A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
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!

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