Posted in travel

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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Posted in travel

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.