Pulling up to our gate at Joburg
Pulling up to our gate at Joburg
Oct 222011
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train

As you can tell from the recent blog posts, the trains were one of my favorite things about Sri Lanka. At the very end of our stay we finally managed to score some tickets for the ’1st class observation’ car that I had heard people rave about. They have a special car at the end of the car with huge glass windows that face down the tracks. The $7 fare for the all-day journey makes this a very attractive option for tourists and locals alike. As an added bonus the fare includes assigned seats – yes, assigned seats on a form of Sri Lankan public transport!

Starting from Ella the route crosses through some of the very best scenery that the hill country has to offer. Tons of tea plantations, the occasional temple, some forests and many many tunnels. The weather was constantly on the change. Sunny one moment, dense fog the next moment with maybe with a little drizzle and then even more sun. The observation car was about half full that day so we were able to rotate seats with the others to have some time in the ‘front row’ near the windows. Such a great way to travel.

We spent our last full day exploring Colombo. The city isn’t exactly the crown jewel in the Sri Lankan tourist circuit but it does have a few worthwhile diversions. We dropped by the National History Museum for a couple of hours and got a nice recap of places we had visited while we sweated like crazy (the museum could use a few more fans, I know AC is asking too much). After that we found one of Sri Lanka’s highest end shopping malls (Odel) and mooched some of their air conditioning while perusing a bookstore. The mall is tiny but it is built into what looks to be an old colonial-era building. Pretty nicely executed if you ask me.

The National Museum
The National Museum

Back in the heat, we stopped by the Gangaramaya Temple on our way to Galle Face Green – a lively park right along the coast. The well-known Galle Face Hotel is just at the south end of the green so we popped in for some drinks at sunset. Our perfectly timed arrival got us seats at the front just before the place the place filled up! I don’t remember exactly what was in our cocktails but mine was nicely executed with some of the local spices (like real cinnamon!) and, of course, gin.

After happy hour, we bussed it back towards the Kollupitiya neighborhood where we were staying. One big turn-off about Colombo is the lack of budget accommodations in the center – there is next to nothing! The few budget options we could find were fully-booked and we ended up spending an astronomical $96 for our one night stay. In retrospect, it would have been much better to drop $140 to stay at the Galle Face Hotel. At least that hotel has a nice pool and quirky colonial architecture.

Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel

Despite our splurge on accommodations on the last night, Sri Lanka was exceptionally friendly to our budget. When it was all said and done, we spent about $25 per person per day over the course of our 25-day visit. This included a few splurges (like our elephant safari and the visit to Pigeon Island) as well. If we had visited more of the national parks we would have ended up a little higher but all in all, it is a very cheap destination.

So that’s that. What an incredible country and I am very glad we devoted almost a month to it. I am sure it will stand out as being one of the highlights of our RTW trip and I would gladly come back for another visit. In closing, Amy and I thought it would be good to list out some of the best parts of our Sri Lanka experience.

  • Elephant House brand ginger beer: burn-your-nostrils refreshing
  • Rice and curry: it’s not as simple as it sounds
  • Train travel (also hanging out of over-crowded trains)
  • Tuskers!
  • Fun interactions with the many English-speaking locals
  • Finally learning to eat with our hands
  • Clothes drying racks in just about every hotel room
  • Leftover British formalities (“Would the madame like some more ginger beer?”)
  • The rolling green hills of the tea plantations
Train to Colombo
We finally managed to buy some first class tickets!
We finally managed to buy some first class tickets!
Black-hooded Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
Some locals were keen to have their photos taken with Amy
Some locals were keen to have their photos taken with Amy
The National Museum
The National Museum
Galle Face Promenade in Colombo
Galle Face Promenade in Colombo
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
A nice Indian thali to close out our Sri Lanka food adventures
A nice Indian thali to close out our Sri Lanka food adventures
One final bus ride in our favorite seats - last row!
One final bus ride in our favorite seats – last row!
Kuwait, Male, Sharjah and London are some of the fun destinations from CMB
Kuwait, Male, Sharjah and London are some of the fun destinations from CMB

Here is a little something I typed up after a much-needed haircut in Ella:

Well I just got back to the guesthouse after a lengthy absence.  I left about two hours ago on a mission to get my hair cut here in the tiny village of Ella and it turned out to be a bit of an adventure.  You see, I happened to pick September 4th for my haircut which just so happens to be the last day of school holidays.  Business was brisk that day according to the barber but my 400 rupee (US$ 4) bid, over 4X the price locals pay, rapidly secured me a seat in the chair.

