26 – KTM Komuter Train to Kuala Lumpur
Friday, September 7, 2018
4:30 a.m. Room 7, Natalia Guesthouse (formerly Bird Nest)
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
(37 ringgit per night/$9 US; small room; single bed; no sheets provided; no towel; no soap; fan only; no window; noisy; hot; shared bathrooms a long way away; but big and friendly lobby, kitchen, and other common areas; informal and relaxed)
I wish I could start this entry in this long email by saying that I had a wonderful day yesterday and that taking my bike on the train to Kuala Lumpur was an effortless dream. But I’d be lying. When it got close to an appropriate time to leave the d’Spark Hotel and head to the train station (I had to wait for off-peak hours), it began to rain heavily. And that rain was no joke. It thundered down in sheets for a very long time. It was annoying because I was mentally and physically prepared to go. I had woken up at three to take advantage of this nice room, and I had done so for many hours. Now it was time to go, and I wanted to go. But it would have been insane to go out into that weather. I had no choice but to kick back and wait.
I waited for a long, long time, but the rain never stopped. It just kept raining and raining. Luckily, it did start to rain less hard after an hour and a half, and I finally decided to just go. I would get wet and my bike and trailer and bags would get wet, and that would make getting on the train even more challenging, but I had no choice. When I got to the train station, I made sure to once again keep my bike and trailer hidden from view. I knew there was a new program that allowed people to bring their bikes onto these trains. But the people who designed that policy were not thinking about fully loaded touring bikes with trailers. They were thinking of day trippers bringing a simple bike for a short ride around the park. A giant, dripping wet foreigner with a bicycle loaded with bags plus a trailer is not what they were thinking about.
The ticket to KL Sentral cost six ringgit and fifty cents for me and a mere two ringgit for my bicycle. The ticket itself was a long form that the woman had to fill out by hand. It took her a very long time. And when I paid her, she had no change available, and she had to go to a safe and open it and bring out bags of coins and small bills and she slowly began opening those. She moved at the pace of a sloth on no sleep. And, I noticed, she never smiled or interacted with me in any way. This was a common theme in my short time in Klang. Whatever the difficulties and challenges of life in Indonesia, at least the people there are alive and expressive. They shout and laugh and smile and talk to me. They seem to be engaged with life. They are happy. The Malaysians I had encountered so far were dour and grim-faced and unresponsive. I had also gone from being a minor celebrity in Indonesia to absolutely nobody in Malaysia. Everyone in Indonesia was interested in me and my bicycle and my overall weirdness. In Malaysia, I was old news. Nobody cared about anything except what was on their phone.
I forgot to mention that the streets were badly flooded on the way to the train station. The water was about eight inches deep covering hundreds of feet of roadway. I felt like I was swimming to the train station. And Malaysian drivers raced through it regardless, and I had to time my ride very carefully so that the waves of water thrown to the side by the cars didn’t drench me.
Once I had my ticket, I went back and got my bicycle. Things still might have been okay except that I didn’t know how to get onto the platform. I thought the woman had pointed at the first turnstile. So I waited there for her to push a button or something to open it. There was another KTM Komuter employee – a young man – sitting on a bench on the platform and staring at me, but he said and did nothing. I figured if I was at the wrong turnstile, he would tell me and direct me. But he didn’t react.
I waited and waited to catch the woman’s eye, but she never looked my way. I finally turned to the young man and with sign language, I asked him how I was supposed to get onto the platform. He pointed to the far side of the platform, and I saw that what I thought was a solid metal fence actually had a gate in it. And you didn’t need a token to activate anything electronic to open it. So I rolled my bicycle there. I expected the young man to at least come over and open the gate for me, but he did nothing. He just sat on the bench and watched as I struggled to open the gate. The gate was extremely annoying because it wouldn’t stay open. It was one of those stupid gates that wanted to swing shut. So it was impossible to keep it open while I rolled my bike and trailer through it. It swung shut and got stuck on my pedals and then on my trailer. I couldn’t get back there to free it because then my bike would topple over. I could have put my bike on its kickstand and moved the gate, but by the time I got back to the handlebars to push the bike forward, the gate would have closed again. I was fighting with this for a while, and the young man just sat there a couple of feet away and stared at me.
This ended up being a real problem because all this activity caught the attention of the sloth-woman at the ticket counter. And she came charging out to tell me that I was not allowed to bring the trailer onto the train. It’s not like she took the time to explain anything in detail or establish any kind of human contact. She just yelled at me “No!” and pointed at the trailer. “No! Big!”
