Last month, I travelled around southern Sri Lanka. This was my route, with places I stayed marked by a blue dot and a number:
It was not a very extensive exploration of Sri Lanka, but then I only had two weeks. I aimed to take in some of the best places in the southern half of the island, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to get up north. After Sri Lanka, I returned to China for a few days and then headed off to Japan for a week. I’ll post stories and photos from Japan in the coming weeks. The blog posts from Sri Lanka are below:
My apologies to those who got an e-mail notification from WordPress about my last post (Hikkaduwa) with a confusing title. WordPress somehow managed to screw up the title formatting and mashed several words together.
On my ninth day in Sri Lanka, I set out from the Guillet Beach Homestay, heading for the Matara bus station. It was a long, dusty walk in a blazing hot sun, but I soon arrived and people pointed me to my bus. In Sri Lanka, people are usually shy but very, very helpful. Some old men told me I could get a bus directly to Hikkaduwa, but after asking a few of the bus drivers, it seemed I would have to change buses at Galle instead.
The ride along the coast was beautiful, and more than a few times I regretted taking the bus straight to Hikkaduwa, thinking instead that I should stop off at the little fishing villages and port towns along the way. But it was a relatively short hop from one place to the next, and I knew I could always take a bus back down the coast if Hikkaduwa proved to be unpleasant.
First Day in Hikkaduwa
After a brief stop in Galle, I arrived in Hikkaduwa and made my way to my next accommodation – Chami’s Place. It’s a small hostel in the middle of town, near the railway tracks, which had high scores on all the booking sites. I tried to check in but there was some confusion. The staff were incredibly friendly, and eventually I ended up sleeping in the shared staff room with an English bargirl and two Sri Lankan kitchen porters.
I set out to explore the town, walking up and down the beach and the main road that cut through the middle of Hikkaduwa. Oddly, everywhere I went there were Russian people and signs all in Russian. Big fat, classless, red Russian men and busty Russian women crowded the beaches at certain places. I’d seen this throughout Southeast Asia – they all tend to visit the same one destination in a country or province, and there congregate at the one or two restaurants or bars tailored to Russian customers. These places are, generally, well-worth avoiding.
Walking south, making my way between the sea and a wall, I was hit by a huge freak wave and totally soaked. Actually, the wave only got the bottom of my shorts, but it hit the wall and exploded back, covering me quite literally from head to toe in salty water. Thankfully, my camera was in a somewhat waterproof bag, and I was able to yank my phone from my pocket and add it to the camera bag before the water soaked through. But otherwise, I was drenched.
I hobbled to a nearby bar and sat drinking the local beer until I’d dried out sufficiently to walk back home. In the evening I ventured out and explored the nightlife a little, delighted to find that here in Hikkaduwa, there was no shortage of alcohol, unlike all the other towns I’d visited on my journey. It was a tad pricy, but it was plentiful, and that’s all that mattered.
Snorkelling on Hikkaduwa Reef
When I awoke in the morning, I was completely covered in mosquito bites. It had been a bad night’s sleep anyway, as the staff had woken me up inadvertently when they finished their shifts at the bar, but also there had been a swarm of mozzies chewing away at my flesh for some seven hours. Annoyingly, there was a mosquito net over my bed, but when I went to sleep I really didn’t think there were any mozzies in the room, and it seemed so unnecessary that I hadn’t bothered unravelling it.
I checked out and walked to the nearest ATM that would accept my Chinese bank card, and withdrew more money. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, but on holiday it’s best not to worry about these things. Then I hiked down the road a kilometer to my new accommodation – Surfing Beach Hotel. This was a little guesthouse on a beach that has grown very popular with surfers due to its huge waves. I checked in and was greeted by a big, friendly shirtless man. He only had two or three misshapen teeth, and his brown belly protruded enormously. He bore more than a passing resemblance to a walrus. He showed me to my room – an old, utterly filthy place where I knew I couldn’t spend more than one night. I actually enjoy bad hotels because they have so much character, and I love travelling around places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos seeing the old French colonial buildings that haven’t been cleaned since the fifties, yet somehow maintain their antique charm. This place really lacked any such redeeming qualities. I noted the following in my travel journal after arriving:
An unsteady ceiling fan circulates warm air in a dingy, dirty hotel room. Two small beds have been placed side-by-side and advertised as a double. The walls are thinly painted and plaster seals big cracks in the concrete. Makeshift metal and plastic and scrap-wood furniture litters the room haphazardly. Everything is brown and yellow with dirt. The towels and bedsheets are the only items that seem to have been washed, and even then not thoroughly… and they are riddled with holes. The ancient windows are hard to open, and look out on construction work in the next door building, spilling dust into the room. The bathroom… you don’t even want to know about the bathroom.
