After three days of total exhaustion in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we are left to our own devices and sent off with well wishes as we head to the largest island in Southeast Asia, Borneo. Dan’s wonderful and generous co-worker, George, spent three full days carting us all over the booming city of Kuala Lumpur. With George by our side, we found ourselves at a number of tourist sites including the Batu Caves, the national mosque, the beautiful old courthouse, the KL Tower, etc.
In addition, we found our way into several high-end malls and wonderful restaurants including everything from fine-dining on dim sum to devouring stingray and veggies from a street cart. It may be our most truly local experience yet as George was gracious enough to invite us to share a dinner with his wife’s family.
As we gathered at a place buried deep inside a local mall for a taste of their famous duck – I knew we were in for an adventure, but what I didn’t expect was to have such an affinity for his family and to learn so much about Malaysia, its relation to the rest of Southeast Asia and the country’s political struggles.
His family remains hopeful a political change will one day come to Malaysia, but they remain disheartened by what they say are the less than savory tactics used by the ruling party to remain in power. From allegedly bringing in illegal Filipino immigrants to vote on election day to paying off those living in poverty in Malaysia’s countryside – they say the news of alleged acts spreads through Facebook and leaves those living in more urban areas frustrated. They tell me they’ve turned off what they call the one-side, government-run evening news and instead search social media for reports on what’s happening in Malaysia. Whether it indeed be fact or just their allegations and opinions, the controversy was indeed reflected in the recent election. While the current ruling power failed to win the popular vote, they were able to gain the rural voting districts, which weigh more heavily on the outcome than the urban precincts – and in turn they garnered yet another victory.
As the night wears on, we learn about the family’s participation in rallies and their attempts to dodge tear gas shot into the crowds. It’s hard to grasp the culture of alleged corruption and apparent uprisings as we sit at a beautiful table surrounded by wonderful food in a very modern mall nestled into an advancing city.
Their thoughts on politics and their beloved country weigh heavily on me as we touch down in Kota Kinabalu to continue to explore what George’s family told us is the beautiful and wild side of Malaysia. Our cab zips along the coastline and past shacks floating above the water, which we later learn are floating villages – a government run, tax-free place to build a home for those struggling to make ends meet.
Our older, but still nice, Starwood brand hotel stands along the waterfront directly across from Kota Kinabalu’s night market. As we sip our free cocktails in the lounge high above the water, we watch the sun fall on the rooftops of dozens of blue tents and the market instantly comes to life. We can’t help ourselves and are pulled across the street and past tables filled with fresh, colorful fruits, green vegetables and vibrantly red chili peppers. Soon our open sandals are splashing through fresh fish blood running to the floor from the knifes of butchers filleting their new catch. Just feet away, long lines of cafeteria-style tables are filled with locals devouring fresh lobster, shrimp, crabs and fish. I don’t know if it was our better judgement or the sight of women washing dishes in plastic tubs of dirty water, but our desire to pull up a seat and eat like a local was quickly put to rest.
With our stomachs still intact, we eventually set out to find a bus to take us to Mt. Kinabalu National Park. The images of one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia were inspiring and the promise of adventure was great. Since the beginning of our journey, Dan has insisted I have a serious weak spot as a traveler – I want to see it all and do it. It seems time, cost and logistics don’t matter much to me , and instead I’m easily overwhelmed by my desire to conquer each expedition and capture a photo of every single site I read about.
Unlike at the night market, my better judgement did not kick in here, and I couldn’t get my mind off climbing Mt. Kinabalu. Only one problem stood in our way: it’s a required two day climb with an overnight stay in a hut midway up the giant granite mountain. We didn’t have two days and even if we did – the hut often books up months in advance. My hopes of tackling the climb to the 13,435 ft. peak were fading fast, but my unwavering determination and habitual nagging on Dan to figure it out eventually led us to stumble across a website written by a mountain guide who mentioned a one-day climb. “Perfect!” I shouted as I thrust the computer into Dan’s hands! “We can do it! We just have to convince the park manager we are fit enough to make the trek in a single day!” It sounded so blissfully simple.
