Medan - the capital city of Sumatra, Indonesia. It's a shame that every amazingly beautiful place in Sumatra has to be visited by stopping over in Medan. It is equally far (or close) to the most places worth visiting in Sumatra - national parks, elephant sanctuaries, Aceh province, Lake Toba, Banyak islands, volcanos, traditional Batak villages and so forth and unfortunately it's hard to skip Medan on the way to any of these places.
Medan is a scary, dirty hole, anything you try to do there turns out to be frustrating. The guides and travel books are quite serious when they say travelers generally hate it.
There is practically no such concept as budget accommodation, and it doesn't mean that accommodation prices are too expensive. On the contrary, around Sisimangaraja street (near the main mosque) you can find 10-15 hotels with reasonable prices ($8-12 per private room), the problem is that regardless of what room price range you pick your room will still be disgusting. Not even on the border of disgusting, it's gonna be truly and shockingly disgusting. What I mean is not just cockroaches and poorly washed floor, I mean brown stains on the mattress and sheets, broken windows, rotten smell in the bathroom, falling apart walls and 3 days old cat's shit next to your door. The lobby of such places always looks deceptively fine, the fact that room rate includes breakfast is also deceptively nice because all you get for breakfast is tea and 3 spoons of fried rice.
One place we found though where they'll feed you really really well is a small place in a side street right across the main mosque run by a very nice woman and her family. Definitely try their grilled chicken burger (around $3) if you're there.
We happened to be in Medan during Ramadhan holidays, so most of the city was quite dead. We tried to find a tour agency where we could buy tickets for the van going to Singkil (a port town in the West coast), finally we got referred to an agency on Bintang street (ironically it means Star street) Bintang street was as typical street as you can get in Medan - half broken asphalt, dust, dirt, piles of trash, sketchy little shops with indistinguishable products for sale, animal shops and garages.
Animal shops deserve special attention - I believe animals there are sold for food or perhaps for reproduction. There are several wooden shelves mounted over a tiny canal full of trash and animal shit, and these shelves contain 20-30 cages stacked upon each other from bottom to top. In these cages there are chickens, small chicks, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, various birds and undistinguishable animals looking nor alive nor dead. This whole screeching, tweeting and chirping party is mixed with a good dose of cockroaches.
Anyway, the tourist agency turns out to be a garage - couple of guys chilling among car parts watching TV, one "office" table, ancient calendar on the wall, and the manager - a guy who looks like he smuggles guns or sells drugs. That's the only agency we could find so we booked with them. The only option they had was a public van - soooooo bad idea. To go to Singkil you have to take a 6-8 hours ride on a super shitty road, the van was leaving at night to get to Singkil in the morning, so we had to arrive to the agency for pick up at around 8pm. At 8pm this entire tourist business becomes really sketchy - dark alley, 3-4 old vans playing loud music, the manager counting money, spitting and swearing occasionally at his "colleagues", guys loading duck taped cardboard boxes into the vans, a prostitute sniffing around for work just 2m away. Awesome!
One other thing we tried to do in Medan is to send some packages back home and to some friends and family. It appears the main post office in Medan doesn't have boxes for packaging, a post officer was kind enough though to offer us to search through the trash next to the post office building - maybe we can find some good boxes there? The whole mailing got delayed till we arrived to Philippines.
Anyhow, if you ever go to Medan which you should avoid at all costs, make it as quick as possible stop and have the lowest expectations you can imagine - that's how it's going to be the least frustrating.
Next story - Banyak islands and Tailana, one of the most amazing experiences we had so far.