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Hiking Around Ella

From Kandy to Ella by Bus

I awoke on my second day in Sri Lanka at the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel in Kandy. On my first day I had seen all I wanted, and it was time to move on to someplace new. I decided on Ella, which lies about 140km south of Kandy.

Walking through Kandy in the early morning, I noted how many people were up and about already, walking quickly to work. Everyone was well-dressed in either traditional or modern attire, and most people took time to turn and bow to the various Buddhist deities that dot the little city.

I found the bus terminal, which was busy and confusing. There were so many buses, and only half had the names of their destinations in Roman script, while the rest were only in Sinhalese. I could see none that were going to Ella. Eventually, I asked a few people who pointed me towards a bus heading south to Badulla, with the promise that from there I could transfer to Ella.

As I sat waiting on the bus, numerous vendors came on board selling mangoes, soy beans, samosas, oranges, ointments, and spices. It was getting crowded when a middle-aged Austrian woman took the last remaining seat – the one next to me. She told me that she was relieved because Sri Lankan men could be quite inappropriate. There are some things you never have to worry about as a male traveler.

The bus took a long, circular route to Badulla, taking almost five hours, but there was a curtain blocking out the harsh sunlight that also obscured my view of the scenery, so I simply engrossed myself in a book I had been given by a friend. All I could see when I tried to look out the window were mountains, and I was sure it was a beautiful scene. On the bus, we were packed in like sardines with absolutely no room to breathe, and right in the middle of an aisle a man beat a tambourine and sang sad songs.

At Badulla we changed to a new bus heading towards Ella. While waiting in the bus station I tried some sort of curry wrap, which I was then convinced was the greatest thing I’d ever eaten, though I never did learn its name. The final leg of the journey only lasted about thirty minutes and the bus was only half full. This time I could see out the window as we passed mountains and valleys and forests and rivers, with great fields of rice and tea. In the middle of one rice paddy I saw a huge peacock standing with its tail feathers fully displayed.

We arrived in Ella, which I was slightly disappointed to find was a very touristy little town. In fact, it seemed every business was entirely devoted to providing for foreign travelers. I set out east for Izuru Homestay, following the map on my phone. Very soon I was out of town, following a windy road through the hills. It seemed that the walk took forever, even though it was only 2km. The heat was intense, despite this being high in the mountains. Eventually, I found the house at the end of a long dirt track, surrounded by tea fields and forests. It was totally isolated.

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Izuru Homestay, Ella

I settled in and soon met all the family. Like most Sri Lankans, they were very shy and quiet, but friendly. The owner works for the government, but the place is mostly run by other family members, including his elderly parents. All of them would ask questions in broken English and then hurry away in embarrassment. They brought me cups of tea, papaya juice, and biscuits as I read on the veranda, looking out on a peaceful hillside that was disturbed only by birds and squirrels and chipmunks.

Trekking Ella’s Train Tracks

Despite being tired and having sore feet from walking so much over the previous days, I set out to find a local landmark called 9 Arch Bridge. On a map it looked like it was close, yet in fact the convoluted route that I took wound its way over many kilometers of hillside. I got lost once and a small child guided me through dense vegetation and a few backyards to a road, and soon after I found the train tracks. In Sri Lanka, it is common for people to walk on the tracks as trains move very slowly and noisily, so there is little chance of being hit.

At the 9 Arch Bridge, there were too many tourists – both Sri Lankan and foreign – and although it was a pleasant enough sight, I quickly continued my way, aiming to follow the train tracks back to town, carrying me in a long circle through the middle of Ella to the homestay. Just before dark, I arrived at Ella train station, which is a charming, picturesque little building that even has a friendly station cat. Flanked by a cricket field, it could well have been somewhere in England rather than Sri Lanka.

I spent the evening in Ella, walking around and eating curry at a small restaurant. As it is a tourist town, everything is grossly overpriced. In Badulla, my little lunch had cost 30LKR, but in Ella I could find nothing less than 300LKR, and most menus listed items around 1000LKR. After dinner, I walked back along the now very dark road, and sat on the roof of the house looking at the stars. After the choking pollution I’d endured in China, it was a huge relief to sit out and see the galaxy through the clear mountain air.