After checking in, I immediately set out to find the next day’s accommodation so that I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck at Surfing Beach Hotel any longer than necessary. Fortunately, I did, only three hundred meters down the road at Sunny’s Guest House. It was a far superior room.
In the afternoon, I went snorkeling on the Hikkaduwa coral reef. This required a long walk up the beach because the seas were too choppy at Surfing Beach. At barely more than ankle depth there were already large fish swimming around, and by the time I was knee-deep, I was surrounded with brightly-coloured sea life. Sadly, however, all the coral was more or less dead. But that is true for most of the world and in a few years we’ll be lucky if there’s anything left anywhere on this doomed planet.
I swam about in the warm waters, but it was a little difficult. No matter where you go, the waves are strong and the tides push and pull you. When hovering over coral, that’s less than ideal. I didn’t want to damage the coral, and I certainly did want the coral to damage me. I spent two hours swimming around, and saw a whip-tailed stingray and some other interesting life. However, at a certain point the waves were churning up so much sand that visibility was terrible. I wanted to swim out and find sharks or other large animals, but I knew I would never see them.
Despite the poor visibility, however, I managed to spot a few large turtles grazing on sea grass. It was difficult to get any useable photos, even though they were docile enough to swim beside me for a good twenty minutes.
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
Lots of fish
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
I went out snorkeling again the following day, with the same results – some interesting fish but an overall unsatisfactory experience due to the poor visibility. I saw more turtles and stingrays, but I couldn’t enjoy it while being thrown about on the waves, coming perilously close to being ripped apart on the corals.
Whale Watching from Mirissa
At 5am on the twelfth day of my trip, I was picked up by a tuk-tuk driver outside Sunny’s and driven south to Mirissa. It was a long, cold ride and again I had to wear my winter clothes that I’d brought over from China. It was just getting light as we arrived at the harbor and I was shepherded onto a boat with lots of people of various nationalities, including many Chinese – who were already hiding beneath giant sun hats. As we departed around 7am, the guide informed us that they’d seen blue whales on the previous thirteen consecutive days, so we had “a 90% chance” of seeing one today.
I was excited as the boat chugged out of the harbor and into the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to see a blue whale for as long as I could remember. Of all the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my life, no whale was among them. I snuck up to the bow and stood there for the entire journey, being hit in the face by waves every minute or so. The seas were typically choppy and people were being violently sick back inside the boat. I was determined to keep my eyes fixed on the waters to get that first glimpse of a whale… but also I knew that looking out at the sea would prevent me, too, from getting seasick.
It was after about an hour when the call went out. One of the guides on the boat had spotted a water spout and, although it took a while for my eyes to pick between waves and waterspouts, I also found it. I couldn’t tell you the distance as I’m not familiar with doing such things at sea, but it wasn’t terribly far away. A dark shape would emerge briefly from the water and a huge white explosion of water would dissipate in the air, and then nothing as it slipped quietly back under. This happened several times before the grand finale as it raised its mighty tail up into the sky and then went down into the deep.
A great roar went up from the deck of the boat as we saw very clearly that iconic image of a whale’s tail above the surface of the water. Of course, I had my camera, but I was too mesmerized by what I saw to even bother taking it from its bag. I just stared stupidly at the ocean, where the whale had been.
This happened again and again. Incredibly, we saw the whale (or other whales – I don’t really know) six or seven times. Sometimes we’d just see a tiny flicker of a tail as it suck down into the ocean, and sometimes its tail would seem to hang there in the sky between huge waves, lingering before it disappeared. The image was burned into my consciousness, but although I eventually pulled my camera out and started shooting (which wasn’t easy with the giant waves and rocking of the boat) I never did get a good picture.
