Published: July 14th 2011June 7th 2011
Trincomalee to Kandy
Our matron at our Trincomalee hotel instructs us how to get to Nuwara Eliya, a hill station in the central mountains in Sri Lanka. We take the bus back to Kandy, which leaves at 8:30am. Thankfully it's the only A/C bus of the day. It costs a whopping $1.50 to travel from Trinco to Kandy in A/C luxury, a 300km, 5 hour journey. The bus stops often to pick up passengers, and soon the bus is packed, but its still relatively comfortable, given the A/C.
Once back in Kandy, after realizing we're too late for today's train to Nuwara Eliya, we're ready for lunch so we stop off at a restaurant. Kandy is a crazy place to catch a bus because its the central hub of the country, so there's about one full kilometer of buses layed up waiting for passengers. Which is the one for Nuwara Eliya? In a stroke of genius, Trung suggests we catch a Tuk Tuk and just ask him to take us to the bus. It works, and the guy takes us to it and blocks the bus that is just leaving to Nuwara Eliya. There's no
storage on the bus so we have to pay for two seats each to keep our backpacks beside us. Another whopping $2, 100km, 7500 vertical feet and 3 hours later, we're in the high mountains and its freezing cold (about 15 Celsius). The curving road on the way is spectacular with vast overlooks of mountain streams, the regular-shaped tea trees, and switchback roads as far as the eye can see!
Wikipedia describes Nuwaya Eliya's history thus:
"The city was founded by Samuel Baker... Nuwara Eliya's climate lent itself to becoming the prime sanctuary of the British civil servants and planters in Ceylon. Nuwara Eliya, called Little England then, was also a hill country retreat where the British colonialists could immerse in their pastimes such as fox hunting, deer hunting,elephant hunting, polo, golf and cricket."
A hotel tout manages to convince us and a Korean couple on our bus to go to his guesthouse. For a cheap rate we get a huge room, 'probably big enough to play tennis in' I say.
That evening we wander the twisty streets, taking in the shops and questionable restaurants. I thought this would be a more main-stream
tourist town, but not quite, the restaurants are still a bit sketchy. There is not so much western food, but we settle for our usual fare of fried noodles and rice...
The following day we inquired with the hotel about taking a tour of the surrounding mountains and tea plantations. The 'thing to do' according to the guide books is to go to Horton Plain National Park to see World's End, an overlook near the 2nd highest mountain in Sri Lanka. I'm intrigued, but the hotel quotes us a whopping 3500 rupees (35-40 dollars) for a day trip in an A/C car including World's End and a tea plantation.
Trung and I walk out to the main street near the shops in the early morning to talk to Tuk Tuk drivers and manage to find one asking around 1200 rupees for the day including everything we want to do. Its only 30km to World's End, so how long could it take?
Turns out, it can take a loooong time. 30km of bumpy potholes in a Tuk Tuk is exhausting. The scenery however, makes up for the bad roads. We travel across several rolling hills, past tea plantations.
The road steadily climbs and we leave the tea plantation elevations behind us. Ahead is pasture land with beautiful large trees overhanging the road and bright green grass in all directions.
Nuwara Eliya is at about 5000 feet and World's End is at almost 7500 feet. The change in vertical seems to happen in the last 2km when the Tuk Tuk goes into steep, dangerous looking switchbacks, each getting us higher and steeper up the side of the huge mountain.
Horton Plain is 3160 hectares, between 6500 and 7500 feet elevation, which creates an extremely unique ecosystem. Luckily some of the British colonialists realized this and designated this a National Park in order to save the endemic species that live here. I first notice all of the strange vegetation. Colourful cactus-like plants with red flowers, furry palm trees with ferns instead of leaves, an assortment of colourful grasses. Then we see some of the Sri Lankan Sambar deer that roam the park. They're really large and beautiful animals and look more like dark caribou than deer.
Then comes the shock and awe. Its 4000 rupees each to enter the park. Seriously!?! Together, Trung and I pay almost
$50 just to get into the park. I can understand that this is a national park, but this price is extremely high. A local told me while we were in Trinco that the president and his brother have started to increases the costs to tourists in places like this. The man I was speaking to, rather than being pleased, was actually quite angry that the president's brother (minister of Tourism) was lining his pockets at the expense of tourists. I'm with him!
The price is worth it once we get on the trail. There's an 8km loop to World's End through barren grasslands with animals everywhere, strange hoppy birds, more deer, babbling streams, mountain peaks, rough terrain and rusty red soil. Again we pass about 10 school groups of smiling, singing and happy kids. My mouth hurts from smiling!! But if that's my only problem, I'll be fine.