Hiking the Mountains and Valleys

The clear mountain air could also be surprisingly cold. Although Sri Lanka has a tropical climate, at night temperatures can get pretty low, and when I awoke in the morning I was glad of the few items of winter clothing I’d brought with me from China. I sat on the veranda reading and watching the shadows cast by the sun move across the valley, and the light hitting Little Adam’s Peak to the south. Occasionally, beautiful, colourful birds flew about, sometimes coming very close to where I sat. One was a grey hornbill.

A young man brought me my breakfast – a large pot of tea, six pieces of toast with butter and jam, fried eggs, bananas, papayas, watermelon, and roti. It was probably the biggest breakfast I’ve ever encountered, filling the entire table in front of me. Did all Sri Lankans eat this way, or was this just put on for tourists, I wondered.

At 9am, I took a much needed walk to recover from breakfast. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I decided I’d walk until I could walk no more, and hopefully see as much of the beautiful countryside as possible. I started out eastward, heading away from the town, and ended up at the Newburgh Tea Plantation. It seemed you could get a tour of the factory, but I wasn’t interested. Instead, I took a nearby winding road and ended up walking through tea fields for a few hours, where little old women with leathery brown skin worked on the steep tea-covered hillsides, wearing potato sacks for clothes and filling hemp bags with tea leaves. I followed winding paths down through the tea fields and between small houses where women bathed children from buckets and shy, skinny dogs lazily slept in the shadows.

Eventually, I turned and climbed back up the rather large hill to where I had begun, and from there set off for a hill known as Little Adam’s Peak. This refers to the more famous Adam’s Peak, which is further west and a renowned Buddhist pilgrimage point. Little Adam’s Peak looks similar but it is much smaller. I climbed quickly to the top, but found there were many tourists here. After the peace and serenity of the tea plantation and adjacent valley, I continued moving along the top of the mountains to where the tourists had given up, and found three empty peaks that I could call my own. I lazed in the sun for a few hours, acquiring a bit of a burn, before realizing that I was not entirely alone. There was a family of black-faced monkeys (which Google tells me are, in fact, gray langurs) occupying one of the only tall trees on the hillside. They seemed very afraid of me, despite there being a big distance between us, and any time I moved nearer to take a better photo, they seemed ready to flee.

I spent most of the day on the top of the mountain, enjoying the fresh air which allowed me to see for miles in every direction. To the east, and far down below, was Ella’s Gap or Ella’s Pass – a steep, winding road running between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak, and behind it a giant waterfall. Elsewhere were forests and tea plantations. To the south the land flattened out with just a few small hills rising here and there. Just about everything you could see was green, despite there reportedly having been no rain for several months.

On my way back down the hill, I found a small shack selling coconuts, and stopped to buy one and speak with the owner. He was friendly and full of advice. I told him I was going to go to Yala National Park soon, and he warned me not to go. “Too many tourists,” he said. “You never seen any animals. All the people come here and complain, ‘Yala is no good!’” He went on to tell me that I should instead go to Udawalawe, where he said you are practically guaranteed to see an elephant.

With that in mind, I continued my walk back to the homestay on tired legs. Along the dirt path, I saw an old man sitting cross-legged and looking very disheveled. He shouted at me, “Hey, look here!” and opened a little wicker basket. I stopped only momentarily to see what he was doing, and saw as he slapped his hand into the basket, withdrawing it very quickly as an angry cobra emerged. It reared up, hissing loudly and striking this way and that, before the man pulled out an instrument called a pungi, and played his song, putting the snake into a trance. It was clear he wanted me to take a picture of him (he was sitting carefully so that Ella’s Rock was visible in the background) and of course to pay him for the privilege. I immediately continued me walk and tried not to make eye contact, for I felt very conflicted. My initial reaction was amazement. Snake-charming is something I’d only ever seen in movies and on TV, and I had associated it with the exotic setting of ancient India. It filled me with a bit of boyish excitement, even nostalgia for a time I’d never experienced. Yet, another part of me was keenly aware of the cruelty most probably involved. Although I’m no expert, I was pretty sure it was common practice to defang the snakes, or to drug them. In any case, the snakes probably don’t much care for being confined and slapped on the head, and I would give no financial assistance to anyone harming an animal.

When I got back, the old woman made me dinner – a huge spread of curry, dhal, pickles, poppadums, rice, and roti. Sri Lankan food, I decided, is among the greatest in the world.