I instantly felt this wave of anger rise up in me. It just made sense that on the day that I absolutely needed to get to Kuala Lumpur, it would be pouring rain and despite all my research and planing, I was going to be prevented from taking the train with my bicycle. And I was angry because of the rude and abrupt behavior of the woman and the unhelpful young man. I tried to state my case – that the trailer was essentially a suitcase with wheels. I began to realize that I had made a mistake by leaving the trailer attached to the bike. I should have brought my bike onto the platform by itself. And then I should have brought in the trailer with its wheels at the back so that it looked like any other duffel bag that someone might bring to the airport.
The woman, however, was not the sort of purpose to listen. Her default position was one of authority and rejection. And that’s it. She wanted to say no to me. And she didn’t care about anything else. She didn’t want to hear it.
Luckily (very luckily), she had another job. She was the only person there selling tickets. And she could only stand there and yell at me for so long. She had to go back to the ticket window and do her job, as customers were lining up. She left before I was finished the process of unhooking the trailer and moving the wheels. I wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t going to roll the whole bike with the trailer attached onto the train. I knew it was too long for that. Once the trailer was separate, I walked up and down the platform holding onto the tow arm, and I showed the man that it was really a large suitcase. I showed how it could tip up on its end and look quite small. And to my relief, this seemed to do the trick. The woman had no interest in the fact that my trailer was actually a suitcase with wheels, but she was gone. And this young man just nodded at the train to indicate that I could get on. And I didn’t need to be told that I should do so quickly before the woman came charging back.
My annoyance level went up a couple of notches when I got on the train with my bicycle and trailer. For one thing, any worry about the size of my bicycle or trailer was nonsense. The train was huge. I took a picture of my bike against the back wall, and it looked tiny. It was taking up very little room in that wide train car. And the trailer rolled beside the seats easily. It also took up no room. Finally, despite waiting ten or fifteen minutes for the train to finally leave, only two other people got on. The entire train was pretty much empty. And it remained that way all the way to Kl Sentral station. I was worried that large crowds would start to pour onto the train, but that never happened.
At first, I sat in a seat, and I left my bicycle propped up on its kickstand. The train accelerated and came to a stop quite gently, and the bike never seemed inclined to fall over. However, at the fourth stop, the train jerked to a halt, and the bike started to go over. I leaped to my feet and grabbed it before it crashed down completely, but from that point on, I stood beside the bike and held onto it with the brake lever engaged. Perhaps it is even the rule that cyclists must stand beside their bike and hold it. In any event, it seemed like a good idea. There were CCTV cameras everywhere, and I think the people monitoring them would be more pleased to see me standing there holding the bike than having an unattended bike just on the train. I’d had enough experiences with authority figures in Malaysia to know that they take their jobs seriously. They like order, and they don’t like bicycles. It wouldn’t take much for them to contact security and have them waiting at a station to come on and kick me off if it looked like my bicycle or trailer were causing problems.
It wasn’t entirely clear what was going to happen next. I had asked the woman at the Klang station about whether I could take my bicycle all the way to Kuala Lumpur station, which is very near to my hostel in Chinatown. But she said that to do that, I would have to change trains at KL Sentral. And there was a concern that I wouldn’t be able to do that anyway. I read a number of reports online that the bike program had been canceled for all the train lines north of Kuala Lumpur. It had been bad enough getting on this completely empty train in Klang. I didn’t even want to contemplate what it could be like trying to change trains at very busy KL Sentral station, so I planned to just exit at KL Sentral and go from there.
That turned out to be easier said than done because there was only one elevator available, and it was out of order. And, of course, it had a big sign on it that said it would be out of order until August 30. August 30 was six days ago, but it was still broken. I had been worried about taking my bike and trailer onto an elevator and getting out of KL Sentral station because it is a busy place, and I didn’t want to be a bother. I was worried that other passengers would be annoyed as I tried to wheel my bicycle into the elevator. And I would have to make two trips. There was little chance I’d be able to fit my bicycle and trailer onto an elevator with other people at the same time and get them in and out before the doors started to close. But what I didn’t anticipate was there being no elevator at all. I rolled my bike and trailer up and down the long platform looking for a second elevator, but there was none. There was also no one to ask. There were no staff anywhere. I ended up just standing at the bottom of a giant series of staircases wondering what to do next. It appeared that the world was determined to never make things easy for me.