After a few hours we finally come to an area that really seems as if the gentle rolling plain suddenly stops. There's a small crowd of people (where did they come from!?) sitting on a concrete plateau in front of a sheer cliff. The cliff itself is 870 metres to
the valley below, and the rest of Sri Lanka can be seen running off to the distance. Apparently on a clear day you can see to the Ocean and Colombo! Today is not that day, but its spectacular, nonetheless.
The return loop turns out to be more like a 10km walk, and at 7500ft on a clear sunny day near the equator, the sun is like standing under the 'broil' setting in an oven. It was freezing in the morning, so I've got on jeans and a sweater, but thankfully I've brought a t-shirt along with me!
The Tuk Tuk ride back is not any better, but the cool breeze is great. My back is super painful and I'm glad to stand up by the time we bump back to Pedro's Estate, a tea plantation 100's of acres across that offers tours of their operations. After a sampling of tea, Trung and I don our aprons and caps to go into the large industrial-looking tea factory on top of a hill. The equipment is from the 1800's so it's a lot like stepping back in time. The plant is closed for the day but we can still tour
the operations. We begin with the area where the tea ladies have their pick weighed every evening. Its a large loading dock with an ancient looking weigh scale in the centre. From there we enter the plant and see the gigantic drying trays where thousands of pounds of tea leaves lay on a wire mesh with hot, dry air blown up and through them.
The estate also grinds and separates the tea leaves at this factory. I'm surprised to know that once Ceylon tea is dried, ground and separated into different sizes it can then be classified as 'Orange Pekoe', 'English Breakfast' or 'Earl Grey'. I thought for sure that it took different tea leaves for each tea, but the lady tells us not. Perhaps its a different mix.
Tea leaves from this plantation, after drying, will be sent in large bundles to the Tea Auctions in Europe (mainly England) and sold to the highest bidder, depending on grade and quality. The bags are marked with their quality (based on the professional taster at the factory) and piled 20 high in a warehouse, ready to be shipped out.
After the tour, which smelled wonderful, we literally RUN
down the hill towards where the ladies are picking today, across quite a large valley from the factory. We can see their bright coloured Sarees from a distance. The woman giving us the factory tour tells us the ladies will be whistled back for the end of the day in a 1/2 hour. That gives us 30 minutes to get down and up the valley and say hello to the ladies.
After a light jog we catch up to the first group, busily picking the top three leaves of the tea trees. The trees are more than 100 years old and have been kept plucked generally to waist-height. The ladies have a long stick which they lay on the flat top of the tree to better see where the succulent buds are. Each hand darts out, picking the buds at lightning speed until a full handful is tossed over the head into the basket hanging on their backs by a forehead strap. The basket can weight as much as the ladies themselves, and you can see most are leaning far forward with the weight, as it's the end of the day.
As soon as they see us they
stop picking and smile, wave, giggle and generally act like a group of 30-60 year old ladies who gossip and pick tea all day. Their hands and fingernails are dyed blackish green from the tea and their faces are weathered from the constant sun/rain mix they endure every day, but they are probably the cutest tea ladies I've ever met. Nobody can communicate because we don't know each other's language, but they each want their own photo to see. One teaches me how to pick, which is way more difficult than it looks. The tea leaves tend to simply break off, and never in the freaking sweet spot between leaves three and four. She ends up throwing my pickings on the ground! She invites me to lift her basket (which I can barely do). I feel privileged to have time to visit with these ladies who work feverishly all day to meet their weight quota, which they're paid a tiny sum for. Its the end of the day so one or two must keep working to meet the deadline. After a few minutes of laughing and talking they all go back to picking in order to finish out the day.
Trung and I carry on through the tightly packed tea trees to get a good sunset picture of the ladies but soon I'm stuck in an endless maze of thick tree trunks and ditches and the ladies take notice. One gestures to show me how to spread the branches apart to walk through but they're down really low so when I do it, they all start laughing again, which gets me going again and soon I'm at the bottom of a ditch, which gets them laughing all over again!
After finding my way out of the maze, some want photos again, and suddenly there's a train whistle sound and it's the end of the day. Everyone organizes their baskets and collects other bags from the surrounding area. Man these ladies pick a lot of tea in a day!! I think about helping, but I'm not sure how to carry the baskets balanced on my head, and I do NOT want to spill and entire day's work on the ground, so I leave them to the carrying, back down the hill, up the valley to the factory where everyone is weighed and paid a few hundred rupees for the
Nuwaya Eliya to Ella
After our extremely long day it was time to figure out how we were going to move on. Our driver from the North tour highly recommended the small town of Ella, just East of Nuwara Eliya. The train leaves around noon each day and only takes 2 hours to travel 50km. There are 14 train tunnels on the way.
Once at the train station, a 20 minute tuk tuk ride away, we have about an hour to wait. There's a small shop with the original finishes and signage out front from when the 1800's station was built. We have some amazing Chai tea with the shopkeep and his young son. He's really curious about Trung's camera (as are all children) so we have some fun taking each other's photo and showing him how to use the camera.
