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Bukittinggi

Set in the picturesque highlands of West Sumatra, Bukittinggi is a small, welcoming city flanked by a tranquil green valley. Fatris MF of Colours delves into its serenity.

Words by Fatris MF

Bukittinggi is a blissful city. The capital of Indonesia for a brief period in the 1940s during the country’s fight for independence, it feels refreshingly cool to me, accustomed as I am to the heat of the coastal city where I live.

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Every morning, Bukittinggi is covered in a mist that partially hides the surrounding Barisan Mountains and its steep valleys. Children walk slowly past the shops, where the doors are still closed, on their way to school. People venture outside their homes dressed in thick clothes, and groups of old men sit at street-side stalls with sarongs slung around their necks, like Europeans wearing shawls to keep out the snowflakes. But, of course, there is no snow in this city of almost 120,000 people, encased by tropical mountains.

I walk along the narrow city streets in the cool morning air, then sit alone on a garden bench at the edge of Sianok Canyon. In front of me is a green valley – vast, meandering and silent. A river flows along its middle. I feel like I have entered a work by Wakidi, an Indonesian naturalist painter from the Mooi Indie era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was enchanted by this place. While Bukittinggi today is, of course, much changed ashotels and shopping malls have sprung up, the canyon remains just as it appeared in Wakidi’s painting, a valley that will remain forever timeless.

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Gradually, the mist begins to lift. Mount Singgalang and Mount Marapi show their form in the light of the morning sun. At the feet and on the lower slopes, small villages are still concealed by mist. In the past, these villages prospered as a result of world market demand for pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and acacia. After these spices lost their allure, the local communities began to farm vegetables such as chillies, celery, onions, carrots, and cauliflower. Once a week, the farmers’ hard-grown produce is taken by pickup trucks that travel in a convoy to cities in central Sumatra, Jambi, Pekanbaru, Batam, and even Singapore.

Situated 930m above sea level, Bukittinggi covers an area of only 25km2, or four per cent of the total area of Jakarta. But despite its density and existence as an urban centre since colonial times, the city never really gets too busy.

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During the day, and even moreso on holidays, the streets come to life with the sound of car horns and the clatter of horses pulling two-wheeled carts, or bendi, carrying tourists. The Gadang Clock Tower, a relic of the colonial era, stands erect in the city centre. Other points of interest include the Fort de Kock Dutch fortress, a network of underground bunkers built by the Japanese during the Second World War, racehorses grazing in the Bukik Ambacang, and the aroma of spices wafting out into the humid air from street stalls.

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In the late afternoon, the city seems melancholic. In the orange twilight, Mount Singgalang and Mount Marapi stand proud, like giants protecting the city from impending disaster, and the monument of one of Indonesia’s founding fathers Mohammed (Bung) Hatta stands tall in the city park.

“In the past, this city produced many well-known scholars and intellectuals. Bukittinggi had a ‘Kings School’ (Sekolah Raja). And the climate makes itpleasant and peaceful,” says Asraferi Sabri, a middle-aged local, who tells me about his city while we enjoy a cup of coffee in a stall at Sianok Canyon.

“Het zoogenaamde Karbouwengat, Sianok Canyon is the cleanest place I have ever seen,” wrote L.C. Westenenk, a controller at Fort de Kock, in a 1909 travel guidebook for Dutch tourists. He described the Minangkabau Highlands, or Padangsche Bovenlanden, and their diverse panorama: Bukik Ampang-ampang, and Bukik Ambacang Racecourse, which he referred to as mooi, or ‘beautiful’. Nowadays, horse races attract crowds to Bukit Ambacang each year.

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Located 100km from Padang, the provincial capital of West Sumatra, Bukittinggi has been a prime tourist destination since colonial times. The colonial government spent a large sum of money constructing a railway line connecting Padang to Bukittinggi at the end of the 19th century, and, at the same time, a track opened leading to the mining town of Sawahlunto. In 1902, the first train officially began operating, bringing tourists to Bukittinggi. Tickets cost 11 US$ per person, almost the monthly wage of labourers working on Sumatra’s east coast.

“The railway lines haven’t been working for a long time,” Asraferi continues. As our conversation ends, rain is falling from the evening sky and the suburbs are locked in silence. One by one, the houses switch on their lights. I leave Asraferi behind and drive through the rainy streets alone.

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People sit inside the warmth of the street-side stalls, steaming food givingoff a rich scent of spices. Looking for tasty food in Bukittinggi is like looking for sand on a beach, so, feeling hungry, I enter a restaurant. The dishes on the dining table are in abundance: curried cow trotters (gulai tunjang), steamed fried chicken (ayam pop), duck with green chillies (itiak lado ijau), beef jerky (dendeng), fried eel (goreng belut), and many more, including rendang – the tender coconut-milk simmered beef dish that made CNN Travel’s list of the 50 most delicious foods in the world.

At night, the mist descends once again and Bukittinggi falls asleep swathed in a cold mist. The next morning, I will probably get up late, perhaps walk back to the edge of Sianok Canyon, and sit with a cup of coffee while gazing into the depths of the steep valley.

Jakarta to Padang


Flight Time1 hour 20 Minutes

Frequency 35 flights per week

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From Colours January 2020

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5 Senses – Taste
Ampiang Dadiah

Ampiang dadiah is made from glutinous red rice that is roasted and pounded, then combined with dadiah, or traditional yoghurt made from fermented buffalo milk. This is covered with palm sugar and grated young coconut. The sourness of the milk, combined with the sticky rice chips, and the sweetness of liquid brown sugar creates a perfect blend.