It all began with a couch. My couch. An ugly, beat-up thing. I was lying on it earlier this year wondering what to do during my next vacation. I didn't want to see places. I had already seen enough, from the lost ruins of Angkor Wat to the sharp pinnacles of the Karakoram Highway.
No, enough seeing. Time to do. In the secure cushion of broken-in furniture, I decided I should climb a mountain. Mount Kinabalu, in fact, Southeast Asia's highest peak (about 4,100 meters), located in Eastern Malaysia, on the northern tip of the great island of Borneo.
Borneo. The wilds of. It sounded good, in the confines of my Hong Kong domesticity. I stretched my toes and reclined some more. Ah yes.
I resolved to prepare myself physically for the task: Daily two-hour gym workouts and strenuous hikes on Lantau island would be the order of the day. But you know the Lennon adage -- life is what happens to you while you're making other plans. It was inevitable that the hours pledged to my mountain training would transform into prolonged sessions of drinking beer.
Then one evening it occurred to me: I'm leaving for Borneo in 10 days. I bullied some friends into a reasonably difficult walk on Hong Kong Island. It involved a lot of climbing up to a remote observatory and took a little over two hours. As I clung panting to the observatory floor, unable to stand any longer because my legs had turned to jelly, I realized that perhaps I was not ready for the relentless two-day slog above the tree line.
Seeking moral support, I communicated my concerns to my father. He and my mother had lived in Japan during the late '60s and at one point he had climbed Mount Fuji, which is about the same height as Mount Kinabalu. How did it go, Dad? "I was a wreck," he replied. "The final climb was over gravel. I'd take two steps forward and slide one back. You know the saying, kiddo, 'Only a fool climbs Mount Fuji twice.'"
I decided that only a fool climbs a mountain at all. Surely it wasn't too late to exchange my ticket for a trip to a beach in the Philippines?
It was too late, said the travel agent. The lesson, I thought as I went out to buy a proper backpack, is never to dream up a vacation while lying on the couch.
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Before heading to Kota Kinabalu, the provincial capital of Sabah state, I had to relax, to put myself in the right frame of mind. Why not see a bit of Borneo, and why not begin on the other corner of the island, at Kuching, capital of the neighboring state of Sarawak?
And so I found myself in a pub in Kuching, populated mainly by locals plus a couple of expats based in Borneo. The bartender gave me a shot of tuak, the rice-based hooch conjured up by the local Iban tribespeople. Never turn down a drink offered by an Iban, one of the expats elbowed me -- it hasn't been that long since these guys, the biggest ethnic group in Sarawak, stopped headhunting their neighbors.
The days of blowguns and loincloths are nearly over, responded one of the locals, all of whom were sporting AC Milan soccer jerseys and drinking Guinness like maniacs. "After all, we are a Commonwealth nation," added his bar-mate, who turned out to be an anthropologist studying the impact of government relocation and development programs on the indigenous peoples of Sarawak.
Iban culture, according to my new soccer-obsessed friends, is threatened with a gradual but steady erosion. The Iban are forgetting their oral history, their dances, their crafts and their music. The crucial craft of building the longhouses in which these villagers dwell in the jungle is becoming lost. The languages of the smallest ethnic groups are vanishing.
It's an old story: You can't deny a society the benefits of electricity or modern medicine, or tell them not to wear blue jeans and get decent city jobs. The hoards of Chinese cookery and porcelain in the Iban longhouses testify that Borneo's indigenous people have wanted to trade with and be a part of the world for the past 1,500 years.
In fact, a Scottish expat explained, small groups of Chinese traders have lived in Kuching for centuries, and under British rule the immigrant population swelled as cheap laborers poured in. They give the place a cosmopolitan air, but Kuching is no hurly-burly, deal-making Hong Kong knock-off. It's a sleepy place, and the sleepiness makes it one of the few cities I've visited in Asia that I'd call charming. It boasts a lively mix of people, an attractive downtown with great markets and kitschy statues of cats ("Kuching" means "cat"). And tuak.