Finally the train chuggs into the station and there's a few minutes of hustle and bustle. We can't find a seat anywhere, as usual, so I resign myself to standing in a doorway near the dining car. There's no actual door, just an opening with handles. The train only travels about 40 or 50km/hour
so its a pretty gentle ride through the mountains, along ridges, past large valleys and very picturesque villages. My head is out the side of the train the entire time taking in the warm sun, fresh air and loving the views.
Ella is a 1 road type of town. There are several touts at the station, so when we get off the train with a German couple we met on the train there's a guy right away asking us to stop at his hotel. He's got a van and is willing to drive us into town to see his place. We accept and are whisked 500m down the road to his hotel. His hotel turns out to be the best in town anyways and for $10 a night its really good. The town is about two dozen buildings on the road. Just to the South of town the road drops into a valley that extends again, all the way to the ocean. There are incredible views.
That evening after the long train journey, we decide to have dinner with the Germans on their room's patio. Now, German's, like Canadians, know how to drink! We end up
sharing 14 litre bottles of beer between three of us! Dinner is great (Sri Lankan food is really good!) I end up having Kottu Roti for the 100th time.
Roti is a flatbread, cooked fresh for each meal. Kind of like naan. The Kottu phoenetically alludes to the fact that it's chopped, with great fanfare, on a huge grill, then mixed with spices and veggies to make a fried rice-like mixture, but using bread instead of rice. Its so un-healthy sounding, but its SO good! The cook usually uses two flat knives to slice up the roti and veggies. He pounds out a complex beat on the grill while flinging the peices everywhere. Its a really neat experience to walk down a main street in a Sri Lankan town at night and hear all the Kottu guys chopping their roti. I don't know if its some sort of competition to see who can be the loudest, or just good advertising, but I'm pretty sure if I heard this sound again, I'd really want some Kottu!! I've never seen it anywhere else in the world, and I'll miss it!
For an adventure the next day while Trung and the
Germans are recuperating, I find myself walking down a small side road trying to follow instructions in the German's guidebook to the top of 'Mini Adam's Peak' which is supposed to have great views of the town and the valley. "Walk 1.5km down the road after the curd store. Follow a trail to the left past a blue house and after the first gate turn right." Easy, right? Well there's a curd store but no gate and no trail, and how do I know how far 1.5km is? The road is gorgeous, lined with massive pine trees and winding through tea plantations filled with misty rays of sunlight. I'm in no hurry to get to where I'm going. As in life, it's the beautiful journey that counts.
A man herding rather quick cows points further down the road while running past behind them. Further on, a roadside food stand owner tells me to turn left just 100m down the road. There's an old man standing at the trail head. He can't speak English but I make a peak with my hands and point to the top. He tells me its not the right trail and I must go further
up the road. After a few hundred metres more it seems the peak is to my left, through a tea plantation. Given my prowess at walking through tea I branch off into another Sri Lankan tea bush. There's not a soul around and having seen only the three men on the road, I figure my climb will be uninterrupted, which was right.
After scrambling up the steep hill and popping to the top, I'm completely surrounded by rolling hills covered in tea. Two hills over, with a nice road running to it is Adam's Peak. Its obvious, pyramid shaped with a rocky summit. That must be it!
However, its super steep going down the hill, so I decide to follow the ridge of the tea plantation hill as there's a well worn trail snaking down to the road. By the time I bump and scrape my way down the hill to the road, the sun is pretty much setting so I decide it may be time to head back. The views from the top of my tea plantation adventure are good, so I don't feel like I missed anything climbing the rocky cliffs to the top of Adam's
Peak. Plus, I got to meet some kids playing cricket at the bottom, and a bunch of cows and a baby goat hanging out on the trail!
Ella to Unawatuna
The following day it's time to catch the bus. Again, the guide book names the Curd Store (which we had breakfast at, good curds!). "The bus stop is about 100m downhill from the Curd Store. Wait on the left hand side". This time, the book is right. There's a rag-tag looking group of people waiting for the bus with all sorts of bags and fruits and bundles of wheat and whatnot. The Germans are heading in the same direction, so we all wait together.
Eventually, a packed bus trundles around the corner and heads towards us. Its got stuff on the roof, arms and heads hanging out the window and generally looks tippy. There's a 'trunk' at the back to throw our bags in with the cabbage, so we are all able to get a seat inside. The first 10km are extremely steep, switchbacks, waterfalls and general mountain scenery. We're headed downhill towards the tourist beaches in the South. The beaches here are world renoun for their
white sands and clear water. Its monsoon, so we're taking a risk heading into the rainy area, but its promising to be a very cheap beach, regardless!
