We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.
The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.
At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.
Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.
In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:
The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:
Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:
After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.
Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.
Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.
Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.
Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.
The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:
In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.
Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.
I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:
Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.
And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.
I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.
Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.
One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.
My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India… or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems
After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.
On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.
The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.
At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.
As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.
In Ella, a local man had warned me not to visit Yala National Park, as he claimed it was too hard to see any animals. He recommended, instead, that I go to Udawalawe, where he said I’d be more likely to see elephants. I told him that I’d heard Yala was famous for leopards and he practically laughed in my face. “Nobody ever sees leopards,” he said.
I didn’t have any internet access during my time in Ella, so I couldn’t verify his claims, and had to make the difficult decision on instinct. I sat on the veranda at the wonderful Isuru Homestay, pondering my decision in the cold light of morning. One of the strange things about inland Sri Lanka is the startling difference in temperature between day and night. In the daytime it can be swelteringly hot, yet at night it genuinely quite cold. Come morning, I found myself grateful for the few winter clothes I’d worn on my way out of China. However, as the sun rose in the sky, it seemed as though my feet were in the tropics and my head was thousands of miles away. By ten o’clock, though, it gets truly tropical, and my wooly hat was back in the backpack.
I sat eating another massive, delicious breakfast while I pondered my conundrum, and even threw in a few extra notions – to visit Horton? Adam’s Peak? to head north or even over to the comparatively quiet eastern coast? With little information to go on, I decided to stick with my initial plan and see Yala National Park. In Africa the previous year, my luck in seeing animals was strong, and I felt that it might hold over. Despite the warning, I felt an irrational confidence that I would see a leopard once again.
From Ella to Katharagama
I bid farewell to my delightful hosts at Isuru and set off on a long, hot walk down the road to Ella, regretting that I’d spent so long thinking about where to go, instead of leaving early before the sun had risen so high. Then I stood and waited for long time at a ramshackle bus stop with a mix of foreigners and locals as various buses passed by on their way south. Everyone, it seemed, was heading to the coast except for me. Bus after bus passed by and told me that there weren’t going my way, ‘til eventually one headed for Matara picked me up and told me I could get off at Weerawila, and from there transfer to Katharagama, near the entrance to Yala.
The journey down through Ella Pass (or Ella Gap) was frightening, as the bus took corners at a ridiculous speed. People were thrown about inside the overcrowded vehicle, and I tried to hold on to my bag as well as the seat in front of me. People were tossed about like ragdolls and music blared from the speakers of the old, brightly painted bus, dulling the sound of the engine and brakes.
After a wild ride down the mountain, I got off at Weerawila and took a tuk-tuk to Katharagama instead of waiting for the much cheaper local bus. It cost 1,100, which is about ten times the price of the bus, but of course was faster and more convenient. It was also a lot more comfortable than being jammed in an overcrowded vehicle with my bags on my lap. We meandered through scenic countryside to the small town of Katharagama, which seemed a haphazard collection of little houses and temples and restaurants. My driver had no idea where to go, nor any sense of direction, but together we found our way to my next accommodation: Katharagama Homestay.
I was pleased to see that this little house was exactly like the other houses on the street – an authentic slice of Sri Lankan life. An old woman directed me to sit in a low-slung leather chair outside a concrete building as she finished sweeping indoors and brought me a pot of ginger tea. Later, a handsome young man who spoke impeccable English introduced himself and showed me around the small property. As we spoke, a huge monitor lizard sidled up to us. It seemed unaware of our presence, instead engaged in its hunt for grubs among the plants. In the trees above, some strange half-monkey, half-squirrel animals played noisily, and colourful birds flitted about between the branches.
I spent the late afternoon walking around the nearby area as the sun fell. The dusty streets filled with children playing cricket soon gave way to open expanses of rice paddies, and to the south there was a small lake filled with cranes and, according to the signs, crocodiles. I didn’t see any crocs, but you seldom do until they’re grabbing hold of your leg and pulling you into the water. Everywhere I went there were huge peacocks showing off their tail-feathers and crying loudly. I shot some photos of the sunset and then walked through the town until I found a friendly little restaurant to have dinner. Again, it was curry and rice – the local staple. There seemed to be very few foreigners around, and I felt this was a closer view of real Sri Lanka than Kandy or Ella.