It started off a bit shaky.  I did my best to convey that it had been nearly two months since my last cut and that the barber shouldn’t be bashful about letting those sheers rip.  ”Short, even shorter, please.” I pleaded over and over.  Eventually he figured it out and removed an appropriate amount of hair.

After the haircut he put a bunch of oil in my hair and went to town with a head massage.  I learned that this is a common part of your standard haircut in Sri Lanka and to say it was intense would be an understatement.  More than a few times I was certain that I was soon to hear the cracking of my skull.

Once the massage was over, my barber/masseuse excused himself and darted out the door of the ramshackle shop.  He returned a short while later with nice frosty mango smoothie on a platter.  Maybe he was feeling guilty about charging me so much over the local rate and he decided to give a little back?

So that was my cheap afternoon of entertainment on our last day in Ella.  Definitely a  good use of $4!  For those keeping track, this was the fourth haircut of the trip:

  1. Random hole-in-the-wall – Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  2. Peluqueria Chino Veloz (great name, isn’t it?!) – Rurrenabaque, Bolivia
  3. Steve’s Barbershop – Helena, Montana, U.S.A.
  4. Janaka Saloon (yep, double-o is how they spell there!) – Ella, Uva Province, Sri Lanka

Ella is just about at the end of the line. It’s a small village in the middle of tea country almost at the end of Sri Lanka’s hill country train line. It is very popular among tourists and has a good variety of accommodations, restaurants and activities but without being too developed. It just has a nice laid-back feel about it.

Drongo
Drongo

After all of our dashing around the country we decided to camp out in Ella for a full four days at the end of our time in Sri Lanka. It was the perfect place to unwind for a few days, catch up on postcards and generally enjoy Sri Lanka at its best.

On our first full day we rose early and completed the Little Adam’s Peak hike. It’s not much of a hike, two hours round trip, but the final push to the summit is a steep slog up some makeshift concrete steps. The views from the top are magnificent. In one direction you can see all the way to the ocean (provided it is clear enough!) and in the other direction its mountains and tea plantations.

The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak

Following the advice of a friend, we booked the Sun Top Inn for a long stop in Ella. The family that run Sun Top were very kind and the food was excellent. One of our favorite things about Sun Top was the breakfast that was included with the room. There was a choice between western and Sri Lankan and we always went with the latter. Hoppers, roti, coconut rice, string hoppers, fresh fruit, you name it – they would make it.

String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast

Since we were going on short hikes just about every day of our stay in Ella, we fell into a routine of rising early, going for a walk, then returning for a late breakfast/brunch. This way we avoided the heat and landed a massive tide-us-over-til-dinner brunch each day. Did I mention the food was excellent?

Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks

On day two we climbed Ella Rock, a much more substantial hike than the day prior. Starting off at 6:30 we had to walk a few kilometers down the railroad tracks then hunted for the trailhead. Eventually I asked a local man and after some pointing he took off at fast pace across the fields and rice patties. Amy and I did our best to keep up with him in hopes that he would show us the real trail. In the end, he took us all the way to the top of Ella Rock without saying a word. Once again, great views from the top.

The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock

He led us back down the mountain along a different trail that wound its way through a maze of 10ft high grass. It would have required some trial and error to make it through this part on our own! We stopped at Rawana Falls which is apparently much more impressive during the wet season but it was nice enough. After that he took us to the tracks, tipped him a few bucks and then made it back to town to gorge ourselves on brunch.

Day three was another walk along the railroad tracks. This time we headed the opposite direction of Ella Rock to a village called Demodara. The plan was the walk there in time to catch the morning trail back to Ella. Along the way we crossed the Demodara Nine Arches Bridge which is a pretty famous engineering feat in Sri Lanka.

Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)

Another highlight of the walk is train tracks just beyond Demodara. Because of the steep descent through the mountains, the tracks actually trace out a circular path around the valley and then tunnel back under themselves on the way to Badulla. I wanted to see this part of the track but we were running late. Just as we rounded the corner and could see Demodara station, the train was blowing its horn and pulling out. We took off running and soon one of the engineers was waving us up into the locomotive. They stopped the train, we hopped in the locomotive and off we went.