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First Days in Sri Lanka: Colombo and Kandy

Preface: Escape from China

China’s bullet trains move across the landscape at an incredible speed, but as the G7221 whisks me from Huainandong to Shanghai, it seems that 300km/hr just isn’t fast enough. Outside, the air is thick with poisons. We are in the middle of yet another “airpocalypse” and visibility has been less than 200 metres for the entire journey… which isn’t such a bad thing considering how astonishingly ugly the east of China can be. Every town and village we pass looks identical, every station the same as the one before it, every city expanding out with the same tower blocks into countryside that looks alike because all the trees are planted in uniform lines. Henry Adams observed that, “Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.” That was long before China vanquished nature once and for all, imposing not just order but a system of tedious ubiquity that is the communist ideal.

Inside the carriage, people chew sunflower seeds, spit on the floor, listen to TV shows at full volume on their portable devices, scream into telephones, and generally act in ways that would be considered unacceptably rude in most parts of the world, but which are in fact the cornerstones of modern Chinese society. I try to lose myself in the music coming from my headphones and to think about the place I’m going: Sri Lanka. I don’t know anything about Sri Lanka because I’ve never been there, and in the past few months I’ve been too busy to research it at all. I don’t know what to expect except the one most important quality it could possess: it is not China. As long as visibility is better than 200 metres, there is some sort of wildlife remaining, the air is not poisonous and the food not filthy, and the people know how to act with the most basic sense of human decency, it will be a wonderful reprieve from life in the Middle Kingdom.

Arriving in Colombo

After a long, difficult journey, I arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport, north of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. It was midnight when the plane was meant to arrive, and about one o’clock when it finally did. At this point, I was able to grasp just how unprepared I was for the trip as I got to immigration and found that I needed to apply for a visa-on-arrival. Thankfully, I had exactly the correct amount of money in my pocket for the application fee, and was able to proceed from there to a bureau de change downstairs to get some Sri Lankan Rupees. In China I had neglected to withdraw enough money for the trip, and I hoped that my bank card would work in Sri Lanka. After these inauspicious beginnings, I was soon in the back of a taxi heading towards the city to stay at the imaginatively named “Colombo City Hostel.”

In the morning, I woke with the intention only of getting out of Colombo. I am not, by and large, a city person, and so I imagined it had little that would interest me. Where I would go next was a mystery, but that’s why I picked a hostel to stay at: there are always guide books, posters, maps, and people to talk to. Eating breakfast on the rooftop overlooking the city, I made the decision to head east into the country’s mountainous interior – to the second city of Kandy. A few weeks earlier, I had been reading Gary Snyder’s letters from Ceylon – as Sri Lanka was then known – and he had remarked upon Kandy as particularly worth visiting in the early 1960s.

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Colombo – Sri Lanka’s capital city

Knowing very little about the country, I began to formulate a basic plan for my fortnight of travel. I would move on to Kandy for a day or two, then see some of the other sights in the middle of the island – perhaps Adam’s Peak, the rainforests, the tea plantations, the countryside around Ella – and then move towards Yala National Park, and thereafter travel along the coast. Part of me wanted an adventure as I’d had in Africa in early 2016, but part of me simply needed rest after a long, tiring semester. This plan seemed to satisfy both those requirements, with plenty leeway for change along the way.

Onwards to Kandy

After taking a brief walk around the city, I got a bus from the central bus terminal to Kandy. The tiny minivan was packed full of people and reminded me of my trip from the previous year to Southern Africa, where I covered thousands of miles by minibuses. However, as I looked out the window I saw Sri Lanka was more like Southeast Asia in both the city and countryside. In the cities, however, I noticed many churches, which surprised me as I always thought of Sri Lanka as predominantly Buddhist. A local man told me, “Colombo is mostly Christian and Muslim, but the rest of the country is 99% Buddhist.”

After a few hours, the little minibus stopped outside the train station in Kandy. I had an offline GPS mapping app on my phone that I followed across the little town to the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel, which turned out to be a deceptively exhausting walk, not particularly helped by a few wrong turns. By this time, the sun was high in the sky and the air was humid. The hot, crowded streets were filled with people selling everything you could imagine. Beggars and touts and tourists from all over the world crammed onto narrow pavements. Police on horseback attempted to bring order to the traffic.