On the way back to harbor, we passed a whale shark. I’ve wanted to see one of these animals for many years, and been to many places where I expected to see one, but this was the first time I had. From a distance all we could see was a seemingly black fin protruding above the surface, very much like an orca, but as we got close we could see the unmistakable colours and pattern – the pink and purple and blue of its mighty back. This would have probably been a more forgettable experience had we not just seen a blue whale – one of only a handful of creatures from the entire history of this planet that could dwarf a giant whale shark! Again, although I could see the animal clearly, I could not get a single decent photograph. And, again, I didn’t care. My apologies to readers of this blog for not better illustrating what I saw, but on personally level I was just delighted to see these amazing animals. I will make sure to get better photos next time.
Then, as we approached the harbor, another cry went out. What was it this time – an orca, a dolphin, another whale or whale shark?
It was something else that I had never seen before – two large sea turtles mating. I’ve seen more than 100 sea turtles in this past year alone, but never have I seen them copulating. The boat drifted alongside them as they awkwardly propagated their species, before eventually the dozens of voyeurs made them uncomfortable enough to stop, and they went their separate ways off into the dark waters.
Final Days in Hikkaduwa
Later that day, as I sat having lunch, I met a middle-aged English man whom I’d encountered the previous day. He had a strong accent and kept referring to the country as “Sreeee Lankaaaar,” and told me he’d been coming here every year since 1992. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up – a common trait among bored alcoholics who spend their holidays in Asia.
After that annoying lunch, I went out snorkeling on Surfing Beach. It was to be a stupid mistake that put an end to my snorkeling for the holiday. I quickly realized as I got into the water that I was being pulled out to sea, albeit not very fast. I had been caught in a riptide in Mozambique a year before, and this was not as terrifying, but it was disconcerting. The tide pulled me out some distance and then seemed to more or less stop. However, when I tried to swim back to shore, I couldn’t. I tried not to panic, and instead made a continual effort to get back to shore, but it was futile. The more I tried, the more I became exhausted.
Eventually, looking at the surfers and trying to figure it out logically, I came to the conclusion that I should use the waves to get back and save my strength. However, the waves seemed to pull me almost as far as far as they pushed me, and soon they were holding me under water to almost the limit of my lungs, and I began to fear that I would drown. As things began to get dangerous, a huge wave caught me and threw me deep under water, ripping my snorkel and mask off my face, though at the time I barely noticed. Fortunately, my GoPro was tied to my wrist and impossible to lose.
With a great deal of effort, I managed to get myself back to the beach and collapsed on the sand. I was angry with myself for having gone snorkeling somewhere that I knew was not suitable, and annoyed that I had lost my snorkel gear – which I’d only used three times since buying. I had another day and a half in Sri Lanka, but my snorkeling time had drawn to a violent end.
Leaving Sri Lanka
Instead of snorkeling for my last few days at Hikkaduwa, I drank beer on the beach, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, watched the surfers, and saw the sunset over the Indian Ocean for the final time.
Snorkelling had been a big part of my plan for the holiday, but even without the unfortunate end to that, conditions had not been ideal. I was probably not going to see my shark. And besides, I could not complain about a lack of exciting wildlife. I had seen a blue whale and a whale shark! I was never going to get better than that.
Reflecting upon my time in Sri Lanka, I concluded that it had been a thoroughly successful holiday. Most importantly, after a long and tiring semester’s teaching, not to mention numerous writing and editing projects on the side, I had managed to relax and avoid doing anything resembling work. I had seen a new country, eaten new food, met lots of new people, experienced a new culture, gotten out into nature, done lots of hiking, taken some great photos, seen leopards, elephants, crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks.
After a long night’s sleep, mercifully under a mosquito net, as Katharagama is blanketed by bugs at nighttime, I walked to the bus station and looked for a bus to Matara. It didn’t take long to find one, but once I was on the bus, it certainly took its time in getting on the road. I sat in the overcrowded vehicle for more than half an hour, waiting to get going.
Eventually, we did get moving and the bus took off on a long, winding journey along the coast, occasionally moving inland to visit small villages, before returning to the “highway” that leads past white sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages. The bus seemed to stop at every tiny settlement along the way, picking up old women and monks and schoolgirls in their all-white uniforms, so that the bus was never less than entirely crowded. Occasionally, men with tambourines would get on and the blaring rhythmic music from the speakers would cease as the men droned ancient songs for the passengers. At one point it stopped parallel to another bus down a dusty back alley and all the passengers got off and settled into the new bus, which looked almost exactly the same. With no ability to speak the local language, I was left baffled and frustrated.