At 05:30 I was met by two young men in a big open-sided jeep. They said very little as we set of through the cold, dark morning towards Yala National Park. I was a little apprehensive as we arrived and they had said nothing to me. The tour was rather expensive compared to those I’d taken in South Africa, and yet the guides didn’t even seem to speak English. Instead, they spoke to each other in the cab as I sat in the back, anxious that this may prove to be a massive waste of time.
The sun edged over the horizon as we entered the park and began to slowly drive around, looking for animals. There weren’t many other vehicles and I had mine to myself, having paid for a private tour. At first we saw a few interesting birds – bee-eaters, kingfishers, Brahminy kites, and serpent eagles – as well as some deer and wild boar. However, the guides didn’t seem to notice everything we passed, nor did they know the names of every animal. They certainly didn’t tell me much about the animals they did spot, as had been the case anywhere in Africa.
Still, there was plenty to see. Soon we passed a whole family of elephants, lots of crocodiles lazing in or by the water, dozens of mongooses (mongeese?), and more. The park itself was quite beautiful to see, and with so few vehicles on the roads it was very peaceful.
At 09:00 we stopped for breakfast by a long beach and once again I was presented with a veritable feast. Sri Lankan breakfasts were really impressing me. There were rotis, hoppers, and fruits. As we ate, I spoke to the one guide who spoke some English, and he told me he was training for the job but that he was embarrassed by his poor language skills. He seemed a nice guy, and he was obviously doing his best to improve his abilities, so I decided to put a bit more faith in him as the day went on.
We continued onwards, seeing elephants and other animals quite close, and stopped for lunch at 14:30, beside a little river. After eating, I climbed a tree and sat on a thick, white-barked branch hanging over the river. As I sat, I watched three macaques climb down from another tree and enter the jeep. I’d left my bag sitting open, with my camera charging on top of it. It was also filled with other somewhat valuable items. Thankfully, the monkeys delicately placed my camera and charger on a seat, reached into the bag passed all the valuables, and extracted only my iPhone charger. They then shot up the tree to the very highest branches and wrapped the cable around the top. Talk about cheeky monkeys…
It took ten minutes of throwing rocks and sticks to knock the charger down, but soon we were off again for the last section of the tour. By now we had seen everything except a leopard, and although I knew the late afternoon was a good time for leopard spotting (pun intended), I was no longer hopeful. I felt that the early morning had been our best chance. We continued to see more elephants and crocodiles, including a very close encounter with a young female elephant who decided she was unimpressed with our proximity to her family group.
Finally, as we headed towards the exit in the dying light, a very large leopard strolled casually in front of the jeep. It stopped for a moment and stared at us, then moved to the side of the road, where it stalked closer. It marked its territory, watched us again for a few seconds, and then disappeared into the bushes. It was an incredibly fortunate sighting – a completely clear viewing of an adult leopard. The guides phoned in the sighting and soon a half dozen jeeps sat around, with long lens pointing everywhere, but no one managed to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive animal.
Later, as we again headed for the exit, another car found another leopard, and my guides took off at alarmingly high speed towards the location. Here, we could see another leopard hiding in the buses. It was impossible to get a good photo, but the piercing green eyes in the darkness left a deep impression upon me. Moreover, this typical sighting – of a well-camouflaged animal hunkered down behind the vegetation – reinforced just how lucky I’d been. It was now six o’clock and the guides were eager to go. Yet as darkness fell, animals kept presenting themselves, and the drive home was filled with closer encounters with elephants.
Back at the homestay, the old lady cooked me a delicious dinner, and I sat and reflected upon my luck. My early anxiety about the quality of the tour had proven ill-founded. Instead, I was presented with another amazing safari experience, getting close to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. Regardless of what came next during my time in Sri Lanka, this day had made it all worthwhile.
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.
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.
I had wanted to visit Dali for years. Friends had told me it was perhaps the most beautiful area of China – and not just possessing a physically beautiful landscape, but an atmosphere of peace and tranquility that could not be found throughout the rest of this giant, and often overcrowded land. It is a bastion of bohemianism in a decidedly unhip nation.