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Kandy’s “city” skyline in the daytime

Eventually, after a long walk up a hill that I had not noticed on my map, I arrived at the hostel and set out in search of a beer. What I was about to discover would shock and horrify me: Beer is not sold between 2pm-5pm in Sri Lanka. What’s worse, getting a license to sell alcohol is difficult and so most places either don’t sell it at all, or do so quietly without advertising the fact. In any case, I was unknowingly about to embark upon a very, very sober week.

Despite being very tired from having slept only a few hours, and having walked across the town in the midday heat, I refused to rest. I didn’t feel that Kandy was the place for me, and so I decided I’d only stay for one night, and so I should see everything first before leaving. With that in mind, I looked around the British Cemetery, where lots of young men were put to rest after dying very young and very far from home, and the Temple of the Tooth, which sits next to the impressive Bogambara Lake.

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Bogambara Lake

I walked through the town to Udawattakele Royal Forest Park, which I explored as the sun was going down. There were no other people around as it was getting late in the day, and so it was very peaceful. There were lots of curious macaques, several small barking deer, a few wild boar, and lots of amazing birds. However, it was getting too dark to take any worthwhile photos. I hiked all the way to the top, but there was no view of the city to be had there, so I quickly tried to rush back down and get out of the park before dark, which I very nearly managed, getting lost in the dim light for a while.

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Kandy’s “city” skyline at dusk

Back at the hostel I planned my next move. As I’d already seen all I needed to in Kandy, which was altogether a bit too touristy for me, I decided to head south to Ella for a few days in the countryside. From what I read, it was smaller, quieter, and surrounded by easily accessible countryside where I could spend a few days hiking, climbing, shooting the stars, and relaxing.

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That’s all for this first installment. I will post more (including much better photos) from Ella, Yala, Matara, and Hikkaduwa in the coming days and weeks as time dictates. In a few days I will head back on the road once again for Japan. I’m spending a week in Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and Kanazawa. Any recommendations for things to see, do, eat, drink, etc would be greatly appreciated. 

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New Year at Jiuhuashan (九华山)

Although Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the lunar calendar, the Gregorian New Year is also important and so January 1st – 2nd is a public holiday in China. As such, I decided to take my girlfriend to Jiuhuashan (Mount Jiuhua, 九华山) for a few days.

Jiuhuashan is one of the best-known mountains in Anhui Province, and is considered one of China’s four sacred mountains because of the number of Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. As China’s transport network has developed and its middle class has grown, Jiuhuashan has gone from being a point of traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to a major holiday destination, although it remains far less visited than its neighboring Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, 黄山).

We left Huainan on Sunday evening and took the bullet train directly from Huainandong to Chizhou – a small city on the banks of the Changjiang River (probably better known in the West as the Yangtze River). Chizhou is the nearest town to Jiuhuashan, and after a night spent in a bizarre hotel, we took a taxi for 80rmb to Jiuhuashan.

When you arrive at Jiuhuashan by taxi or bus, you really arrive at the entrance to the Jiuhuashan National Park, and from there you need to take another long bus up the winding mountain roads to Jiuhuashan Town. Entrance to the park costs 160rmb and the bus is 50rmb return.

Unfortunately, it had become apparent from the taxi that our visit might be spoiled by smog. Most of Eastern China is currently engulfed in yet another “airpocalypse” as a massive bank of thick air pollution blankets large swathes of the country. In Chizhou – which my students had informed me the air is “always fresh” – the air was almost unbreatheably bad and visibility was only about 100 meters. However, as we climbed the mountain roads on the little tourist bus, it failed to improve. It is tempting to thick of these smog banks as low lying, but evidently they stretch up for hundreds of meters as well as going on for hundreds of miles.

When we arrived at Jiuhuashan Town, we set out to look for a hotel before doing some hiking. Yet we were immediately hit by another disappointment. The tiny town was crammed with Chinese tourists. Anyone with experience around Chinese tourists knows that they are absolutely the worst, and sadly they behave even worse at home in China than they do abroad. The roads were crammed with honking cars and people shouting and spitting and doing all kinds of unfathomably stupid things.

