Well, I didn’t mean to go on my six-week trip overseas and not make a single post while I was away. I even half-prepared some posts, because that’s the sort of organised person I am. But finding the time and space to sit down and concentrate while I was making the rounds of friends and family in the UK turned out to be more difficult than I expected. And in any case, it felt odd to be blogging about Wellington when I was on holiday somewhere else.
I’m back now, but still in holiday mode, and so this post is about walking around Kuala Lumpur, where we stopped off for a few days on the way home.
In some ways, walking was a great way to explore Kuala Lumpur: weaving through the crowds at night markets, peering into shops stacked high with sari fabrics, watching women in niqabs bargain with street sellers for sunglasses.
But it didn’t always feel like a completely sensible thing to be doing. There was the 30 degree heat, the humidity, the traffic, and the lack of street signs for starters, and then there were the building sites which seemed to be everywhere (although some of them looked suspiciously abandoned). The building sites took over the footpaths with no provision made for pedestrians. Often the footpaths themselves seemed to be in the process of being built. Sometimes you could walk on a half-built footpath if you looked where you were going. On our first night, I gave myself a nasty rope burn and nearly fell flat on my face when I failed to see that a section of path had been roped off. Another time, I walked into a light fitting hanging down at shoulder height from the almost completed overhead canopy on the path opposite our hotel. But maybe I’m careless.
It’s not that pedestrians aren’t provided for. There were wide footpaths in some places, and there were even pedestrian crossings. Sometimes the traffic lights worked and sometimes they didn’t. But the footpaths and pedestrian routes often disappeared without warning, leaving us stranded.
Foolishly, we decided one sweltering afternoon to walk the relatively short distance from the wonderful Islamic Arts Museum to the central train station. It looked simple enough on the map. We set off on a lovely wide footpath alongside a busy dual carriageway. But before long the footpath disappeared under a huge building site and we had to walk in the road. There were plenty of other people walking down the road as well. Or rather, sauntering nonchalantly, as if their lives were not in imminent danger from either the building site or the thundering traffic. At the end of the building site, it was not at all clear where we needed to go. Some construction workers pointed us in the right direction. It seemed simple enough from their instructions but we soon found ourselves facing a maze of slip roads, with no station in sight. A pedestrian who seemed to be heading for the station himself came to our aid. We watched as he sauntered, briefcase in hand, across a slip road, over the concrete barrier and up another footpathless slip road. He kept turning and waving us on encouragingly before disappearing into a hotel car park. We followed him through the car park, half-wondering if this was an elaborate mugging ploy, but sure enough, there was the station on the other side, reachable via a crossing that gave pedestrians a ludicrously short space of time to cross and where the green man actually appeared to be sprinting.
We tried the same trick again, this time after a visit to the National Museum, not far from the Islamic Arts Museum. This time, a series of arrows pointed in the direction of the station. So there really was a proper pedestrian route, if only we had known where to look. Except that after following the arrows, and taking a flight of steps up to a bridge, we realised that we were in exactly the same place from where we had followed the commuting pedestrian a few days before, with not a single sign to be seen and several slip roads and a hotel car park to be crossed.
Of course, the alternative to getting sweaty and run over is to stick to the shopping malls, which in some cases, provide routes through to the train system. Some of the malls are even linked with air-conditioned, enclosed pedestrian walkways, well above street level, complete with security guards. I generally have a very low tolerance of shopping mall environments, but the air-conditioning was hard to resist, and there was something impressive about the huge scale and glitziness of the two malls near our hotel, with their massive atriums stacked with floor after floor of shiny, mostly western designer shops. Another thing I almost liked about the malls was that even though they were nearly always busy, hardly anyone was actually in the shops and few people seemed to be carrying shopping bags. The fantastic food courts were the busiest places in the malls. People seemed to be in the malls for strolling and eating rather than shopping.
I was surprised to find out that the population of Kuala Lumpur is only 1.6 million – not significantly bigger than Auckland – but with more shops in one Kuala Lumpur mega mall than probably in the whole of Auckland. And yet more new malls, along with hotels, seemed to be springing up everywhere, at least according to the signs on the building sites. Maybe Kuala Lumpur attracts tourists on shopping trips.
Perhaps significant chunks of the centre of Kuala Lumpur will soon be traversable by mall and enclosed walkway – but hopefully not at the expense of providing space for pedestrians on the streets.