Dali is located in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It is rural, mountainous province, with a very different culture and landscape from what you’d find anywhere else in China. I’d mostly travelled around Anhui Province and the east coast of the country – Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing. I knew Yunnan promised an entirely different experience.
Last week I had four full days’ holiday for China’s Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) so I took my girlfriend to Dali for a short visit. We set off by taking the wonderfully cheap and convenient airport bus from Huainan’s Xinjinjiang Hotel to the new Xinqiao Hefei airport, and then flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Unfortunately, as is often the case in China, our flight was delayed by about two hours, and so we arrived in Kunming too late to catch a night train to Dali.
Instead, we found ourselves walking around Kunming at midnight, looking for a hotel that would allow foreigners, whilst trying to figure out early morning routes to Dali. When eventually we did, we realized we’d be arriving in Dali mid-afternoon, effectively losing a half day of our already short holiday. It was the first of what would be many small irritations.
In the morning we headed to Kunming South Bus Station and took an express bus north to Dali. The scenery along the trip was largely impressive. I’ve been to all three neighboring countries and Yunnan was pretty similar – low-hanging clouds over sharp mountains roaring up out of the ground, covered in tiny villages surrounded by terraced rice paddies.
After almost five hours we arrived in Dali’s new town and needed to head to the old town. When the taxi drivers at the bus station tried to rip us off I lost my temper as I was already out for an unexpected night’s hotel stay and bus tickets that cost more than the train. I didn’t realize that the rest of the trip would be largely comprised of unscrupulous people attempting – with a high level of success – to extract as much money from me as possible. But therein lies one of the first problems with travel in China: if you go near any major tourist spot, you will be ripped off. The key is to budget for it, and roll with the scams.
We eventually got into the old town and checked in at the Jade Emu Hostel. The Jade Emu is centered around an old courtyard in which there’s a bar and lounge area with pool table and dart board. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and the room was pretty comfortable for the price. After our long journey, we headed out for lunch and found Bad Monkey, the best-known drinking hole in town. I tried their own IPA, which was pretty good, although the food took more than an hour to prepare even though there were no other customers.
In the evening we walked out to the Three Pagodas and then circled the whole of the old town on foot. Dali certainly is beautiful, and it was fascinating to see a genuinely old part of China. Everything in China changes so fast, and history and nature are given short shrift. There are numerous “ancient towns” dotted around Anhui Province, but they’re all restored and appear very plastic. In Dali there were crumbling walls held together by mud, and old cobbled paths that had clearly been used since before Mao Zedong came to power.
The next morning we awoke and found breakfast at Bakery 88, and then stocked up for a picnic. We walked to the entrance of the Cangshan mountain range and began a long walk. We never did reach the top, as our path seemed to terminate at the Cloud Pass pathway which meanders for a long way around the eastern side of the range. The scenery was stunning, as we walked just below the actual cloud banks, looking up at the often hidden peaks and down at the old town and Erhai lake. There were a few interesting birds and some squirrels, but unfortunately all the wildlife seemed to have been long since removed. Chinese people have no respect for or interest in nature except for human exploitation. There were signs warning us of leopards and bears, but clearly no such animals have existed here for decades.
Our walk was serene and peaceful but occasionally interrupted by degenerate Han tourists from elsewhere in China. These people seem to hate quietness, and make as much noise as possible wherever they go. In China they are called 土豪 (“tuhao”), which translates loosely as “nouveau riche.” These people dress idiotically, believe that the world exists as a stage for their own moronic desires, and generally act like animals with severe behavioural problems. Although their behavior was not as bad as usual, it was enough to ruin any moment of tranquility before too long.
Still, in spite of the other tourists, the mountains were impressive, and after years in the comparatively flat regions of Huainan and Hefei, it felt good to be at altitude, walking among trees instead of apartment blocks, beside streams that were clear instead of brown. The Chinese may ruin every place they visit, but Dali hasn’t been entirely ruined just yet.
We spent another night in Dali and planned to do a final day, but alas all the night trains were booked up and we were forced to spend almost a whole day of our holiday on a cramped bus back to Kunming, where we were again forced to wander around for a hotel, and again ripped off wherever we went. The whole trip had proven far more stressful and expensive than anticipated, yet I had finally seen Dali – perhaps the part of China I’d wanted to visit more than any other. And I’d learned another lesson, one that I’d already known, but which was reaffirmed in my mind – whenever I have the time and inclination to travel, I need to leave China. This place is too crowded and too uncivilized for me, even in the very best places it has to offer.