So, with a sense of great optimism, we set our sites on Mt. Kinabalu. After waiting hours in the heat at a run-down bus station outside of Kota Kinabalu, we finally caught a bus bound for a town on the other side of Borneo – we just had to get off half way. With some bloody, sci-fi adventure from the US blaring on a television at the front, the bus wound steeply up through beautiful, lush, green mountains – tossing us around each sharp curve.
Only a couple hours later, it came to a screeching halt in front of Mt. Kinabalu National Park – a seemingly small, run-down area deep in the heart of Sabah, a state in Borneo’s mountains. We clamored off the bus and dug our over-sized backpacks from beneath the cargo hold before strapping in and hiking up to the entrance. A grey mist hung in the air, and clouds shrouded the giant mountain lying just beyond the gates. As rain began to fall, we dodged into the park’s management office and asked to speak with a manager.
“We want to do the one-day climb,” Dan said, as the girl behind the desk looked rather confused. She nodded, and unsure she fully understood, we waited patiently. She emerged from a small room and without hesitation produced two waivers for us to sign stating we knew the dangers of attempting the climb in a single day and the usual legal jargon indicating we wouldn’t sue if something terrible happened. We were told to be back at 7am when the park opened to meet our guide and begin the trek.
Something inside me told me they weren’t going to approve us, and more specifically me, to summit the mountain in one day, and as I walked from the ranger’s office I was shocked. Things couldn’t have gone more smoothly.
The rain had slowed to a steady stream of mist as we approached the national park’s taxi stand to hitch a ride to our hotel at the Poring Hot Springs nearly 50 kilometers away. “Poring,” Dan said, trying to show a driver the address of the place we had a reservation at on his iPhone. The man smirked. “No,” he said. “Too much traffic.” “Traffic?” Dan asked. “Mudslide closed the road,” the man was able to say in broken English. “Nobody go.” He was right. We asked driver after driver – all refused to go to Poring Hot Springs no matter the price.
We were pointed to the road and told to flag down a bus headed in that direction. There we sat alongside the highway with bags piled by our side and the rain falling from overhead. Each bus that came by waved us off and each driver or person we asked for help simply laughed. Hours passed, and the grey, stormy sky was quickly turning black signaling nighttime was near. In a moment of true frustration and panic, and after decent amount of obscenities were exchanged, Dan stormed off into the storm walking alongside the highway to find us a place to stay. More than forty five minutes later, he returned – drenched, and with a look of surrender on his face.
“Well, I found us a place,” he said, exasperated. “You’re not going to like it.”
“It will put a roof over our heads,” I said as I gathered our already wet bags to hike alongside the highway in the rain. As we turned from the road onto the dirt path leading to our newly found home stay, the building stood in front of us like a beacon of shining hope. The worn, shack-like two story, wooden structure without windows was typical of any rural Borneo home. The small, sweet homeowner held open the door as we struggled to take off our shoes and stumble into the living room – a barren room with plastic sheeting laid over the floors. The sign hanging on the wall indicated the ‘quiet hours’ as if more than one person had ever stayed in the place at the same time.
The room was a tiny 8X10 square with a sagging bed covered in moldy bedding and pillows. We threw our stuff onto the floor knowing our adventure was far from over. Tired and wet, we paid the homeowner 30 Ringgit to drive us 15 kilometers to the next town, where we were told there was an ATM. Her little red car glided gracefully around the mountainous curves while the Virgin Mary affixed to the dash stayed static and the cross hanging from the mirror swayed with the motion of the car. What the locals considered a town was in fact more of a square with a small ATM built into a wall. As we approached, a flashing message served as reminder our terrible day wasn’t over. OUT OF SERVICE. Shit. We didn’t have enough cash to pay the fee to climb Mt. Kinabalu – and once again, it looked as if it summiting the mountain was again out of our reach. Now, not only did we not have enough to pay for the climb, but we were 30 Ringgit down as we had to pay her for the ride. A new KFC stood on one corner of the square like a shining beacon of hope. We plodded by the abandoned buildings and into the chicken chain to eat. We bought our sweet driver dinner and paid with a credit card to shave a bit off our bill.