Some three hours after leaving Katharagama, the bus stopped in Matara and I struggled to get off through the densely packed aisle, practically falling into the bus station. The journey had not been pleasant, and as I stepped out into the heat, I knew I had to choose between a long walk to my next homestay, or else an expensive tuk-tuk ride. I suspected that, as the homestay was in a fairly isolated area, I would be heavily gouged for the ride, so I decided to walk it in spite of the heat and the distance. Annoyingly, the bus had driven right past the street on which my homestay is located some five minutes before reaching the bus station.
I made my way along the waterfront, which was pleasant enough. The beach was very quiet, whereas in town it had seemed rather busy. A number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer me a ride, but I waved them away. After Yala, I needed a few cheap days at the beach to balance my budget. I stopped halfway at a little tea shop and had a sandwich and a pot of tea, which thankfully cost just $0.50 altogether, and then set back out on my long walk. I tried following the beach but it came to a rocky outcrop which, without bags would’ve been possible to climb, but with my luggage was certainly impassable. Instead, I followed a busy road with no pavement up a long, steep hill, with cars and tuk-tuks throwing up dirt and dust.
Finally, exhausted and sweaty, I arrived on a long, narrow street that led down to a white beach. The street had a few hotels and restaurants, but not much else. It seemed like a sleepy suburb that had been half taken over by surfers. Most of the businesses had “surf” in the name, although my destination was called Guillet Beach Homestay. The few people walking up and down the road all held surfboards under their arms, except for one lonely tuk-tuk driver who just grinned stupidly at everyone who passed him.
As with previous accommodations, this was a pleasant little house run by a local family. The chief English speaker was the young daughter, probably about twelve years old, who would talk endlessly whenever prompted. She attended school each day, but in the mornings and evenings she would talk with guests and, as a result, her English was excellent. The rest of the family were friendly but quiet and the father, a tuk-tuk driver called Lucky, was apparently in Colombo for the week. At the house there was a polite young English couple, and a large group of Swedish girls who spent nearly every waking moment on their surfboards.
I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking about the local area. There wasn’t much to see except for the beach, which was clearly the big attraction for the area. The horseshoe bay was beautiful and also funneled waves in constantly at a medium size, making it perfect for surfing. In fact, walking around, I found myself about the only person who didn’t have a surfboard. I sat and watched the sun go down as the stars popped out and began to move across the sky. The waters emptied first and then the beach, and soon it was perfectly quiet.
Walking Around Matara
The following day, after yet another giant Sri Lankan breakfast, this time eaten in a surprisingly English dining room, covered in floral patterns and dolls, I set off for a walk back into town. This time I intended to follow the coastline all the way around, rather than taking the unpleasant road route. I set off early and clambered over hot, sharp rocks, but enjoyed the peace that came being between the town and the surfers’ beach, completely alone. Even without bags I ended up with bloody hands and knees from the challenging climb.
I walked around the bustling little town, admiring the Dutch colonial architecture as it clashed with modern shop fronts, but there really wasn’t much of any interest to see there. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t particularly exciting, and so after a visit to the Star Fort and taking a few photos of the Buddhist island temple, I walked back along the beach to my part of town, getting back by 1pm. I’d expected the trip to take up a whole day.
Finding myself back by lunchtime, I ventured next door to a small restaurant called “Chillz” and, after ordering some reasonably cheap food, I enquired as to whether there was any beer available off the menu… The owner smiled and said, “Yes, today we have.” I was beginning to realize that beer is heavily taxed in Sri Lanka and most businesses simply don’t advertise that they have it in order to avoid certain legal requirements. It had been about five days since I last had a beer and even though this one, called Lion, tasted like crap, it was cold and alcoholic – good enough for me.
After lunch I walked along to a quiet part of the beach (not that any part was particularly busy) where the waves were slightly smaller than elsewhere and swam for an hour or two, soaking up a bit of sun. It had been a long time since I’d swam in the sea. The last time had been in Indonesia during the summer. A few small groups of Sri Lankan men walked by, always friendly, shouting, “Hello, sir, how are you today?”
