The Hills

Even with my late arrival, I woke up long before the students did. We had been put in a room with four bunk beds so that our group represented half of the dorm’s occupants. I ate the hostel’s provided breakfast of coffee and toast and sat on our second floor veranda and read a book until the students began to stir. Before this scene becomes romanticized in your head- I should be clear by what I mean by “veranda”. The Service World Hostel is located in what amounts to a multi-story strip mall. I sat at a plastic table near a metal railing that overlooked a retaining wall which seemed to serve as the main battleground for Chinatown’s sizable population of stray cats. To either side of me were storefronts housing such things as Chinese bookstores and Chinese massage/acupuncture/reflexology clinics. I’m not saying that my surroundings were unpleasant; I just want to be clear about what they were comprised of. Ambiance aside, the hostel certainly had a lot of things going for it- Andrew’s excellent hospitality as well as a centralized location in Singapore close to transportation among them.

By 10 or so we were ready to venture out for the day. Our first order of business was to purchase train tickets to Malaysia. While it was possible to secure tickets to and from Kuala Lumpur over the internet, tickets for the line which wound up the east side of the country to the Thai border near Kota Bharu could only be obtained in person at the Woodlands Checkpoint train station. We took the MRT to the Woodlands stop at the very edge of the city/country and then boarded a bus for the 10-minute ride to the main Singapore train station. There, we discovered that tickets were already sold out for the following day’s 8 am train that we had been hoping to take due to the fact that it was the beginning of the month-long summer break at Singapore’s public schools. Instead, we ended up on the 5:30 am train that apparently not as many vacationers wanted to take. We ate lunch back at the Woodlands MRT station at a stand which was serving Bao zi, steamed Chinese buns filled with chicken or barbequed pork, and then took the train to the Bukit Batok stop. Bukit is the word for hill in both Malay as well as in Indonesian. In addition to Bukit Batok, there was also Bukit Gombak, Bukit Panjang, and Bukit Timah in that general vicinity. My goal was to do some hiking in the rainforest at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in order to prepare for our upcoming trek through the Malaysian jungle. Singapore is the only city in the world besides Rio de Janeiro which houses a tropical rainforest within its city limits.

Before we hiked the rainforest, however, we had a much more urban hike to perform. Since the nature reserve was about 2 miles from the nearest MRT station, we set out across the residential neighborhood-filled bukits in order to find the rainforest. I had checked a map at the station and determined that we needed to turn left on Bukit Batok East Avenue in order to reach Bukit Timah. What the map had failed to make clear is that there were no less than 6 different streets by that name, each containing a number tacked on to its name. We therefore ended up taking a wrong turn and ending up at Bukit Batok Town Park, also called Little Guilin due to its resemblance to the town in China of the same name. The park is built at the site of an old quarry so that it features large granite rocks sticking out of a picturesque lake. We were glad to have stumbled across such a lovely place! Soon we had figured out where to go and had entered the nature reserve near the dairy farm located at its northern tip. This meant that we had about a mile of trail between us and the visitor center located at the southern tip of the reserve.

The trail started off as a paved road and soon took us past a group of monkeys who were hanging out in the nearby trees. We watched these for a while before continuing down the trail to our second quarry of the day- the Singapore Quarry. After taking a well-deserved rest near the water, we were forced to back-track up the road that had dead-ended at the quarry to find a mountain bike trail which continued in the direction of the visitor’s center. The only other wildlife that we encountered on our hike was a group of three apparently stray dogs who snatched up a monitor lizard which had been crossing the path and ran off with him up a side trail. The visitor’s center was criss-crossed by a series of considerably easier trails, one of which we took to yet another quarry- the Hindhede Quarry. With this, we decided that we had probably hiked enough for one day- so we headed to the nearest bus stop rather than trek all the way back to the MRT station. Back in Chinatown, we decided to eat at the “hawker stalls” located in the food court which was located on the first floor of the strip mall that we now called home. These consisted of separate kiosks featuring particular types of food, including some that dealt exclusively in providing drinks. The students were impressed that we could eat for about $4 a person- I assured them that they hadn’t seen anything yet.

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