as Beijing it becomes hard to find an open convenient store to shop for food, and restaurants and delivery shops all over China close their doors and kitchens to participate in the world’s largest human migration. Over the last three years, we got very used to the conveniences of ordering breakfast, lunch, and diner online, and when these services come to a halt we struggle to feed ourselves. So staying in Beijing wasn’t our first choice.
Much like Christmas, the imminent arrival of Chinese new year surprises us every year and we have to hurry to find the last affordable travel destinations. This year, that turned out to be Indonesia. Ultimately, the goal was to spend at least some days at a beach enjoying the sun so as to escape the dreadfully cold Beijing winter. Direct flights were out of budget with prices spiked to three to four times the normal costs. Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, offers domestic flights to their islands at acceptable rates, and since we have neither been to the big durian nor Bali, we mentally prepared ourselves for the long journey to our island escape.
Early into our research into Indonesia as a travel destination it became pretty clear that its capital is a buzzing melting pot of millions of people that promises almost everything except relaxation. Impossible numbers of scooters squeeze through its narrow one way streets, shopping malls dominate the surprisingly short list of sights and to do’s, and apart from some of the largest mosques in all of Indonesia, Jakarta seemed to have little cultural appeal.
Our preferred way to discover any new place is either by scooter or on foot, but neither seemed very feasible in Jakarta. Having bought an Indonesia SIM card we were able to install Grab instead, which is the Asian equivalent to ride-hailing services such as UBER in the US or DiDi in China. The difference with Grab is that you can also order a scooter to pick you up. I would guess that at least 25 percent of the scooters on Jakarta’s streets were available for hire in that way. You can identify them by their Grab branded jackets or helmets, which they offer their passengers to wear so everyone is constantly exposed to their advertisement. A scooter can only take one person at a time, though, and so we used the app to get a cab to the Northern districts of former Dutch occupation.
The side streets around our hotel were a little easier to navigate and we discovered a few very interesting food courts. On our second (and last) day there we came across a man selling Rambutan from a cart he pulled behind him, and when we took a coffee break later that morning we also had a sweet local snack to go with it.
Not long after settling down in the coffee shop we received an e-mail notifying us that our domestic flight to Bali will be delayed. We called the airline and they suggested that we might want to come to the airport earlier and try our chances to board an earlier flight. We weren’t convinced that would work, but lacking better alternatives we found a pastry store en route to the airport, packed our stuff, ordered a cab, and made our way through Jakarta’s stuffed streets. Why a pastry store? Apparently Indonesia has some of Asia’s best deserts, and after our coffee and Rambutan snack a perfect ending to this day would have been a Martabak Manis. Now get this: cars with certain license plates are only allowed to drive on designated streets and districts. Our cab had one that led him to take the most unlikely side-streets and detours forcing us to abandon our desert plans and get to the airport directly instead. The evening before we also took a car home and we were convinced that the driver has never navigated through the streets of Jakarta before. Both drivers completely ignored their navigation system and instead took any street that they were allowed to take. You wouldn’t believe the detours we made. A distance of four kilometers took us more than two hours (no kidding!). Every once in a while a person would stand in the middle of a random intersection and act as a sort of traffic police man, accepting small amounts of cash money from drivers he granted preferential crossing. That didn’t help to speed up our journey to the airport. We did arrive eventually and even managed to change flights to one that would depart earlier. Or so we thought. The new flight was already delayed an hour and initially we couldn’t believe our luck in having reached the gate in time to go to Bali earlier. Until we realized that all the passengers there were told that the plane will depart in the next thirty minutes – over and over again. Although we rushed to the boarding zone we spend the next three hours waiting until we eventually were able to depart. My guess is that this domestic budget line “collected” passengers from all the flights scheduled on that afternoon in order to save gasoline on four under-booked planes to fill just one.
All in all, it was still a good idea to go to Jakarta first and experience this quite unique metropolis for ourselves. As the second largest conurbation worldwide, visitors are acutely aware of the close to 30 million people who live in the area, which makes Beijing appear surprisingly structured. It’s an interesting stopover for one or maximum two days, but I wouldn’t make Jakarta my main destination of travel. With images of soft white sand beaches and spectacular sunsets already filling our minds, we were now on our way to Bali anyways!