I returned to Chillz for more cheap food (a roti sandwich) and beer, and then sat on the sand watching the stars until the sandflies drove me to return to the homestay, where I taught Hironi, the little girl, English until her bedtime.
Matara had proven a nice place to spend a day, but it wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay much longer. Unless I learned to surf, there wasn’t much for me to do. With so much coastline, I figured that there would be better places for me to spend my last week in the country, so I picked a destination and planned on going there the next morning: Hikkaduwa.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Smog over Jiuhuashan
Smog over Jiuhuashan
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.
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.
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.
I’m quite lucky in that my job (university lecturer) affords me a great deal of free time to travel. Every year I get between 3-4 months free to go out and explore this big world. In the past year I’ve been to 12 countries:
That’s not bad for one calendar year!
In January, I will fly from Shanghai to Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. I’ve wanted to visit Sri Lanka for a long time, but always put it off because I thought I would best combine it with a visit to India. However, this winter I don’t have as much time as usual, and flights during my free time are a bit more expensive. Searching Skyscanner, I saw that the cheapest flights from Shanghai on my desired dates went to Colombo.
“I’ve never been to Sri Lanka before,” I thought. And that was reason enough to go.
Alas, I have been too busy even to plan this trip. I have very little idea where in Sri Lanka I will go and what I will do, except for a few things I saw at the top of most travelers’ lists:
Yala National Park
…and apart from that I’m quite ignorant. I’ll need to squeeze in some research between classes and exams and essay marking and work on Beatdom…
If you have any suggestions, please do leave them in the comment section below. I’d appreciate any advice. Otherwise I’ll just fly into Colombo, find a hostel, and see what happens from there.
After two weeks in Sri Lanka, I will fly back to Shanghai, spend one day there, and then head over to Osaka, Japan. I’ll do one week in Japan, but again I have very few plans. I have tickets for the Guns n Roses concert at Saitama, Tokyo, and a few friends to meet with. I’d also like to see Mt Fuji, even though I know it’s not the best time of year to do so.
At the end of January I will fly out from Nagoya.
If you have any advice for must-see attractions between Osaka and Tokyo, post them below in the comment section.
It has gotten cold this past week in Huainan and Hefei, in the middle of China’s Anhui Province. Winter has arrived earlier than usual, and it has brought unusually cold temperatures. People are saying that this winter will be one of the coldest on records, and it’s not hard to believe.
Last year we barely even had a winter. It settled in slowly and temperatures never got that low, before a long, pleasant spring set in at the end of February. It is odd that winter sometimes lasts no more than two months, and in other years it seems to drag on for five. I even remember one year when temperatures plummeted to below minus 20, when last year it barely hit freezing point.
Yet winter can be oddly beautiful in Anhui. Summer is oppressively hot, and spring and autumn are all too brief. The flowers and cherry blossoms can be pretty, but winter brings the yellows and oranges, and at this time of year you are almost guaranteed a blue sky. That makes for cold nights, of course, but in the day the ever-present sunshine is very welcome.
It is at this time of year, too, when the old people in the countryside lay out their rice to dry on the roads. It is odd in a country so determined to modernize at the expense of tradition and rural ways, yet in Huainan modernization has met stark resistance. Traffic yields to angry old ladies with pitchforks and the roads are ruled by little old men in homemade tractors.
Last weekend was my birthday and I visited Hefei to see some old friends and spend time at the Shipyard Cafe and Francesco’s Pizzeria. I walked around town in the bright sunlight and explored a park that, in all my years there, I’d somehow never before visited. I also brought friends some of my new beer. Hefei was kind to me, offering up some unusually pleasant sights and two miraculous hangover-free mornings, despite the dozens of beers and whiskeys consumed.
I returned to Huainan on the Sunday for work, and Huainan, too, was blessed with blue skies and sunshine which made the return to work a little easier. This is what my university looks like on a particularly nice day:
Today I took a walk around the campus to see the trees standing strikingly yellow against the bright blue skies:
It helped with my otherwise sour mood following the shock news that the United States had elected the most objectively awful candidate for president. Although my heart goes out to my friends across the Pacific Ocean, and I worry for the future of our planet given their new leader’s determination to wreck the environment, I am at present very glad to be living in China. China is far from perfect, and its government obviously deeply flawed, but this is a country which appears to be bent on improvement, whereas in the West most nations now seem hellbent on setting the clock back several decades with their sickening turn towards far-right groups and fascism.
