April 6th – The Hill Country

After our early walk through the cool Hill Country air, we strolled with our bags down to Ella station for our train to Dalhousie. It was a tiny station with one quaint, whitewashed building and no-one inside. The station experienced such a limited service that above the door of the station was a hand-painted timeline, which consisted of no more than ten stops, ranging from Kandy thirty miles to our north around to the termination point at the other end of the line, with each stop adorned with an arrival time in Sinhala and English. Just in case anyone was in doubt what service it was that was on offer, a small Monopoly-style cartoon train had been painted at one end of the train schedule.

Casual dog train line Ella Sri Lanka

-Ella, Sri Lanka-

Before the sun had had a chance to poke around the corner of the hillside, we took a walk along the line for awhile to stretch our legs and experience the view that we missed yesterday in the mist. Around the corner of the steep hill the landscape changed. The rich, green vegetation petered out quickly as the view opened out to our left, where the hills on the far side of the valley rolled and bulged in green and brown shades against the pale blue sky and low white clouds. To our right, the steep, wooded banks of the hill climbed steeply up and cast their shadow back down onto the hill below.  The tips of the trees towering above us were just beginning to be touched by the sun and we could smell, through the pungent smear of railway grease in the cool air, their subtle pine scent. We could already hear the distant clatter of the train approaching. We had enough time to finish our bananas and amble back along the line to the station before the train even appeared, thanks to the steep but narrow valleys that gave us the audible three-minute warning.

The twisting train overshot the tiny platform at both ends, and the various white elbows and blue sarees, red baseball caps and pink shirts that hung out of the windows and open doors were brightly offset against the earthy deep-red and brown of the battered carriages themselves. For the moment, the station was a manic sea of to-ing and fro-ing of families, guards and skinny porters with suitcases on their heads. Amid the rush to get on the train, we chose hang back until the very last instant, until it seemed that every passengers had shoulder barged their way inside the carriage. Then, with our bags still on our backs, we eased ourselves down onto the steps of the carriage, squeezing backwards until we were firmly sat on the train and looped our arms around the vertical handrails that lined each side of the door.

This was the way to travel the trains. As it rhythmic clunks of the wheels gradually speeds up to a modest canter, the forest and vegetation fly past, sometimes three feet from your face, sometimes in your face, dumping half a tree’s worth of rainwater, a streak of orange pollen or a large insect in your lap. Many of the houses here open out onto the railway line in absence of any roads, and passengers are offered a brief glimpse into random front gardens and schools, children playing cricket and staring old men sat under trees. Occasionally a small village market passes by, or a remote road-junction halting a lone cyclist in the middle of the forest.

Window seat train travel Ella Sri Lanka

-Ella, Sri Lanka-

Periodically, the hillside opens up from the gullies that these lines tend to run through and falls away on one side, changing the view in a second. The close-reaching vegetation falls back in an instant to reveal a spectacular Jurassic-Park forest-scape of steep, green-sided valleys dotted with bright, twisting, horizontal strips of plantation agriculture, dispersing clouds and clustered villages on the far hills. Just like the railway lines themselves, the tea-bushes that these hills are so centred around closely hug the horizontal lie of the land, like lush, lime-green contours on an Ordnance Survey map. From across the wide, clear air of the valleys that we look out across, these rolling carpets of smooth greenery are broken only by occasional trees, steep ravines and clustered villages. Here and there are dotted the bright outlines of the tea pickers themselves, their bright red, purple, pink and blue sarees vivid against the shades of green. From our perches on the train steps, it takes some moments to realise that the tea-bushes we observe from afar are passing, waist-high in front of us on this side of the valley, brushing our feet as they pass.  Just we can see the tiny coloured dots against the green on far hills, so the tea pickers glide past us, sometimes only feet away, so that we can count their missing teeth and nose rings. All of these pickers are women, with brown, open-top baskets tied to their backs, with bands twisted across their foreheads, doubled forward to maintain their balance. At closer quarter, we can see that many also have tiny children slung tightly to their chests.

Where the hill-line drops downwards into a sharp fissure or a waterfall comes down from the hill behind us, the railway line shrinks away to a skeleton of scaffolds stretching out over the gulf in between. The ground drops away suddenly and the railway sleepers pass barely beneath your feet, making no promises to catch anyone or anything if its grip should fail; like an unsafe theme-park ride, our legs swing straight over a fifty-foot drop down to the crashing boulders and white water below.

Dalhousie was a full day’s travelling away, beyond this rattling train ride (during which I was unsuccessfully courted for conversion by a Buddhist monk) and a bus journey through the pouring rain that managed to obscure the rolling tea plantations with their white, corrugated iron drying houses that dotted the far hillside. We also passed through a town in which half the men were up in arms because a wild elephant had apparently trampled one of the tea-pickers out in the fields.

Rear view self-portrait

-Dalhousie, Sri Lanka-

The town itself seemed like something of a makeshift line of corrugated iron shacks  that hugged the thick, orange snake of mud that formed the main road. As this road climbing through the narrow valley and up into the rolling mist, the town seemed to cling to it, rather than the road serving the town. As the road wound and twisted up, down and around the roaring stream below, there stood the occasional grubby concrete structure that was stained with the brownish-green weathering from the damp that penetrated everything here. The canopied stalls that lined this potholed throughfare all sold exactly the same sugary snacks, small, mass-produced religious trinkets and tacky plastic Buddha figurines. Even the bus station had the feel of a temporary, thrown-together facility, like something out of a carnival. The wooden boards lashed to a loose scaffolding frame served to nothing more than to keep travelers in an orderly line as they waited out of the rain, and I almost expected to pass through a set of turnstiles on my way out the station.

This impression wasn’t too far from the truth. People only come to Dalhousie for one reason- to make a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada meaning ‘sacred foot’. Although Sri Pada is the third highest summit in Sri Lanka, it is not the height of it that is the draw – the highest peak in Sri Lanka is out of bounds because it is has a TV tower on it, so it’s clearly not a particularly revered characteristic. Instead, this mountain is steeped in religious significance. Christians believe it is the place that Adam took his first steps on Earth after being chucked out of Heaven (the religious Heaven, not the gay club in Soho. If he’d been chucked out of that Heaven, his first steps would probably be into Macdonalds. Not so holy.) The Christian interest in the site actually stems from an idea that Marco Polo bought back from his travels in the Middle Ages, in which he came to Sri Lanka and became convinced that he had re-discovered the Garden of Eden. I don’t really blame the guy. Hindus believe that at the summit of Sri Pada is the footprint of Shiva himself. Buddhists believe it was either the final place the Buddha travelled to before he passed beyond this world, or that the footprint that at the summit is one of his giant Left footprints, of which the corresponding Right one is in Thailand, so he must have had really long legs. This latter theory was my favourite.

We had decided to follow the traditional pilgrimage format and make the climb in the small hours of the morning in order to reach the summit by sunrise, so we would need to set off in only a few hours. Before we did, we decided to get hold of some Arrack, the Coconut liquour that we had seen people quaffing down on the coast, for a celebratory drink when we got to the top. Little did we know that Dalhousie was a dry town (‘Temple place, sir’). Instead, we were treated to a shifty, Prohibition-style rendezvous in a café with some local lads while we waited for this illicit plastic bottle of home-brew to appear out of someone’s raincoat. When this laughably small shipment of illegal substance did finally turn up, it was a deep amber color, had three dead ants floating around the bottom of it and burned like hell. Fingers crossed I keep my vision long enough to see the view at the top.


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