(Thanks to Andy for reviewing this translation)
Did I ever mention that I don`t like big cities? Nevertheless, I end up in them because some things you can do only in big cities. In Kuala Lumpur, called KL, I want to fix my laptop and my camera and get a visa for Indonesia.
It takes some preparation to navigate large cities without GPS. I plan in detail how to get to my destination on smaller roads. On the map it looks so simple: 5 km straight ahead, then turn right, after 2 km turn left … In reality, it is always different and usually my plan doesn´t work out. Same thing this time: Even before I come close to the center at all, I get lost and end up on a busy highway. The traffic is so fast that I even can´t think of trying to change lanes. I have no other choice but to take the next exit, which leads me to another expressway.
Somehow I make my way to the city center. The famous Petronas Towers are visible from far and serve as a good landmark.
Rita from Warmshower network gives me a place to stay and helps to organize my stuff. In the next few days she shows me around the city and introduces me to other cyclists.
Cyclist unfriendly KL
KL is not that big. The whole metropolitan area is home to 7 million people but the city itself has only 2 million. I use only my bicycle to get around and after a few days I can find my way without looking at the map at every junction.
But as a cyclist I don´t feel very welcomed in this city: There is no infrastructure, no bicycle lanes, signs, or spaces. Even pedestrians are not considered in the transportation plan. Sidewalks end suddenly or don´t exist. The same applies to pedestrian traffic lights. The city is crossed by a network of expressways, and some neighborhoods are even accessible only by highway.
With my bike I get strange looks even without luggage. I get shooed away while waiting in front of shopping centers downtown and cars honk without reason while waiting in front of traffic lights. But I’m not the only cyclist in this city.
There is for example, Jeff. He has designed the first cycling map of KL, in countless hours and with the help of many local cyclists.
Or Farid, who only uses his bike to get around. He publishes the free cyclist magazine Crankpost.
Massa Kritikal KL
I can gaze at the entire range of cycling culture in KL on a Friday at Massa Kritikal, a monthly ride through the city center. Kids with colorful fixie bikes, mountain bikers in full gear with new shiny bicycles, people on rickety old bikes and of course many folding bikes, which are very popular in Asia. More and more people realize it is much better to bike to work instead of standing for hours in a traffic jam everyday. These foldies can be folded and carried, in a modern city like KL that is only beneficial: the bike fits in the elevator, into the office, and you can take it on the bus or Skytrain to cover larger distances.
Probably the only group of cyclists not represented at the KL Critical Mass are the (illegal) immigrants from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Indonesia. They work on the many construction sites in the city and have no other way to go to work than by bicycle.
KL is a rapidly growing city. New luxury residential towers, called condos, spring up like mushrooms, especially in the suburbs. Big shopping centers are being built to satisfy the desires of the local population, which is growing in size and wealth.
The skyline is dominated by the impressive Petronas Towers and the Menara TV Tower. The fully automatic LRT Monorail glides up in the air through the urban canyons while down on the ground the wide streets are clogged with cars and motorcycles.
Cool air and people loaded with shopping bags pour out of shopping malls to the streets, well-dressed business men and women rush from one office to another, their eyes fixed straight ahead. Huge billboards promise happiness, satisfaction, and comfort through the purchase of new products.
Rising crime rates frighten many people. In front of shopping centers, major stores, parking lots, and schools are private security men. In residential areas the police patrol at night. Many homes have a little box where the police note that they have been there in the night. The newer condominiums have all a central security service. If you want to visit someone you have to give your name and phone number, sometimes I even have to show my passport and be accompanied to the door of the resident. The lift works with an electronic card and the residents can get out only in their own floor. Staircases does not exist or are only for emergencies. Surveillance cameras are the norm.
One evening I go out with friends to a nightclub. Prices are on a European level, as are the equipment and music. Smartly dressed people dance to electronic music. White men are often accompanied by a Malaysian girl. I stand on the rooftop terrace, drink my expensive beer ( I could eat a whole day on the cost of one beer), and look at the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur.
I used to really like to party, to dance, to get drunk. But this time I can´t enjoy it.
Probably I have spent too much time in the poorer countries of the world, seeing the conditions under which people live there and beginning to understand the reasons which lead to this conditions. It feels wrong to me to have such a high standard of living as in Germany, or Europe and the rest of the western world, or as in wealthy Asian cities like KL. Our wealth is based on the exploitation and oppression of the majority of the world’s population. We are wasting resources as if there is not only one but several earths. Our high standard of living is denied to others. We live at the expense of other humans. The social injustice gets bigger and bigger and in today’s political and economic system, there is no other way. In this time of the internet and free information, no one can say he does not know that. I write “we” here because even though I live a simple life with little money, I have spent most of my life in rich Germany.
It´s not easy for me to write so clearly. I don´t want to condemn or attack anyone because of his lifestyle, but many people aren’t very aware and they don´t see the global perspective. Of course it is hard to admit that your lifestyle, which is perceived as good and right, is not particularly sustainable for our planet and humanity.
Thoughts like that make me sad. Sometimes it is difficult for me to see the positive things.
I need a longer break to regain strength and find a new home with Karen, a couchsurfer. She has a small apartment in a quiet residential area on the outskirts of KL. During the next days I spend a lot of time on the computer or asleep. I sleep 12 hours, feel tired, weak, and have no desire to go out or get to know new people. It is a low point, a depression, that every traveler probably experiences at one point of his trip.
But Karen is really helpful, knows KL very well, and persuades me to get out and do something. She has a lot to tell and knows lots of interesting people. It´s good for me to talk with her and we become close friends. Time passes by until I finally continue, after 5 weeks in KL. I hope that I feel better when I´m in motion again, getting new input and cycling to the next destination.