With no other choice, I began removing the bags and the trailer from my bicycle. I took a chance and I rolled the trailer onto the escalator and rode it up. I’m sure that was against the rules and if a guard had seen me, I would have been yelled at. However, getting my loaded trailer up all those stairs was a nightmare prospect. I put my trailer at the top and then I went back down to get the two pannier bags and the handlebar bag off the bike. I brought those up to the top, but I could only leave the pannier bags there. Everything of value was inside the handlebar bag, and I couldn’t just leave it unattended. So I had to bring it up to the top and then all the way back down again. I used the shoulder strap to sling the handlebar bag over my back, and then I picked up the bicycle and began the long climb up the many staircases. I thought about putting the bicycle on the escalator as well. I could have done it easily, and it would have worked out fine. But that would definitely have triggered security. I’d probably have ended up with a SWAT team descending on me.
Once all my gear was assembled at the top of this set of stairs, I didn’t know what to do next. How was I supposed to get out of the train station? It’s not just a train station. It’s a train station embedded deep inside a giant shopping center. So there was no easy answer to how to get out. There was a group of about six KTM staff members over by the turnstiles, and I went there to ask them how I should navigate the turnstiles and then how I should get out of the station. Not surprisingly, no one was helpful. They were just as grim faced and dour as everyone else I had encountered. The man who spoke to me was very suspicious. I asked him for information about how to get out of the station with my bicycle, and he responded by demanding to see my ticket. That struck me as kind of rude and officious. Why not a smile? Why not a “Hey, you’re on a bike tour. Cool. Let me show you how to get out of the station.” Instead, he wanted, basically, to inspect my papers. His concern was not helping me but making sure that I had had permission to bring my bicycle onto the train in the first place. I’m not sure what was in his head. I was clearly inside his train station with a giant bicycle and trailer. And it’s not like I could have snuck in. I wasn’t invisible. So there was no way I could be where I was without someone working at the KTM Komuter line allowing me in and selling me a ticket. And who cares anyway? I’m trying to navigate this station without inconveniencing anyone. A little help would be nice.
After inspecting my ticket carefully, the man indicated that I could the roll my bike through an opening near him and then I could take the lift to the next level. Of course, he didn’t tell me where this lift was, or, heaven forbid, actually show me where it was. I know that there is no reason this should have happened, but I was surprised that in this entire journey from Klang to KL Sentral, no one volunteered to help me. I’m fine doing everything on my own. I actually prefer it. I don’t like to be bothered. And I don’t like to bother other people. But I know for a fact that if I were a passenger, and I saw someone – clearly a foreigner – get on a train with a bicycle and a trailer, I would offer to help. It would give me pleasure to help. I’d let him take care of the bicycle, and I’d pull the trailer for him. I’d guide him to the elevators and to the proper exits. Why not? It would be a fun experience, and it would help the guy out. And I couldn’t help but reflect that in Sumatra, I would have been the center of a whirlwind of activity and attention. Everyone would have wanted to talk to me, help me, and take a picture with me. But in Malaysia, nothing. Nobody even looked my way on the train. All the passengers sat in their seats for the entire hour and a half journey staring at their phones with earbuds in their ears. No one even looked my way.
And forget about other passengers. I honestly was surprised at how little help the KTM staff were. And I was very surprised at how unfriendly and officious they were. Their default position was one of enforcing rules. That seemed to be their number one concern. They didn’t care at all about me as a passenger. They saw their job as making sure that I was obeying the rules. And once they confirmed that, they wanted nothing more to do with me. Helping me complete my journey on their train was not on their mind at all. And that was interesting. I wonder if that relates to their job training. Perhaps all their job training relates to control. They are told their job is to control the passengers and maintain order. Perhaps the idea of helping passengers go from point A to point B on their trains is never mentioned as part of their job. And they end up only interfering and obstructing.
I was worried as I rolled my bicycle and trailer through cavernous KL Sentral searching for an elevator. I was now outside of the KTM Komuter train station, and there was no longer any compelling reason for me to have a bicycle in there. I expected every armed security guard (of which there were many) to confront me and demand to know what I was doing inside there with a bicycle. I eventually found signs pointing to an elevator. I had no idea if this would bring me to the proper floor or anywhere near an exit from the station, but I knew I had to go up more levels.
I followed the signs and found the elevator, and at least this time it was working. It was a bit of a struggle because the elevators were crowded, and it was difficult enough to get just one item onto the elevator at a time. It was impossible to bring the bicycle and the trailer in one trip. So I had to unhitch the trailer and leave it behind unattended while I rolled my bicycle onto the elevator and rode it up to a floor where I guess I would have access to the outside world. Then I detached the handlebar bag, left my bike there unattended, and went back down to get the trailer. It’s funny that while I was in the elevator, both my bike and trailer were just sitting in a public area in KL Sentral station unattended. But my trailer was still there, and there were no bomb-sniffing dogs tearing it apart. I brought the trailer up to be reunited with my bike, and I put everything back together again.