Back at the guesthouse we sucked down a tub of mashed potatoes as well as cheesy potato wedges and chicken burgers before slinking into our moldy sheets for some sleep. As the sun peeked through the open windows stirring both us and a plethora of bugs in the room from our sleep – we prepared for the climb.
We walked through the mist alongside the roadway until we reached the park entrance. I went to the office to meet our guide and stall, while Dan begged a small, privately-run hotel inside the park to exchange US dollars for Ringgit. Thirty minutes later, and after a horrible exchange rate, Dan walked in – cash in hand. Already behind schedule, we paid our fee..and climbed into a car to be shuttled to the start of the train at the Timpohon Gate.
Overcome with excitement and our adrenaline pumping, we walked through the gate and meandered along a seemingly flat path alongside a beautiful waterfall. “This is easy,” I said confidently to Dan. “Ya,” he said in amazement at we pushed on. Within minutes, the flat, clay-colored trail was replaced with endless steep, wooden stairs through thick, green jungle. The first kilometer came and went quickly, but the second and third seemed to drag on. Our legs quickly tired and the air seemed to thin sooner than we expected. Two kilometers later, the stairs disappeared and we were forced to clamor over and around giant boulders. As we ascended, we passed an older gentlemen who was stopped with his guide reviewing a map. “His guide say he only go Laban Rata – he won’t make it,” our guide told us in broken English. He was the one other person I was in the office that morning who was attempting the one day climb and only several kilometers in – he was told he could only go halfway.
Dan was pacing each kilometer to ensure we made it to the Laban Rata Rest House, located about 6.4 kilometers into the climb, by 10:00am. If we didn’t – we wouldn’t be allowed to continue to the summit. The race against time was on..each minute, each second mattered. We were breathless, tired and overwhelmed by the difficulty of trek, but we had no choice but to keep trying. Shortly after four kilometers, I took the lead, pushing as fast as I could upward. It was unusual for Dan to trail behind, but I figured he was hanging behind me to push me to go faster. As I looked back, though, I realized not only how far behind he truly was, but also how pale his face had become. The color was drained, leaving his skin a pallid, greenish color..a color I had never seen before. “Are you ok?” I asked. “Yes, go,” was his reply. But, I knew something was wrong. In our four years of marriage and five years of dating, I had never seen him look like that before. “It’s not worth it,” I said. “Let’s just stop and rest.” “No, go,” he repeated.
As we ascended we climbed over gnarled tree roots and gigantic boulders and through moss covered trees and thick rainforest past some of the rarest and most beautiful plants in the world including the rare pitcher plant and various rhododendrons. It rained briefly, but just enough to leave behind a thick humidity in the air that clung to your skin and never let your body cool. Soon the beautiful rainforest disappeared and only high-altitude shrubbery remained.
Our legs were screaming, our lungs were panicking and we were stumbling by the time we reached Laban Rata Rest House.. twenty minutes late. Again, our hopes of summiting Mt. Kinabalu were dashed. We didn’t hit our first required check in time, and we wouldn’t be allowed to try to reach Low’s peak – the summit. Deflated and defeated, we sat down for more than a minute for the first time since starting the climb. I peeled off my shoes to relieve some of the pain in my feet. “I don’t care if we didn’t make it, I can’t believe we got this far,” I said. “It’s a joke how hard this is.” Just as I concluded, our guide walked by our table, “We go in ten minutes,” he said. “What, he’s letting us continue?” I questioned joyfully. We shoved down a peanut butter and jelly we slapped together from items we’d been carrying with us and munched on almonds and chocolate to get our energy levels back up. From Laban Rata Rest House – it was 2.7 kilometers to the summit, and we had until 1pm to reach it. With a little over 2 hours, 2.7 kilometers seemed like such a cinch.
