2013 Travel Review

As is becoming a tradition on this blog, here’s a 2013 Travel Review. The first half of the year was packed, so packed that I hardly had time to sit down and properly take in all the experiences. The second half is more mute, and on hindsight, more introspective. I finally sat down and sorted out photos. Still slowly writing out the blog entries, and while doing so, reliving the great memories of 2013.

Before that. A look back at travel resolutions. I realised I did not write an entry for 2013, but looking back at 2012’s entry, I’ve crossed off another 4 from that list: The Wakhan Corridor, Iran, Central Asia and Georgia. Good times.

Without further ado, here is a summary of the places and countries I visited in 2013.

January

Romania – Counted down the New Year the square outside Bucharest’s Parliament Palace. Had a hair-raising time sliding on ice covered sidewalks in Translyvania trying not to break my neck.

Bulgaria – Went traipsing around medieval castles, ancient monasteries and rolled about in the knee-high snow. After a month in Europe I was getting used to the winter and starting to enjoy myself.

Macedonia – A brief stay in Skopje, amazed by the sheer number of monuments that has been put up. Highest concentration of statues in one place I’ve ever seen.

Kosovo – My whirldwind tour of the Balkans takes me to Kosovo. Youngest European country and youthful to boot, with an median age of 26. I spent time in local cafes mingling and making friends in Prizren.

Albania – What I remember from Albania, besides the beautiful cities of Berat and Gjirokastër is that it’s very wet. Six days in Albania and five of them in the rain. I loved exploring the Roman ruins of Butrint alone, underneath my umbrella.

Greece – Greece was a stopover, en route to Turkey. Liked it more than I expected, and that was largely due to the sun, after almost two months of snow and rain. I did not visit any of the islands though, so a return visit in the future is warranted.

February:

Turkey – A full three weeks in Turkey. Yet I was barely able to explore the country. Cappadocia which I was skeptical about lived up to its reputation as a wonderful unique destination. A highlight was finding out about an annual travel industry fair in Istanbul, where I got to experience the multitude of cultures in and around Turkey.

Cyprus – The unique experience of going to Cyprus by barge ferry (and flying back into Turkey). And Nicosia is the last divided capital city in the world.

Republic of Northern Cyprus – I would classify this anomaly as a country on its own. Occupying the northern part of the island of Cyprus, it is very Turkish, compared to the Euro-centric Greek southern half of the island.

Georgia – Everybody I cannot recommend Georgia enough, and it’s easy to see why. Tbilisi ranks as one of the best cities I’ve visited this year. Perhaps I’m biased because I spent a total of 6 nights there. And trudging through thigh-high snow up to the Kazbegi Monastery? Unforgettable.

Abkhazia – This was always planned when I set out on my long trip. An unrecognised state that is de jure part of Georgia. English was completely useless here, only Russian works. The abandoned city feel throughout the capital Sukhumi is prevalent.

Azerbaijan – Not my favourite country. Most people were friendly enough, but between getting an 8 day visa despite paying through my teeth and a visa process that took even longer than 8 days, and getting my bags emptied each time I took the metro, I was not really a fan of Baku.

March

Armenia – Loved Armenia. Met lots of people who showed me around. The churches were especially picturesque.

Nagorno-Karabakh – Since I was on a roll visiting countries that don’t exist, why not visit Nagorno-Karabakh. Officially part of Azerbaijan, it is a mountainous country that feels like an extension of Armenia, with its churches and friendly people.

Iran – My favourite country by far. Perfect for the history buff in me. Couple that with the most welcoming people I’ve ever met and some beautiful architecture. A life-changing highlight is getting stranded in the Valley of the Assassins and almost dying.

April

Uzbekistan – Always on my bucket list, Uzbekistan lived up to my expectations. The definitive silk road city. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are gems.

Kazakhstan – The most modern of the Central Asian states. Almaty is a good place to relax and just recover from travel fatigue. Streetside cafes and fashionable brands everywhere.

Kyrgyzstan – Ranks up there as one of my favourites. Horse-trekking and hikes through spectacular hills and lakes can be interspersed with relaxing in Bishkek and navigating the bazaars of central asia.

May

Tajikistan – The Pamir Highway is an obvious attraction, but my Tajikistan leg was defined more by walking through the central asian bazaars and towns of Khorog, Istaravshan and Khojand.

