Saturday, June 28, 2008

Up to KL

The train to Kuala Lumpur leaves - 7:40 am. Singapore's main train station is a modest building. It looks untouched since the 1950s and far away from the 21st Century glass towers of the rest of the city; the English decorating style of the 1930s is still evident.

 I bought my ticket, then scouted the cafe to the side of the public area and bought myself a bright blue concoction labelled "blueberry juice".

The train (and the station indeed) is operated by the Malaysian Rail.  The carriages are simple box designs, I think maybe from the 1970s. It looks like a commuter train, with one first class carriage that, except for the cloth fabric on the seats, is the same as second class. I was going to regret have chosen first class ....

The train pulled out of the station and then sinks into a defile, as if to slip out of Singapore invisibly.  The vegetation by the side of the tracks is wild and savage. Ferns cascade from the joints of trees where enough detritus has settled and let them seed; banana trees nestle among hanging lianas and slender palms.

Breaking out of the jungle trench I could see the outer residences of Singapore, still stretching skywards but interspersed by a hindu temple, a military emplacement and parking lots for trucks. It looks like the upper part of Singapore is all utlities, fabrication yards, warehouses and low rise offices - in essence the back office.

After about 30 minutes the train pulled into Woodlands Rail Checkpoint. Still on Singaporean soil, this is the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia.  The process is old world - everyone off and into queues to control documents and scan prints, then a long wait until everyone is processed and the doors slither open to let you board again.

I was already dismayed by the chill produced by the carriage's air conditioning. I had asked the steward to turn it up (or down, if you prefer) but this wasn't working - all I got was exasperated arms and eyebrows before a rustle of the same steward's newspaper. Already my throat was feeling the impact. By the end of the voyage I was dressed in three layers of clothes and had my beach sarong draped over my head to keep the chill from freezing my brain. To no effect. I remained a numbed skull.

After the pass control the train rolled over the causeway. On the road side, a queue the length of the causeway itself of trucks, cars, bikes and scooters, all waiting to trade in Singapore.

With a limpid sun rising in the hazy morning sky we passed through Johor Bahru, the main city in the province of Johor. The other side of the Straits isn't the same as Singapore.  For a start the commercial buildings in Johor have a dated 1970s and 1980s feel to them - obviously concrete frames with pre-fab panels.  The houses are much simpler too - more like Jakarta or Cebu - though I did see new construction projects going on. 

Here every is cloaked in dense green vegetation, which I always find beautiful.  Orange earth is pushed aside by the living areas, to tumble into brownwater creeks fringed by papaya, banana and a cascade of creepers.

Ten minutes into Malaysia and the mosques are evidence we are in an overtly Moslem country. The minarets are in the Turkish style, but stumpier; the roofing a strong blue, which sets off the white plastered walls very well.

Over the course of the next hour or so the train stops at several outlying suburbs of Johor Bahru. Commuters crowd around the second class carriages; no-one appears in the first class, where most of the travelers are tourists like me, including three Italian guys who have wrapped up to battle the air conditioning.  One indian lady can't stop coughing up her deep cattarh. She must hate the A/C too.

Leaving Kapas Baru the train runs into a defile again, deeper than the one in Singapore and almost overwhelmed by the vegetation. Occasionally it breaks out to run over a plain, full of palm trees and an occasional tin roofed dwelling with its tawny red bare earth front yard.

Passing by a small town I can see there is a small property boom, with new apartment blocks going up. Looking through the main street most building seem to be three floors high. Public buildings seem to have blue painted rooves here, not just the mosques.

We stop at Kulai; just over the track there's a pool of water with some plants in it, fringed by ever present palms.  The train waited here only a few moment, then pulled out to follow the main road with its moisture mottled buildings on the left and jungle with its tumultuous growth on the right. The road soons disappears, leaving us with views over palm plantations and what looks like coffee bushes.

In Rengam there is a large, sun blackened statue of Ganesh just over the road from a silver paint hindu temple.  Next to it a football stadium with the greenest, lushest pitch I've ever seen. By the station platform the bouganvillea is shaped into bushes. On the other side of the tracks a tall, flowering cactus, its flowers large and creamy yellow as though they were lotus blossoms. Another long wait and we pull away from Rengam, to be swallowed up by the palm groves again.

I had thought earlier of getting off in Kluang but decided to go on to KL.  It is a pleasant looking low rise town, spread either side of the tracks.  Most of the people at the station seem to be Indian, one of the three main ethnies in Malaysia. The town stretches on a while - there's more developments on the northern edge - but the track is soon deep into nature.

Beyond Kluang are low lying hills. The vegetation changes for a short while, high standing slender trees and with broad leaves that alternate with the palm plantations As we pass Genuang the scenery is more open but the principal vegetation is still palms.  What they produce I don't know. 

The train stopped again at Segamat. Well it stopped, rolled back over the bridge, then puffed back into the station again on a different track Someone pulled a lever too slow, it seems.  Ah well, good thing we changed over - another train went through on the track we were on - heading the opposite way.

After Segamat the views open up again, with the additon of some broad fields of swamp and low bushes. Then its palms mixed with what I think may be coffee bushes.

The sky darkened, clouds are building heavy heads that begin to glower over the trains destination. It might rain later... I fell asleep, my head bandana'd by my sarong, my eyes looking at the eternal plantations of palm trees.

A sound of braking, the movement of people pulling bags down from the racks. I've arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

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