After an amazing five weeks touring Southern Africa I found myself in Cape Town with one day left before my flight back to China. What would I do? There were so many things from which to choose – touring the wine lands, paragliding, surfing… or climbing Table Mountain.
I love to hike, and throughout my African adventure I averaged 12.5km per day. That’s an average of 12.5km per day for about 40 days. I had bought a new pair of hiking boots before arriving and worn them nearly into the ground over some 500km of walking across some of the most amazing landscapes on earth. In Swaziland in one single day I hiked 53km. I genuinely believe it’s the best way to see a new place, in spite of any potential dangers.
So really it was a no-brainer when Table Mountain stacked up against the other options. I’d already seen the sharks and the penguins. Besides, it was visible from my hostel, from the road from the airport, from the train to Simon’s Town… everywhere I went I could see this behemoth looming large and inviting me, nay, daring me to climb it. I couldn’t resist the challenge.
I set off from my hostel on Kloof Street and headed towards the mountain with only the GPS program on my iPhone and the intention of getting to the top. I’d tried to Google hiking trails and failed due to a lack of wifi. Oh well. Exploring is more fun.
At the bottom of the mountain, in the pass between Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head, I took a small path leading along the bottom of the mountain, on the east side. I didn’t want to trudge along busy paths or take the cableway. I sauntered along quietly for almost an hour, seeing not a single person, just enjoying the views out over the Atlantic as I slowly wound up the side of the mountain, following a gentle incline.
Things turned from pleasant to difficult when the path came to an abrupt end. I looked about and couldn’t see where it led, and then I realized that I was meant to climb. There was a small sheer cliff face of maybe two and a half meters. I couldn’t see that the path continued above, but there appeared to be a gap in the vegetation, so I assume that it did. I tossed my bag up and climbed to the next level.
I’m not great with heights. I love climbing, ironically, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it harder to cope with heights and so I don’t really climb any more. I find that my balance is now poor and I fear falling. Thus, climbing that small cliff posed a real challenge, and when I got to the top and continued on the path, I was elated. I’d conquered that small obstacle.
As I continued along, it dawned on me that I really needed the path to continue in its present state, with no more cliffs. If I came to one that I couldn’t climb, I’d be in trouble. At the top of the previous one I realized I wouldn’t be able to get back down without real difficulty, and maybe a broken ankle.
Unfortunately, I soon came to another small but tricky climb. Hoping it was the last one, I climbed it and persevered. Then there was another. And another. With each climb I realized the chances of me going back were slimmer and slimmer. I didn’t want to risk climbing down because it seemed so much more difficult and dangerous than climbing up, and also it would take so long that I’d likely never reach the summit.
Pretty soon my hike ceased to be a hike interspersed with little rocky faces to climb, and became a serious climb up a seriously difficult rocky escarpment. Every fifteen meters or so my knees buckled from vertigo and my head spun. I was, for the first time on the whole trip, terrified. I became certain I would die on that cliff face.
And that’s when it started to rain.
I continued on slowly, on the slick wet rock. I kept taking my backpack off and throwing it up to the next level, then climbing up myself, leaning in as closely as possible, aware that any slip by my hands or feet, or any loose rock, would result in me falling not just a few feet and breaking an ankle. Now the stakes were higher – I’d surely go a few hundred meters to my death.
Finally I could see the top. The path, however, branched in two. One way was steep and the other gentle. I chose the gentle path. I followed it as best I could, but it wound its way around the side of the mountain, on thin, worn paths above giant drops, to yet another stupidly difficult climb. Time and again I stopped to get my head together. I was so dizzy that even standing still I felt I’d likely topple over the edge, and each climb became harder and harder.
It was only when I saw the lip at the top of the mountain and knew finally that I’d made it that I got my act together and climbed harder and faster. When I finally reached the summit I was exhausted, having done hundreds of meters on my hands and feet.
I staggered around the top of Table Mountain and then headed down Skeleton Gorge to the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I tried to walk home but by that point I’d walked 20km on a completely empty stomach, had long since run out of water, and ended up finding a taxi back to town.