I was very happy to see that I was now at ground level, and there were doors to the outside world just ahead of me. I had no idea what street that was or how I would get from that point to Chinatown, but I was very glad to be out of the station at long last.
My happiness didn’t last very long, however, because I was now faced with the biggest challenge of all – cycling in Kuala Lumpur. There is no way to exaggerate how bad Kuala Lumpur is for either cycling or walking. It is beyond a nightmare. The distance from where I exited KL Sentral to my hostel is almost exactly two kilometers. Yet, nearly two hours later, I was still trying to find my way. There is just no way to go from KL Sentral to Chinatown by bicycle. It simply can’t be done. There are nothing but major highway systems, and none of these connect these two points. Plus, there is a river. Plus, the streets are mostly one-way. Those that have two directions of travel might as well be one way because the two sections are far apart and separated by high cement barriers and fences. I went around and around and around and around and around as I tried to find a way through. At every stage, I found myself on a major highway system with no way to get off. When I finally did exit, I would have to work my way back and try again.
To make matters worse, the area immediately surrounding KL Sentral is dominated by skyscrapers and this seemed to interfere with the GPS system on my phone. It wouldn’t work properly, and I had no idea where I was. The little dot marking my position on Google Maps just wandered all over the place before settling on a spot, and it was always the wrong spot. The frustration and stress and anger that I experienced during this time was beyond what you can imagine. It was very difficult to stay in control and keep my head down and just keep cycling and trying. The dangerous positions I found myself in were very dangerous. And I was surprised again that no one offered any assistance. I thought I presented a pretty clear picture of a man in distress and in need of help. I was a white dude on a touring bicycle standing for long stretches of time staring at Google Maps and at the terrain around me trying to figure out where to go. If I did this once or twice and no one approached me to offer help, it would be no big deal. But I lost count of the number of times I consulted Google Maps, and I’d be staring at my phone in frustration for as long as five minutes at a time while looking wildly around me to find one landmark that could help me. And people were everywhere. And not one single person stopped to say, “Hey, can I help you find something? Where are you trying to go?” Not one person. I was honestly surprised. I don’t know that anyone could have helped me. In fact, I’m sure they couldn’t short of putting my bike in a car and driving me to Chinatown. But I was surprised that no one even offered.
At long, long last, I found myself on a road that wasn’t a freeway, and it took me a short distance towards Chinatown. But then I hit another dead end. The road merged with another highway system with no way to avoid it and no way to go back. After consulting Google Maps and Maps.me and Here Maps again and at length, I realized that the only way to continue was down a street that was on the other side of the highway system. And the only way to get there was to unhook my trailer and then bring my bike and trailer across both sides of this busy highway while climbing over a cement barrier in the middle. It astonishes me that I did this, but I did. I had no choice. And even then, the road I found myself on was a one-way in the wrong direction. It was insanity for two hours. That I survived, that I did it, that I made it to my hostel is nothing short of a miracle.
It was a relief to arrive at my hostel, but my work was far from done. The hostel is situated at the top of a long staircase, and I now had to carry my bike, trailer and other gear all the way up there while keeping everything safe and not getting the floor dirty or banging into the door or the walls. Once that was done, I had to find a place to store my bicycle at the hostel and then get all my gear into this tiny coffin-like room. To say that I was drenched in sweat, covered in grease and dirt, and totally frazzled would be accurate. But I was glad to have a home. I quickly got my box and my bag out of storage, unpacked everything, got organized, took a shower, and then fired up my kettle for a long overdue cup of instant coffee.
It hadn’t been easy. In fact, I don’t know that taking my bike on the train was, in the end, any easier than just riding it would have been. The ride into Kuala Lumpur would have been nightmarish, no question. But taking the train was also nightmarish. The deciding factor is probably the rain. It had rained for the entire train ride to the city, so if I had cycled, I would have been cycling in the rain most of the time. And that means the train ride was the better choice.
Arriving at the Natalia Guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur pretty much marked the end of this cycling trip. Here in Kuala Lumpur, I have a lot of things to do ranging from fixing my camera to fixing my rear wheel. Once that is done, I’ll be moving on to somewhere new, hopefully by bicycle.