Today I woke up and saw that the internet had gone done across much of the Western world… or at least that’s how it was presented. Twitter and Reddit were down, and a ton of other sites. It had all happened while I was asleep because I live on the other side of the world, in China.
Where did I see this news? The same place people get most of their news these days – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. In this hyper-connected world of ours, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the internet, and in particular social media. I wonder what would happen if the attack had been bigger… much bigger. How would people survive? How would they even know what’s going on? Of course, those of us who lived pre-Facebook would adapt pretty quickly, but the others? For them, it would probably feel like the apocalypse.
I don’t need to use much imagination to get inside the minds of those who tried and failed to get online last night. Living in China, not being able to get on the above mentioned websites is pretty common. For me to visit Facebook this morning, or, for that matter, almost any website I regularly use, required me to use a VPN. I pay about $100 per year for this service, which I think is very reasonable. Overall, it’s pretty good. I’m able to check my e-mail and do most basic things I need to. Sometimes, I’m able to watch videos on YouTube – although it can be slow and frustrating.
Without a VPN, the websites that you can visit from China are pretty limited in number, and those which are technically open are usually excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can actually be impossible to get any functionality from them whatsoever. To be honest, I don’t even try any more. If my VPN is down, I take a deep breath and then spend my time doing something offline – like going for a run or reading a book. It’s particularly aggravating, however, when I need to do something – like answer an important e-mail, prepare for class, or do some research. It is terribly frustrating to know that I need to do something, yet the rules made by a group of corrupt sociopaths in the government to keep their populace in the dark about their shady practices ensures that my work sometimes needs to be hindered.
But it’s best not to think about it when possible.
The internet in China is not all bad. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and yet I get a relatively fast connection at home or via 4G. This place is almost third world, yet even here amidst the poverty and ancient superstitions, we can stream music or movies. Assuming I want to use a Chinese website, it works great. Of course, that severely limits my internet use. If I want to use WeChat to talk to friends, great! If I want to download music from QQ or KuGou, fantastic! Taobao and Alipay are brilliant apps, too. Beyond that, the Chinese internet is sort of like the more vapid parts of the real internet – aka what you can access beyond the Great Firewall. Imagine the idiots you went to school with, for whom the most important thing in the world is who won last night’s celebrity-reality-variety-chat show, or whatever gossip has inexplicably gotten its way onto the front page of the tabloid “news” papers. Imagine the sort of vapid crap that they post on social media, and then tone its intellectual level down even further, translate into Chinese, and add more noise and bright colours. Thanks to censorship, there simply is modern culture in China.
Of course, it goes without saying that being offline is no bad thing. I loved traipsing through Southern Africa or sailing along the Indonesian archipelago, completely disconnected from the internet, with absolutely no way of getting online – no notifications, no pings, no bleeps. It felt great. But that’s not really possible or desirable in day-to-day life, even out in the boondocks of China. Surrounded by the majesty of nature, technology can seem an unpleasant distraction, but in the polluted, grey, backwards wastelands of Anhui Province, it is more like a lifeline. Moreover, I’m a teacher and if I need ideas or resources for class, I need the internet. I’m a writer and editor, so I need the internet to research or publish. I live on the opposite side of the globe from my friends and family, so I need the internet to communicate.
There are innumerable reasons why living in China can be difficult, and the internet may seem like a trivial one, but it really isn’t. I can’t abide censorship, and when that censorship – perpetrated, like all censorships, for spurious reasons – negatively effects my life, my business, my ability to teach using the best available resources… well, that is what I consider intolerable living conditions. If the government announced tomorrow that they were cracking down on VPNs, I’d be on a flight out of here the next day – or at least I’d try, but without access to SkyScanner or eBookers it might be difficult.
So, looking across the world at the turmoil of a temporary disconnection from the internet, I do feel a certain empathy. It’s easy to mock, but being forced offline when you genuinely need to be online can be more than an inconvenience.