After a long 6 or 7 hours and another $1.50 in bus fare, we're in Tangalle, our first stop on the Southern Coast. The coast is a string of beach towns on the main highway. We figure we'll stop at two beaches for a few days each before heading to Colombo to leave for India. Someone told us about Tangalle, hence, here we are!
Tangalle is a really nice beach and the hotel is only 700 rupees per night, but there is not a soul around. Its known as the quiet beach, and its low season. There's no restaurants to eat at except for a Kottu place near the bus station (which I'm fine with) so after a night at the quietest beach ever, we decide to head to Unawatuna, 3 more hours down the road. Unawatuna is the most touristy beach in Sri Lanka so maybe we'll find some Western comforts (and people) there.
We head to a hotel called 'Surfer's Paradise' at Unawatuna. It definitely is!
The hotel is right on the beach, our room overlooking the crashing surf. Unawatuna was pretty hard hit by the Tsunami, so everything has been rebuilt over the last few years, but instead of abiding by new rules governing setbacks from the beach, most hotels have popped up right on the sand, leaving not too much beach to lie on. There's probably 100 tourists on the stretch of beach with countless hotels side by side running the length of the beach. Its still a really nice place, with a temple on the point out in the bay and fairly big waves to play around in. The restaurants are all good and its a nice, quiet, torch lit type of community at night.
After four days of R&R we're on our way to Galle to see the old fort, 1km from Unawatuna. Galle is a great walled city with such old architecture! A large amount of the old town was damaged by the Tsunami, but because of the walls it was only water damage and a renovation program is taking place here. Its a great place to go wander and see random shops and museums while running into huge groups
of school kids on 'education tours'. Again, my face hurts from laughing and smiling so much trying to walk through throngs of 100's of school kids dancing and singing and hamming for our cameras!
Galle to Colombo
The train ride from Galle to Colombo is equally amazing as the ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. Again there's no seats so I claim a spot in a door quickly before the locals can! I get a lot of stares on the way to Colombo! At some points there's people trying to get on at stations so I have to stand up to let them past, but generally I'm ok just sitting and watching the world go by. At one point it rains and fithy water runs down my back and drips on my shorts, but meh, whatever, I'm sitting in the door of a train in Sri Lanka. The clothes can be washed whenever!
Near to Colombo the train runs directly on the break wall of the ocean. I'm covered in salt water by the time we reach the city. My glasses are pretty much crusted over with salt! The waves breaking on the rocks actually splash everyone
a few times! Where else can you see something like that!?
We're in Colombo for exactly 36 hours. The hotels are VERY expensive, the city is busy and dirty and there's not too much to see. Apparently the shopping is supposed to be good, but Trung and I didn't really find the mall with the good shops...
A redeeming feature of Colombo is the Galle Face Promenade. Its a 5km long boardwalk on the ocean with fresh breezes, kids playing cricket, kite fliers, fishermen, popcorn vendors and generally just hanging out, cooling off in the breeze and watching the world go by. We're here twice during our time in Colombo, just to hang out and see the sights. Down the road is downtown and the old fort, but its completely cordoned off still by the military who are definitely not as friendly as in Trinco.
After our two days in Colombo we're on another shuttle bus, paying 50 rupees to get to the Airport. Little did we know that the bus actually gets caught in traffic and picks up 1,000,000 people on the way. It takes a full 2 hours to reach a parking lot
NEAR the airport, leaving us with only 45 minutes to run across a busy vegetable market, barter with a Tuk Tuk driver, ride in his painfully slow tuk tuk for 2km, run through the airport to check in, get through passport control and security and board the plane!! BAH!
At check-in we're surrounded by a group of Indians also travelling to Chennai and trying to do the same as us. I guess everyone got stuck in traffic.
Nobody told the Indians that there's a luggage limit, so everyone has about 10 bags. They're all fighting with the attendant to get their bags on the plane, but its impossible, they literally have 100kg of luggage where the limit is just 20kg. About 10 people individually approach us while we're in line to ask if we can take their luggage on the plane. This is the first I've heard of ANYONE asking anyone else to take their luggage. What a crazy idea! I have NO idea what is in this luggage and there's NO way I'm taking it. They're persistent, which is a foreshadowing of things to come in India. One guy just keeps talking a mile a minute on
how I should take his luggage. As it stands, I have 17kg, so unless his FULL SIZE suitcase is just 3kg, which it isn't, I can't bring it anyways! After 5 minutes of me saying no, nooooo, no, sorry, no I can't, no, noooooo, but... no, I've checked my luggage and I'm walking away to his angry shouts. WTF?
A short jog through the airport gets us to security that has no lineup, thank God, and we're through and into the gate lounge where we only have to wait 2 minutes before walking out to our plane.
Next stop: Chennai, Tamil Nandu, India. INDIA!
There are more photos below