As we continued from Laban Rata, what was left of flora and fauna disappeared along with the stairs. Only jagged yet smooth, grey granite stretched out before us. Clinging to ropes, we were able to use our upper body strength to supplement the loss of feeling in our legs and catapult ourselves upward across the slick stone. By now, the air was so thin – we could never quite get a full breath. Dizzy and exasperated we collapsed on the stone beneath our feet. After reaching for a chocolate chew and a moments rest, we stumbled upward again. The pattern of collapsing and stumbling forward continued for two hours before, finally, my heart was overcome with joy and relief – the summit was in sight. A final pump of adrenaline surged through my body, and all of our hard work melted away. “The summit?” I asked as our guide walk up alongside us. “No,” he replied pointing beyond a plateau in front of us. I felt sick. I couldn’t make it. Enough.
Nearing 1pm, we came across the plateau to where the summit stood. This time, I was not nearly as excited. “Two minutes,” the guide said. “You get to the summit in two minutes and take photos and come down,” he repeated. He was too gracious, we had just lapsed 1pm and we were not at the summit. He had all right to turn us around and not let us make the final push up the steep hill. Tears welled in my eyes. “I can’t do it in two minutes,” I sputtered. “We’re going to do this,” Dan replied as he started forward.
Still in record mode, I dropped the camera around my neck letting it swing freely as I used both my hands and feet to climb over the rocks. “Two minutes,” I continually repeated to myself as I honestly threw every last ounce of my energy into pushing myself to the top. My body had given out and all that remained was sheer determination. Tears were flowing as I crawled up behind Dan to touch the sign signaling the summit of Mt. Kinabalu. I let out a weak cry – a cry of both joy and pain. Rarely in my life have I had that exact feeling, and honestly, it’s indescribable.
We snapped a few photos and slid down the giant, granite rocks to where our guide was waiting. That’s when he dropped another bomb on us. “We have to be back by 5pm,” he said. “The last bus to my village leaves at 5pm.” Shit. Again.. no breaks, no time to rest, no time to recover. As we carefully made our way down the granite, our legs continued to shake uncontrollably. It wasn’t relaxing on the way down; in fact, it was harder. When we reached the top of the endless sea of stairs, I placed nearly all my weight onto the railing and let my body follow.
We continued down past Laban Rata and back into the lush rainforest below. As if it wasn’t difficult enough, flashes of lighting and claps of thunder signaled trouble. Within minutes, heavy, tropical rain began to fall. I shoved the camera beneath my jacked and powered forward, worried in moments everything would be soaked. We walked for twenty minutes or so before we could dodge into a shelter to get situated. We wrapped the camera and lenses in plastic bags and shoved them back into my thin backpack underneath my jacket. The rain wasn’t going to let up and we had to power forward.
It didn’t take long before the once clay-like trail laden with giant boulders became a raging river with waterfalls. Each step into the cool, flowing water and our shoes filled with rain. Everything was soaked; it was as if we’d jumped into a lake fully clothed. Still, we continued through the rain and the lightning.
With four kilometers to go to the bottom, I told Dan I wasn’t going to make it. How could I? The pain in my legs had transformed into a strange numbness and sharp shooting pains had moved into my hips. My feet were slamming against the toe bed of my shoe with each step and my back was aching. “They’re going to have to get me off this mountain,” I repeated, fighting back tears once again. But, somehow, I continued on even slipping and falling several times – a sign my body was too weak to truly support itself.
It seemed like hours before we were even close to the bottom and I thought the stairs would never end. As the ground flattened out and the raging river of a trail we had been following subsided, I knew the end was near. Still, it was little consolation. I was sick, wanting to stop and vomit or simply pass out, and as I nearly did the trail turned upward once again toward the Timpohon Gate and our awaiting van back to the park entrance.
I wasn’t fighting back tear at this point, that would have taken too much work, instead as Dan stood waiting for me with his hand out beneath the final stairs up to the gate – I just let them flow. “We’re going to do this together,” he said. At that moment, I wasn’t crying for what I had been through, rather I was overcome with a sense of comfort and pride. I was proud he was my husband. He wasn’t going to climb those final stairs without my hand in his, and as we stood at the base of the steps, drenched by the rain and utterly exhausted, I knew if we could tackle the mountain and survive together, then we could tackle life and those final steps hand in hand.