Our first turn of good luck came when we saw a hotel and inquired about rooms. The sign said all rooms were upwards of 1000rmb, but the manager told us that was just for the holiday, which had ended that morning. Rooms were now just 250rmb.

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After a quick lunch, my girlfriend and I set off hiking, and quickly realized that although the it was January and we were way up in the mountains, the temperature was really quite high – sometimes around 12 Celsius. Our winter clothes were not needed, and soon we were just hiking in t-shirts, with sweaters and coats stuffed into our backpacks.

We planned our route to take us as far from the town as possible, and also to avoid the one road that leads through the park. It was a steep climb up into the hills, and thankfully as we climbed the noise from below subsided and we met fewer and fewer people. Alas, the smog didn’t dissipate, and although it was at times possible to catch a glimpse of a mountain top, we were virtually blind to the scenery. All we could see was the path ahead of us. That was bitterly disappointing, having come to such a famously beautiful place, but more worrying was the fact that with every deep breath we took we were breathing in dangerous toxins.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the disappointment of the view, it was still nice to be in the forest and away from the city. We could see the trees around us for at least a few hundred meters, and everywhere we went there were cats of all kinds, and even a few beautiful birds. In fact, the higher we went, the more cats we saw! For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.

The temples, too, were beautiful. We stopped off at many of them on our long trek, and admired the stonework and big metal incense burners. Generally, the monks were pretty friendly, although quite a few of them rudely begged for money. At a small village in a little valley we saw monks taking care of dozens of cats, and realized that’s why the felines had proliferated to such an extent, whereas throughout most of China they aren’t nearly so common. The village also had giant walls of dried meat hanging outside every house, and the cats we so well-fed that they didn’t even seem tempted by the veritable feast hanging above them.

Near Baisui Palace, which is home to a mummified priest whose body supposedly didn’t decompose over the hundreds of years since his death, we saw monkeys. I think they were short-tailed macaques. These were by far the most interesting wildlife I’d seen in China, and I could hardly believe they lived wild in the same dull, lifeless province that I live! At first they were very shy, but as my girlfriend and I stood quietly and watched them for half an hour, they become bolder and walked very near to us. These monkeys are huge, and seem only to live on the highest parts of the mountain, foraging food from the bins and from the scraps that the monks leave out.

As we climbed down the mountain and sought out some dinner, we reflected upon the day and decided that the monkeys had made everything worthwhile. Having grown up in China, on the edge of a city, this was my girlfriend’s first experience with real wildlife. She was absolutely delighted not only to have seen the animals, but to have had them come so close to us. It was a transformative experience her.

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The next morning, we set off hiking again, this time with full backpacks as we’d checked out of the hotel. We headed back to Baisui Palace, hoping to trek down into another valley and climb a higher peak. However, our legs at this point were very sore and the extra weight of the bags made it a slow and difficult climb. We were put to shame by the old men and woman carrying giant bags of cement up the steep mountain path for repairs at the temple.

After a few wrong turns that took us on a rather circuitous route up the mountain, we followed a trail heading towards a place called “Tiger Cave” (yes, many places in China are named for tigers and dragons – it’s not just your local Chinese restaurant that follows this custom). We found that along this trail there were absolutely no people, and as it followed the crest between two peaks we were afforded quite impressive views of the valley and mountains beyond. Fortunately, the smog had dissipated a little, and although the view was far from perfect, it was now possible to see the other side of the valley, whereas on the previous day it had been entirely invisible. As we were both very tired, we kept interrupting our walk to stop and take in the view, and soon gave up on the idea of continuing. It seemed that Tiger Cave was actually way down in the valley, and a return up the mountain was a bit unappealing.

We returned to Baisui Palace and nearby we found a troop of monkeys eating from a pile of discarded fruit. There were no people about and we stood in silence, watching the monkeys. A few cats came by, apparently unafraid of the giant simians, and all was peaceful.

After that, we looked around Baisui Palace (really just a temple) and its five hundred gold Buddhas, before descending the mountain and attempting the journey back to Huainan. Alas, as is so often the case in China, the relatively simple trip back was made quite difficult, and it took eight hours on a combination of buses and trains and taxis, arriving home about 11pm. However, after an inauspicious start to the trip, we both agreed that our time at Jiuhuashan had been overall enjoyable – two days very well spent.

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The clearest view during the trip