But even tuak couldn't make me forget my real reason for being there -- Kinabalu. The task before me, all 4,100 meters uphill of it, beckoned.
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She looked 9, but she said she was 14. The actual 9-year-old looked maybe 6. They sat around me in the cafe, all dark eyes and swinging feet, giggling whenever I looked up at them from my book. They found my big nose hilarious.
A few more kids came over. It was 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in Kota Kinabalua, and they had nothing to do. Just like me.
The teenage boys loaded coins into a jukebox that was past its prime. The Spice Girls shook the block through the blown speakers. I scooped another spoonful of nasi goreng into my mouth.
I hadn't expected such a contrast between these cities on the opposite sides of Malaysian Borneo. Whereas Kuching is serenely content, KK is a poor big ugly sprawl with an edge. The city was razed during the war and no one bothered with aesthetics when it was rebuilt. The center seemed to be one crumbling concrete block after another.
After the cafe I wandered to an outdoor market on the waterfront. It was covered by tin eaves and crammed with people of every hue from Tamil black to Chinese fair, trading, cooking, eating. A foot or two of trash on a sliver of cement separated the market from the sea. Roughly cut steps led to the water, where brightly painted launches ferried people to and from an island across the harbor. There was no room to stand, nothing to lean against, just this narrow sliver of littered cement where it seemed the entire world was milling about.
Then the sun touched the horizon between two perfectly placed islands. The entire sky and the rippling sea were aflame, and the market took on a warm glow. For a moment there was no more romantic spot than this. The sun set indigo, and strings of lights cast the faces in shadow.
Back in the center of town, tables filled the sidewalks, and all the cafes had spun their televisions around to face without: Kung-fu flicks, Kuala Lumpur weepies and B-movies from Hollywood screamed onto the streets. Block after block, people were sitting around, having a drink, talking with friends, half-watching the free, if ear-splitting, entertainment. Little kids sat on their haunches, scrunched up beneath the screens.
There has to be a pub somewhere, I thought -- but no, it can't be a late night anyway. Kinabalu, I thought. Kinabalu. Tomorrow I begin the big climb.
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What impulses drive people to go places where they're not welcome? Human beings have no business on mountaintops, even if the mountain is a relatively puny one like Kinabalu. There is nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing to shelter us from the wind and the sun, and not even enough air to breathe. The process is expensive and time-consuming and, at times, lonely. It's hell on your knees, your leg muscles, your lungs. Even sleep is denied you by the altitude and the thin air. You are stripped down naked, your willpower exposed.
I was at Laban Rata, the name of a comfortable guesthouse perched about 3,200 meters above sea level on the side of Mount Kinabalu. The walk up to Laban Rata from the rainforests at the mountain base is six kilometers, all uphill, all steep. I had arrived at Laban Rata in the early afternoon, utterly shattered. We watched the sun fade beneath the swirling clouds below. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I also couldn't sleep. The thin air denied even that luxury.
The knock came at 2:30. I had been lying in my cozy bunk for hours in the darkness, listening to the wind shrieking outside. It sounded very, very cold out there. My body was a wreck; my head ached fiercely. I should have been just going to bed at that hour. I couldn't think of a single reason why I should be pulling on a jacket, testing my flashlight and strapping on my backpack.
I was, I have to admit, afraid.
Not so Al, though, the airline pilot and part-time Marine with the washboard stomach. Even as we were told to get out of bed at 2:30 a.m., Al was singing, "Lager is life! Lager lager lager is life!"
I didn't think Al would have many problems racing to the top. For we mortals with desk jobs and sleep-in weekends, however, the pain had only begun.
With Al's ode to beer echoing throughout the guesthouse, the small company of climbers stumbled outside. The trail went on another 2.5 kilometers. The goal: reach Low's Peak in time for sunrise.
