The Central Highlands

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December 19th 2013
Published: December 22nd 2013
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Train from Colombo to Ella

After our night in Colombo we were anxious to get away from traffic and pollution and into the mountains. The train left at 8:30AM for a 9 1/2 hour trip through the central highlands that ended up being an event in itself.

We had purchased tickets the day before while still at the station as we knew it would be a confusing and involved process. To start with, Sri Lankan's have a completely different idea of waiting on line than we do. It seems to involve crowding around the ticket window and elbowing your way to the front. We have gotten better at holding our ground but it does go against our ordered North American natures. When we managed to speak to a station agent the first response was "No. We are totally sold out tomorrow." We have learned that this is our cue to ask about each scheduled departure individually so he can reiterate "No. Sold out." Then it's our turn to ask about the next day at which point two seats magically appear on the original desired date. We're not sure what this dance is all about but since figuring it out, we've happily played along.

Rice PaddiesRice PaddiesRice Paddies

Outside of Colombo
tickets were for the Observation car; the last car on the train has two large windows so passengers can overlook the tracks the train has just passed over. There is no air conditioning in the Observation car so the windows and doors were open the whole way, which was preferable to us anyway. The only downside was the toilet dedicated to the car stunk like a cesspool.

Our fellow passengers were mostly what looked like middle class Sri Lankan people, a couple of other Westerners and one boisterous Japanese film crew with a very expressive travel show host. It was a raucous and friendly group and the day was loads of fun.

The city and then outer slums of Colombo gave way rather quickly to paddies with pink lotus flowers floating in them and bright green rice fields tended by barefoot men in sarongs. In between fields there were either shanties or neat little towns and people waving to us from rooftops. Cows grazed the weeds right next to the train tracks, not even bothering to raise their heads as we thundered past. Around 11:00 AM our fellow riders started taking out their pre-packed lunches: newspaper packed with
Starting the ClimbStarting the ClimbStarting the Climb

Into banana plantations
rotis or bread, and rice and jars of dhal or curry. Paper plates were handed out and we were offered bananas, homemade sweets, tea. Food was passed from person to person across the aisle and over seats and people ate sitting down or standing in the centre aisle. Of course the Japanese host was offered a plate and his crew filmed him eating and exclaiming animatedly over the heat of the dish. All the Sri Lankan's laughed and some filmed him on their own cell phones. Two little girls - aged about 6 and 8 - kept running back and offering Matt and I some of their own snacks: spicy fried bits & poori and then asked if they could take a picture of me. When I said yes they took turns climbing on my lap and wrapping little arms around my neck while the other took a photograph. After lunch an older woman took her time to pick her way carefully down the aisle to offer us some gum.

By then we were starting to climb into the mountains and we saw where the majority of Sri Lanka's vegetables are grown. Beautifully terraced hillsides neatly tended to produce tomatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbages, eggplant and every other imaginable vegetable.

Heading further into the centre we notice big rivers and see a man in a sarong navigating a large raft of small logs by means of a large pole. I notice a sawmill with enormous logs being turned into milled planks. Women wash their laundry in the rivers, slapping the clothes against large flat rocks, their saris tucked around their legs. The forest is cleared by fire and the trip is marked by the smell of wet vegetation and green wood smoke. At the next stop we buy some popcorn from one of the vendors who walk along the cars calling "Poori, poori, poori!" and offering oranges and sliced mangoes, cold drinks and homemade goodies to passengers. It is salty and spicy challenging us in our goal of not drinking any water for the trip. So far we have managed to avoid having to use the toilet and we are determined to make the full trip without having that particular experience.

The air cools as we climb and we notice signalmen along the tracks, waving flags and blowing whistles. The scenery gives way to tea plantations and cultivated tea plants hundreds of years old, their trunks thick and gnarled and the tops carefully pruned. Tea pickers have bags that hang down their backs balanced by thick straps around their foreheads. They pick with both hands, filling their bags quickly. Many stop to wave as we pass. We see many people since the railway tracks are used as a road as they are often the easiest way to traverse the forests. People step to one side when they hear a train coming. After we pass they get back on and continue on their ways.

We pull into another station and get out to stretch our legs and wash our faces and hands in the water fountain. Resident dogs live on the platforms, waiting for a snack from a passenger or one of the poori sellers. In and amongst the tea bushes there are large flowering trees completed covered in bright coral or lavender flowers.

The car continues to rock side to side and we're getting weary now. We start to see giant tree ferns and at each stop more and more people get off, waving goodbye and wishing us well on our journey. We move into pine and eucalyptus tree forests and the air gets even cooler so we pull out fleeces and bundle up.

Finally, we pull into Ella at 6:00PM and disembark. It is a short and very much welcome walk to our guesthouse.

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


Colombo Fort StationColombo Fort Station
Colombo Fort Station

Train arriving.
First Class PassageFirst Class Passage
First Class Passage

Observation car.
Hanging OutHanging Out
Hanging Out

Better than Disneyland!

23rd December 2013

Great blog!
Hi Matt and Roberta - I've just stumbled upon your blog and really enjoyed it. Looking forward to following the rest of your adventures through Sri Lanka.
11th December 2015
Starting the Climb

Great photos
Enjoyed looking through these photos. Hanging out of those old, clunky Sri Lankan trains is a fantastic feeling.

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