Both the engineers were real nice guys and they answered all the questions we had about the trains. The particular locomotive we were in was a diesel-electric from Germany that was about 30 years old and, aside from the two passenger carriages at the end, the main cargo was fuel. When we got to the Nine Arches bridge they even slowed the train so that we could get some more pictures. Quite a fun experience in the real first class on a Sri Lankan train!

Day four was another visit to a tea factory. The owner of Sun Top gave us a lift to the Halpewaththa Tea Factory and we took a short thirty minute tour. Unfortunately, we struck out again as the day prior was a holiday so the factory wasn’t running. They wouldn’t let us take photos in the factory and the best part of the excursion was the walk back to Ella. We took a shortcut that led us through small farms and tea plantations.

We layed low on the last day. I spotted a number giant squirrels and birds from Sun Top as I filled out some postcards. In the afternoon we made one last trip to the local bakery to get the short eats when they were still oven-hot. The sugary breads were my favorite whereas Amy preferred the curry rolls which were decidedly of the burn-your-face-off variety. Late in the day I went into town to visit the post office and get a haircut. More on the haircut adventure in the next post.

Hill Country Part 2 (Ella)
One of the region's many tea factories
One of the region’s many tea factories
The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam's Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam’s Peak
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Afternoon snack of short eats
Afternoon snack of short eats
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
Drongo
Drongo
The view from our room.
The view from our room.
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren't allowed inside - sorry!
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren’t allowed inside – sorry!
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Tea pluckers
Tea pluckers
A huge spread of curries tonight - out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves
A huge spread of curries tonight – out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves

Oct 092011
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill

With our big train adventure behind us, Amy and I were keen to relax a bit in the hill country. Hot weather was one of the bigger annoyances we faced over the past few weeks and we left that behind on the crazy train ride the day before. Generally speaking, the weather is much cooler in the hill country as compared to the flat lands of the north.

Nuwara Eliya, one of the larger cities in the Hill Country was our first stop. The town has a decidedly British flair about it and the centerpiece is probably Victoria Park which runs right down the center of town. We were particularly entertained by the signs that were scattered around the park.

There are a variety of hikes that start from Nuwara Eliya and we opted to hike to the top of Single Tree Hill after visiting Victoria Park. A small dirt road leads from the valley up through tea plantations all the way to the summit.

The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.

In the afternoon we jumped on a local bus that took us to the Pedro Tea Plantation. We had hoped to see the tea factory in operation but it was closed for some major overhauls. We still took the tour but none of the machines were operating and on top of that we still weren’t allowed to take photos. In the final stockroom we saw floor-to-ceiling stacks of 55kg (121 lbs) bags of tea. I bet I won’t drink one of those in my lifespan!

Later that evening we had one if our best meals of our entire visit to Sri Lanka. We walked into town and ended up in a decidedly local “hotel” (they use the term to describe restaurants, not places to sleep).  The place was packed so we shared a table with some locals. One guy at our table didn’t seem to speak English, the other did and told us he was a local tour guide for Arab tourists. He was chowing down on some string hoppers, a local dish we hadn’t yet sampled, so we decided to go with the same.

String hoppers are noodle-like things that reminded me of spaghetti. They come in small little piles and you are meant to mix them with curry. The curries are already on the table in big buckets so you just scoop them out as desired. The fun part is eating these things without utensils. Using your right hand you mix, scoop and attempt to place a bite in your mouth without making a huge mess. Locals are very proficient at this but I am decidedly a beginner. Eventually, I made it through all my hoppers and even managed to do so without burning my face off on a spicy curry. The meal was excellent as was the price – dinner for two, including drinks for $2.30.  Unfortunately we forgot to document the experience with photos – too bad because I’m sure we were quite the sight.

A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka

The next day we completed another rough-and-tumble bus ride from Nuwara Eliya to Haputale. Haputale is a much smaller town and while the vistas are great (it is perched on a ridge) the food options were pretty limited. We ended up eating at the guesthouse restaurant both nights – more rice and curry, of course.

Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale

A walk along the train tracks from the nearby village of Idalgashinna back to Haputale is one of the recommended activities so we caught the morning train made the 5km walk back to town. The views of the surrounding tea plantations were spectacular.

Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale

Late in the day we just relaxed at the guesthouse and enjoyed the nice views from our room. Haputale was nice but there wasn’t much to keep us there for more than a day so early on day 2 we headed for Ella.

The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
Hill Country Part 1
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
Quality signs in park as well!
Quality signs in park as well!
Victoria Park
Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
Tea, tea and more tea
Tea, tea and more tea
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan

Once we had our fill of temples we headed south from Anuradhapura to Kandy and then onward to a town called Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka’s Hill country. The distance forced us to overnight in Kandy where we had visited earlier in the trip. The next morning we got to the station early in hopes of snagging some good seats on the 6 hour trip up into the hills. We didn’t know it at the time but we were in for quite an adventure.

Once we had successfully navigated our morning haggling test (for a tuk tuk to the train station) we found the ticket window and waited for them to open. We tried to buy first class tickets – sold out. How about 2nd class reserved? Also sold out. The clerk gladly sold us 2nd class UNreserved seats for about US$1.50 each. Could have gone 3rd class for about $0.80 but we were feeling rich.

Ok, now fast forward 20 minutes. Train pulls into the station and it is jammed full. All seats, all aisle completely exploding with humanity. The vestibules between cars, just as full. People hanging out of the windows and doors, etc. On the plus side, ample space on the roof…pity about the various tunnels on the way though!

Why look, it's another train overflowing with passengers!
Why look, it’s another train overflowing with passengers!

Our initial reaction was to run out of the station screaming, and then look for a bus. Just as we were about to carry out this plan a rail employee pointed us towards the far end of the train.

We went Sri Lankan and pushed and shoved our way into a 3rd class carriage as it seemed to have a little more space than 2nd. Somewhat miraculously, I found an area for our packs on one of the overhead shelves. We spent the next 2-3 hours trying not to step on people’s feet or their bags of turnips and split peas which littered what little floor remained.

Every 5 minutes a vendor of some sort (fried food, fruit, drinks, etc) would push his way down the aisle as he hocked his goods. Keep in mind, this is Asia and “personal space” is an unknown concept to these food vendors. You haven’t experienced Sri Lankan fried lentil patties until you have a gigantic basket of them shoved in your face almost knocking you out of a train.

Eventually, we scored the sacred place next to the door where Amy managed to sit (legs hanging out of the train) and I stood behind her. We were able to get this spot because it started to rain but it still felt like an upgrade to us – at least we had a view.

Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!
Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!

At some intermediate station another huge group of people squeezed on…probably added 20% to the souls-on-board count. Incredible! At this point I was literally hanging out of the door while standing on the footboards (the rungs you climb to board the train) right in front of the “Riding on the footboards is prohibited” sign.

The ride climbed from 500m to over 1600m altitude and we wound through lush green tea plantations the whole way. Absolutely spectacular. Despite the discomfort, easily one of the best train rides I’ve ever been on!

Train to Nuwara Eliya
Amy scores a premium seat by the door on our 3rd class ccarriage.
Amy scores a premium seat by the door on our 3rd class ccarriage.
This token has to do with making sure there is only one train on a given section of track at one time.
This token has to do with making sure there is only one train on a given section of track at one time.
Why look, it's another train overflowing with passengers!
Why look, it’s another train overflowing with passengers!
There is a fancy 1st class “observation car” at the end of the train.
There is a fancy 1st class “observation car” at the end of the train.
At some intermediate station, scores more people puled on with their groceries.
At some intermediate station, scores more people puled on with their groceries.
Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!
Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!

Going local with our clothing - the best way to stay warm is a Mongolian del!

To all those loyal readers out there, I would like to apologize for the dearth of posts over the past two weeks. We have just returned to Ulaan Baatar after an amazing 13-day and 2,560km tour of the Gobi Desert and Monoglian Steppe. What an adventure it has been! Some of the highlights included: sand dunes, camels, fermented milk of the latter, yaks, snow storms, desolate landscapes, and hot springs.

Russian minivans are the vehicles of choice in Mongolia.

I am going to keep the posts chronological so the Monogolia posts won’t be for a couple of weeks (following the rest of Sri Lanka and Cambodia) but I thought I would drop a few pictures down as teasers. Amy and I have both done our share of “roughing it” during our travels but I think this most recent tour pushed the limits for the both of us. We are definitely enjoying the relative luxury of our rundown Soviet-era accomodations here in Ulaan Baatar this evening!

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