From the start, the climb was impossible. The experienced and the fit marched on into the darkness but I couldn't keep up. My legs quivered. I had to stop every other minute to gasp for breath. The trail continued with steep, rough steps through forest and around boulder. Gradually the voices faded, the flashlights were no longer visible around the next corner. Only Ronnie, the Kadazan tribesman guide I had been required to hire, lurked quietly behind me, obviously bored.
The wind knocked me about as I clambered up the rock face. I felt grateful for the pitch blackness because looking down would have been a mistake. But this was intolerable. I couldn't go any farther.
Then the mountain acquiesced, to a point. Suddenly I found myself on a slope, the steps all behind me, clutching and following a rope that vanished up into blackness, well beyond the reach of my cheap flashlight. The black peak loomed ominously against the inky sky far, far away.
Time passed and the going grew less difficult, the rock face more grabby. But I had no energy. I had to stop to catch my breath every other step. Then my flashlight failed; the light just dimmed and died. Suddenly I was very much alone.
Luckily, Ronnie lit his flashlight to illuminate my way. And luck struck a second time. Dave and Suzette, two Londoners who were also wondering what insanity had brought them here, proved as unfit as me. We fell together, the last climbers on the trail. This was good for them, too, because Dave's flashlight had nearly gone out.
We plodded along at our own pace and all was fine for a while until, without warning or reason, Ronnie suddenly said, "Follow the rope. Go slow," and then vanished, taking his flashlight with him.
The guide we had paid to take us to the top had just abandoned us, leaving us with one failing flashlight. We were pissed off but it took too much energy to curse him. We slogged on. And up.
Done for. No hope. I reclined on the 45-degree incline of rock face and fished out some peanuts from my pack. The three of us just lay there, huffing between munches, freezing in the wind. The sky ... we hadn't had time to look up before. The stars ... did you know there are stars in the sky? Not just the ones in Orion and the Big Dipper, but thousands, millions, a whole galaxy ....
Suddenly it all had a point. What that point is, I'm still not sure, but that big black sky with its countless bright stars made me realize that this experience might carry some worth, that destroying my body would come to some purpose. "This," I philosophized, "is cool."
But what was that thin blue line above the clouds? The first hint of dawn! We had a long way to go and we weren't going to make it. We wearily shouldered our backpacks and started anew.
"I can't go on ..."
"This is endless ..."
"Dave, this was your idea, wasn't it?"
The baby blue paint in the clouds below expanded. We reached a post marking the eighth kilometer. Just half a kilometer to go!
I urged our group onward, but they had had it. They stopped for good, but I kept going, one foot after another. I could see flashlights in the great distance now, creeping up to Low's Peak. My flashlight was dead but there was enough light, a faint cobalt glow, to see the rope run ahead. The clouds showed signs of purple, then pink. I was walking without stop toward the peak but the sun was faster and soon cumulus clouds were swirling beyond distant peaks awash in gold. I couldn't see it but I suspected the sun had risen.
The finish: a steep heap of boulders, straight up. You didn't walk it, you climbed it. I could see other climbers above, I could hear their excited chatter carried along the peak's gales. The sky brightened each time I glanced up. It took forever, one boulder at a time, sometimes pulling myself up by rope, sometimes just by my hands and knees. A few climbers were already heading back down. "Nice sunrise," said one.
It was over by the time I got there, the sun had breached the clouds. But I did win the consolation prize of witnessing the sun itself peek over the opposite mountain just as I finally scrambled to Low's Peak. It blinded me with a hot glow, and the wind was merciless, buffeting me against the rope fence marking the edge of the peak. Below was a straight drop to the bottom of the opposite valley, a fall so severe that no one has ever climbed it.
I fell against the sign, firmly planted in cement, that announces you have made it to the very top of Mount Kinabalu, just you and the sun and the wind, the distant peaks, the welling pride of accomplishment and, yes, drifting upward, a barely recognized tune. "Lager lager lager is life!" Al was making his way down. The fit and firm had already come and gone. It was daytime and they were happy to leave the mountaintop to the rest of us. Only a desk jockey would believe he had touched nirvana.