Afghanistan – A brief jaunt into the Wakhan region of Afghanistan. I regret not travelling beyond Eshkashem, but nonetheless, this was a unique experience.

China – The finale of my trip takes me back a full circle into China. This time in the Xinjiang region, and going east to Beijing overland. I was in high spirts, and everything – the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an – seemed fantastic.

What didn’t go well – Not much really, it has been a great year. I failed to get a visa into Turkmenistan, so that’s certainly something to go back to. And South Ossetia, Moldova and Transnistria were on my “maybe can do” list on the trip, but visas were too much of a hassle considering the time constraint. And Syria: When I began the trip in 2012, I thought that the country would be OK by the time I reached it. Sadly, it was not true.

So that’s 2013. Twenty new countries, lots of memories.

Minangkabau of Malaysia

In the 1500s, Minangkabau males engaged in voluntary migration, called merantau, across the Straits of Malacca.They landed in today’s Negeri Sembilan state and founded settlements all over the region. These settlers intermarried with the local population and brought with them the culture of the Minangkabau, or Adat Perpatih, which governs laws, political organisation, traditions and social systems.

One of the most known features of this adat is the matrilineal society, in which women are the owners of land and property. Family possessions are passed down from mother to daughter. Men, on the other hand are encouraged to leave their village to far off lands seeking fame and fortune, which might explain the migration across the straits. However, they are still tied closely to their homeland, many return home experienced and contribute to the running of the family or negeri (hometown) where they sit on the council of leaders.


Those that decided to stay on in Negeri Sembilan also formed their own villages and clans with similar councils of leaders, known as the datuk-datuk penghulu luak. They were still tied to their homeland, evident in the 1760s when a group of these datuk-datuk penghulus travelled to the seat of the Minangkabau king in West Sumatra to request for a ruler. The king sent his son, a young prince by the name of Raja Melewar who became the first king of Negeri Sembilan.


His title was the Yamtuan Besar (equivalent to King) Raja Melewar. He set his royal capital at Seri Menanti, 14km away from modern day Seremban, where it is still used as the seat of the Yamtuan Besar today. He was succeeded by members of the same royal line, a monarchy that still exists to this day.

The unique feature of Negeri Sembilan is that it is an elective monarchy, according to the Adat Perpatih of the Minangkabau. Unlike the other nine Malay States with a king (known as a Sultan) whose selection is hereditary, the Yamtuan Besar is elected by the datuk-datuk penghulus from a pool of potential princes in the royal line. Yes, the same Minangkabau chieftains of the tribes who went to search for the first ruler choose the king. This council today is made up of four undangs (district lords) in the modern day luaks (districts) of Sungai Ujong, Rembau, Jelebu and Johol. These undangs are descended from noble Minangkabau families matrilineally, and have historically been the rulers of their clans.

Then I realised how Negeri Sembilan (literal translation is “9 lands”) got its name. What I thought referred to the 9th out of 13 Malaysian states actually refers to the 9 original luaks of Negeri Sembilan. Today the state comprises 7 administrative districts, though the council of 4 undangs of the luaks still exist, performing ceremonial duties and the important task of selecting the next Yamtuan Besar.

I visited Negeri Sembilan over a weekend, and the Minangkabau influence is proudly showcased everywhere. In the main city of Seremban, overhead bridges had the distincitve curved roof structure that mimicked the shape of a bull’s horns. Even the local KFC fast food restaurant was in a standalone building designed like a traditional Minang house. In the nearby villages out in the countryside, homes still bear traditional Minangkabau roofs.

The grandest Minangkabau building is the Old Palace at the royal capital Seri Menanti. It is an impressive four storey building built in 1903 constructed without any nails. The palace is today used as a museum featuring the history and regalia of the royal family. Within Seri Menanti town, there is also the royal mausoleum, a mosque and the new Royal Palace, where the current Yamtuan Besar resides.

If you are ever in Negeri Sembilan and wish to learn more about the fascinating Minangkabau of Malaysia, you should also visit the State Museum Complex. Located in Seremban, the museum offers a look into the culture and history of the Minangkabau. The main building, a grand recreation of a Minangkabau royal home, houses everything from weapons to royal ornament. There is even a section on prehistoric Negeri Sembilan.


Istana Lama Seri Menanti : The four-storeyed old royal palace


A view of the State Museum’s Minangkabau roofs, looking out of a window of a traditional home.


A modern interpretation of a Minangkabau home

Ref: